Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Meaning and the Sidewinder

This essay begun in the fall of 2010, and victory declared in the spring of 2012.
Text and photos copyright 2012 by David Warren Rockwell.
None of the images has been manipulated, and no snakes were annoyed in the filming of this epic. 

The copperhead snakes found along the Potomac River are generally shy and unaggressive, and they often freeze. motionless, among the dry leaves, branches and bark from the sycamore, rendering them nearly invisible. Thus when your primitive brain finally reports their proximity, the sudden sense of meaning is amplified, and may override all else for a time, until you move your hand or foot sufficiently far away.

               While wandering the golden sands of Joshua Tree National Park I made this chance remark to my friend Chris: “Meaning is the real drug.” His reply was, “I think you’re on to something.” I don't remember, now, anything of the context of the conversation in which that remark materialized.

Landscape invariably carries meaning, unless you belong to a species not evolved on a planet. But each individual may manufacture his own meanings for each landscape. This one makes me want to run, hard, to the left, faster and faster veering rightwards down the slope, until I lift off and shoot down the valley, riding the thin air above the clouds, accelerating towards Escape Velocity.

               What is meaning, anyway? Webster sez, something like: content, denotation, drift, import, intent, intention, purport, sense, significance, signification. Not a particularly satisfying definition. But in any case it is humorously tautological to bloviate meaningfully about the meaning of meaning. So off we go!

The sun rises. Our eyes open. The world swiftly unfolds and expands in all directions in the early morning light. Our thought follows the expanding world like a peregrine falcon diving after a fast-flying swallow. The world and the thought share a piercing, unbounded clarity.

                     Meaning and consciousness are so mutually interdependent as to be hardly distinguishable. And defining consciousness is notoriously problematic – yet, as with art, we know it when we see it. For my own personal satisfaction I might define meaning as a quality of information that exists when an assemblage of perceptions is synthesized into ideas that are somehow useful to the mental world of the conscious entity doing the synthesizing. The perceptions may be faulty and the person's idea of usefulness completely idiosyncratic and solipsistic, but nevertheless the drug of meaning has been distilled and ingested. Garbage in, garbage out – but really tasty, addictive garbage!

In the apparently blank desert there is always a path, however faint. We have little choice but to follow it up into the hills, toward an unknown destiny; sitting down and complaining about the heat or the meaninglessness will gain us nothing.

                  We are born into a desert of meaning. Or so I assert. Luckily we have packed with us a whole camel-train of useful possessions with which to assemble and re-create the meanings we inherit, and then to create new ones as needed. These meanings are partially innate, arising from our biological heritage, and partly presented to us by our society as eternal, self-evident verities, not to be questioned.


What would this image mean to a geologist? What would it mean to a mystic? What would Van Gogh make of it? The world appears to be crammed with mysteries of this order. In my collision with these mysteries I am no different than the first Neolithic Polynesian to see these things.

                      Edgar Rice Burroughs, in order to create an essentially Romantic fantasy hero, specified that a baby is orphaned in the African jungle, adopted by apes, grows to boyhood in a pure state of nature and then chances upon the cabin of his birth and a trove of lovely, magical picture books that eventually, after long study all alone, teach him English without the physical speech, and that he is not, apparently, an ape. Later he becomes so adept under various civilized tutors that he can not only function well in human society, but can also carry the burden of Burroughs' nature-worship and a sort of shallow contempt for civilization in general. (If Burroughs did not originate the phrase “thin veneer of civilization”, he certainly beat it to death.) Tarzan thinks of himself as a dominant ape, and has not the slightest qualm in that regard; the meanings imparted by his biological being and 'natural' upbringing are always treated as paramount and also morally superior to the meanings carried by human culture. And I, as a boy just as spongy as any other, and avid for a meaningful framework to my life, sucked this up like ambrosia, even while understanding the basic silliness of the setup as presented. It was a useful part of my individuation, giving me permission to ignore my parents' meaning-schemes and create my own. Like most people, I was shown the pretty picture books and jabbered at by many teachers, and then I went somewhat sideways, as all individuals should.

Any idiot could tell you what this image means: life springs from the infinite black wall of death, no matter how small the crack. And it doesn't just spring, it explodes, silver sword upraised, with that ferocious exuberance we all recognize.

