What Is Meaning—in Art & Our Lives?
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the lecture It Still Moves; or, The Novel, which Eli Siegel gave in 1951. It is exciting, profound, vivid. It shows what the novel, of any time and place, is. And as it shows that, it is also about the life of every one of us. The lecture is an exemplification of this landmark Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
In the present section, as he looks at the elements of the novel, Mr. Siegel speaks about meaning. That is a word that concerns people’s lives very much, and often very painfully. Millions of people right now have the feeling that large meaning is absent from their lives. They don’t know what meaning is—they may even tell themselves there’s no such thing. But they miss it. They have the What-does-it-all-come-to feeling; the Is-that-all-there-is feeling.
And an agony about love—sometimes a quiet, taken for granted agony—is: “I once felt this person meant so much to me, but now we’ve been together awhile and there’s a flatness, a kind of emptiness, a smallness to it all.” The couple may break up or may stay together for decades, but a certain large meaning seems absent.
The chief reason people read novels, go to museums, attend concerts, see plays is that they are looking for meaning. And for the time, as they’re affected truly by art, meaning is there and they feel it. Yet this meaning doesn’t seem to last: it doesn’t extend, for people, into life itself, and continue. Through study of Aesthetic Realism it can, because we can learn what meaning is, and what we love in art can really be in our lives too.
Meaning in the Novel & Life
So what is that seemingly undefinable yet ached-for thing, meaning? It has been defined, and described, by Eli Siegel, and I am immensely glad to quote him now, from a class of 1965. What he explained then gives even larger importance to his 1951 discussion of meaning in the novel. This 1965 description of meaning is a momentous achievement in the history of philosophy, and it is also urgent and merciful for our lives. I begin with the following sentences:
Meaning is the beautiful relation of something to the world, and the beautiful way in which it contains the world. The artist goes looking for that.
In that definition is the reason a character in a good novel has a meaning that people do not find in the persons they know—even if they like those persons. It also explains why, if we lived next door to Elizabeth Bennet of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or if David Copperfield were a co-worker of ours, or if Raskolnikov were our cousin, we would likely not see the meaning in them that Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky found and showed.
Let’s take Elizabeth Bennet. All through the novel, in thousands of ways, through description, and happenings, and dialogue, Jane Austen has us feel Elizabeth’s relation to the world. She’s related to objects, family, places in England, her friend Charlotte, a vain clergyman, let alone Mr. Darcy. And all along, and with and through these, Jane Austen has us feel the structure of the world itself in Elizabeth. She is a great character because of how reality’s opposites are in her: Elizabeth is at once lively and serious. She is a drama of strength and weakness. She has, richly, deeply independence and need, also keenness and unseeingness. She is, in a big way, both critical and loving. And at the end she joins, courageously, self-respect and regret.
In ordinary life, a person does not see others as a novelist sees. One sees people mainly in terms of oneself: how they affect me, how nice they are to me. And because one doesn’t think about how a person is related to thousands of things, to everything, how the world’s opposites in him take this particular form which is he, one robs him of the depth, size, meaning, that a good novelist finds and gives.
Meaning in Conversations
The following sentences by Eli Siegel are about every aspect of life and art. But I’ll comment on what they say about dialogue in a good novel versus most conversations in life:
Meaning is the possibility of a thing’s becoming more itself by having relation with other things; and this is the way Aesthetic Realism says people want to become themselves: by having a relation with other things.
In dialogue, the relation is most obviously that of one speaker with the other. And you’ll soon read in the lecture a definition by Eli Siegel that I love: “Dialogue...is the impact of one person on another through words.” This impact which we feel in good dialogue is also a relation to the world itself, because we’re feeling the biggest opposites in reality—Sameness and Difference—meeting, perhaps disagreeing, but being an inextricable one. The oneness of sameness and difference is why there can be a thrill when we read the dialogue, a feeling of rightness yet sizzle, of beauty, meaning.
But in life, our feeling about our conversations does not usually have a sense of the world in it. We may instead be interested in showing we’re superior to the other person; or in getting into a dull team against others with that person; or in having our mind elsewhere as we go through the paces of discussion. And so, accompanying millions of conversations today was a terrific paucity of meaning.
Contempt versus Meaning
Aesthetic Realism not only explains what meaning is—it shows that there is a huge desire in us against meaning. This is the desire for contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” As we try to make ourselves important or comfortable by lessening the value of other people and things, we are annulling their meaning and that of the world itself. We can get a contempt-glory from feeling we’re in a meaningless world—a world so unworthy of us, to which we’re so superior. Yet as a result of this contempt we feel our very selves are bereft of meaning.
The last sentences I’ll quote from the 1965 class are about possessiveness, a form of contempt. They explain a feeling I wrote of earlier: the awful yet ordinary absence of meaning that comes because people equate love with having a person and lessening the rest of the world:
In making a thing just for us, we take away its meaning. And that is the danger of possessiveness: it is the great destroyer of meaning.…A person, to himself, thinks he has gypped himself because he did something to have himself triumph which didn’t have enough meaning: it took things out of relation instead of making the relation larger.…Relation and meaning are quite akin.
Aesthetic Realism is that in human history which enables us to know what meaning is—and to see and feel, steadily, ever-increasingly, vividly, that the world has meaning, that people do, that love does: meaning that never runs out.