Friday, May 31, 2013

Every day, you and I are drawn up into a great Mexican wave, but we don’t think about it, for the most part aren’t aware of it, because we rise and fall with the epic surge of its passing. This is the wave of dreaming that sweeps through the animal kingdom as the westering sun rushes over the earth in an ever-racing horizon that sweeps the world. Even the plant world participates in this rhythm, in this expansion and contraction of general activity and awareness.
In a sense, each night when we sleep, we return to this morphic unconscious of nature. It is not just ourselves that dream, it is life that dreams through us. Life dreams through us too in our art, our poetry, our stories. When we dream at night, this greater dreaming that never ceases passes through us perturbing our own little system to a wrinkle in the great flexing. Always, one half of the animal world is sleeping, and as that half begins to wake, the horizon sweeps on and the other half falls into dreaming. Sherlock Holmes, if tasked with this mystery, might be forgiven the conclusion that the rotation of the earth was summoned out of possibility for just this purpose, in some dark knowing life has for its own essential needs, and we should forgive him too, for he might well be right. We can’t resist the claim of the mother body for long. If we try to resist sleep, the results are first dysfunction, then hallucination, and eventually a kind of waking insanity. The dreaming dark rises to claim us.
I have a view on the creative activities in the world that may be new and surprising to you. Specifically, I maintain that the living forms of nature are the result of a planetwide activity, the nearest correlate of which, in our own experience, we call “dreaming.” This correlated similarity is (in my opinion) not an accident, because there arises through us, independently and as individual creatures, a kind of mirrored image of the mother process at work everywhere in nature. The mother process is ancient and potent, but not supremely self-aware. The daughter process in our own nature, the image it casts through the human creature, is much newer and coupled to emergent processes of self-awareness, but it is not (or at least is not yet) as potent as the mother process. Yet the shimmering image of the moon in a pool is only an illusion in a trivial sense: it is still the same moon, and the real moon, reflected.
When Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, it was the most important revolution ever in the understanding of the workings of the natural world. However, there’s a subtle point often overlooked…Darwin’s theory (and for the most part, his thinking itself) came just a few decades too early to benefit from what is arguably the second most important intellectual discovery of the Nineteenth Century: Freud’s systematic development of the concept of the Unconscious. By the time this arrived, behaviorism was also into swing and thus a force to be reckoned with, such that the idea of any relationship between these two immense idea-bodies (evolution and the unconscious mind) passed the era by. Darwin’s theory was a creature (if you excuse the pun) of the mechanistic era. It was the age that saw the invention of the electric dynamo, the telegraph, and the internal combustion engine. There is no great surprise then how this colored his thinking. But we’ve already seen that mechanism is a poor analogy to lay over nature. It’s an abstraction that leaves far too much out if we really want to know what nature is and does.  
There is another aspect to the concept of mechanism that has shaped our view of the natural world for the last century and more. Mechanisms are things which have separable “components” that can  be lifted out and replaced, giving an impression of individualized existence. Even the language we use to describes ourselves…”individuals”…reflects this bias. But again, nothing in nature is really like this. Our hearts or our kidneys are not really separable objects discrete from the rest of the organism. The organic context exists as a nested set of wholes. Thus organelles group into wholes that are cells, cells group into wholes that are organs and tissues, organs and tissues into organisms, organisms into societies, societies into species, and so on. At any time we are an integral part of all of these structures. We may not be aware of ourselves as part of the vertebrate sub-phylum when we check out our groceries at Kroger, but we are nonetheless. So while a mechanistic picture of nature may have been appropriate in the time of Darwin, it is no longer appropriate, or even plausible, today. A truly “organic” picture of the world understands that there is no such thing as fully separable individuals, either in the context of body or mind. We belong to the body of nature and as we travel away from the surface of ourselves in either category (mind or body) we start to uncover structures that rightly belong to these larger wholes. There are things going on in our cells that express behavior across the entire kingdom of animalia. There are even deeper things going on in our cells that are found across the whole superkingdom of eukaryotes (multi-celled organisms). Similarly, in our minds, away from our surface thoughts, we begin to find thoughts and “dreams” that are characteristic of our species, and if we delve even deeper, we start to encounter, in that mysterious, shadowy dark, the hatching forms of our most ancient myths, expressions of the primal tensions to which all animal life is subject in its round.
