Swans Commentary » swans.com April 25, 2005  



Making Meaning*


by Richard Macintosh




"The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it."
—V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River (1)


(Swans - April 25, 2005)   In a time where outrageous behavior both by individuals and the political class seem to overwhelm thoughtful people it is time to pause and reflect, but also to ask what can be done. What we must do is plant seeds; seeds intended to sprout in fertile ground, but if necessary on hard scrabble dirt. Even though we seem to be shouting into the wind, we must press on. Although we are operating on a different plane than our adversaries, we must take heart and be prepared for whatever the future brings us. Joseph Campbell wrote:

"There will be a moment when the walls of the world seem to open for a second, and you get an insight through. Jump then! Go!" (2)

I was thinking about how to make meaning in a psychotic world and I thought of Chad Dunham, one of my professors at Wesleyan University, who greatly influenced me. He told us that we had to make meaning. What he meant, of course, was that we were to make meaning out of our lives through authentic action. He made that point in 1979. I have been thinking about it ever since.

T. Chadbourne Dunham, was a Professor Emeritus in the field of European Literature. He was also an expert on American Literature and works by the Ancient Greeks, or "altphilologie," as he put it. He was an American graduate student, studying in Berlin, when Adolf Hitler came to power. He was on a first-name basis with Hannah Arendt, Herman Broch and Thomas Mann. In fact, when Mann came to the U.S. in 1952, Dunham was his companion and translator. So here you have a man who knew these people teaching about them and their works. To be one of his students was an incredible experience.

Like all great people, Chad was secure in who he was. He didn't need to act "big time," or use his power on his students. He was open, friendly, yet still hard-minded in things he was passionate about. The last time I saw Chad, was in 1980; he was 72 years old. He died four years later.

He was the best teacher I have ever experienced, bar none. He became a role model for me and other teachers such as my friend, Peter Horton, who used to joke that he graduated last in his class at Yale. Chad would tell stories and banter with us, but he also reminded us that we were "planting seeds" to make meaning of our lives and to make the zeitgeist tolerable. I used to think, "thank God I am a teacher." I still think that. It is particularly so as our world descends into totalitarianism. I would despair if I were just working for a buck.

So what to do?

Make meaning! Focus on the admonition of José Ortega y Gasset:

"To live is to feel ourselves fatally obliged to exercise our liberty, to decide what we are going to be in this world. Not for a single moment is our activity of decision allowed to rest. Even when in desperation we abandon ourselves to whatever may happen, we have decided not to decide.

It is, then, false to say that in life "circumstances decide." On the contrary, circumstances are the dilemma, constantly renewed, in presence of which we have to make our decision; what actually decides is our character." (3)

We need to become like the great men and women we admire, even if we fall short. That is a humbling thought, yet there it is. Certainly we are their heirs, and as such we must be authentic enough to step into the breech and make meaning. Experience will give each one of us a method to serve our direction.

Professor Dunham once said, "The Germans are wonderful and they are horrible." When you look at the historical record of the Germans, his statement stands up. The same nation that brought us Schiller, Goethe, and Beethoven also brought us Adolf Hitler. My thought -- a sudden one -- is that we are all "wonderful and horrible." After all, the same nation that produced Mark Twain, Robert Frost, and Martin Luther King Jr., also produced the current batch of rogues in the White House. On this subject, Noam Chomsky opined, "If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged." That being said, there is nothing specifically German about the idea of being "wonderful and horrible." We tag the Germans because they were (are) considered to be highly "civilized," did unconscionable things during WWII and lost. Had the result been otherwise, our leaders would have been in the dock, rather than theirs. I'll put up Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki as prima facie evidence.

Today, Americans of the "Christian Right" affect government policy, regardless of what the evidence is. We now have an administration who shred the Bill of Rights, disrespect international law, deny the right of habeas corpus at will, block the right to an attorney, purge environmental laws, and attack Social Security and welfare for the poor. Behind it all is an arrogant disdain for reason, logic and science. For the Christian Right, believing is the same as knowing. All of this is a grave mistake. It has happened before.

