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This is the 600th blog entry I’ve written since retiring eight years ago from the writing job I held for 25 years. But as I’ve said many times, a real writer never retires, he just stops getting paid for it. 

During my career, I wrote over 2.5 million words. Since then, I’ve added another million. If you are born a writer, you simply can’t help it. 

(In addition, since 2015, I’ve written a monthly essay for the website of The Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., a continuation of the many salon lectures I gave there for years.)

And even when I write an e-mail to friends or family — the kind of note that for most people contains a short sentence, a quick “LOL” and an emoji — I am more likely to write what looks like an old-fashioned missive, the kind that used to come in a stamped envelope and delivered by a paid government worker. An e-mail from me will take a while to read through.They are sent not merely to convey information, but to be read. They have been written, not just jotted down. 

Over the eight years of blogifying, I’ve covered a great many topics. Many on art and art history — I was an art critic, after all — many on history and geography, a trove of travel pieces, a few frustrated political musings and a hesitant offering of oddball short stories (if you can call them by that name.) 

People say, “Write what you know,” but most real writers, myself included, write to find out what I know. The writing is, itself, the thinking. Any mis-steps get fished out in the re-writing. 

Ah, words. I love words. I love sentences, paragraphs, chapters. Although I wrote for a newspaper, where short, simple sentences are preferred, I often tested the patience of my editors as I proved my affection for words by using obscure and forgotten words and by using them often in long congregations. 

“I love long sentences. I’m tired of all the short ones. Hemingway can keep them. Newspapers can urge them. Twitter can mandate them. To hell with them.

“My ideal can be found in the long serpentine railways of words shunted hither and thither over dependent clauses, parenthetical remarks, explanatory discursions and descriptive ambiguities; sentences such as those found in the word-rich 18th century publishing world of Fielding, Sterne, Addison, Steele, or Boswell, and perhaps most gratifyingly in the grand, gravid, orotund sentences of Edward Gibbon, whose work I turn to not so much for information about the grandeur that was Rome, but for the pure sensuous pleasure to be had from those accretive tunes built from the pile of ideas and imagery (to say nothing of ironic asides), and peppered liberally with the notations of colons, semicolons, dashes and inverted commas.”

The love of words fuels a fascination with paronomasia. I make up words, play with them, coin spoonerisms and mondegreens and pepper my everyday speech with them. As music critic, I reviewed sympathy orchestras. Sometimes I have trouble trying to mirimba a name. On my shopping list I may need dishlicking washwood. 

I often give my culinary creations names such as Chicken Motocross, Mentil Soup, Ratatootattie, or  — one I borrowed from my brother — Mock Hawaiian Chile. 

When my wife came home from work, I usually asked “How did your Italian?” (“How did your day go?”)

When asked for my astrological sign, I say, “I’m a Copernicus.” My late wife was a Virago. And I’m pretty sure our Orange Bunker Boy was born under the sign of Feces. I call him a would-be Moose-a-loony.

I try to keep unfashionable words in currency. On long car trips with granddaughters, we didn’t count cows, we counted kine. I tend to refer to the girls as the wee bairns, or the kidlings. 

I have no truck with simplifying the language; I will not brook dumbification. The more words we use, the better, and the better inflected those words will be. As we lose words, the slight difference in emphasis and meaning is lost, and a simple word then has to do extra duty to encompass ideas and things that are better understood as different. 

Every word has a dictionary definition, but that definition is little but the skeleton on which the meat and muscle is hung onto. Each word has a nimbus of meaning and affect around it, which is learned by its speakers and readers through long acquaintance. You can always tell when someone has snuffled through a thesaurus, because the fancy word they choose has been stripped of its nimbus, or has an aura that is the wrong color for the spot in which it is placed. In other words, such a writer doesn’t really know the word that has been chosen. The Webster version is only a fuzzy black-and-white photo, not the real thing. 

I have written before how sometimes, instead of doing a crossword puzzle or rearranging my sock drawer, I will make lists of words. Each has a flavor and reading such lists is like perusing a restaurant menu and imagining the aroma and flavor of each offering. It is a physical pleasure, like the major or minor chords of a symphony. Here is a brassy word, there the pungency of an oboe, and over there, the sweet melancholy of a solo cello. 

I think all writers must have something of the same feel for the roundness, spikiness, warmth, dryness or wetness of words. And the way they connect to make new roundnesses, coolnesses, stinks or arousals in sentences. 

Yes, there are some writers — and I can’t pooh-pooh them — who use words in a blandly utilitarian way. Stephen King, for instance, is a great storyteller. He can force you by a kind of sorcery to turn pages. But on a word-by-word level, his writing is flavorless, almost journalistic. I suspect this is a quality he actually aspires to — to make the language so transparent as to be unobservable. I have to admit there are virtues in this, also. But not for me. 