                  Where is a fixed, reliable reference point, to provide us with a foundation for 'real' meaning? Archimedes asserted that such a point in physical space would confer unlimited mechanical advantage; it follows from this that the lack of any such point means that our control of the physical world is limited. Normal sanity accepts this as a ground condition of our existence; but normal sanity does not accept any similar limitation in the mental realm. We desperately want our feeling of meaning to be grounded in something unquestionably real, but we don't ever get our wish.

Color carries meaning, and so pervasively that it inevitably drives a primary dimension of metaphor. What does the colorblind organism see in this landscape? And is it really different in kind than what the color-seeing organism sees? I can't see it otherwise, but I can't prove a thing.

                      Thinkers have searched incessantly for the fixed reference point in the mental world – that thing that would guarantee true and immutable meaning, or at least provide a fulcrum for the questing mind to leverage its vast power against. The mind craves the process, the ingestion of the drug, the pleasure of experiencing meaning; having an ultimate, final meaning would, in our fantasy, end forever the craving with complete satiety, and logically enough, probably turn us into some sort of godlike beings. A short philosophical reflection quickly determines that such a final satiety would resemble death, in that we cannot imagine it and thus cannot really find it interesting; in any case it would be motionless and hence worthless. But that reflection does not necessarily mitigate our addiction to meaning. This thirst is never fully slaked while we live. Clearly the process of assembling meaning, for good or ill, is integral to consciousness.

Mountains are felt to be sacred, partly because they mingle with the superior realm of the sky, and strange visions drift among them. When a rainbow is seen below us, rather than above, we are driven to find a meaning in the inexplicable, the weird.

                     We still adamantly search for the philosopher's stone, for the ultimate mind we could call God, for a meaning in death or nothingness – for the imaginary transcendent, in whatever form, that we would run from in horror, or perhaps turn away in boredom, if we ever truly came face to face with it.

Long ago a great army came marching through a pass, with all their elephants and their ballistae, their archers and their armored cavalry. Below to the south the Empire awaited
them, rich beyond dreaming. But a purple mist, the vagary of history, drifted through the pass, and left behind nothing but a battlefield of frozen agony.

                      The habitual, incessant and lifelong construction of meaning creates a constant craving for an absolute reference point that would reduce or eliminate uncertainty; amidst uncertainty lurks the distinct possibility that we will be unable to meet the challenges of life, and immediately death becomes visible in the rear-view mirror of the mind, always trained fixedly on the unconscious. But no such absolute certainty can be established and defended rationally; if it were possible, such an absolute would long ago have been universally acknowledged, after the strenuous efforts of all the remarkably strong thinkers our species has engendered. Many competing absolute certainties have been proposed and continue to compete for validity in the form of 'followers'; the numbers of the followers provide no measure of relative validity, for we are looking for an absolute: only one god may give the feeling of total security. Hence the ongoing competition between these claims to the Truth invalidates them all. If reason could demonstrate an absolute reality, in any form, the human world would be unimaginably different, and I will make no other assertions regarding it.

The horizon is not a boundary or a limit, but a mark of the infinite nature of the world; it mirrors the unbounded field of consciousness as we feel it.

Among mountains and deserts it is possible to stop moving altogether and look out at the world, letting the silence gather and intensify. In that silence the remaining sound carries primitive meaning, the background meaning that we know in the womb: our own heartbeat; the slight sound of air drifting over the cactus; a small bee that is the only other animate being in sight. One might almost imagine hearing the heartbeat of the world itself, deep and very slow. It is a pity to forget to do this when we can.

                       Each 'free' individual mind (one not content to passively accept the meaning-scheme handed to him by his society) constructs a more-or-less arbitrary, relativistic frame of reference in the desert of meaning and builds around that, necessarily haphazardly, with any materials at hand and under the urgent pressure of necessity. Such individuals, myself among them, consider this personal meaning-scheme to be the bedrock of one's subjective life, and the source of an ongoing richness in life that is its own motivation for more exploration. This can be considered as an addiction, just as food or sex can be. But the mind is far more protean than the stomach or the genitals; when a person attempts to 'simplify' their mentation – to focus their reading, to seek less entertainment and meditate more – the mind simply shifts its meaning-generating activity into different channels. The attempt to 'quiet' the mind with sensory deprivation, or asceticism, or for that matter with an overload of input, is doomed to failure, because consciousness is a durable flame that may burn underground for long periods, but can never be extinguished in a healthy human brain. Consciousness is that famous river that you can never step into twice in the same way, and it never stops flowing. No dam can hold it for long; no channel can constrain it in a single direction for any great length of time.

