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Published: Wed Apr 15 2020
The Peculiarities of Literary Meaning

Lately, the staff of AGNI—wonderfully broadened in the last year, twenty-one of us now where once there were eleven—have engaged in dozens of sidebar conversations about meaning. The topic comes up as we discuss and debate submissions on our various devices. What’s the point of this story? Why does this essay turn so abruptly? Does this poem, finally, mean anything? As a group, and as a magazine, we don’t cleave to simplicity . . . but neither do we prize difficulty that fails to cohere. And so we ask each other, testing our enthusiasms and doubts.

~

I’m sitting—my own reading now—with László Krasznahorkai’s latest, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming (translated by Ottilie Mulzet), and feeling again that his novels are profoundly well-attuned to the atmosphere of threat we inhabit, the uncertainties and underminings, the theorizing, the capricious actions, and the direct abuses of hope and gullibility. Even before the title page of Homecoming—in the way some TV shows begin before the opening sequence—a self-described impresario presents instructions to a “ragtag crew” that he’s assembled for the purpose of playing one piece of music, once. “This is how things stand, there can be no mistakes. . . .” They must devote themselves to it, and to him, completely, if they want to accomplish the sole thing that could make their lives worthwhile. These weeks or years, he says, will not be pleasurable. They should think of him as a god.

Just as Dostoevsky’s Devils does for me these days—with its lack of a center, its swirl of dread and political conspiracy and rumor—I can feel Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming deepening my sonar’s penetration, adding a new edge of sensitivity to my gauges. Yet Krasznahorkai’s novels—though I’d argue they mean as much as novels can mean—do not feel reducible to a particular position or solution or any kind of result, beyond whatever they inspire in the reader. If we take a view, it’s our own. If we see correspondences with the things around us, we’re drawing those connections in the spirit of the novel rather than under its direction. Krasznahorkai conjures a particular warped world through a particular warped lens. That is all he does. To me it is everything.

~

Thinking about literary meaning, and meaninglessness, has me imagining a split audience. On one side, my son, my brother, my father, who experience varying degrees of bafflement about what keeps me spending my life in this terrain. On the other side, my fellow writers and editors, who would hardly think to question that choice—they too do what they can to structure their lives around time preserved for reading and writing—but who have their own, maybe different ways of thinking about this question of meaning.

~

At the magazine we occasionally find and pass around a poem that has an irresistible motion to it; the writer’s ear is beautifully, often quirkily tuned, and the words feel like artifacts unearthed from the present. But in among the other lines are phrases or whole stanzas, that—except for their place in the aural hurtle—feel random. They refuse to mean anything beyond their sound; or they suggest, but not enough. They prevent the poem from adding up.

                                                                    doomed queen
                                                                   an almost full moon.
                                                         define
                                                         teabags in circles.

a candle for a queen.

a teabag in the dark country.

unmitigated earth.

                                   (used with permission of the poet)

Some poems have this random feel from start to finish. They are their sound, like instrumental music. A poet-friend who admires linguistic soundscapes led me to a Jackson Pollock quote: “It’s like looking at a bed of flowers. You don’t tear your hair out over what it means.”

But words aren’t petals and stalks, or half notes and glissandos. They aren’t streaks of color either. It was a revelation for me, years back, when a painter told me that a horizontal line reads to a visual artist as a horizon, and a vertical line as a figure. It makes sense. Viewers must read them that way also, at some level of cognition, no matter how abstract the overall effect.

The difference in written art: all words, if recognizable to us, come with their own portion of meaning. If rabbit appears, a rabbit has appeared. If popsicle, there’s a popsicle. We hear the tone-sequences interact, but the things named are now present also, needing to be dealt with and given a place. Each of them, whether the writer cares or not, forms associations with other images in the work and, more problematically, with the things of the real world, different for each of us. When a sonically beautiful poem ignores the chips of meaning that form its mosaic, the lush sound runs alongside an untended dissonance that, for me, ruins it all.

~

At dinner the other day, two friends and I were discussing lines that value sound to the exclusion of sense. Both these friends—poets themselves—felt strongly that implications matter, that a writer can’t achieve much while abdicating responsibility for what the words add up to. But then one of the friends pulled back. She was not nearly as concerned, she said, about a few meaningless poems entering the world as she was about the word “meaning.” The thinnest, least thoughtful books are often reducible, she pointed out, to a didactic purpose. They’re paraphrasable. They’re peppered with on-the-nose metaphors, characters’ soapbox speeches, narrators’ summations. The writer has “something to say” and is anxious not to be misunderstood. Intended meaning of that kind, as the other two of us agreed, is at odds with the essence of how literature functions. After all, if a piece of writing can be compressed into a nugget without loss, it should be.

~

I can hear those men in my family. They’d ask—and wouldn’t be wrong to!—what good is it for a writer to put pen to paper if the writer has nothing to say, no content that can be passed along?

My father once said—he doesn’t believe this anymore—that if there was no answer you could circle, you weren’t studying anything of value. At best, you were being trained in the habits and biases of a field. Thinking so didn’t keep him from enjoying an abstraction like symphonic music. There’s no one who appreciates the learned skills of others more than my father, and violinists, timpanists, oboists are masters of a craft. Their virtuosity gave him a focal point. The historical and biographical notes in the Playbill helped also, suggesting butterflies in a sunny meadow for the first movement, followed by Tchaikovsky’s horses in full battle thunder.

I remember a particular conversation—in my adulthood, but the exchange happened in the car, with Mom and Dad up front, like old times—in which my parents expressed what they most needed in order to care about a movie or a film. They had just seen the movie Ulee’s Gold, and they loved it because, within a story that touched on drugs and prison and parenthood and all sorts of difficult real-world things, they learned intimate details about beekeeping. They didn’t want a story to project a neat moral—they wanted information. They wanted a movie or a novel to be about something.

Moby Dick—whales and whaling. Scholastique Mukasonga’s Cockroaches—the Rwandan genocide. Any number of great books satisfy this idea of meaning and purpose. But setting aside those examples (and bracketing the question of whether they also mean by other means), what is the point of Rachel Cusk’s recent trilogy of novels—Outline, Transit, and Kudos—or Krasznahorkai’s brilliant Satantango, or the poems in Natalie Shapero’s Wild Child, or any of the writing in this issue of AGNI?

~

I’m rereading Cynthia Manick’s disturbing and brilliant poem “There Are No Unsacred Spaces” from this issue of AGNI. It begins:

I’m trying to tell you that the world is beautiful. All the
hellos we say in a week, or month, the way the grooves
of the grin know what to do. Think about the first time
man went from four legs, hairy knuckles folded over, to two.
The moment the spine realized it could brace against its
cage. That the bones wouldn’t splinter and spark. The
sound that escaped. From that height, where did his eyes
look first? I bet he wondered about who feeds the sun.
Who can stand next to him. I’m trying to tell you something
about the universe. . . .

That first line feels easy and clear, though a lot is going on: “I’m trying to tell you that the world is beautiful.” Immediately, we are “sutured,” to use film-theory jargon, into a particular perspective. “You” might not mean us, the poem’s readers. But how can we not, in the moment of reading, feel that it does? There’s a disarming intimacy to this. The speaker sounds frustrated with us. Or maybe she’s struggling to understand what she wants to say. Over the next several lines she catalogs things that seem, for her, to constitute or prove this beauty. The list is mad-strange; hellos and smiles, okay—but then . . . the spine’s ability, not just these days but in the reaches of our evolution, to hold us upright, or—it’s hard to tell here—to be held upright by the (rib)cage, to share that kind of trust. To bear the weight of us without cracking.

The first human being looks at the sun and, the speaker surmises, asks the kinds of questions that we often associate with religion. Who “feeds the sun”? Who else is there? “I’m trying,” the speaker says, “to tell you something about the universe.” This is no uncertain voice. It’s a confident one. So maybe we’re distracted, reluctant listeners who need the attention-grab of a big claim—or maybe the speaker doesn’t trust us to draw every connection on our own. Maybe, even for her own sake, a few things need to be said as directly as possible, and held on to, and remembered.

Then the poem jags, or seems to. The next line: “If you connect each lake and ocean with / a pencil, they mirror constellations.” In my reading, this is the place where humility becomes essential equipment. The words are lovely; the sentence has a clear, almost epigrammatic meaning—I think of fractals, the structural likeness between estuaries and capillaries. But I have no idea what the lines mean here or why they could be said to belong. As I read on, the poem steps further into a mirror-hall of images: “The barking stars are / like dimes.” These are not simple images, but multiple and shimmering, hard to stare at directly. When I look back after several readings, I realize that this line starts to teach me how to feel the poem. That may be the key to all of this: the creation of a space—through the author’s desire, and the reader’s—in which each piece of writing can be allowed to teach us how to read it. I’m trying to tell you something about the universe. Stars and sun. Constellations and lake and ocean. Stars like dimes. Stars like dogs. Ribcages like cages. The universe like us. If you connect each thing with each other thing, you find a likeness.

I’m trying to tell you that it’s okay to curse God
a little.

With this, I again hear an earlier line, differently now: “The moment the spine realized it could brace against its / cage.” The speaker is in pain; the listener, sutured by that “you,” is in pain. We’re all in pain, and being spoken to, in a world where nothing is disconnected and the smallest and most local implications resound with the largest and most distant. Who feeds the sun? It’s okay (the speaker says a few lines later) “that your mother keeps giving you plants that you / overwater or underwhelm.” It’s okay that we’re not perfect. If we aren’t, the whole world isn’t. Or if perfect is what the world is, or—from the title—sacred is what the world is, then we are perfectly sacred.

The poem goes on. I won’t ruin it. I can’t explain it. But meaning radiates from Manick’s art like warmth.

~

The urge is endemic to us, it seems to me, to search for transferable, expressible kinds of meaning. John Keats commended the beauty of staying resistant to that urge, pointed toward a way of being, and reading, that holds us in open suspension, so that we’re not as tempted, along the way, to sum up (or deny!) the welter of possibilities and insist that we know. Often—and I’m tempted to say, especially in American life—this “negative capability,” as Keats called it, can be approached only by unlearning its opposite, by which I mean that many of us were raised to jump to conclusions. We live in an atmosphere of Q.E.D. Even in English classes—let alone math and science, where a dose of negative capability can give rise to a Richard Feynman or a Katherine Johnson—teachers are found pressing their students for definitive answers.

An English professor of mine told a story as she started in on her lectures about Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. No doubt it was all theater and mastery, but she seemed to be recounting something from the night before. Her son had come home from school and declared he knew everything there was to know about Book I’s protagonist, the Red Cross Knight. She leaned on her desk, as if resting against the butcher block at home, and said with bemusement, “Really! Everything there is to know.” Her son said, “Yes, I know what it all means.” And he proceeded to describe the significance of the ratio between the height and width of the knight’s shield. It meant this and it meant that and it connected to other hidden details that even his expert mother was unlikely to have discovered. “So, that’s all there is to it,” she said to us. “There’s a secret key.”

~

When I think of meaning in a work of literature—by which I mean any instance of writing that takes language and imagination as its keynotes—I think of the accumulation of connection and implication, connection that builds from within, cohering into a set of linkages that fiber the whole, and implication that reaches suggestively into the world outside the work, often hinting at (or it can feel this way) why the writer felt compelled to write, what “inspired” the poem or story or novel.

We assemble meaning from morning to night, and we hardly think of it. Sometimes we look back on a day and can understand its events as part of a narrative and sometimes we can’t, but even if we’re baffled by what a cousin did or why one friend treated another badly, some things make an unquestioned kind of sense. We know how to read them. They’re internally coherent, or incoherent but in recognizable ways, or consistent with our past experience. Maybe we didn’t see anyone or even exchange texts; maybe nothing happened that would compel us to grasp for “what it all adds up to.” Nevertheless, when we turned on the stove, it worked; or if it didn’t, we decided it was on the fritz again or remembered we hadn’t paid the electric bill. Maybe the stove suddenly works again and there’s no rhyme or reason to it. But this too—the mystery of why the stove went out for ten minutes and whether it will go out like that again—is a fact in the world that sits against other facts: the trustworthiness or evasiveness of other objects, of people, and whether the world you inhabit is generally fickle or steady or some patterned jumble of the two. Despite the infinity of options, a real world, yours, mine, can hardly be experienced as white noise. We build an internally meaningful whole from the elements we encounter.

~

Meaning is like an emperor’s robe—if you truly see it, it’s there. But seeing the meaning in a poem or novel can take a while. Sometimes for me, with a Lydia Davis story, or an essay by Lia Purpura, what remains closed on a first reading may blossom on a second. If we’re talking Wallace Stevens’s poems, it often takes three or four. With Cusk, Mukasonga, Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, Ismail Kadare, Dag Solstad, Cyrus Cassells, a certain initial meaning reaches me sentence by sentence, line by line, page by page. Actually, this happens also with the most elusive passages of Davis and Purpura and Stevens, because in experiencing and trusting that their work coheres I am then able to open myself, to suspend my doubt, to stay vulnerable in the way that Keats’s negative capability implies, and know that my trust will not be betrayed. I’m rewarded with atmospheres and word textures, which then, gradually, come to mean for me.

And rarely, in any of these, is there a takeaway. What I find, I can’t paraphrase. Though I can try to describe, there’s no chance of an executive summary. Instead, there is a gift of unity and irreducible purpose. I sense why they wrote and why I am grateful to have read.

~

Someone asked James Joyce (is this apocryphal or did it really happen?) to describe what Ulysses is about. He said he’d be happy to, but he’d have to read it to them word for word. Jorge Luis Borges, in his paragraph-long story “On Exactitude in Science,” posits a series of increasingly detailed maps, none of them ever quite doing justice, until a map is made that’s as large as the world. And by that point, what’s the point?

~

The sentences in Krasznahorkai’s books—though long, owing less to dense syntax than to the comma splice—are nearly pellucid in their creation of a world. We see where we are—among these houses, on this long empty road. The reader’s suspension is not a line-by-line affair. And yet the question why, even on the surface, is not as simple with Krasznahorkai as most novelists strive to make it seem. He doesn’t bother with that kind of striving. He puts you where he puts you, a distinct nowhere-else, among people trapped in—and convinced by—their own ways of being and, centrally, of thinking. The world is both recognizable and not: it is our world and it isn’t. Because it is not, a displacement happens. Because it is, or seems to be, we can’t help but be affected by correspondences. And held between those two states, we are disarmed. Things can be said that can’t be expressed directly—nor, on the other hand, fully told through the indirection of metaphor or allegory.

Meaning accretes in the moments that teach us how to read. Early in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, it’s clear that Krasznahorkai is again agonizing over the intellectual’s—or just the thinking, educated person’s—role in society. In his novel Satantango, his thinker frets and studies while rumors of a savior-populist captivate his neighbors; he then joins them in leaving the house and following along. In The Melancholy of Resistance, the vaunted thinker can do no more than barricade himself in (not so different from what I’m doing now in this time of Covid quarantine) while the populist goes on duping people and manipulating the world. In Homecoming, the thinker has sworn off thinking and retreated from town. Amid all of this self-consciousness about thought, ignorance takes on a special importance. It becomes noticeable as part of a dialectic. And what a piece of writing makes noticeable, it can render meaningful. As an element—a word or object or place, a theme, condition, character, or image—repeats, and interacts with others that themselves repeat, it gains valence. And, being charged, it accumulates a lint of contexts and atmospheres. No longer is the thing neutral or freestanding.

Here are the townspeople in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, quoted collectively, disgusted that the police have allowed a Roma family to set up camp in a part of town called the Thorn Bush:

get rid of them, these words were heard during the gatherings of the town residents next to tea and pastries, wipe them out, that’s the only solution, they kept repeating, and they were influenced by their own agitated words, the excitement of which evaporated just as quickly as it had come into being during the afternoon teas. . . .

This desire to exterminate—does the novel share it? How does the reader intuit which way the iron filings are aimed, how this piece of writing is magnetized? The passage goes on, and we sense not just an attitude toward the xenophobes but, in a novel tortured about the life of the mind, a broad critique of outright ignorance and its consequences:

and with the expulsion of the Gypsy family, the question of what to do with the Thorn Bush vanished from the town’s “agenda,” once again floating out to the perimeters of consciousness, because in reality nobody, but really nobody was interested in this, nobody was interested in the fact that there was this “wasteland” of some hundred acres . . . it had always been there since the beginning of time, the teacups were lowered, it’s “always been left like that,” maybe because of the River Körös, and the floods, they looked at each other a little foolishly, because no one had any idea about the past, and so they took another little piece of pastry from the plate.

The residents of the town suffer from groupthink. They herd around certain customs. They are venal, generically provincial. But their ignorance is specific, the novel tells us, teaching us how to read it: they are fools because they know nothing of history.

~

With apologies to Joyce for disagreeing just a little, I’d posit that meaning is what the work leaves behind, the trace and shadow. A filigree. If we’re able to hold back and avoid imposing it irritably and prematurely, meaning can rise from the things we experience and sense, as we then align these impressions with our knowledge of the real.

This is part of a contract between writer and audience. Writing that refuses meaning, then, feels like a gaslighting: the reader is thwarted in the project of drawing connections, of watching a landscape or sensibility, or a new alien logic, emerge. Keats offers protection—at least temporarily—from headache and resentment, but there will be none of the follow-up pleasure of dropping back into the habit of synthesis and gradually recognizing a whole.

~

Danilo Kiš’s Garden, Ashes—a masterful novel of the Holocaust that celebrates life and keeps the Holocaust itself off-stage—is devoted largely to the protagonist’s father, who lives in an alternate reality, following the stars. The boy’s mother—it’s the fusion of these two visions that animates Kiš as a writer—wants something different for her son, bent always toward the light of the particular:

Clearly, my mother was frightened by our lyrical excesses. Realizing that I had become all too accustomed to this game of translating the rain into verses before going to sleep, she decided to deflect me from the path of poetic vice and bohemian extravagance and so she began to make up stories of her own, thus resorting herself to the marvelous and dangerous falsehood of poetry. Yet her intentions were honorable: she simply wanted to channel my idealism, to cut it down to normal size, to direct it toward some kind of reality, anything so long as it was not merely a fairy tale.
                                                   (translation by William J. Hannaher)

Meaning comes back to the world around us, the things of this real life, which we have been forced to notice again in a long moment of pandemic. In the best writing, I believe, the need, purpose, intention, passion, that inheres in the work is as clear as possible, and irreducible. Meaning arrives in the readers’ mind like an intuition, then slowly deepens. It can’t be noted down or circled, but there’s no mistaking it.

—W. P.

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William Pierce is coeditor of AGNI. Excerpts from his autofiction manuscript Twenty Sixteen can be found in Harvard Review, The Western Humanities Review, and on the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub. His short stories have appeared in Granta, Ecotone, American Literary Review, and elsewhere, and other work has appeared in Electric Literature, Little Star, Tin House online, The Writer’s Chronicle, Solstice, Glimmer Train, Consequence, and as part of MacArthur Fellow Anna Schuleit Haber’s art project “The Alphabet,” commissioned by the Fitchburg Art Museum. Pierce is the author of Reality Hunger: On Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (Arrowsmith Press, 2016), a monograph first serialized as a three-part essay at The Los Angeles Review of Books. With E. C. Osondu, he coedited The AGNI Portfolio of African Fiction. (updated 10/2022)

His first essay for AGNI, “Fabulously Real,” received special mention in the 2006 Pushcart Prize anthology, and his introduction to AGNI 91, “The Peculiarities of Literary Meaning,” is cited in the 2022 Pushcart anthology. He is interviewed here at NewPages.com.

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