I want a five-course meal of my words. 

Language can take either of two paths: prose or poetry. The first invests its faith in language as a descriptor of systems. It reaches its nadir in philosophy. It makes little difference if it is Plato or Foucault; philosophy — especially the modern sort — is essentially a branch of philology. It seeks to deconstruct the language, as if understanding the words we use will tell us anything about the world we live in. It tells us only about the language we use. Language is a parallel universe to the one we inhabit, with its own rules and grammar, different from the rules and grammar of the real world. 

This has been a constant theme in my own writing. When we say, “A whale is not a fish,” or “A tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable,” we are talking about language only, not about whales or tomatoes. But beyond the language we use to communicate our understanding of the world, no matter how vast our vocabulary, the world itself is infinitely larger, more complex, diverse, chaotic and unsystematic, not to be comprehensively understood by mere mortal. 

And I should clarify, by language, I mean any organized system of thought or communication. Math is just language by other means. When I use the term “language” here, I mean what the Greeks called “logos” — not simply words, or grammar, syntax or semantics, but any humanly communicated sense of the order of the cosmos. Not one system can encompass it all. 

Consider Zeno’s paradox: That in a race between Achilles and a tortoise, if you give the tortoise a headstart, no matter how little, Achilles can never catch up. Before he does, he has to go halfway, and so is still behind the tortoise, and before he goes the remaining distance he must go again halfway. Thus he can never catch up. The paradox is purely in the forms of logic, not in the reality. We all know Achilles will catch up in only a few strides. But the system — the logic, or the words — tells us he cannot. Do not trust the words, at least not by themselves, without empirical evidence to back them up. 

All systems of thought, whether religious, political or scientific, ultimately break down when faced with the weedy complexity of existence.

And so, a good deal of what we all argue about is simply the words we choose to use, not the reality. We argue over terminology. Conservative, liberal? Is abortion murder? These depends entirely on your definitions. 

Poetry, on the other hand — and I’m using the word in its broadest and metaphorical sense — is interested in the things of this world. Yes, it may use words, and use them quite inventively, but its goal is to reconnect us with our own lives. It lives, not in a world of isms, but in one of mud, tofu, children, bunions, clouds and red wheelbarrows. This is the nimbus of which I speak. 

It is ultimately our connection with our own lives that matters, with the things of this world, with the people of our lives that should concern us. It is what provides that nimbus of inexactitude that gives resonance to the words. 

purple rose 2

Most people, when they go to the movies, go to see aliens blow up the world, or they go to see the lovers win out over odds, or to see the superheroes beat out the supervillains.

end of ricoThat is not much different from why they went to see the movies 80 years ago, except then they might have gone to see the chorus girl become a star, Fred and Ginger glide over the dance floor, or the end of Rico.

In other words, the initial satisfaction of moviegoing is the story, setting up characters and then seeing what happens next. And next after that. We think of them as having happy endings, but such endings are not necessary; some movies end in tragedy.

One is reminded of director Sam Fuller, when asked “what makes a good movie?”

sam fuller“A story,” he said.

“And what makes a good story?”

“A story!”

There is, however, another level of satisfaction that comes from watching a film, and that is an awareness of how the film is made. Not everyone understands the process by which the story is told, and not everyone cares. If a story is well-told, it is enough that the story is appreciated.

But there is a separate class of film buff who are moment-by-moment aware of how the pieces of film are put together to tell that story. They are aware of the lighting, the editing, the camera angles, the camera movement, the point of view — and are aware of how all these things are used to manipulate the story and the emotions of the filmgoer. An entire critical apparatus is brought to bear on a film, and especially if it is a film made by a director known to be innovative or astute at using these elements of film. For these people, watching a film is always a dual-track affair, as if they were reading a book in translation, seeing not only the story, but how it has been constructed at the same time.stagecoach

One can look at the studio films of Hollywood’s golden age and dissect them and notice how well made they are, and one can catalog the special habits of some of the better movie directors of the time — William Wellman’s overlapping dialog, Hitchcock’s time distortion, John Ford’s landscapes — and, indeed, whole books have been written (to say nothing about doctoral dissertations, and worse: books made from doctoral dissertations) about what makes Woody Van Dyke different from Gregory La Cava, but this is film-school subculture grist. The people who paid their pennies and dimes to watch those films in the grand movie palaces of the 1930s seldom considered the problems of reverse shots in editing dialog. They just wanted to know what happens next.

citizen kane low angleNowadays, one can hardly turn over a stone and not find someone spotting the use of camera angle in Citizen Kane or yanking our lapels to point out the amazing tracking shot that begins A Touch of Evil.

