Monday, November 21, 2011

The Tree of Meaning

I am reading a fascinating book by a polymath named Robert Bringhurst, whose expertise includes astrophysics, Native American languages, typography and other disciplines too numerous to mention. He might say they are a single discipline, and I would agree with him. His book is The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology. Here are some quotes from one of his brilliant passages; the last four paragraphs are particularly relevant to recent posts on this blog about the work of silence:

This detour into terminology is all in aid of making a simple point. A story—whether it's myth or fiction or history—typically has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We may not start at the beginning and may never get to the end, but we expect them to exist, like head and foot. This is a sign that stories, like sentences, are individual organisms more than they are communities. An ecosystem is different. A forest has an edge, it has a boundary, and it may, vaguely speaking, have a middle, but it has no beginning and no end, because it isn't a linear structure. It simply starts wherever you enter it and ends wherever you come out. The same is true of a mythology. History may or may not be linear, like a river, as many people claim. Mythology, like the forest, clearly is not.

p. 172 Trees grow in and on the earth. Where do stories grow? They grow in and on storytelling creatures Stories are epiphytes: organisms that grow on other organisms, in much the same way staghorn ferns and tree-dwelling lichens ... grow on trees.

I have a hunch that from a lichen's point of view, the basic function of a tree is to provide a habitat for lichens. I have a hunch that from a story's point of view the function of storytelling creatures—humans for example—is to provide a habitat for stories. I think the stories might be right. That's what you and I are really for: to make it possible for certain kinds of stories to exist.

We don't know very much, strange to say about the biology of stories...
Propp and Hymes discovered ...that whatever the language they're told in, stories tend to have branching, fractal structures, very much like trees.

Those trees, the trees of meaning we call stories, grow in your brain and the rest of your body. And there seems to be a symbiotic relation between those trees of meaning and ourselves. What the stories get out of it is that they get to exist. What we get out of it is guidance. Stories are one of the fundamental ways in which we understand the world. They are probably our best maps and models of the world—and we may yet come to learn that the reason for this is that stories are some of the basic constituents of the world...

p. 173 Thirty years ago, in a lecture in honor of Korzybski ['map is not territory'], Gregory Bateson proposed an idea that startled and frightened his audience. The idea was simple enough. It as that the units of biological evolution and the units of mind are one and the same. This thesis owes something to Darwin, of course, and something to Lamark—an often vilified biologist for whom Bateson had a refreshing degree of respect.. and it owes something to Parmenides, the Presocratic poet who said, among other things το γαρ αυτο νοειν εοτιν τε και ειϖαι. This is a short, sweet, simple Greek sentence which no equally sweet and short and simple English sentence matches. It takes more than one English map, in other words, to portray this little parcel of Greek territory. Here are two approximate translations: (1) To be and to think are the same; (2) to be and to have meaning are the same. The implication of the Greek verb νοειν [noein] is that thought and meaning form a unity which ought not to be dissolved.

The English words noesis, knowledge, and narration all stem from the same root. Thought and meaning are connected not just to each other but to storytelling too. What Parmenides is saying extends to what he's doing. To be and to tell a story are the same. Or: To be is to be a story. Or: I am, therefore I think—and not the arrogant other way around.

Put the Greek philosopher-poet Parmenides and the English biologist Charles Darwin n the same room for a moment and you have the makings of Batson's thesis, positing the unity of biological evolution and mind. Put Parmenides and the Haida philosopher-poet Skaay together for a moment in the same [p. 174] canoe and you have the implicit beginnings of what I like to call ecological linguistics.

I have a hunch that fields of learning worth their salt grow up from their own subject matter. I don't imagine they can be generated by lightning bolts of theory hurled from above. But lightning storms are welcome now and then, if only for the glory of the show, and Bateson's thesis looks to me like an illuminating flash, giving an instantaneous glimpse of what ecological linguistics ought to be ...

[from Bateson's lecture]: If you put God outside and set him vis-à-vis his creation, and if you have the idea that you are created in his image you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks, or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races, and the brutes and vegetables.

If this is your estimate of your relations to nature AND YOU HAVE AN ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic byproducts of your own hate, or, simply, of overpopulation and overgrazing.

The idea, as Bateson says, is a difference that makes a difference. A meaningful difference, in other words. A thought worth thinking is meaning. A tree of meaning is a story. A forest of such stories is a mind. So is a tree with birds in its branches. So is a human with ideas (plural) perching in its brain.

... p 175 Oral culture also means much more than telling stories. It means learning how to hear them, how to nourish them, and how to let them live. It means learning to let stories swim down into yourself, grow large there, and rise back up again. It does not—repeat, does not mean memorizing the lines so you can act the script you've written or recite the book you've read. Oral culture—and any culture at all—involves, as nature does, a lot of repetition. But rote memorization and oral culture are two very different things.

If you embody an oral culture, you are a working part of a place, a part of the soil in which stories live their lives. There will in that event be stories you know by heart—but when the stories come out of your mouth, as when the trees come out of the ground, no two performances will ever be the same. Each incarnation of a story is itself. What rests in the mythteller's heart are the seeds of the tree of meaning. All you can tape or transcribe is a kind of photograph or fossil of the leaves: the frozen forms of spoken words....

p. 176 ... You find the words by walking through the vision, which may be in the heart that is there inside your body, or it may be in the heart that is out there in the land. You learn the trail if you walk it many times, but every time you walk it, you reinvent the steps. There may, of course, be steep and narrow stretches where you memorize the moves—those places in the story often crystallize as songs—but they are subject, even then, to variation and erosion and other form s of change. And they connect you to yourself and to the world.

In an oral culture stories are given voice. They are also given the silence in which to breathe. Vary rarely in oral cultures do you meet people who talk all the time. in literate societies, I meet them rather often....


Blogger Bo said...

Now reading this with great pleasure.

9:30 am, November 27, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Bringhurst is amazing. So glad you like him. Well worth the palaver to get the book from the States!

10:30 am, November 27, 2011  

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