Huge buttresses guard the east face of the great west wall of Haleakala. Standing at the foot of one of them I found myself in a large fan of boulders, rocks and pebbles fallen from that tortured igneous mass. To my ignorant eye each stone seemed unique and partaking of a tremendous variety. The halls of Haphaestus are vast, and he is never bored.

                          I might propose an evolutionary explanation for this universal human craving. Meaning, simply defined as an assembly of information into larger and more useful elements, is a brain-tool predating human consciousness, arising from the absolutely necessary elements of spatial and temporal perception, the need to hunt/gather, and to reproduce.  There is an inherent logic in the sequence of events needed to secure territory, food and mates.  Meaning then evolves in feedback loops.  The brain expands exponentially in conjunction with manual dexterity, tool use and language, and causes the feedback to accelerate.  Meaning becomes a comprehensive medium of its own, in which all perceived phenomena must participate as potential elements in a meaning-scheme. The human mind having now become the perfect tool for the construction of meaning, there exists a constant hunger, a pressure for meaning; hence the mind perceives an existential threat when there is any kind of interruption or sudden change in the flow of meaning.  Meaning is a commodity as essential as air or water, without which an individual or a society quickly becomes unstable and even deathly ill, suicidal or chaotic.   In a physical emergency a meaning-scheme can be quickly truncated or altered for survival (and may thereafter be modified permanently as a result). However, if there is a serious loss of meaning, air and water and food and other people may all take a back seat in the priority list of the mind.

In the desert we find shape emerging, projecting pure mathematical meanings, echoing the innate spherical trigonometry that is the birthright of chordates. Beauty is not a meaning but a side effect, reinforcing, confirming our harmony with the physical world.

                         Another obvious first principle: a meaning can be demonstrably wrong in the relativistic context of multiple minds (society or even two persons who disagree) but will still seem right to the individual, who will often require strenuous convincing to change his meaning-scheme, if it can be done at all.  Furthermore, science, reason and logic, powerful tools though they are, cannot definitively overcome the addicted mind’s attachment to its own meaning-scheme.  If they could so overcome, we would long ago have established a reasonable and conscious utopia in the human world.  (This is analogous to the argument that alien beings must not exist because they have not contacted us despite having had plenty of time to do so.  Objections to this are also analogously valid: perhaps not enough time has passed for evolution to strengthen logic/reason enough to overcome meaning-addiction.)

A skull carries unavoidable meaning both in its perfection of unconscious design and in our fascination for the mysterious scaffolding of life, the body that carries our fire and works our will as best it can until our last day. Which always, always arrives too soon.

                         This is easily observed in the give-and-take of any general discussion in an open forum such as America.  Impassible disagreements inevitably arise because no there is no widely shared agreement on first principles of mind, meaning and existence.  Is such an agreement even possible? Unknown.  But (my own mind automatically searching for larger context, a more interesting meaning-scheme-drug) it is certainly worth thinking about.

As the day wanes, growing shadows reveal the hidden texture of existence. A climber will see the tiny, subtle variations in the obdurate and silent stone, and see his way to finish the climb that had baffled him. Later at camp he will make tea in the swiftly cooling evening and think of each move on that wonderful face.

                         How can we respond to the basic assertion of nihilism?  No abstract, absolute, unquestionable reference point exists in the trackless, unmappable desert of meaning outside our consciousness.  If we create each our own fulcrum, what shared validity, external to ourselves, can it have? To the individual creator it can be entirely sufficient; but we are not alone, and the other person out there questions our reference point and can argue cogently against it.  Must we respond?  Only if we wish to extend our personal meaning-scheme, to calm our primitive fear that it will be invalidated along with our own existence.  Meaning is thus conflated with the existence of the self.  We are our beliefs - the body is secondary.

In a moment it changes, and in another moment it is gone.