There is a subset of this sensibility that brings to bear the whole history of cinema — especially genre film — when viewing a film. I call this the Tarantino effect; it is that if we want to truly appreciate what is going on in, say, Kill Bill, one needs to know who Sonny Chiba is, what are the differences between Hong Kong martial arts films and those made in mainland China, and what is more, individual scenes from individual movies that are quoted or referenced in Tarantino’s opus.sonny chiba

This is the foundation of the current bumper crop of superhero movies, too. Fans know the backstory of each character, and the full weight of the “Marvel universe,” or the “DC universe.” The fact that all comic-book superhero movies are basically the same hardly matters if fans argue minutia of the worlds inhabited by these cliches.

The problem with all this is that it becomes a form of in-joke, or worse, a shibboleth separating those who “get it,” from those who don’t. And in this eddy of thought, the references become the subject of the film and the plot becomes incidental. One of the results is that it fosters cliche, with a wink and a nod, and negates original ideas, or at least glibly assumes that original thought is no longer possible. In this it buys into the Postmodern mentality, wherein it is held everything worth saying has been said, and now our job is just to rearrange the game pieces in clever ways. This conveniently forgets the fact that it has always been hard to be original, even for Raphael or Goya.

So, in our film culture now we have two strata of movie appreciation. There are still those who go the movie theater to enjoy a good story, but there is another class that blogs endlessly about the subtext, meta-theory and the film-school techniques of their favorite movies.

However there is a third level to be considered when assessing a film.  If most films don’t aspire to more than story and technique, in the greatest films both story and technique are just tools for for a further end: Expressing something real about life. These are films made by people who have something important to say, something to tell us. They are films that investigate our humanity.

Stories alone can be entertaining, and the meta-view can be engrossing to those whose minds are attuned to “what’s really happening underneath,” but when I make a list of the best movies ever made, it is neither of these levels I care about. Or rather, I assume them as given. No, what I look for is whether the movies have something to say about human existence, that I can weigh against my experience and decide if it is true or not, whether it has something to say about the experience of being alive.

battle of algiers

That is why my Top 10 list does not feature The Dark Knight or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Such films may be diverting, but they don’t say much about the real world. Instead, my list contains films such as Rules of the Game, The Battle of Algiers, and La Dolce Vita. I learn more about love and sex from My Night at Maud’s than from all the Wedding Crashers and Knocked Ups combined. It is this third dimension that is missing from most popular movies. Content to be clever or scary or thrilling, they forget to be human.

Such films put me in touch with the deepest well of my being, remind me that such depth is shared by all of humanity, and that all our lives are complex and what is most important to us is not our jobs or our automobiles, but the emotional connection we have with the earth. One leaves such films profoundly moved and deeply shaken.

uma pulp fiction

Pulp Fiction, to take one example, is certainly a cleverly told story, beautifully written and just scrambled enough to keep us attentive. Yet, unlike Tarantino’s more recent films, it has a third dimension. In Pulp Fiction, death has human meaning and aftermath. There are consequences. When Mia overdoses and Vincent rushes her to Lance’s house for an antidote, her immanent death is something felt by the audience and when Marvin is blown away in the back seat of the car, there is blood everywhere. Yes, it’s a joke, but it’s also very real. In Pulp Fiction, each of the characters is a believable human being. Compare those episodes with the fight scene in Kill Bill where a comic-book Uma Thurman slices and dices her way through “The Crazy 88.” Nowhere is anyone mourning the death of a father or brother. They are tin ducks in a shooting gallery.

Most truly great films have these three dimensions. I don’t want to denigrate a good story, and surely a badly made film won’t move us, no matter how profound the content. But of these three levels, the only one that can elevate a film to classic status is its humanity. Stories and film technique create patterns we recognize and respond to, but what we really need from patterns is more than mere recognition; what we need is meaning.

Of course, it isn’t only in film we need meaning, but in all of art. And so, we search paintings or poetry not just for pretty pictures or clever rhymes, but for what answers that need in us to understand, to find or create meaning.

cassattNone of this is to deny you the pleasure you may get from Captain America or from paintings of pretty flowers. There’s room for that, too. Such things are fine on days when your ambition is cooling out, but the real satisfactions of art come when you are challenged by something more substantive, where you find your life reflected back at you, and you are forced to confront moral dilemmas, the inevitability of death and loss, the complexities of ideas, and the ultimate interconnectedness of all life on the planet. More ambition is good.

