On meaning

Where there is no meaning, there is no being.
Vera Nazarian

[Note: The above was initially used as the epigraph for the Scriptorium.]

So what about that quotation up there? Well, it makes sense — even if you violently object to it — if we consider it in light of who and what we consider ourselves to be.

Existentialism says, “Existence precedes essence.” In other words, I start with “I am.” Sum. Very Cartesian, that: how do I know I exist, when I’ve decided not to bring in any presuppositions? Simply this — I’m the one doing the thinking here, and I must exist in order to think. Thus, I think, therefore I … am. (In this season’s wet weather here in northern Indiana, we say, “Cogito ergo sump pump.”) What I don’t start with is “Here’s what I am.” That’s essence. Meaning is a secondary question; being comes first.

Ms. Nazarian’s line, above, says that all that is backwards. Meaning — essence — comes first. Things don’t exist without an identity, a purpose, a significance. An existentialist not only can but logically must have being without meaning; his or her identity is determined by the choices he or she makes and the actions he or she takes, and therefore follows after and from them. He [she] therefore not only can but must invent him[her]self — and thereafter can reinvent him[her]self. But this, Ms. Nazarian says, is not so. Meaning comes first; then being occurs to fulfill it.

You and I, then, each have a place in this cosmos. Whether or not we live in a way befitting that place is a separate question.

All this fits in well with the idea of accountability. If I exist according to meaning (rather than developing meaning to define my existence), then it precedes me — and it is a standard by which I may be evaluated. By whom?

You might say, “By history.” But history is written after the fact, by observers; at best, it can only determine what the meaning was, and its success will depend on how much the observers’ perspective accords with reality.1

“By other people.” But the same problem arises, unless we’re talking about our predecessors. And where did their meaning come from? Eventually you must backtrack to the first person who could make that evaluation. And who evaluates him [her]?

“By the universe, then.” But then we must say that the universe is filled with meaning — astonishing thought! Many stop here, understandably. But I’m convinced we have to go on, and ask, Where did that meaning come from?

For each thing that exists has only two possible sources: (a) chance or (b) craft. If chance, then there is no meaning. The sand that blows in whirlwinds across my driveway and lands in a pattern that happens to spell out TAKE YOUR DOG TO THE VET, YOU MORON! is interesting, but contains no message — the pattern arguably isn’t even a pattern. If my wife, on the other hand, writes those words on a Post-it note and sticks it to my dashboard (well, she’d probably omit the last two words; at least I hope so), then I’d better pay attention. She crafted that note, giving it meaning and purpose; if it doesn’t say what she wants it to, she will want to know why. (And in turn, I’m accountable for what I do with it.)

Where there’s being, there’s meaning. Where there’s meaning, there’s craft. And where there’s craft, there’s a sentient craftsman, to whom the created things are accountable. In the beginning, Mind.

Not that this is a new idea to any of us. We deal in created worlds all the time. And for those of us who are writers, the more skilled we are, the more exactly we know what we intend for our creations to accomplish. And it’s the sloppy writer who has a lot of meaningless people and things cluttering up her stories.2 Editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden‘s contribution to the stingcum-parody novel Atlanta Nights incorporates grievous literary sins, as do the chapters composed by her colleagues — but with a difference, in that hers are not sins of composition:

In fact, it’s the one chapter in the book that’s written in something resembling standard English, though Jim Macdonald did throw in a bunch of formatting errors plus a typo or two, just to keep it from looking like it belonged in a different book. I figured it would confuse the issue.

But that wasn’t the whole of my intent. What’s the matter with my chapter? Everything. Bear in mind that I don’t write fiction; I edit it. Chapter 15 may be written in passable commercial prose, but it sheds no light, tells no stories, leads nowhere, says nothing that hasn’t been said before, and in general has no damned reason to exist.

I see a lot of books like that.

So do we. And many of us view the world that way as well. But a good craftsman doesn’t throw in superfluities. Extravagances, maybe, but not excesses.3 The good craftsman is “frugal” in its literal sense — not stingy, but making every ingredient count. Saint-Exupéry’s line fits well here: “You know you’ve achieved perfection in design, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away.”

So: The Universe as Novel. An interesting concept. And “in the beginning, God.” Good ol’ Genesis one one.

Of course, we’ll ask the inevitable questions. Is the universe’s crafter good, or evil — assuming that those words have any meaning? And if good, why is the result so deeply flawed? Excellent questions. But they’re the next questions, not the first.

  1. Yes, that’s a non-postmodern statement. Reality does exist absolutely, as does truth; only our ability to perceive that reality and truth accurately is in question. []
  2. This, I hasten to add, does not describe Vera Nazarian. If you have not yet read her Dreams of the Compass Rose, run, do not walk, to your neighborhood bookstore. []
  3. The accusation of “waste, excess” has been used to defend the doctrine of “limited atonement,” as follows:

    (1) Those who deny “limited atonement” say that Christ’s death on the cross provided a payment sufficient for everyone’s sins (an unlimited atonement), not just those who put their faith in him.
    (2) The Bible makes it clear that not all people put their faith in him; indeed, vast numbers of people will not do so and therefore will be eternally condemned.
    (3) If Christ died for everyone, then his death for those who will be condemned was wasted.
    (4) Nothing God does is wasted; every action of his does what he intends it to do.
    (5) “Unlimited atonement” is therefore false, leaving “limited atonement” to be true. Q.E.D.

    But the Atonement may be considered an example of generosity (depriving unbelievers of any excuse for their fate; cf. Rom 2:4–5) — not waste. So might the galactic clusters, for that matter (Gen. 1:16 — oh, by the way, “he made the stars also”). []

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