Bob Dylan’s line — “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now” — is a line that cannot be interpretted literally. This example came to me this morning after having taught some of the Taoist text “Zuangzi” to my World Lit. class last week, during which I’d been trying to explain that when one encounters a statement in a text that does not seem to make sense at first, we readers can step back and ask whether we’re even supposed to make sense of it. Maybe we’re not — maybe some statements are paradoxical or nonsensical as a way of pointing readers away from analytical, interpretive thought. On the other hand, some texts will reward further interpretation, but, as with the Dylan statement above, we readers/interpretters need to go figurative/metaphorical — by “older” and “younger,” Dylan means something beyond literal age, and then this figurative language is open to multiple interpretations. All metaphors are possible (a thing may be compared to any other thing, with varying degrees of apt-ness or efficiency), but no metaphor is correct, or true.
And truth is an issue here because, as Pirsig suggests in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Western thinking tends to not credit, not allow to be real, types of thinking beyond the strictly logical — and Socrates, in Plato’s “Apology,” criticizes those who would make the worse argument appear the better — but how can we understand any argument, or rather, how can we accept any argument, if we remain merely logical? Acceptance itself, as well as wisdom, trust, these things are mental activities that rely on the extra-logical, beyond logic, faculties of emotion, intuition, etc.
Not that Taoism — it’s weird to even use that word, that term, since the little I understand of it seems to be opposed to the very idea of defining the Tao position/attitude — is an answer. (to the question of how to live life, or which philosophy is “right”)
In my creative mindset, I remind myself not to attach to any idea — that there can be useful ideas, valuable ideas, but I want to find new ideas, and that truth is a question not often needed to be asked, really. I don’t have an idea to preach or advocate — it would be easier to fill a blog post or a book if I did. On the other hand, I think about my creative process, the mindset I’m in while engaged in creating (writing, drawing, etc), and how that mindset is perhaps itself a model for human intellectual history: When I create, I know I’m the one putting words or marks on paper, but I don’t feel I have willed or intended these marks — they just appear in my mind, or on the paper. New works are in a sense both discovered and invented at the same time — and maybe at times in human intellectual history (say, the first conception of the idea of number — that “this sheep” wasn’t only particular but was also “one sheep” and that this “one sheep” could be considered equal — could be abstracted and then compared — to other abstracted sheep), there have been other “discontinuities,” a term I’ve seen used. Perhaps there have been ideas that just came to someone someday, and there they were. Simplest and most mysterious thing in the world.
That’s an exaggeration, of course. But this whole point about metaphor and truth and creation comes to this: well, no, it doesn’t need to come to any one point at all. I’ve thrown these thoughts out there as expressed through my particular writing voice — and the quality or value of my “voice” as well as of its ideas are not a matter of truth (which is why I don’t argue for them), but are a matter of particular value. Reading Confucius also this week in class, I learned that there’s much wisdom embodied in particular people, particular lives — but this, too, is not a matter of logic, but of value, usefulness — what Pirsig called Quality. Truth is subsumed within Usefulness, or Good.
And this discussion too is now based in meaning — what about the meaning of an abstract drawing? If there’s no attempt by the artist to represent something else, there can be no failure. If an artist claims or intends to draw a horse and the drawing doesn’t prompt the thought of “horse” in viewers, the drawing is judged harshly. But if the artist is merely putting color and shape on paper, guided by nothing more intellectual than intuition, then there’s no success or failure. There’s also no meaning — no “horse” concept. Viewers’ interpretions are created by their own pattern-seeking. Ah, but what wonderful freedom from meaning! The color-and-shape-only drawing has a sensory immediacy that representative art doesn’t have — a freedom from conception, from abstraction. We’re back to “this sheep” instead of “a sheep”; we’re back to trusting our immediate experience.
And surely I’m not the first to recognize these distinctions (all distinctions themselves being merely useful, or not, too), but in a way, we each of us may have to (or may find it useful to, in order that we truly understand, from experience, and not merely from abstraction) recreate the history intellectual world within our own heads. (I’m reminded of that quote attributed to Santayana: The difficulty of education is getting experience out of ideas.) Once the wise ones die, we’re all we have left.
— Mh, today