In his novel Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann penned the following words about Nazi Germany and the use of force, backed by the irrational:

"The fantastic thing was the mighty apparatus of scientific witness which was invoked -- quite futilely -- to prove that humbug was humbug and a scandalous affront to truth. For the dynamic, historically creative fiction, the so-called lie and falsification, in other words the community-forming belief, was simply inaccessible to this line of attack. Science strove, on the plane of decent, objective truth, to confute the dynamic lie; but arguments on that place could only seem irrelevant to the champions of the dynamic, who merely smiled a superior smile. Science truth -- good God! The dramatic expositions of the group were possessed by the spirit and the accent of that ejaculation. They could scarcely contain their mirth at the desperate campaign waged by reason and criticism against wholly untouchable, wholly invulnerable belief." (4)

Does this seem familiar?

Is criticism of our own leadership cultural blasphemy? Perhaps. But we are kidding ourselves in blaming the "other," while turning our backs on things our culture is guilty of. Americans have done unconscionable things, too, not the least of which were the support of slavery and the extermination policies used against the so-called "American Indians." We are now exterminating "ragheads" in the name of freedom and democracy. But before condemning America, it is important to repeat that all human beings -- individually and collectively -- have the potential of being "wonderful and horrible." If we intend to solve the problem, it is a mistake to place the burden on any one culture. We need to face that each one of us can and may be part of the problem. That act of "recognition" brings change and the possibility of catharsis to the thoughtful individual.

Furthermore, it is a mistake to look to the political class for solutions. For them, the world is not about ethics and honest dealing, but power. Unless a politician is caught red-handed he or she will deny wrongdoing, or any knowledge of it. In many cases he or she will deny wrong doing even if caught. For example, President George W. Bush cannot see (or will not admit) that he has made any mistakes. Vice President Dick Cheney keeps telling the faithful that Iraq was behind the 9-11 terrorist attacks, even when all the evidence points elsewhere. Are our leaders that dumb, or are we? I leave it to you. Perhaps it has nothing to do with intelligence, but rather "character," which seems to be in short supply these days.

Good and evil are seldom "fifty-fifty." The ratio depends upon the "software" installed on the human "mainframe" and the fears and rewards imposed by chance. I am, of course, talking about education of all sorts (not "schooling" per se). Actually, most education occurs outside of the classroom. Oscar Wilde wrote, "Education is an admirable thing, but it is important to remember that nothing worth knowing can be taught." Learning, like sex, has to be experienced in order to have meaning.

So, how do we make meaning out of what is currently going on?

By first accepting that we too (collectively and individually) can be "wonderful and horrible." (I accept that the mad cannot do this.) Then, secondly, by speaking up. John Adams said: "Let us dare to read, speak and write." By so doing we can set an example for others to follow voluntarily. Only when others experience for themselves the struggle for liberty and intellectual truth will our words and actions have meaning. This is why there is a blizzard of propaganda framed and beamed at the people of our country. Our fearless leaders want us to be somnolent, watching sit-coms, sports and staged "news" on TV. The last thing they want is a populace that is informed of what is actually going on and is engaged in shaping their own destiny. Yes, I know the politicians and their gurus will protest otherwise, but their words and actions don't line up. For example, our President's talk about an "ownership society" is absolute bullshit. The last thing he and his clique want is a people who seek to be sovereign.

The thought that the populace might actually make moves to own and direct their own destiny must make the politicians' blood run cold. As thoughtful persons, we need to ensure that their fears are realized.

We need to reach out to one person at a time. Behind all the rhetoric and glitz, the people know that something is very wrong. We must be patient and point it out. It is a mistake to think that we must take huge steps and that as individuals we are entitled to see the end result. No, our task is to love the earth, plant seeds and confront wrong. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote:

"Water the earth with your tears of joy and love those tears." (5)

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1.  Naipaul, V. S. A Bend in the River, Vintage Books, New York, 1989, p. 3.  (back)

2.  Osbon, Diane K., Ed., A Joseph Campbell Companion, HarperPerennial, New York, 1991, p.78.  (back)

3.  Ortega y Gasset, José. Revolt of the Masses, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1932, p. 48. (The translation, authorized by Sr. Ortega y Gasset, remains anonymous at the translator's request.)  (back)

4.  Mann, Thomas. Dr. Faustus, Vintage Books, New York, 1971, p. 367. Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1948. H. T. Lowe-Porter translation. See also: Suskind, Ron. "Without a Doubt," The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004, pp. 44-51.  (back)

5.  Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov, Constance Garnett trans., Random House, New York, 1950, p. 436. (Words of Alyosha).  (back)

*  In this essay, I intentionally use the British use of plural and singular. For example, "administration who shred." I consider the administration to be a group, rather than a "Godzilla." (I may be wrong about this.)  (back)


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Published April 25, 2005