      I am going to press this even further and suggest that as we travel down through these layers (no matter where we begin from…the surface of our bodies or the “surface” of our minds) we eventually reach a point where the categories we call mind and matter start to fuse into each other, finally becoming (at a point remote from our observation) a monistic something that is neither mind nor matter, strictly speaking, but is one and the same with the living, creative dynamism that authors the world. I use the word “authors” deliberately, becausing authoring is a creative act, as opposed simply to a “happening.” However, a creative act does not necessarily imply a minded, conscious, artisan creation, as religion imagines. Our nightly dreams are a creative dynamic, but they are not the product of a fully aware, planning mind. The suggestion I am making is that the creative flexing of nature is also like this. It is a dreaming deeper yet than our own, a dreaming writ large and epochal in scale. It was dreaming life on this earth long before we ever stepped out, our ears wet and our legs trembling like deer, into the roaring textures of the dream.
      I envision a kind of two-way current in this structure. Very deep themes from nature’s dreaming exert an “upward pressure” from the general to the particular, into our individual minds and bodies. At its most dramatic or extreme, this is the evolution of new species. But at the same time, our private experiences, perceptions, thoughts and dreams are percolating down into the soil of the unconscious mind, and from there into the deeper soil of the species form, where we must assume them assimilated according to patterns and principles we at present fail to discern.
      Though we may fail to discern, the process that achieves it is not hard to identify. We spend a third of our lives doing it. The mystery of sleep has never been adequately explained on a mechanistic paradigm. You can almost palpably sense the strain it is under when the attempt is made to shoehorn it into that paradigm. I implied in an earlier segment that the rational mind arises out of the “irrational body of being.”  If I am right about this, then it has the implication that a dreaming state is the more natural center of gravity of the universal creative process. Each night the individual waking mind is “resorbed” in the direction of this center of gravity, in the direction of tidal rhythms affecting all life, in the direction of collective movement and experience at the level of the species and the animal kingdom, and finally all life on earth. Our individual minds (and bodies) are like seeking extensions that grow upwards from this body towards the light of consciousness, process and bind experience there, then close up their petals again, sinking away towards their origin, release the bound experience into the creatrix of the world-dream, rising again, opening their petals again, binding experience again, in a kind of ceaseless natural breathing.
The world-dream is morphic; it dreams in forms. Our weightless dreams are not a different process. They are like a surface ripple of the same process, but as individuals, our dreams are mere indigo shadows of nature’s dreaming. From out of the shadows in that elfin dell come the allusions of poetry, the “irrational” connections that the rational mind, left to its robotic self, could never process or access. Of course, the dreaming alone would remain just that…a dreaming…without the rational mind to bring it into conscious awareness. In a sense, then, the human species is this creative process made conscious of itself for the first time. This is what the rational mind does. It acts as a kind of focusing lens. Unfortunately there comes with that lens also an “attitude” or ego which fancies itself the origin of the images focused. But the real origin is the dreaming heart of nature. It arises out of the unobserved. There is something about the process of creativity, whether in its cosmic potency abroad in nature or in the artistic efforts of our own species, that takes its secret birthing outside of the light of observation. It rises up out of the unconscious, out of nature’s dark, condensing into particular suggested forms or experiences only beyond a given point, the point at which we become aware of them. But mysteries have been unfolding, nonetheless, before that “dew point” is ever reached. We who are writers or artists know this well. Who can really say where the particular image in a poem came from, or the idea for the poem itself? Even when we think we know, the ideas that form in us are not separable from the actitivies of the unconscious. This is perhaps most evident in dreams. With the exception of lucid dreaming (and even there, only with limits) who can really say they control their dreams? It would be more accurate to say that a creative maelstrom takes root in us each night, blowing out of the East from God knows where, tossing our minds around like a yacht on a turbulent sea, then vanishing West as mysteriously as it came. Yet we have the bombast to say “I dreamed” as if we are the architects of all this.
