Hovering Over Meanings

I have a vivid memory of leaning against the rail at the rear of a ferry as it plowed forward across the bay and watching hovering seagulls trailing its wake. It was as if the ferry created a turbulence as it plied through sea, and the gulls took delight in gliding in that invisible draft.

It was the irresistible urge of kids like me to toss bits of a hotdog bun (or whatever) off the stern rail just to see the gulls swoop and dive after bits of free lunch as they arched toward always receding turbulence behind, the wake rimmed with white froth.

This vivid memory appears as I read this marvelous passage from Collingwood:

The proper meaning of a word (I speak not of technical terms which kindly godparents furnish soon after birth with neat tidy definitions but of words in a living language) is nothing that sits perched on a word like a gull on a stone; it is something over which the word hovers like a gull over a ship’s stern. Trying to fix the proper meaning in our minds is like coaxing the gull to settle in the rigging, with the rule that the gull must be alive when it settles: one must not shoot it and tie it there. 

Of course it will be years of reading Wittgenstein and others who are engaged in saying how meanings stick to words that give me enough context to have Collingwood’s words ring true.

His image of gulls nailed in the rigging evokes yet another vivid childhood memory. It’s of a large-print illustrated children’s book by Holling Clancy Holling called, simply, Seagull. It tells the story of a young boy high in the crow’s nest of a square rigger making friends with a trailing, gliding seagull who from time to time would rest, alighting beside him in the rigging. He could coax the gull to alight and spin reveries of his friend’s travel.

Our worries about the meanings of words can’t be resolved by dictionaries (except in the simple cases). They can only come to light by coaxing gulls to perch beside us — which may or may not happen. “Decency,” “Justice,” or “Love” will swerve, gliding, and diving: sea gulls in a ferry’s wake. We can no more take our eyes off these varied turbulent words hovering over their meanings than we can take our eyes off trailing gulls. In vain we hope for steady rocks they’ll alight on. But there are no rocks; words do not grab them.

There’s an every-present urge to nail the word in a simple definition, arresting its dive and swerve. But, as Collingwood warns, we can’t capture a word by killing it. There’s no alternative to just living with its swoop and dive — living with the beautiful elusiveness of  “Love” or “Justice” or “Art.” I track their trajectories without the false hope they’ll find a rock-like resting place. Literature does a better job living with the liveliness and elusiveness of love than most philosophical attempts to nail it down.

Scholarly footnote: the R. G. Collingwood quote comes from his classic work, The Principles of Art, Oxford, 1938, p. 7; I encountered it in Richard Eldridge’s Images of History, Oxford, 2016, p. 187f. In a footnote (n. 20, p. 218), Eldridge suggests that Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner may hover behind Collingwood’s evocation of gulls and meanings. (In a tantalizing aside, Eldridge writes that “Coleridge uses the poem as a parable all at once of identity formation, language learning, and transgression.”)

Thoreau’s Befitting Reveries?  A charming and instructive feature of Thoreau’s writing, say in Walden, is his capturing a moment of insight in what I’ve called “befitting reverie.” He lets his words soar like gulls. He has an epiphany by the pond — to give one example — that he relays as a moment looking into her waters, seeing her face, seeing his face, and sensing the face of the pond’s Maker.

In trying to settle on the sense of this reverie on Walden’s shore, it won’t do to rush for a dictionary. The words flow in reverie, not in a detective’s notebook recording facts of the matter: “HDT observed suspiciously kneeling at the shoreline, 6 a.m., mumbling.”

Thoreau’s shoreline epiphany culminates in a poignant, romantic “Walden, is it you?” To get a sense of the passage as a whole, we must let the words float and eddy like gulls in the wake of a ferry.

We want the reverie to hold still, as if it were a static snapshot, or like a bird tied down in the rigging. But we can’t achieve that steadiness-of-position without draining the  words of their life — as if we preferred stuffed gulls to a gliding ones.

We must let ourselves be caught up in the mobile scene, let our imaginations join in and be animated. The alternative — to rope words in, tie them into the rigging of detached analysis — is lethal. To make sense of reveries, we search for parallel reveries and parables. Or we just toss reverie and imagination aside as unfit for grownups.

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