The Unbearable Burden of Meaning

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“Life imitates art,” said Oscar Wilde. He was right about many things; maybe he was right about that, too.

On April 16, a sad confirmation came from Rolling Stone, that repository of everything that is dumb and faux and anti-art — and thus, if Wilde was correct, anti-life. In its article about the burning of Notre Dame de Paris, Rolling Stone said this:

For some people in France, Notre Dame has also served as a deep-seated symbol of resentment, a monument to a deeply flawed institution and an idealized Christian European France that arguably never existed in the first place. “The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation,” says Patricio del Real, an architecture historian at Harvard University. If nothing else, the cathedral has been viewed by some as a stodgy reminder of “the old city — the embodiment of the Paris of stone and faith — just as the Eiffel Tower exemplifies the Paris of modernity, joie de vivre and change,” Michael Kimmelmann wrote for the New York Times.

Exemplifies, eh? I’ll tell you what’s being exemplified. This passage exemplifies the weird combination of ignorance and arrogance that gives current journalism its distinctive smell.

The Eiffel Tower is 130 years old. It was being satirized as a tourist trap as long as 68 years ago.

Just who are “some people”? Are there 30 of them, or is there one? By whom, exactly, and how many of whom, have the cathedral and the old city “been viewed” as such and such? Pray tell us, Rolling Stone; we presume you know. Maybe you can also tell us what “if nothing else” is doing in the third sentence, and why the second two sentences — when you actually read, rather than merely whiff them — aren’t tracking with the first sentence, which they’re meant to support.

The words about “exemplification,” of course, are just one more example of the wacko, your-engine-block-is-no-longer-attached commentary we expect from any of the outlets that make it to the first five on Google’s top stories list. Tour Eiffel is 130 years old. It was being satirized as a tourist trap as long as 68 years ago, when Alec Guinness made The Lavender Hill Mob. Effing Hitler was proud to pose in front of it. Modernity? The joy of life? Change? Change from what to what?

So that’s all meaningless. The Wilde moment comes in the first part, where we hear those lovingly quoted chicken cacklings about “liberation” from “meaning” itself. It’s an echo — certainly unconscious, or comatose, like everything else in the passage — from the world’s most popular book about architecture, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943), in which Ellsworth Toohey, an expert on architecture, attempts to destroy all meaning in the world, so that he can enjoy liberation. To many readers, this idea has seemed too absurd to put in a novel, but now we find that it’s not. Life now imitates art; Rand’s over-the-top satires are now reality. We’ve always heard of people killing themselves because “there’s no meaning left in the world.” Now we find that to other people, the thought is liberating.

Well, as Alexander Pope said, “Peace to all such!” They felt overburdened. Now they feel free. But I’m not that way. I’d rather live in a world that’s full of more meanings than I can ever live to enjoy. And this, I believe, is the world we live in. I thank God that when I contemplate a Sumerian statue, a poem of Yeats, a panel from an Egyptian tomb, a chorus from Sophocles, any line from King Lear, I sense more meaning than I can fully appreciate. I need to stipulate, however, that I do not feel that way about Rolling Stone.

Life now imitates art; Rand’s over-the-top satires are now reality.

Few current authors or commentators are overtly following the program of Ellsworth Toohey, intent on freeing the world from meaning, although I can think of damned few who follow the program of those despised nonmoderns, the authors and public figures of the 18th and 19th centuries who set the standards of intelligent utterance. They labored to fill every sentence with as much meaning as a sentence could take. Read The Federalist. Read Hume. Read Tennyson. Read a hundred more of them. Read, even, the speeches of William Jennings Bryan, to cite a politician whose ideas do not happen to conform to mine — at all. But do not, whatever you do, read the utterances of today’s savants and politicians.

Consider the oracles momently delivered by the intellectuals’ candidate for president, Peter Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. By what process of logic he persuaded himself that his talents are needed in the White House, I cannot guess. I suppose it involved a stream of images without any meanings attached, because that’s what we find in his public sayings. Buttigieg is in favor of a scheme — some scheme or other — to mandate national service (i.e., enslavement, as Lori Heine points out) for all young men and women. Here are the mighty arguments by which he justifies his proposal:

We really want to talk about the threat to social cohesion that helps characterize this presidency but also just this era. One thing we could do that would change that would be to make it, if not legally obligatory, but certainly a social norm that anybody after they're 18 spends a year in national service.

Never mind the bad grammar and syntax. Let’s see what we can do with the meanings, alleged or real. Start with “we.” “We,” in this place, is a cunning way of saying “I,” which is sort of different. Then we have “social cohesion.” Who knows what this “cohesion” might mean, or why it is so particularly desirable, or why “this era” has so damaged it, or why national service would “change that.” The underlying image is probably that of millions of young men and women caught up in a harmonic convergence induced by two years of compulsory calisthenics, but maybe I’m putting too much content into the mayor’s words. I have a very clear idea about what enforcing “a social norm” might mean, and it seems strange to me that Buttigieg, as a gay person, would think that idea is swell. So maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he didn’t have any meaning in mind.

By what process of logic Buttigieg persuaded himself that his talents are needed in the White House, I cannot guess.