So, when we look to justify art in a world increasingly dominated by technology and STEM disciplines on one hand, and an increasing reaction into superstition and tribalism on the other (nativism, fundamentalism, bigotry and its retinue), it is important to make a case for looking inward with a piercing eye to find what is there, at the bottom of the human well.

national gallery front 2
I was in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., standing in front of one of my oldest friends, Mary, Queen of Heaven, by the Master of the Saint Lucy Legend, Mary Queen of Heaven National Gallerymelting in the presence of the colors and textures that that anonymous artist was able to pour like cake frosting over the surface, when who should show up but my old friend Stuart.

“What a coincidence,” I said, “to find you here today. I didn’t know you were here in D.C.”

“Been here for a few days,” he said. “I’m on my way back to Portland.”

Stuart currently lives in Maine, not Oregon.

“I may be an old hippie, but I’ve aged out of Portlandia,” he told me. “I’m more Whole Earth Catalog than I am fair-trade coffee.”

He said he is now living with a viola player who teaches and plays part-time with the Portland Symphony. “I’m learning to listen to the middle of the music,” he said. “I’m ignoring the tunes and the bass and hearing the filler. It’s hard. Have you ever tried to listen to a viola part in a symphony? It takes great ears.”

Stuart has a long history of serial monogamy, and the prognosis for this relationship is no better than 50-50.

“It’s strange how often you find yourself in a city and meet someone you know,” I said. “You’re the last person I would have thought to run across in the art museum.”

“It’s interesting you should notice the coincidence,” Stuart said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about coincidences lately. I don’t really believe in them.”

We took a moment to bask in the glory of the painting and decided to meet later for lunch.

That’s when Stuart unloaded his latest theory.

“I was reading Tom Jones and couldn’t help notice all the coincidences needed to keep the plot flowing. When I read several essays about the book — which I just loved, by the way — several people held up the coincidences as a flaw, that such coincidences just weren’t believable.

“Of course, several Postmodern critics mention the same coincidences as proof of the author’s knowingness, that he is tipping us off that he knows that we know that he knows, etc., that this is fiction, that this is a piece of art and not reportage. A wink and a nod.

“But I take issue with both groups. I’ve given a lot of thought to coincidences and realized that coincidences are not the rare thing we usually think they are, but rather the most common occurrences in life. Essentially, everything that happens is a coincidence. When I go to the doctor’s office and an old woman comes in the door behind me, that’s a coincidence. When I drive down the road and there is a red car in the next lane, that is a coincidence. After all, what are the chances that that car will be red, or that we both arrive at the same stoplight at the same time. The chances are astronomically against it. When I go the the deli and order a pastrami sandwich and the guy behind the counter tells me that the customer just in front of me got the last one and he is currently out of pastrami: Well, that’s a coincidence, too.

“So, I have no problem with Tom Jones being filled with coincidences. The difference between some coincidences and others — those we pay attention to and those that pass without our notice — is not the coincidence part, but the significance part. When we invest a coincidence with meaning, then it seems to rise to the level of notice, and to the level we give it some sort of magic significance. It is the significance and not the coincidence that is notable.

“And where does that significance come from? Not the event itself, but from our brains. We invest the thing with significance, but understand it as if the event itself possessed the significance we have tagged it with. We’ve got it all backwards.

“And it is the way we build a narrative structure, connecting some coincidences together into a net, that gives us a sense that the world has meaning — and when it’s a work of fiction and we notice the network of significance, we think, that could never happen in the real world, but it does, it happens every day, even every minute.

“It’s like you and me meeting today. My Brownian motion has set me on one course, yours on another; they cross and it seems as if fate has lent a hand, but it isn’t so. Purely accident. But because we know each other, the crossing seems almost miraculous.

“This first hit me, I think, after seeing the Kieslowski ‘Three Colors Trilogy.’ The three films — Red, White and Blue — are loaded with coincidences, too many to mention. But most notably, at the end of the third film, there has been a ship sinking and there are seven survivors, and they turn out to be the three couples, each from one of the three films, and a random seventh person. At first, it seems miraculous that just those three couples, which we have been watching over the three films, should coincidentally be the lone survivors of a disaster. Too much coincidence to be true, you say. Kieslowski is playing with us.

bridge at san luis rey cover“But look at it from the other end: A ship sinks, and Kieslowski takes six of the seven survivors and gives us their prequels. You can do this for any disaster. Take the survivors and write down their stories and miraculously, no matter how random the choice, the fact that they survive at the end seems unbelievable coincidence. But it isn’t: It’s the Bridge of San Luis Rey effect.”