                     Much of human life can be analyzed under this scheme.  Jim Jones, for example.  He had established a meaning-scheme entirely controlled by his own persona, and his followers submerged theirs in his.  When the visit of an outside person threatened to crack the protective dome of his meaning-scheme, simply by letting in the possibility of another point of view (that might have been forced by legal action or other scrutiny from society at large) he felt forced to protect his meaning-scheme through the absolute action of ending it as was, before it could fail, including of course the ending of all the people who had invested in it, even including their children.  The universal obedience of the cult becomes its own validation.  Whether he actually believed in an afterlife or any of the other elements of his ideology is irrelevant to the addiction they all shared, which superseded mere physical survival.

                       Like many other such events, the Jonestown incident challenges our existential verities, whatever they may be.  Most of us, not under such intense domination by a meaning-scheme, feel instinctive revulsion that anyone would kill their own children for any reason, for after all it contravenes the primal and universal mandate of genetic survival that is a universally acknowledged keystone in most peoples' meaning-scheme, as well as, I would argue, the prime directive underlying the turbulent energy of the unconscious.

Like a high wind that never ceases,” said the old man, or, if you like, Yeats' conception:
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.” Human consciousness as a permanent cauldron of cross-currents; meaning flickering like flames over the water.

The Sidewinder, 5.10b****.  Joshua Tree N.P., Steve Canyon area. Climbed October 2010.

                       A very beautiful and varied climb, which serves as a framework or touchstone for high and noble meaning in my own psyche.  From an objective point of view, it is purely abstract and arbitrary - a random sequence of actions utilizing an unrelated random sequence of features in the peculiar granite. As with any climb, the intersection of these two sequences overlaid on the capabilities and feelings of the human being engenders the work of art – a performance art of pure solipsism, owned entirely by the climber.

Planes, angles and curves that Henry Moore would have killed to be able to have imagined. The hand rises and demands to caress these forms and textures – to fit itself to the real.

                         The climb began easily in a short, simple layback crack, less than twenty feet.  When it faded to blank rock, I placed a medium-sized anchor near the top of the crack, and stood up on sloping surfaces and tiny edges to clip the first bolt.  The face here is smooth and concave, hence steepening gradually just beyond what the shoes will stick to.  Later, when I was perhaps twenty-five feet higher, my friends below told me that a tarantula had emerged from the layback crack shortly after I had passed by.  I laughed, for this feeds one of my special personal illusions: that there is a harmony pervading the world, invisible and nearly imperceptible, except to eyes whose contextual knowledge is also in harmony, from long absorption of the world.  I feel, quite without foundation, that I am ‘lucky’; that I walk in harmony through danger, much of the time; that my love for the world is returned impartially and unconsciously by the things of the world; I try not to fight with the world, and in return it treats me well; treats me to a tolerable existence, beyond any particular meaning - the pure joy of life and consciousness.  I fail to disturb tarantulas and rattlesnakes, because I don’t classify them as my enemies, and I don’t search the land for them as I walk.  But this is pure fantasy; stepping over or walking obliviously past a half-dozen rattlesnakes over the course of thirty-five years proves nothing.  I also have spurious proofs through the negative side: I perceive the worst agonies of my life to have been incurred my weaknesses, my lack of harmony, a willful fault of honesty.  In splitting my own reality, I became vulnerable to disharmony in others, and blind to hollowness, rot, disorder.  It is easy to harmonize with rattlesnakes.  It is hard to harmonize with a human being.  But again, this is only an imposed, perhaps arbitrary, meaning-scheme – useful to me, but no more objectively valid than any other.

The world as a set of crystalline translucent spheres, all moving in different directions and at different rates; mysteriously they often appear to harmonize, but we can never be sure that this is not just an illusion, an artifact of the nature of consciousness.

                          At the bolt I examined the first crux: very thin face climbing without any obvious direction, a few scattered tiny footholds, an exit bucket well out of reach up and right, no possibility of leaping for it.  Standing on the main rectangle, fingers and toes shifting, distributing weight round and round while feeding the elements of the problem into the black box, discarding false leads and blind alleys, conserving energy.  The true solution appeared like a triangle floating up in a magic 8-ball: “Certainly True”.  And I did the move smoothly, with little strain, and great delight, because it had seemed impossible at first.  This was an example of harmony between body and mind: using consciousness to manage the Triad: a horse with two riders, and the second one is not sane or sound.  The horse is strong but might be influenced by either rider.  The unconscious rider has all the real skill, but sees through a shattered lens, and needs the conscious rider to interpret, direct, flow the energy.  Harmonizing with one’s unconscious is never more than partially feasible; it will always carry risk, chaos, the unknown, by definition; but only through that can works of art, great or humble, be born.

