The meaning isn’t the message

By Nick Dilonardo

Last Saturday night, I overheard two guys arguing over the difference between a ‘punk’ and a ‘jerk.’ They eventually laughed. It was interesting. Even at Pacific Shores in Ocean Beach, there is no escape from the discussion of meaning.

We tend to use some words interchangeably. We call them synonyms. Take the words ‘nice’ or ‘kind.’ You say “she’s a nice girl” just as easily perhaps as you would tell her she’s ‘kind.’ Is there a difference? Does it matter?

But there has to be. Even as the root level, the two words sound and are spelled differently. What use then are two of the same meaning words?

Even already, “meaning” comes into play. Meaning is what people tend to think of when reading a poem, unfortunately. This is the case with the overall manner in which we tend to study English.
How is the meaning of a word established? It is not inherent. What I mean is that we created these words, at some level – no matter how ancient – fairly arbitrarily. You can say they have Latin or Greek roots, but at some point we have to acknowledge the reality that each name or word we use stems from someone pointing at something, uttering a sound, and thus coining it.
Sure, there may be a logic to it. But that logic is closed, since it’s man-made to begin with, and thus is still arbitrary by nature.
It’s how we use words that explains how their meaning is different.

Nice – to me (as I must qualify all of this) – amounts to offering a seat to another before yourself, taking the smaller half of a candy bar you share, or letting someone into your lane while driving. It’s defined by being unegoistic. It amounts to being unselfish.

Kind, I see differently. When I say someone is ‘kind’ or ‘kind-hearted’, it conjures an image of unique and genuine generosity as a habit of nature. It’s thoughtful courtesy to another. It’s unconscious. Although it stems from the self and thus the ego as well, it’s id-like in the sense that it’s instinctual. It almost cannot be helped.

If you’re wondering the point I’m trying to make other than “words are different” and Nick likes the word ‘kind’, it’s that this is how an economy of exchange works. This is how markets work. We buy and sell words just as we do commodities. In the case of YOLO, we hope we bought low and sold high.

Yes, even YOLO, or the phrase “dolphin-lounge.”

You need not know the meaning of the word or words. You don’t have to; you need only pay attention to ‘how’ they are used. Think of it as listening to a song not for its brilliant meaning, but for how beautiful it sounds. If you pay enough attention to the moments when it is used, you’ll get the feel for it.

It’s the difference between analysis and seduction. I don’t think I’m being brave when I say the two can’t happen at the same time.

You can’t fall in love or become intoxicated by the fleeting beauty of the orange above the water in the moments before dark at Sunset Cliffs – not when you are worried about what the moment means, how its symbolic, or if its a sign. Constant analysis makes mundane even the most spectacular of spectacles. It’s better to be in the moment with an appreciation of timing.
It’d be the difference between two types of movies, as director Sofia Coppola puts it.

“[With the movie ‘Somewhere’] I wanted to make a movie less about plot, and more about mood and feeling,” Coppola said in the director’s notes.

But when we open our film reviews in the Times or our film course textbooks, attention is seldom paid to feeling or to mood. Instead, it’s a review of the film acting as a metaphor for the Vietnam War, or imperialism, or its a reinventing of the new-feminist paradigm. But why do we lack in our economy of words, essays and reviews those to express how an author makes us react, how we feel, or the effects of watching a film? Why are we so hopelessly bereft of such a lexicon?

Is it perhaps due to our insatiable will to knowledge? To our desire to interpret and analyze things as they are in order to traffic in an economy of meanings and interpretations, in order to see whose are worse or better? Isn’t that what English or political science is about? Arguing about whose subjective interpretation is better? We argue about what things mean, or how the world of literature works. We tend to avoid how it works us over.

We tend to be inept, even those of us who claim to be good with words, when we attempt to describe the way we felt when we couldn’t help but stay up late to turn more pages of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Or how damn betrayed and angry we were upon finishing the final pages of A Farewell to Arms. Or how cold we felt when the imagery of Night and the holocaust it detailed became real to us through the eyes of our young narrator.

As I begin now to think of graduate schools to which to apply next year, I grow weary at the thought of being asked ever again to explain what a line of a poem means. I’m tired of litigating the benefits of analyzing literature from either a contextual or a formalist approach, especially when the answer is so obvious. I don’t want to argue how feminist Shakespeare was or wasn’t, or the symbolism behind Gatsby’s green light. Why can’t it suffice to say that I’m more interested in learning to craft green lights of my own? Or to learn how authors like Fitzgerald make use of theirs? Or how they compose their novels – even their chapters – and how the story or narrative being told is communicated. Or we could study how the voice of the author – if one even allows that there is one, and that it matters – communicates himself through a plethora of character voices. Or how we can tell when we think an artist is being ironic, or isn’t.

I’m a lot more interested in how things work than what they mean. It would lead me towards rhetoric, especially at Berkeley, but my patience with and desire to sell spin wanes with each passing day at USD, and especially as we get longer into the Sequester.

Last Saturday night in Ocean Beach as I awaited my California burrito from Livingston’s, a man wailed on his trombone. He played that thing with gusto and effort. He was a burly black man with a gentle face and bearded features, and had gained a small but devoted audience of young women. He stood there and played without seeing them, his eyes tightly shut as he played his tunes into the night air, their sound echoing across Newport Avenue even over the bars and the drunks.

After he finished with a solo of sorts – a thundering one in which he for what seemed minutes did not take a breath – he opened his eyes to the audience and for the first time saw them: the faces behind the claps, the whistles and the cheers. He had maybe ten bucks in his case in tips, though he sold a few CDs. But he was an artist with an audience, without restrictions or anyone to tell him the meaning behind his songs. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a life or a Saturday night.