      When Robert Olen Butler named his fiction writing workbook “From Where We Dream” he was pointing the flashlight in the right direction. But deeper even than the place from where we dream, there is the place from which nature dreams through us. Imagine a Nineteenth Century diving bell. We plunge in at the surface of mind, that shallow puddle where such epic concerns as whether or not to have ketchup with this fish, take root. As soon as we sink away we will encounter the realm of personal dreaming. Already we are some distance from the “rational mind.” When we dip in that moonlight pool, the shapes that swarm there move by currents that undertow the waking self. To raise them up, to bring them fully into conscious awareness, would be to court insanity. But the source of creativity is down even deeper than this. It is deep in the strong undertows beneath even the world of dreaming. A whale song that takes its shape in the very fathoms of the world. Beneath dreaming is the crucible of myth. Not myth that has risen like a cake in the oven and there hardened to story or dogma. I mean the the liquid themes of the mythic itself. These themes open on the upper side to the roots of our minds and on the underside to the formative forces that govern the movements of nature itself. Deep in this kernel of the world, form and imagination are no longer what we know them to be. They are something more potent we don’t have a word for…”morphination”…the insuppressible creative flux of the world-dream. Our deepest dreams are something like the outer surface of this process, rippling in the wind like a sail. Here are the deepest themes moving in the currents of life itself. The seeking towards awareness. Growth and development. Birth and death and fertility. Feeding and predation. And most important of all, the dim groping towards expression, towards existence in an unmasking of itself, towards the created new.
      When the rabies virus infects a mammal’s body, it makes its way slowly towards the central nervous system. Once it is within the nervous system, it is sequestered from immune attack by the body and migrates slowly along the nerves to the brain. How does it know to do this?  I maintain that there is a kind of “intelligence” in nature. It is not the intelligence of a waking, thinking mind. Rather, it’s the other way round. A waking, thinking mind (such as we have) is just one of the late products of this cosmos-wide dreaming intelligence that inhabits all of nature (in nature, I am including the birth of the universe, the formation of galaxies and solar systems…in other words, the progression from the general to the specific, even on cosmic scale). I think the rotation of the earth is part of the intelligence our subsystem has in an instinctive knowing that the sleep and dream phase of the animal kingdom is a crucial behavior contributing to the ongoing evolution of life on earth. This intelligence in nature is more akin to a quasi-aware sleepwalker than a mind. A sleepwalker does “intelligent” things that are not mechanistic or random: she or he may visit the bathroom, put the kettle on, retrieve something from the fridge, may even drive a car, completely asleep. A sleepwalker is not the same thing as a mechanism or a clockwork toy. But neither is a sleepwalker awake.
This sleepwalker…is seeking to awaken. This is what the human species is about. This is what evolution is about. Deep in itself, the world-dream senses the possibility of wakefulness and moves towards it like a buried shoot dreaming through the soil towards the surface. It “knows” where to go because it is nature itself. It is subject to the laws of nature only in the sense that those laws were its own earliest dreamings, and it may at some later point dream new ones, just as it dreamed new ones with the dawn of animal life, and new ones again with the dawn of human life.
      The poet, the writer, the artist and the musician are not irrelevant ornaments littered at the side of life’s highway like so much detritus. They are the most complete expression of the Dreaming yet to find wakefulness in the cosmos. The world is dreaming through them, and though they fail often, the wind of being is truly at their back, at the backs of us all, because what is achieved in that theater will percolate by the processes described to the eventual benefit of all animal life. Even our pets  are transformed in experience (as we are transformed) by the unique sharing of events such relationships allow across the bridge from human to nonhuman consciousness. Seen as a structure of action or event in the world-dream, the influence of human consciousness upon the consciousness of cats and dogs, is like the influence of a magnetic field that lifts it slightly in its own direction, towards a subtlety of feeling or a richness of experience that is not possible in the wild state of these creatures alone. If we see ourselves, and our relations with other species, as shifting functions within the world-dream, within the quasi-intelligent creatrix of nature, then the function that is the relationship between a human a pet is a dynamic movement that is evolving both participating species. It is a movement from lesser to greater potential, towards greater wholes and broader experience, which is the fundamental movement of the world-dream detectable in this cosmos. After several billion years of consistent trend, if we can’t say that with some assurance about this universe, then we can’t say anything. The simple moves towards the complex. The lesser experience towards the greater experience. The unconscious towards the conscious. The possible to the actual. The Not Yet to the Now.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

In this collection of thoughts or essays, I am building towards the idea that the poet, the writer, and the artist are closer to the heart of life than our present worldview in any sense gives them credit for. And when I say life, I mean life…the cosmic mystery of it, I don’t just mean “life” in some denuded and winter-stripped Reality TV sense.  I say this, not to shore up the egos of poets and artists (though God knows at times we need it…at other times, it’s the worst thing we could do); I say it because I genuinely suspect it to be the case, and because I care deeply about the creative act and those involved in it, whether as generators or consumers. The final idea I am building towards–though we are not there yet–is that the world itself is a shimmering autopoiesis hanging in the void, a living dynamic principle of self-creation, and art in all its color is not merely a reflection of this, but its very acting out, in the unique capacities of the human creature.