Stuart had been talking so much, he’d barely touched his game hen, while I — providing the accepting ear — had managed to get on to dessert already.

“So, it’s all a question of significance,” he continued after a quick bite of chicken.

“The issue of coincidence is a red herring. They are everywhere all the time. But we cast a net of meaning out over the world and those coincidences we notice, and that fit our narrative, we decide mean something. The rest evaporate in unknowingness and oblivion.

“After all, what is the human mind if not a great machine for pattern recognition? If you take a bowl of marbles and drop them on the floor, when they stop rolling around, you will be able to discover in their distribution a pattern. It’s pure pareidolia, but it feels real.ursa major

“It’s the Big Dipper over and over. The night sky is really just a bowl of marbles spilled into the empyrean, but we have found patterns there. Everyone recognizes the Big Dipper, even if they call it the Plough, or call it the Seven Sages, or the Great Bear — oddly, with a long tail — or Charlemagne’s Wagon, or in Finland, a salmon weir. Same stars, different asterisms.

“Or the Virgin Mary seen in a tortilla. Or the million conspiracy theories that people get arrested by.

“Really, it’s a Rorschach universe. Meaning is cast out upon the waters and it drags in what it will. Meaning is not found, it is generated.

“And that is how we view coincidence: It is something we notice and if it fits a pattern we are projecting out into the world, it seems important, meaningful, significant. But the coincidence itself couldn’t be more pedestrian, quotidian, bland and ordinary.”

At some point, Stuart usually empties the balloon of all its air and there is a sequent quietening of his enthusiasm, as if now that he’s made his point, there is no point left to existence. Enthusiasm is followed by passivity. He’s worn himself out.

We walked out of the Garden Cafe and back into the galleries. Stuart walked out the door, off to his violist, and I went back to my Mary, Queen of Heaven.

And it is no coincidence that I picked up the check. Again.

corot avray

Each of us has certain works of art that we return to over and over. We might call it a “favorite song” or poem, but it is more than mere favor that makes these works perennial comforts. There is a core in them we find identity with, a sense that the piece was created especially for or about oneself. It is art we take personally.

There is a slight Corot painting at the Phoenix Art Museum that I have returned to for 15 years. Most people probably pass by without noticing it: It is just a tiny landscape with a few gray-green trees, a river or lake, and a couple of unrelated people mixed with a few cows.

Called Memory of Ville d’Avray, it is typical of many paintings produced by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

Yet, there are many things that make this painting special.

Corot lived at a time of transition. Born in Paris in 1796, he lived through several revolutions, both political and aesthetic. Despite the tendency in many of his contemporaries, there is never a polemical word from Corot. He just did what he did — at some moments seeming conservative, at others radical. To him it was all the same. He was only interested in painting.

His art looks back to the great French painters of the Baroque, Claude and Poussin, yet at the same time, by painting outdoors and studying the ephemeral effects of weather and time, he became a precursor to the Impressionists. He seems perfectly comfortable, nestled in the cusp.

Before his time, a painting was a metaphorical window to look through at appropriate subject matter. After his time, the subject matter was not all that important, but its style was.

With the Impressionists and those who followed, style was meaning.

In Corot, and in this small painting, there is a perfect balance, with the perfect pitch, between its manner and its subject.

There are three central Corots: In his early landscapes, often of Italy, the sunlight is intense and the colors bright. The plein-air paintings inspired his Impressionist progeny. His portraits, mostly of young peasant women, foreshadow the heavy classicism of Picasso’s large-boned women, and in style imply the kind of planar vision that Cezanne made his own.

But in his later years, the third Corot appeared, more poetic, softer edged, with colors more subdued. The Memory of Ville d’Avray is one of these. In the 20th century, critics tend to praise Corot for the first two and ignore the third.

But Corot wasn’t wonderful because he pointed the way for Cezanne and Picasso, but because he was a great painter. In the Memory, he paints the landscape of his youth. He lived in Ville d’Avray, between Paris and Versailles. And the painting is full of the “emotions recollected in tranquillity” we know from Wordsworth. And it is full of Wordsworthian nature, too — a man waits in a skiff on the water and a woman kneels by a birch tree, presumably picking mushrooms.

But the painting itself is so smooth, so sensuous, in colors subtle and rich, in a light that is not the light of day, but of memory. You can almost hear the crickets, feel the humidity.

It is this nexus of outer and inner worlds that I find so satisfying. Corot isn’t making a point, either about the world or about the art of painting. But he is filtering his experience through his sensibility to the point the two can no longer be separated. The outer world seen literally is bland and naked. The mental world by itself is autobiography and trivial.

But the two alloyed make meaning.