Red sky at morning, climber take warning. I didn't ever remember seeing any dawn this dire, and soon fragments of storms, broken streamers of rain clouds, came flying westward, and sprinkled us, sent us off to town for bacon and eggs at the Country Kitch'n.

                             The third segment of the climb is a weird leftward traverse under a roof; a good piece to start off with, and a long sling to reduce drag, and a few oddball moves got me to a small overhang.  Here, having a decent stance, I had the luxury of soothing fear, and spent a large wired nut in a somewhat questionable placement, although I was confident that the small overhang was quite easy.  A bit of a stylistic blunder, perhaps, but not a real mistake; another long sling, because above the overhang is a short vertical crack.  Somewhat 'physical' (requires a bit of grunting) and easily protected with one piece, it leads to a sort of rounded gutter-ledge that rises gradually to the left again, for many feet.  Great care is required to stand up here in balance, at the top of the crack, and clip the last bolt, the last protection, of the climb.

Life balances so delicately, between the freezing shadow and the burning light, between floods of brilliant experience and terrible droughts of love that might as well be interstellar space. Finding a perfect spot to camp, just northwest of a small but solid boulder is not a bad strategy.

                           The rounded ledge serves as a nice metaphor in itself, for the subtle complexity of consciousness, and human life, or, anything else you like.  (Rockwell’s Dictum #29: Anything can serve as a metaphor for anything else if you put your mind to it.)  The damned thing is perfectly set between Scylla and Charybdis.  You can’t walk across it in balance; you can’t hand-traverse below it; you can’t sit on it and protoplasmically hump your gluteus maximi along like a couple of giant slugs.  At first glance you imagine that nothing could be simpler.  You begin to sidle with your toes as far out as you dare, and with your heels over the void, to move your center of balance just that half-inch closer to the face; and you suddenly know that you need something on that smooth face to hold you in, because you didn’t lose those ten pounds off your posterior a priori the trip.  Only a little force is needed to keep you in, as your face slides along the rock, and your fingers explore quickly and widely for edges, no matter how small.  A few items show up, but become diabolically smaller and fewer, as your tiny, hesitant baby steps progress along the ledge.  Not far ahead the ledge widens: but it might as well be a mile away.  The mind frays on its tether, but the computation, the pressure to solve the problem and seize the meaning, continues, even as a feeling of thin, high background screaming seems to shut out whole sections of the world; large segments of normal mentation are off-line, kaput, gesphincto.  Existence itself hinges on a postage-stamp flake with a rough edge, two fingernails scraping at it, and on the effort to lift the left foot and move it another few inches into the wider section, without plunging into the void.  Perhaps some part of the conscious mind is thinking about that fall, the horrible slow moment when this delicate balance drains away and is lost, the swinging down and back, the rubbing of the rope along that rough granite edge, and the probability of hitting the various protrusions down below; but the two riders are now, briefly, blessedly, one being, one centaur, entirely focused on one action.  Just for this one lucky day I am allowed to be whole, uncracked, for a moment in true harmony; on my own terms, in my own world, I’m no longer split into the observer and the observed. No desire. No fear. No suffering. No past, no future.  Just granite brushing my fingertips.

Oh, to heck with it. It's all just drifting water vapor. Right?

                          Suddenly I was wrapping it up, happy and talking to the guys below.  I walked onto the broad summit and rigged a long anchor from a big boulder, and sat on the lip and talked to Chris a bit, whom I could not see, as he followed.  His experience of the traverse was also intense, similar to mine; but when Tomek followed, he was relatively unfazed, for he has a remarkable confidence in his shoes.  Or at least that is one explanation.  Another might be that short people have an infinitesimal advantage in the balance, being able to lean inward at a slightly greater angle from the vertical on the traverse; Tomek is both short and light. As Chris was belaying him up, I took my shirt off and lay down on the granite, in the sunlight, with my legs cool in the shade of a boulder, and the sun warm on my chest and red through my closed eyelids.  Like the Jack of Shadows, I absorbed dark magical strength from the shadow of the boulder, and like Superman, I was made invulnerable and omnipotent by the yellow rays of Sol. I drifted into a half-sleep, as if floating in amniotic fluid.  The great blue arch above me was without flaw, without judgment or praise.  Time itself seemed viscous and slow – the greatest luxury of all. I offer these observations as proof that the world is one flawless entity, knowing that I’ve proven exactly nothing to you, the other.  What do I mean by ‘entity’?  Nothing supernatural, certainly; nothing separate from us; perhaps really only a strong suspicion about existence.  What more can we really expect?  And what more do we need?