If you take Buttigieg’s inspiration seriously enough to ask why, if it’s such a great idea, nobody else is pushing for it, he provides a still less meaningful parade of words:

It’s one of these ideas that everybody kind of likes, but it was always important and never urgent. How would that ever kind of hold on [sic] its own in a policy debate where we deal with kids in cages and we have to deal with climate change and there are all these pressing, burning issues?

To this, one is virtually invited to respond, “Gosh. I don’t know. How would it?”

There is no meaning to be found here — no meaning of any kind, to be discovered in any way. “We,” who are debating “issues,” do not include me, or, I’ll bet, you. “We” — here intended, I think, to mean “ordinary people” — do not “have to deal” with “kids in cages,” or “climate change.” Those are non-issues, invented issues; they are life imitating the art of the press release. The other “pressing, burning issues” are created by Buttigieg with the same wave of the hand by which teenagers summon meaningless concepts: “Like, all these subjects I gotta take, I got, like, issues with them.” What are they? Again, who knows? Meanwhile, “pressing, burning” is the lowest form of cliché. What does it mean for an issue to press and burn you?

This is simple illiteracy — not unusual in the house organ of the We Know Better than You Do movement.

But let’s look at universal service, which is “one of those ideas that everybody kind of likes.” No, it’s not. I was born a few miles from South Bend. I have spent lots of my adult life in South Bend. Neither there nor in any other place have I met anyone who said that he or she was in favor of national service. In the words of the great gospel song, “No, not one; no, not one!” Buttigieg is — literally, in the literal meaning of the word literally — a nobody talking about nothing.

Of course, expulsion of meaning need not occur on the exalted intellectual level where Buttigieg attempts to situate himself. Here’s a headline from the Washington Post (May 11):

Trump’s interest stirring Ukraine investigations sows confusion in Kiev

Pardon me? Did you say something? What is that supposed to mean? This is simple illiteracy — not unusual in the house organ of the We Know Better than You Do movement. It’s just possible that being a stuffed shirt doesn’t automatically give meaning to your words.

Smugness creates no meanings, and neither does smarminess. There’s a guy who features in ads for Trivago, a company specializing in cheap hotel reservations. The guy was arrested for drunk driving. So what? What’s the deep meaning in that? Nothing; there isn’t any. But the company felt a compulsion to provide one, right away, and in the process . . . Well, take a look.

At this stage, we do not have the full details of the situation, but we want to make clear that Trivago treats such incidents very seriously and strongly condemns drinking and driving, which poses a risk to others and goes against the Trivago culture.

“The Trivago culture” is presumably one and the same with “the Facebook culture,” “the Tumblr culture,” “the Acme Widget culture,” and any other culture that wants to portray itself as absolutely loaded with meaning. Unfortunately, this “culture” is the exact opposite of culture. Culture conserves meanings; “culture” annihilates them. Not only is it empty of meaning; it’s a vacuum cleaner, sweeping up the last remains of the meanings around it. Sensing that, its operators insist all the more that they do so mean something. They mean it seriously and strongly; they mean it very seriously and strongly. . . . Are you still there? Are you still reading? Should we say it even more seriously and strongly?

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that people who uttered such claptrap would notice what it is, and notice what other people think of it. They don’t — and why not? A cause is suggested by a comment made by the 18th-century rhetorician Hugh Blair. Speculating about what was wrong with James Macpherson, author of the Ossian poems, which are as close to being empty of meaning as 18th-century literature could get, he said that Macpherson “must be miserable,” because he was “absolutely void of curiosity.”

Culture conserves meanings; “culture” annihilates them.

It wouldn’t take much curiosity for Professor del Real to find something of continuing interest in the cathedral of Notre Dame. It wouldn’t take much curiosity for Mayor Buttigieg and the Trivago flack to find some words that mean something. It wouldn’t take much curiosity for the Ivy League graduates at the Washington Post to observe that their words may be impossible to figure out.

Admittedly, a little curiosity might dispel some of this world’s alluring mystery, thereby, I suppose, dispelling some of its meaning. But it can protect one from exposure as the kind of person who has never noticed any meaningful objects lurking more than 12 inches away from his nose. At the moment, I’m thinking about the first George Bush, who marveled at the way items are scanned at supermarket checkout counters (he’d never seen it before), and Hillary Clinton trying to hide her confusion about how to get into the New York Subway (the Senator from New York had never done it before). I’m also thinking about that constant source of merriment, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who on May 6 reported to her Instagram audience about her latest existential crisis. No, it wasn’t “climate change”; it was — well, here it is:

OK everyone, I need your help because I just moved into this apartment a few months ago and I just flipped a switch and it made that noise and it scared the daylights out of me. This D.C. apartment is bougie [bourgeois-y] and has things I’ve never seen before. Like what is a garbage disposal really for? Is it better or worse than throwing something in the garbage? More importantly why is it so loud and yelling at me?

Why indeed? When that happens, there’s ground for suspicion. What is a garbage disposal really for? Imagine all the possible meanings! And none of them good!

Take this as a warning: If Notre Dame is so bougie that it’s overburdened with meaning, and you’re happy to get rid of it, you may still be threatened by your garbage disposal.

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