03 March 2013

The meaning of life

For some while, now, Julie Heyward's posted extracts at Unreal Nature have been strung on a theme: the provisionality of terms and ideas where living things are concerned. Even the words “living thing” are debatable, of course ... to what extent can you say that “I” (for example) am “a living thing” when my being is an ecology of interdependent cellular subpopulations, bacteria, mitochondria, viruses, and all the rest of the band, not one cell or particle of which remains unchanged from the moment I was born – after nine months in which “I” was an increasingly emergent but inherent part of another who bore me?
In Maggie O’Farrell's novel The hand that first held mine, this morning, I serendipitously encountered the following. One character is watching over his lover, who has been rescued by transfusion from catastrophic blood loss during delivery of their child:
He looks at the delta of veins at her wrist, the thin violet patterns in her eyelids, the trace of blue that runs through her cheek, the web of vessels at the curve of her instep. He wonders for the first time if they used just one person's blood to revive her or whether it was the blood of lots of different people. And whether she is still her, if the very blood that pumps around her body doesn't belong to her. At what point do you become someone else?
The provisionality and slippage of any link between signifier and signified (and its decreasing lcertainty as precision of definition increases – or vice vera) is, of course, common currency. Daily sociolinguistic intercourse (and daily social existence, for that matter) relies on us ignoring it, skipping rapidly from signifer to signifier without ever looking too closely and relying on Gaussian overlap to bridge the gulfs between. But there is something particularly awe inspiring about looking down between one's feet at the gaps in the very idea of what we are.
You have lost the idea of me” laments one character to another, in Russell Hoban's The medusa frequency. The idea of ourselves, of each other, is indeed all we have – a delicate thing that disintegrates into unknowability if examined more than tangentially.
Yesterday, Julie's restless eye alighted on the boundaries of definition for life itself. At school I was first offered five characteristics which defined life; another boy pointed out that they could all be applied to fire. Later, by a biologist with whom I was working, I was offered a single characteristic (negative entropy) which cast the net so wide as to almost be no definition at all ... and there, I think, is the key. In everyday intercourse, we all know what we mean by “life”; but when you try to pin it down to a definition, I genuinely doubt that there can ever be one which is both watertight and meaningful or even useful.
This distresses some. To me, it simply emphasises the wonder of both science and art ... and of existence.

  • Maggie O'Farrell, The hand that first held mine. 2010, London: Headline Review. 9780755308453 (hbk) 
  • Russell Hoban, The Medusa frequency. 1987, London: Cape. 0224024647.


Julie Heyward said...

Ms. Ant looks at Felix scornfully over her half-eyeglasses. "Young man, dead is dead. The signifier is inviolable. Next, you'll be telling me the dog ate your homework."

Dr. C said...

But can't you extend it to what is "conscious?" And even further, to what has Free Will? Ha, the rocks in the stream will have it next, she said.

Felix said...

But then, Doc, we have the roblem of defining "conscious" ... yet another arbitrary (and fuzzy) signifier!

As to free will ... as we know, that involves enough conundra to tie up a millipede for eternity, even after you have done your excellent multi part exposition :-)

Geoff said...

As a zen master once said;
"He who knows doesn't speak,
he who speaks doesn't know"
I've hard voices
seen the snakes
in the pit
been there
done that
and now know
the little me
knows nothing
and am glad
of that.