 The world expands to fit my swiftly exploding sphere of consciousness; still plenty of windy space in there though.

                       Under these rare and weird circumstances the endless craving for meaning, the incessant desire of the mind, is granted a short hiatus, and there is a fine bit of silence. I might define this moment as real meaning – for myself. The invisible fulcrum between existence and the void, perhaps. Language can only suggest rather than elucidate these matters.

Someone had laid out a sunburst facing east; after repairing it I sent my energy streaming to the southwest. Why? The compass of the mind crazily circles the pole, never rests. Round and round we goes; where we stops nobody knows.

                           Some ideas regarding the Sidewinder metaphor itself: the journey of life is not straight or logical or preordained. It takes erratic turns, and requires unknown skills and resources of the traveler when it does so. It might trend upward overall, but the summit is unknown; rarely is a moment of true repose awarded to the pilgrim. More interesting is the pattern of motion left by the Sidewinder as it crosses the yielding, blank sand, and the elusive, changing image of the calculus itself, the fractal impulse that approaches the limits of a function, that describes or circumscribes the infinite quality of curving space, implied by the snake's silhouette crossing the four dimensions. For some, the feeling of absolute meaning, a reliable reality beyond all this uncertainty we see and feel, is found in mathematics, and of course, no one can prove or refute this purely subjective assertion. This faith is not logically different than any other faith, whether a belief in a god, or 'nothingness', or any other meaning-scheme.

These wise men have taken much mescaline and they can tell you whatever you want to know. But they cannot guarantee that you will understand it, or like it.

                            So let's get down to the nitty-gritty. What, then is the meaning of death? Sure, it's the death of meaning, and no commentary is useful about death itself. Objectivity gains no purchase, in the sense that if (a damned big if) we could be objective, we would be forced to accept our deaths, as the end of all meaning. But this is both unimaginable to the meaning-generating brain, and unacceptable to the meaning-addicted brain; our emotions do not allow us to accept death, ending, lack of all meaning, as meaningful. Hence in order to live with some reasonable measure of happiness, we are forced to invent meaning-schemes, often tremendously elaborate (in order to bolster their apparent validity) and subtle (in order to make a successful end run around that powerful hammer called Reason). Those of us who recognize this activity and accept it are condemned to various degrees of conscious 'hollowness' – knowing that the meaning we enjoy in our life is limited, no matter how intense and satisfying it may feel. We imagine our children and grandchildren living on, extending the meaning of our own lives a little way. But we don't imagine our names resounding down through the ages, or an infinite afterlife, or the other fantasies prompted by our innate and powerful gene-survival drive. Even the mad King of Kings, Xerxes of Persia, was suddenly struck with existential dread, with his famous realization, as he surveyed his immense army, that in a hundred years not one man of them would remain alive. There are those who think about this more and more, until it swamps all other mental activity; the conflict cannot be resolved, and the individual sinks in the quicksand. Again, I am a lucky man; when I feel myself sinking gradually into that morass, something in the physical world invariably comes along and rescues me, gives me trouble, pain and work to do, and soon I feel much more in harmony. Yeah, that's right: Be Here Now. What else is there?

Oh yeah, we did – we saw the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla, the upcurving road among the clouds. But we still had climbs to do here, and earthly women to kiss. So we turned it down.

I saw the gentle magpie birds
In dusky yester-eve.
One brought sorrow and one brought joy
And sooner than soon did leave.

- Donovan Leitch

Shantih, shantih, three times shantih!



About Me

My photo
He clasps the crag with crooked hands; Close to the sun in lonely lands, Ring'd with the azure world, he stands. The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls; He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls.