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What does any of it mean anymore?
When symbols and reality collide
Last week, I interviewed Ursula Goodenough about religious naturalism and her book, The Sacred Depths of Nature. We discussed language and mindedness, consciousness and the brain, community and individuals, and the relationship between mystery and knowledge, with Ursula explaining we need a story with which to unite humankind.
Much stood out to me in her work, and one sentence which particularly sprang forth from the page was: “Humans are a symbolic species”. Symbolism is an emergent property which, I would argue, reveals itself through language, rather than is constructed by language. I do not see language as merely a tool through which humankind constructs, deconstructs and perceives the world, but rather something with which we are in relation and—as with every relationship between all that is on the plane—from which something else emerges. In this way, symbolism is not merely our perception or storytelling of the world as we experience it, but an emergent web of meaning which expresses itself through humankind and our relationship with language. The feedback loop between language and symbolism, then, allows language to move beyond the utility of signification, of denoting signs, and become that which creates as much as it describes.
I am biassed, of course, for I am a writer. My first love was words; they seemed to call out to me from pages, asking to be read and then to be written. They jostle within me, merging into phrases, into soundbites, into messaging without much conscious will on my part, as if they live within my biome and travel up my throat and down my arm to bring themselves into the world. They connect in all sorts of mysterious ways, inviting meaning to be born through the cracks of surprise in poetry. They are, to me, a web, permeating, holding, covering and revealing the world, allowing me to move through it, with it and against it. When I think of one word, I imagine seeing it repeated eighty times like a stack of dominoes, each written symbol signifying a different meaning, and each of those written symbols connected to all of the other symbols of all of the other words. This web, this world of words, seems as true to me as the stone beneath my feet, masking and unmasking, twinkling and jesting as it moves through me much as I move through the world. Where would I be without this web? Where would humankind be? Language curls around us, like a serpent, inviting meaning.
This is not to say the world is meaningful only because of language. Quite the contrary, from language emerges new possibilities of meaning as symbols become in-and-of-themselves and alight upon the material world so we may see faces in the knots of trees and song in the sound of birds. In both masking and unmasking, language brings forth a plurality of realities, stories into which we slip and live.
This can be dangerous. The story of endless economic growth on a finite planet is destroying that planet, our only home. The story of difference between humans engenders racial and gender violence. Our stories are so powerful that the world becomes that which we tell, it seems. But that is only because stories are not told to last; they are told to find meaning, and all meaning is deserted in the permanence of a tale, for language moves on and evolves and covers and reveals and meaning cannot survive in stasis. We are in communion with words and the world pulses forth with meaning, expanding limitlessly where the material world cannot. We mistook this for immortality and foolishly wrote it down.
We are a symbolic species, yet we have made our symbols as real as our bodies, mistaking the emergent for the real, and the mystery for aliveness. What arises between us and language is rich in meaning, yet meaning does not have to be ascribed the certainty of being embodied. Instead, the dance and evolution of meaning as it moves through us and alights upon the world can be cherished as yet another mode of being in the world, another way of experiencing, another form of reality and truth that is not the same as this reality and that truth. Why ascribe equal weight in a world magnificent in its diversity?
My web of words vibrates with meaning causing the air to sing as I sink into its embrace; I lay on the earth and listen to the birds.
© Rachel Donald
As I edit this newsletter some weeks after first writing it, after seeing images of wildfires sweeping across Rhodes, of hail storms in Italy and super typhoons in the Philippines, I think of the other side of the argument—when the real becomes symbols: when signs denoting temperature change become divorced from reality, when tourists fleeing islands become emblematic of a planet in turmoil rather than turmoil itself. Perhaps the reification of our symbols has squeezed out all that is real so that even reality seems meaningless, in some sense. What else could explain our insistence on marching towards death?
The only way to survive in a world without sense is to create meaning with one another; meaning which cannot be measured with logos but only marvelled at through aliveness.
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