“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Learning to Read is Reading Between the Lines

A few weeks shy of 21 and I am beginning to feel as though I actually understand the words that I read. A book for my adolescent self was a mysterious collection of arcane references to cultural antipodes of thought I had not yet run the gauntlet through. When I read a chapter today, I feel reconnected to my world. I feel, with the depth of the author’s metaphors, to the very core of my being. I experience the weather as an exteriorization of my own inner emotional life. I see my brain for what it is: a sensitive ecosystem subject to the implicate laws of chaos and irrationality, but also an ordered and highly stable pattern establishing syntactical machine. A book is a work of art, but only in the act of being read can its beauty take shape. The act of reading is just that, an act. It is the positive contribution of value to the text courtesy of the reader. Without this contribution, the text, any text, will always remain barren and without context. It is the reader’s recognition of value that establishes greatness in a work of literature, never the work itself. I can recall learning in 9th grade about how writers employed the tools of their trade. The metaphor was always of interest to me, though I knew not why at that age. A metaphor was, to my younger self, a fancy and admittedly poetic way to avoid being literal. I assumed, of course, a certain amount of sentimentality was implied in its use. I did so, probably, because that was the mood in which my teacher taught the material, as though it were artistic and possibly beautiful, but nonetheless a glossing over of reality, and therefore ultimately superfluous. To say that the freshly fallen snow upon the white, pristine landscape is the icing on the cake of winter is not to say that the dirt beneath is actually made of filling. We know this because we are told from a very early age to separate the metaphorical from the literal. All metaphors, as far as our conscious cultural grammar is concerned, are actually similes in disguise, mere whim masquerading as meaning. The metaphor of man as fallen, we like to think, has no causal role to play in our free decision and conscious choice. Us modern, liberated people know how to use our language and are no longer used by it. At least, that is the hypothesis. That it is a hypothesis, a theory, was not made evident to me in grade school. This was something I had to find out for myself, something many never do. Luckily, I was unable to escape the creative impulse that was naturally given to me and doubtlessly to every other creature in the world. I was able to use the tools given me by my culture to climb my way right out of it and into the recesses of the collective unconscious. We are first taught language, and it acts upon us like a program. We become its victims and it shapes and molds us to its will, demanding that the structure of our lives mirror the grammar of the sentence. All through grade school, after the basic syntax has taken root in the mind, we are shown exactly what will happen if we try to throw off our chains. Transgression of grammar leads to the expulsion from society and the revoking of your status as human. Best to remain quiet about your art, then, fearful of what might happen to you if it is revealed that behind your sensical mask of certainty and definition lurks a darkness so black that its very presence swallows the light that might reveal it. Until graduation day we are told to be respectful (fearful) of society. We are handed our diplomas in trust that we, indeed, are scholars. We have agreed to dedicate our lives to knowing as opposed to being, to work as opposed to sloth, charity as opposed to greed, thought as opposed to feeling, happiness as opposed to sorrow. That is, we have agreed to do that which is best for society, that which measures highest on its scale of relative worth. And that is of course the kicker. The scale, we soon find out, is relative. We leave the structured hours of the high school bell schedule and enter the world of free market choice. Now the schedule is ours to construct all on our own, within the limits of the marketplace at least. All the sudden we become our own assigners of value. The societal system hopes and expects that the university student has learned the rules of life well in grade school and therefore will value those traditional structures over any novel morality they may construct on their own. The system does not fret over those who may attempt to escape at this point, though, for it remains confident that the marketplace itself has been engineered well enough to maintain a certain meta-value structure that is, at least in appearance, insurmountable. The countercultural hippie is therefore easily assimilated by the marketplace into an even more convincing culturally acceptable value, that being individuality. The Generation of Peace and Love has aged and become the generation of iPods and YouTube. We seem, nowadays, resigned to the universal truth that Peace and Love exist only on the level of the individual and that war and chaos reign over the collective. This is the perfect psychic model for an efficient capitalist economy. It appears that it was never at first engineered, that it rather became this way naturally. But it remains true that, since we have become aware of the mechanism now churning we are equally responsible for stopping them from occurring now as had we started them ourselves from the get go. We are now quartered and drawn, torn between finding ourselves and forgetting ourselves; between being someone special and not being noticed; between being normal while still remaining unique. These are the dilemmas set for us by the marketplace. We are, in fact, raised by a machine that then nurtures and sustains us through our lives, giving us pride and a sense of duty so that we remain dignified amidst what we have been encouraged to belive is a natural world that desires no more than to embarrass and impersonalize us. Fear of this embarrassment is what keeps us from rejecting the somehow stale taste of the stable and accepted rules fed to us by the system.

I am beginning to recognize, more and more each day, that rules are meaningless. They do, it is true, serve a function. But a function is not a meaning; it is a location within a finite number of units. The units combine to form a system, and it is true that each system is self-sustaining. It is sustained, however, because it is incomplete. No system can be meaningful if that system is afforded the completion inherent to a metaphor. A metaphor is an artistic expression, but because of this admission, let us not immediately toss it aside in haste. For the very reason it admits its own artistic nature, it becomes infinite and therefore meaningful. Functions, always meant to exist within a finite and incomplete system, attempt to remain bound to a particular context. A particular context is a contradiction in terms, as you cannot be particular while remaining contextual. To be particular would colloquially mean to be literal. That is, to break something down into its actual component parts and describe it technically. This method, however, has its limits and it is for this reason that it always remains incomplete. A thing is not made up of parts, for the very reason we refer to it as a thing is to imply its wholeness. Trying to understand what a thing is by destroying it is quite foolish, much like chasing a vacation in search of rest. One would not try to catch a river in a bucket unless they were utterly hypnotized by the power of dissection and had completely forgotten that only unity gives rise to meaning. Separation breeds only confusion.

My education lead me to believe it was all about reading the lines. I’ve since come to recognize that what exists between the lines tells you infinitely more than the lines themselves. The figure is but a decoy, as even it knows that the real gem is the ground. Coal becomes diamonds given enough time.

Originally posted Jan. 15th 2007







One response to “Learning to Read is Reading Between the Lines”

  1. Andras Magagna Avatar
    Andras Magagna

    I think the realisation of simile and metahpor as the transfer of personalisation of the author is valuable. This realisation allows us to understand the author as well as the matter. This allows the literature to be more akin to purport as opposed to report.

    I think the realisation of rules is valuable. This realisation that rules are prescriptions, not descriptions, of how to act. This realisation the rules are dictates, not tractates, of how to act. This allows us to understand the rules as sufficient direction of action until a time that is practical for the individual to learn the axioms that serve as the justifications for the rules. I think it is but for a time that the individual should be advised to act in accord with the rules on the premise that the rules are the rules and that the individual should learn the axioms that are used as justification for the rules so that the individual is not forever one who acts in accord with the rules on the premise that the rules are the rules, but one who acts in accord with the rules for the conviction that one should act in accord with the rules whether or not the rules are the rules.

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