Friday, March 26, 2010

Every Gesture Has Meaning

That title phrase popped into my mind as I went to bed. It rattled around all night and was still there when I opened my eyes. For a time in academia, people wrangled about intentionality. Could we trust a writer to mean what she said or to say what she meant, or is language hopelessly out of our control, like a nest of snakes with their own writhing intention and no regard for the hand that makes the mark? I don't know from onions if that argument still pertains, but I did a lot of thinking about meaning and intention this morning, and I don't think I'm done thinking. Here's one big question: does chance trump intention? Digging around in daily life, I think the original idea that snuck into mind has weight. My coffee is in the blue paisley mug. No, I didn't give much thought to which mug I took from the cupboard, but some  tiny spark of a plan led my hand to that item, not the yellow one next to it. It means something about my mood, my wish for a certain aesthetic, something!

On the other hand, a little bit of chance can tip the balance in writing. I intend to write about a cook, but see that I've typed the word crook. Aha! A crook in the kitchen is much more interesting than a cook. But here it comes, my intention to write about the more unusual becomes a factor. I cannot deny or avoid my own choices. Selection of detail is, perhaps, sparked by chance variation, but almost immediately the czar of language says, go this way, say that word, make it work. Who the heck is in charge here? Sadly, it's me. I have to take responsibility for the choices I make. I have to consider the arc/ark of communication, which is the goal of art. Even an avant garde throwing paint at the wall sends a message, "Look how I disregard the figurative. I'm being independent." I don't think we can deny intention and meaning anymore than we can willfully stop breathing.

1 comment:

mknighten2 said...

Well, you write, you know. (There's a lesson: Order Makes Meaning. Saying "Well, you write, you know" is a very different thing from saying "You know you write well," which you do, of course (I've been reading The Great Hunger, which I can do only a page or so at a time before I jump up and pace and worry Elvis, who thinks I've lost his tennis ball again.)

But order DOES make meaning, doesn't it? And if order makes meaning, so also does diction, doesn't it? (Maybe I meant phrasing there, not diction, but I love the sound of "also does diction, doesn't . . .")

It's easy to prove (I think I just did) that the words we use do matter. Your issue was whether we actually choose them. As I pointed out, you write, and you take the care to write well, so admit it or not you believe at some primal, very important level that what we say and how we say it matters. Call it the deep structure of the writer's persona, the way the linguists talk about the deep structure of sentences. I haven't heard much of late about the intentional fallacy, but the New Criticism that was beaten into me mercilessly in graduate school (I can still recall the very thinly veiled contempt of a professor's comment that I too often confused the author with the work) would simply insist that "a crook in the kitchen" has its own meaning unconnected to my impertinent assumption that perhaps the writer intended, depending on context, either a cook or a crock, either of which might more logically have business in the kitchen.

No, I know you. You're just trying to provoke me into thinking on a Sunday morning, and I won't have it. I agree: If you "intended" cook and wrote "crook," you're still carrying on a conversation with yourself (and allowing the reader to overhear it), and the conversation goes something like this: "Of course a cook's place is in the kitchen, but what if there were a crook in the kitchen instead? Where would that take us, and isn't that a wonderful, less beaten path?"

No, this is too much like thinking, I say. I have papers to grade, and now I have to be careful NOT to tell them to look again at the example in their crook.