Friday, July 8, 2016

Meditation: On Meaning And On None

I recently finished a sequence of prose poem meditations based on sentences by Simone Weil. One of them was about a former Tinfish Press intern, Ithi S, who killed himself earlier this year. Here is the piece:

We have to try to cure our faults by attention, and not by will. I looked down at the First Folio's open page and read, “to fleep perchance to dream.” When a dyslexic businessman looks at street signs, he sees letters but not where they belong. His only order, memorized. My student's sentences flit from hurt to hurt like hummingbirds. I ask him to look at what he's leaving, but that's for a later age, after the slowing down of synapses (and their attendant asps). The dream included snakes, but they were shedding skin rather than flashing it. Earth is covered with our molting: shell casings, bird shit, flat tires, a pile of wood where a single-wall house fell in on itself. To attend to this is not to reverse animation, turn tragedy into farce. It's to rest in the particular moment of our dying. The envelope arrived from Thailand with hardly any address on it: my name and place of work. Ithi's memory book; flip it either way and he smiles. Dead “by his own hand” at 33 on this Good Friday. I fucking hate symbolism.
--i.m Ithi S.

My friend Jon posed the following question: "More about that: 27, "'I fucking hate symbolism'": is this a quote? Spoken by someone who may be troubled because in his undergraduate way with his undergraduate syntax he hasn't thought his way up to the truism that to speak in words, any words, is necessarily to speak in symbols?" 

To which I responded that the outburst was all mine. That final sentence recoils at the way Ithi's suicide, Good Friday, and his age (33), collide, as if to mean something, as if to participate in a symbol that is greater than the circumstances of his death. As if to make something of that death, beyond emptiness.

The OED defines meaning this way: 

 1. The significance, purpose, underlying truth, etc., of something.

 a. That which is indicated or expressed by a (supposed) symbol or symbolic action; spec. a message, warning, idea, etc., supposed to be symbolized by a dream, vision, omen, etc. †in meaning that: as a sign or token that (obs.).

Why the recoil? It's the "underlying truth" part, I think. I do think. As a child I was prone to depression; my mother's response to my anguish was, typically: "you think too much." I did, and I do, but thinking has been one of the great (and at times only) joys of my existence. To think meant to sift through confusion to arrive at wisdom, even when (it always does) wisdom sifted away again. For most of those early years, it wasn't clarity I arrived at, but something that just might get me closer. Jan Zwicky quotes Dennis Lee:

"There is a moment in which I experience other people, or things, or situations, as standing forth with a clarity and a preciousness which makes me want to cry and to celebrate physically at the same time. I imagine many people have felt it." (101/189)

My notion of "emptiness," then, pointed to a lack of meaning, but Lee describes what I've since come to think "emptiness" means: "Each stands forth as what it is most fully, and most preciously, because the emptiness in which it rests declares itself so overpoweringly. We realize that this thing or person, this phrase, this event, need not be. And at that moment, as if for the first time, it reveals its vivacious being as though it had just begun to be for the first time." It's rebirth through recognition, the moment of seeing a flower at its most intense color after a session of meditation. It doesn't last, but that's not the point.

When life did not seem worth living, there was this. I associated my love/need for meaning with my depression, not yet realizing there was a word for that, too, namely "rumination." 

 c. Psychiatry. Obsessive repetition of the same thoughts to a degree which interferes with normal psychological functioning. Also: an instance of this.

When I look up "depression and rumination" now, I find that researchers seem to agree with my mother; rumination is bad for your health. But if rumination is a given, rather than an acquired activity, what then? Make use of it.

The promise of meaning has always been equated in my mind with a validation of life. It didn't take me out of time, but thrust me back into it. I found the primary locus of meaning in memory, as depression triggered it, too: memory meant loss most powerfully, but also spilled out in sequences of related images and thoughts and stories. It worked with the speed and precision of metaphor-making, leaping from remembered object to remembered object. What to do with these gymnastics, the kinetic churn of memories that didn't end anywhere, but simply ushered up new chains? 

Meaning is what slows the mind. Or so I thought then. Now I think it's sitting still and letting memories float past without attaching to them. But then I think I was hoping to slow down the constant flow, to find the place where meaning would gather flux together and to give it a stopping point. To stop is to feel some comfort, if only because there's breathing room. Meaning has a lot to do with the breath, my Buddhist teachers tell me.

It's hard to think about meaning now. Each day brings new trauma; if we are not black men or their families, it mostly brings trauma through the act of witness that television and social media provide. Trauma targets meaning as much as it targets persons. You cannot think "straight" if you are traumatized. Neither can you escape your memories. That's what PTSD is. And your memories are not yours alone; they belong to a culture's history, one that spools constantly in place at times like this one.

Where history, memory, and trauma come together, you find a shitload of symbolism. The tweeters unhappy that the murderer of Dallas cops, Micah Xavier Johnson, is being called Micah X Johnson by media, claim that media equates MXJ with Malcolm X, with Black nationalism, with what scares white folks. That's a symbolic claim, as is so much racism and anti-semitism (H. Clinton on a bed of cash with a five-pointed star beside her is nothing if not symbolic). The claim to literalism is also Trumpism; it's his only escape. 

So where does meaning lead me on a morning like this, several days into a week that is nothing more or less than a bloodbath, in a year of bloodbaths? I don't know. I fucking hate it. But when I look back at the OED, I remember that the first definition of "meaning," before the one I cited above, is this. It's obsolete, the dictionary claims:

  The action of mean v.2; moaning, lamentation.

As someone wrote in the copy of Jan Zwicky's Lyric Philosophy I have from the library, "That's the one." And the jpg is 0101. No, I'm wrong, it's 0100; 0101 was sideways. Meaning isn't as, but is, moaning and lamentation. As I would have it, moaning precedes meaning, but as the word and this week both know, they come at once, as memory and as present tense.

I also find that the word "rumination" lives outside its psychiatric corral, means:

 a. The action of revolving something in one's mind; meditation, contemplation.

May truth indeed be a form of honesty, and may there be clarity in our thoughts.

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