So reader, if you’ve been with me this far, I have a request of you. Please sit down here, yes right here, take a deep breath, pour yourself a drink from that bottle over there labeled “particularly stiff whiskey” or even the bottle labeled “what are you serious don’t drink this,” look me in the eyes and tell yourself that whatever other thoughts blow over today like weather, you won’t let this one escape: when I raised the issue in a previous conversation that the world is not made of stuff, I wasn’t kidding. If you are sitting there with the unconscious assumption that it still is, then you are perpetuating a hoax on yourself that the human race has been playing for centuries, but which actually became untenable a number of decades ago. I will not rehearse the argument again here (see my previous entries) but it is important to restate it before we continue. Forget what you have heard about superstrings…or almost forget it. Superstrings are a mathematical solution to a mathematical problem. They are inseparable from such abstract notional entities as complex numbers and the square root of minus one. Not only are such “things” not to be found down the most powerful microscopes and in the largest particle colliders we could ever create, they simply could not be found there. And if, even purely for the sake of argument, they ever were to found there, the thorniest questions conceivable would rise up along with them, demanding to be answered.
This is where the centuries-long quest for the stuff of the universe has taken us: into a hornet’s nest of abstractions. If you don’t believe me that it’s an abstraction, ask yourself how the recent ‘discovery’ of the Higgs Boson impacted you personally on any practical level, or the life of anyone you know (assuming they are not particle physicists or science journalists).  Of course, the hornet’s nest only remains a hornet’s nest if we continue to make the assumption that a “stuff” has to be there. The superstring theorists were not wrong to have hunted their snark, to have found such creative solutions to such a gigantic problem. But their quarry shape shifted on them somewhere along the journey. They know it too…hence their naming of the “quark.” Another sign of this problem is the bewildering array of subatomic and sub-subatomic particles now said to comprise this domain. The alleged behaviors of these “world-building units” now exceed for their titillating strangeness anything that ever swooned a lady in a 19th Century traveling menagerie. Originally, the project of trespassing this shadowy world was intended to clarify nature, not deliver us into the sinister, clownish laughter of a Bradburyesque carnival. In one sense it was the ultimate reductionist fantasy: when we got down to rock bottom, everything would finally make sense in a kind of species-defining Archimedes moment: it would all become clear. Instead, we seem to have wandered farther and farther from the warm heart of life and the soft glow of experience lived from within…the only two things, finally, that we can even be certain exist at all. But at this point we should be feeling some healthy measure of doubt about that quest, and with it the idea that the most important discoveries are to be made in the smallest of the small, or in strangely contrived wildernesses far from creaturely scale, wildernesses where we can only observe at all (in the case of superstrings) using fantastically impossible theoretical particle colliders half the size of the galaxy. And let’s say that we ever built such a monster. Can anyone really believe that there wouldn’t come with it a rhetorical act, just as large, in interpreting whatever we suppose ourselves to glimpse there, ricocheting around in its chambers of eternity?
Returning then, to the central matter of my topic, we have a strange attitude when it comes to creativity in the world. We are happy to acknowledge that human beings can be creative, after a fashion, but we have a curious tendency to deny this to the rest of nature. Like a Strange Attractor in possibility space, this denial has coalesced around two distinct traditions in the history of science and religion. The first is to place all real creativity in the lap of a Cosmic Flash believed to have happened unimaginable epochs ago. In theological tradition, this of course is the Creation, the summoning of the world into being by God, the secular version of which is the Big Bang.  However, this cosmic creativity is (usually) conceived of as a one-off event. God set the whole thing in motion, and then absconded into remote darkness, like someone setting a firework and bolting for the shadows. What follows thereafter is the acting out of a set of “natural laws,” supposedly conceived at the universal inception, or else as eternal structures in the mind of God. I’ll return to this idea of natural laws in just a moment. The other vision of creativity in the natural world extends from Darwin and Mendel. Here, animal forms and their governing genes have a certain creative ability to evolve on the fly. In other words, arising form isn’t literally constrained to a Universal Creation at the dawn of time, but emerges from contingent circumstance in the playing out of the universe. Bats don’t need to have sonar conceived from all eternity in the mind of God. But when small flying mammals colonized caves, this was a contingent circumstance for the emergence of sonar. However, although on first appearance this version seems to concede a radical creativity to nature which, in the theological version, is limited only to God, on closer inspection this isn’t really the case. The “creative” process by which life discovers new forms and opportunities in Darwinian materialism is that of blind chance and necessity. In its own peculiar way this does nothing more than assume the thing that it originally sets out to explain, namely the ultimate source of creative possibility. “Chance” is a mechanistic concept, in effect another one of those natural laws set in motion and left running from the start of the universe, bringing us back by a curious detour to the same problem. The mechanistic world view, in my opinion, does not really have the tools to comprehend, or even to cope with, the radical concept that creativity is an ontological reality and not just an appearance, and hence does the only thing it can, which is the attempt to squash the creative process through the Victorian sausage machine of a grinding mechanism. As I pointed out in an earlier segment though, no mechanism anywhere has ever demonstrably achieved the things that life and creativity are capable of achieving every day.
So we seem to be caught between two stools, an eternal mind of God where all the true creativity inheres, or no God at all (because the universe is a mechanism, which came into existence mechanistically and proceeds mechanistically). Both of these positions seem to me to be dancing as hard as they can to avoid the possibility that creativity is pervasive and authentic and perpetual. The fact that this may be a more challenging alternative does not give us license to eschew it. Then there is this difficulty of natural laws, which raises additional problems for both of the above positions. The idea here is that while there may be many passing forms in the universe, underlying it all there are certain eternal, non-negotiable principles we call natural laws. Either these laws were “decreed” by God, or they are simply “natural” laws, decreed as it were by nature. The analogy itself is already in hot water from its inception, as laws are entirely an invention and convention of human beings. They have no other known (non-rhetorical) context than this. Certainly, mindless mechanisms cannot decree laws, so this does not provide an explanation of why these things are the way that they are, and not some other way. The natural constants, for instance the charge on an electron (1.60217657 × 10-19 coulombs), would generally be considered among these natural laws. What determined these values? Are they really inflexible? Or do they in fact vary and drift over time, even if only to a very small degree? If they are eternal and inflexible, then why do they have the particular values or properties that they do? In the theological picture, the charge on an electron was an abstract idea in the mind of God, prior to (or at least otherwise outside of) the creation of the universe. But it is very difficult to know what is meant by “an abstract idea of the charge on (as yet nonexistent) electrons,” if indeed it means anything at all.
The mechanistic worldview fares little better, because to say that the charge on an electron is a “natural law” is to say that it is not simply an on-the-fly development during the lived-in evolution of the cosmos. But if it isn’t, then again it must have been there before the cosmos, or in some abstract sense eternally, which returns us once more to a scenario that is really just a secular version of the mind of God idea. What does it mean to talk about the charge on electrons before there were any electrons…before there was anything? We begin to sense that this whole idea of eternal natural laws is a strange kind of hokum. Nor is the concept rescued if we attempt to say that the cosmos had no “before,” that time came into existence concomitantly with the universe. Even if that is so, and in all likelihood it is so, it doesn’t explain what we mean by an abstract electron, abstract nuclear fusion, or abstract fluid mechanics. It seems preposterous to suggest that these things have a definition somehow outside of their creative, ongoing enactment within the universe.
The problem becomes yet more serious with that set of phenomena which, by convention at least, we describe as the living world. Were the “laws” of cell division, plant pollination, genetic drift, the mating calls of the whip-poor-will, and the morphological development of the wombat embryo somehow already in place before the big bang? Or even just after the big bang, when the only physics at play was the superhot wonderland that didn’t yet even allow for the heavier elements of the periodic table? This statuesque notion of the universe seems fiercely at variance with what we actually see and encounter in life. Science does not normally view these biological things in the category of “natural laws” (mainly due to its historical blind spot for anything other than reductionism). But what if they are exactly that? Waiving for the moment the question of what natural laws really are, and whether they are laws at all, what if chromosome segregation and morphological development, the mating ritual of the redback spider who sacrifices himself to the female in order to prevent other pairings, the homing instincts of pigeons, and the creative aptitudes of human beings are in fact in the same essential category as the ‘law’ of gravity and the elementary charge of an electron? That is to say, what if “laws” are actually emergent responses of a deeply fecund and quasi-sentient creative principle permeating nature that coalesces into forms and behaviors as the opportunity arises, not at the beginning of the universe but as the cosmos progresses in real time? Today. Tomorrow. Moreover, what if this is in fact a driving force of what life itself secretly is, not just life in general, but your life and mine, that story or poem you are writing right now, that music you are making or listening to, the choices you are forming this very second? The owl opens its eyes and the night flows out of her, like the words and forms that well up in ourselves, out of the blackbody depth that glistens with infinite potential.
But we wouldn’t want to consider that, because if we did the entire grinding edifice of the last one hundred and fifty years, the dehumanizing, alienating, suicide-spawning, environmentally ravaging, mental-illness-causing, consumerist headless-chickenism; the universe of meaninglessness and gray-sweater-hopelessness and utter cosmic futility, might just find itself poisoned right back at its reservoir. And if that thought percolated, there is even a risk that we might end up living in a softer world of greater compassion and connection, of breathtaking possibility and beauty beyond what is really quite likely to be our wildest anticipation, where nature is a partner and an embedding and not an enemy, and where we ourselves and all animal life are no longer a mere cancerous polyp on the dermis of existence, but living avatars of a scintillating dynamic principle that births from its quintessential nature everything from the iridescent flicker of a hummingbird’s wing to the Ulysses of James Joyce, from the geometry of a snowflake to the radium flash of cosmoses in birth.
And ye gads, that would be terrible!

MARK SWEENEY, May 26th 2013. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

We writers in any hue of cloth, and artists of any kind in the larger picture, are often beset by lacerating feelings of inadequacy about the whole project we are engaged in. What does it even mean to write poems or stories, drawing up the innermost deep of ourselves like so many trees pulling fragile ribbons of water from the dreaming soil–shimmering towers of nothing standing in the green dark that we hope against hope won’t break and fall (even though they often do)? What does it mean to be a storyteller or an artist, a poet or a musician, in a world that doesn’t seem to care one way or another whether it publishes your next book or flattens your home with a tornado?
On the face of it, creative pursuits seem a trivial thing in the world, a decadent luxury our species has indulged in because and only because it had a lucky window to do so, a brief hiatus of a few thousand years from the snarling business of animal survival that is the lot of all other fauna in response to life’s onslaught, “nasty, brutish and short.”  Even in our modern world, the unstated priorities discernible in society make it seem little more than a brief interlude from the more serious business of moneymaking, corporate mergers, and environmental devastation.
But appearances, after all, can sometimes be deceptive.
I guess cosmological speculation is an occasional pastime of mine. This is not because I perceive myself particularly qualified to engage in it; rather, I have an inquisitive mind and I just can’t help it. There are many different ways to map the world’s behaviors, and it is not immediately clear just by this activity which of these maps (if any) is the more correct one. By one mapping for example, humans and anything that they do, anything that they could ever do, are such a trivial event in the cosmos that they could be smeared from existence as easily as rubbing your thumb over the bloom on a peach, without anyone even realizing that we’d gone (or that we’d ever been there). The physicist Stephen Hawking warned recently that we should be wary of sending our TV broadcasts and our other electromagnetic effluvia out into space, in case someone, somewhere with a compound eye trained on our planet might be tempted to flip it for real estate. But this is romantic in the sense that anyone or anything would even care enough to do so. By volume of mass in the universe even our star system would fail to register as a single grain of sand on the world’s largest beach. And as for life on earth, if we measure that by mass, even just the mass of the earth, it barely amounts to a split hair on a mammoth.
We’re good at talking ourselves down, aren’t we?
However, assessment by mass is not the only way to evaluate the universe. Other acetates can be laid over cosmological history. Imagine you are trapped in a sealed room with a viciously ingenious explosive device set to detonate in forty minutes. Behind you stands a bookcase, long and tall, comprising a thousand volumes of erudite material. Somewhere in that bookcase (but where?) there is an ever so slim volume on how to pick different types of locks successfully, and another on how to defuse unusual bombs. That reading material, if we weighed it relative to the total mass, or assessed it by its number of words in proportion to the informational whole, would be trivial. But suddenly it has become the most important reading material in the bookcase. If you don’t locate it in time, you are done for. The bookcase and what it contains hasn’t changed physically. But the mapping laid over it has changed the situation dramatically. If that bookcase truly exists  in a “bomb about to explode” universe, then the difference really matters. It’s not just an intellectual game.
Likewise, if this universe (the real one, I mean now) is a place where the creative impulse in conscious beings (perhaps even only in ourselves) is something more than trivial, then that difference really matters too.
I am going to make a case that meaning in our lives, and in the world in general, may find a home in this second scenario. Let me try to clarify what I mean by this (pun intended). What do we mean by meaning? I know this is one of these uber-pretentious questions that make you want to go out and vomit in the snow (if there is any available) but in this discussion at least, it could hardly be left unasked. What I do not intend is an externally imposed meaning. I do not intend an objective meaning in the sense of something that is attached to the world from the outside or from a transcendent other, or (in alternative phrasing) that the world has a meaning to be found in something that is not the world. Again, I am not hating on such positions, it just isn’t my own trend, and thus won’t be the territory I explore here.
However, I also don’t just intend mere subjective meaning. The way we usually think about meaning is attributive, in the fashion of a decoration or afterthought attached to a circumstance or thing. It may be very important to us, but it doesn’t inhere in the “thing.” So, for example, when I was a kid I used to grow cacti as a hobby. At one local plant show, to my infinite astonishment, I won first prize for my cactus, as well as third prize simultaneously, which was all a little too much for my blossoming young ego to deal with. Even though it was just a local show (and, realistically, pretty much no one else could care less, especially after that season passed) I held on to those prize cards for YEARS. They were something that held importance and value for me. The orthodox view would say that this meaning was my psychological invention. I conferred it upon a red piece of card with the text “CURRIE & BALERNO ANNUAL FLOWER SHOW. CACTI & SUCCULENTS SECTION: FIRST PRIZE.” Even the text is attributive. These are squiggles called letters that we agree by convention to signify certain things for us.
The case I am going to make begins with the observation that meaning is a creative act, and it is the creative act, the creative utterance, that interests me.
Let’s enter the matter softly. The first thing to be said is that creativity doesn’t feel trivial, especially for those who know the maddening pressure of its insistence. It doesn’t give the internal signals of being a superfluous add-on to the textures of life, like a plastic flamingo or a novelty paperweight. While the way we feel about things may not seem like the most reliable measure, this doesn’t convince me that our instinct on the matter speaks with a false voice. The trivialization of all emotional life into the “subjective” was part of the cauterizing surgery performed on the world under Descartes. Creativity seems to me like an urge we cannot suppress. It is an upward pressure from the irrational body of being, a much larger and more ancient structure than its cognitive head, which (in geological terms anyway) just broke surface a few minutes ago. This irrational body is the home country of dream and myth, of music and song and story, of ritual and dance, of the surreal and the emotional and the passionate. In brief, it is the territory of everything that the mechanistic view of nature badly wants to believe the world does not consist of.
But if (as I am inclined to suggest) human creativity is simply the most developed or lucidly focused instance of a more general principle or function operating throughout nature, then this function has always been a part of what nature is and does, and may even be the principle at the heart of the morphic dreaming that shapes the creatures of life, such that when Descartes took the value-laden world and amputated it, he made a fatal kind of mistake, the limit case of throwing the baby with the bathwater, which in a sense we’ve been paying the price for ever since, no matter what benefits may also be said to have come our way.