The Meaning of Meaning
Do novels have meaning, or are they experiences?
Literary scholars like to talk about the meaning of texts. This is often complete waffle. The meaning, it turns out, is not what the author intended or the reader perceives but a covert vindication of the scholar’s political or social proclivities.
I am of the school that holds that fiction does not have meaning. A novel is not a proposition, it is an experience. It no more has meaning than a glass of wine or a symphony has meaning. They are experiences. And being creatures of our senses, we crave experiences, and thus we crave stories. Meaning is superfluous. Indeed, the search for meaning diminishes rather than enhances the experience.
The ability of stories, which are, after all, just a series of words without the sensory impact of wine on the taste buds or music on the ears, to create experiences is something wonderful and strange. Meaning is certainly instrumental in this effect. We see this in the ability of a few apt details to evoke a full and complex image. The fact that the author can say horse, six shooter, ten gallon hat, and we see a cowboy is an operation of meaning, and one without which the whole enterprise would drown in laborious cataloguing of every detail of scene and character. But meaning here is merely a servant of experience. Meaning creates experience; experience does not create meaning. We should never fixate on meaning as if it were the primary property of the text. Its primary property is the experience it creates. Meaning is merely an instrument.
Thus I have tended to dismiss talk of meaning in more general senses. (Our brains are too small and our lives too short to pay full attention to everything.) But I was forced to see meaning in a somewhat different light when I watched Jordan Peterson’s Cambridge lecture on “The Problem of Perception”.
Perception does not work how we think it does, Peterson argues. We don’t see a cup, recognize it as an object and proceed from there to the fact that you can drink from it — that is, recognize the object and then give it meaning. Rather, the meaning comes first. We see the meaning drink-from-thing and proceed to the object, cup.
I was startled by this at first, but I soon recognized that it corresponds to my experience in interesting ways. When one is tired on a walk, for instance, a rock or tree stump of the right proportions becomes a sit-upon-thing and transforms into a chair. There is an ancient problem in definition that is often expressed in terms of a chair. What is a chair? It turns out that we all know a chair when we see one, but no one can form a definition of chair by its physical properties which includes everything we think of as a chair and excludes everything we think of as something else. (How do you, in a definition, distinguish a stool from a side table, for instance?) Yet if we start with the meanings sit-upon-thing and put-things-on-to-work-thing, we get instantly and comfortably to chair and table.
An example in practice: We are currently renovating our kitchen, which means that our kitchen prep table is now in the living room. With the kitchen stripped to the walls, all sources of water are on other floors, so we have a large jug of water sitting on the table to use for making tea and porridge. When I came down to make my breakfast this morning, I saw that jug and remembered its meaning: breakfast-water-source-thing. I didn’t think jug. I thought, water for porridge. I immediately poured out a cup full into the only measuring cup that isn’t in a box somewhere.
The only problem was, this is the wrong order of operations: I should have measured the dry ingredients first, when the measuring cup was dry, then measured the water afterwards. That is the way I have done it every morning for years. It means I only need to use one measuring cup, not two. This should be an entirely ingrained habit. Yet the presence of the water jug on the table (as opposed to my breakfast-water-source-thing being the kitchen tap) completely overturned this ingrained procedure. I saw breakfast-water-source-thing and immediately acted on its meaning by pouring it into the measuring cup.
Peterson goes on to illustrate this point about meaning leading to objects, and not the other way round, by describing certain people who have had damage to a certain part of the brain that inhibits us from acting on the meaning we see. Such people, he says, cannot encounter a pass-through-thing (aka a door) without passing through it. They cannot encounter a drink-from-thing (cup) without drinking from it. It’s the first I have ever heard of such a condition, and I can’t imagine how anyone can live like that, but my experience with the breakfast-water-source-thing (water jug) on the make-breakfast-upon-thing (kitchen table) made me take the general proposition seriously.
And it has me wondering, is this how “telling details” in writing work? When we present the reader with ride-upon-thing, shoot-with-thing, and shade-head-from-sun thing, do these meanings coalesce into herd-cattle-thing and give us, by that mechanism, the full picture of a cowboy? If so, it would suggest that it is not a matter of the reader’s mind filling in the missing details, in addition to the ones the text provides, but of the entire picture springing whole from the emergent meaning. Not, in other words, that the brain adds chaps and spurs and a bandanna to the given horse, six shooter, and ten-gallon-hat, but that chaps, spurs, bandanna, horse, six shooter, and ten-gallon-hat come as a package as the instantiation of the meaning of herd-cattle-thing.
And indeed, I suspect this is the case, because sometimes the image that comes into my head as I read does not actually incorporate every detail as written. I have noticed this before, and wondered at it, idly. It suggests that the image we form from a description is not built up piece by piece, but is formed whole (which is certainly how it seems). If meaning precedes the object, then this phenomena, including the missing details, makes sense. It would also explain why too many details make it harder rather than easier to form a picture, and perhaps why three seems to be the magic number. Three details are perhaps the right number to triangulate the meaning successfully in most cases.
I have no idea if I am expressing the neurological concept that Peterson is describing correctly here. But I am fascinated by the meaning I have taken from it, because it seems to say a lot about how storytelling works. Indeed, it may help to explain the mystery of how stories, which are a mere sequence of words with no direct engagement with the senses, actually manage to create experiences. Because, at the macro scale, the process of stories to experiences seems to parallel the micro-scale process of meaning to object.
If so, this confirms rather than disrupts my view that experience, not meaning, is the point of stories. Meaning is the gateway, the prompt, the ignition point of objects, and therefore of experiences.
All of this is perhaps orthogonal to the practice of critics and scholars of trying to derive propositions from stories. That activity is not so much wrong as beside the point. People derive propositions from experiences all the time. Indeed, where else can they derive them from?
The mistake of the critic, it seems to me, is to contend either (as one school does) that there is one true and canonical proposition to be derived from a given text, or (as another school does) that the fact that we all derive different propositions from a text means that the text has no settled meaning at all.
If we recognize that we all derive different propositions from all of our experiences, but are willing to grant that a tree is a tree even if some think we should keep it for it shade in summer and some that we should cut it down to burn it for heat in winter, then we should be able to grant that a book is an objective experience even if we all derive different propositions from it.
We often speak of objectivity and subjectivity as mutually exclusive, but to me they are complementary. My experience of the objective is different from yours because I am different. Subjectivity is the expression of the difference with which different people encounter the same object. Yet unless we concede that it is the same object, with objective properties, our subjective reaction to it is devoid of meaning. Subjectivity does not break our relationship with the objective; it is an expression of it.
The cowboy that you conjure in response to the horse/hat/gun details is different from the one I conjure, but that is interesting only because we both respond to the objective meaning behind those images. There is a relationship between the objective and the subjective, in other words. The objective is the cause of different impressions in different subjects because of the differences in the subjects receptivity. By way of a crude analogy, a yellow light creates a different impression when it shines on a blue or red surface. It appears subjectively green or orange on each only because of how its objective yellowness interacts with the blue or red of the subjects it shines on.
This implies too that the differences between my subjective response to an object and yours, far from alienating us from each other’s experience, provides a way for us to work together to get nearer to the objective reality of the thing we are both looking at. Wherever we differ in what we see, we know to look beyond our initial perception. Together we may discover the objective reality to which we were each blind individually. If you see orange and I see green, the light must actually be yellow. There is no reason we should not do this with a book just as much as with a tree.
Of course, it is true that many authors write with the intention that the reader should walk away from a text with some proposition fixed firmly in their head. Did they learn to expect this from the English teachers who frog-marched them through the exercise of finding meaning in Literature: Pride and Prejudice means people should not make hasty judgements when choosing a romantic partner. To Kill a Mockingbird means racism is bad. The Grapes of Wrath means people from Oklahoma should have the right to work in California.
There is a sense in which each of the authors of these works did believe each of these propositions and did have them in mind when writing their books. But these are all simple propositions. Why write such complex fictions if their only purpose was to express these propositions? And if the propositions were the whole point of the book, why do Lizzy Bennet, Scout Finch, and Pa Joad all stay with us long after we close the books? Why do these characters become so much like people known and met that we can hardly tell them from real acquaintances?
One thing is certain, our continued devotion to these books is not based on their supposed propositions. (Surely the right of Oklahomans to work in California is not something the burns passionately in most breasts these days, even in Oklahoma.) No, it is based on our affection for, and fascination with, the people that we met in those stories. It is based on experience.
If meaning is involved here, it is not that propositional meaning arises from the text as its defining product and virtue. But perhaps our perception of literary characters as people actually met and known does arise, as Peterson suggests all experience arises, from meaning. Not meaning as vague bromides or political postures, to be sure, but something I can only crudely express as shares-my-hopes-joys-and-woes thing, the meaning that leads us to recognize the object: human being.