Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Robert Bringhurst: The Tree of Meaning

A Story as Sharp as a Knife was the first book of Robert Bringhurst’s that I read and I found it so interesting I began to look around for others.   The Tree of Meaning is a collection of essays, which were given as lectures on the subjects of language, mind and ecology.  Margaret Atwood wrote that ‘it’s one of those works that rearranges the inside of your head - a profound mediation on the nature of oral poetry and myth, and on the habits of thought and feeling that inform them.’   It’s also about how we use language to make sense of the world, and how we can learn the language of the universe and develop a sustainable relationship with it. 

Robert Bringhurst is known for his work on the mythology and literature of the Haida nation.   When challenged about why he spends so much time learning and researching ‘extinct’ languages, he responds that they are of great practical value to us.  ‘They are the legacy, after all, of peoples who knew how to live in this land for thousands of years without wrecking it.’

Like fossils in rock, these languages tell us a lot about ourselves as well as the people who used them and are a cautionary tale for the present. ‘A language is a life-form, like a species of plant or animal.  Once extinct, it is gone forever.  And as each one dies, the intellectual gene pool of the human species shrinks.’  We lose knowledge that can’t be replaced; we lose diversity and progress further and further towards monoculture.  ‘The structure of meaning,’ Bringhurst asserts, ‘is polyphonic’ - the more voices we lose, the nearer we get to monotony.   A culture is an ecosystem - ‘the community we create for one another’ that enables us to function as a human organism.

He refers to the colonial policies that have led to the mass extinction of languages and cultures.  Bringhurst thinks that the greatest danger to the planet is ‘those who think the world belongs to them’ rather than those who think they belong to the world.  Cultures are still being wiped out and Bringhurst cites the recent Bosnian war ‘where a tradition of oral, epic poetry survived from Homer’s time ....... now, at this moment, the villages in which those poets lived are rubble and mass graves.’

He homes in on our increasing numbers and the flawed logic of consumerism - ‘endlessly increasing material wealth for an endlessly increasing number of humans is a suicidal dream’.  I have to agree with him, particularly when he identifies the moment it all went wrong - the moment when commerce changed from a public service meeting the needs of the community, to a predator, creating needs and strengthening demands ‘turning them into addictions which cause material goods to turn into drugs’.   He doesn’t claim to have answers, but he asks questions and thinks around them in an intelligent way.
But he’s best on language and poetry.  All language, he reminds us, is metaphor - standing in for the thing itself.  What makes a poem?  In poetry ‘it is not the text that counts.  However remarkable this text may be, its poetic quality depends on its author having known how to keep alive in it the light of what is beyond language.’  And he’s very good on metaphor.   ‘In every tuneful metaphor, an interval is sounded.  It is heard in the mind’s eye, or the mind’s ear ..... Two disjunct constituents of reality are evoked, on top of one another, like two bells rung at once.  The interval is the simultaneous consonance and difference between them.’

Simone Weil wrote that the purpose of works of art ‘is to testify, after the fashion of blossoming apple trees and stars.’  Poetry, Bringhurst adds, ‘is the thinking of things’.  Though this resonates with me at an emotional level, I’m not entirely sure what he means by it in plain words. It made me think of Rilke’s lines from the Duino Elegies:

Are we, perhaps, here just for saying: House,
Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Fruit tree, Window, -
possibly: Pillar, Tower?... but for saying, remember,
oh, for such saying as never the things themselves
hoped so intensely to be.
A tree has its own truth, a plant or a rock, or a star - anything we say about them can only be at second hand - though as a writer I try to get as close as I can to Rilke’s intense ‘saying’.   Stories and poems grow like trees from the roots of our language - as human beings we crave them.  These are what Robert Bringhurst calls the ‘trees of meaning’, trees that embody the whole history of our culture and take their place in the forest of cultures that have grown during the lifetime of human existence on the planet.  Every tree that is cut down impoverishes our literature and our lives.

According to Bringhurst, the original text is the world itself, a text that we, in our urban, consumer-driven citadels, are increasingly unable to interpret, even as our scientific knowledge of it grows.  The general message of the book is that if we don’t see ourselves as part of the ecology - the forest - of the whole planet, if we continue to exterminate other cultures and species instead of cultivating diversity, we won’t survive, and our stories and mythologies will die with us.

It’s absolutely true, but I can’t help believing that somewhere, somehow, a small group of humans will survive the catastrophe and become feral and their language too will escape into the wild, throw down new roots and grow new branches.   I can’t imagine what it will look like, but on one of the twigs there just might be the story of a man and a woman, a utopia, and a fruit that gave forbidden knowledge and brought expulsion, destruction and ruin.

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