It’s all so meaningless, we may as well be extraordinary. ~Francis Bacon
As I have before, I found myself again struggling with the term, “meaningful.” It is a term I use quite frequently in my writing when relating to the things I want to experience and to express in my work—the things I consider the most profound and important essences of living and creating. It seems only appropriate that I should be able to articulate what I mean by it.
Psychologist Eric Maisel, in discussing depression among creative people, wrote, “Creators have trouble maintaining meaning. Creating is one of the ways they endeavor to maintain meaning. In the act of creation, they lay a veneer of meaning over meaninglessness and sometimes produce work that helps others maintain meaning. This is why creating is such a crucial activity in the life of a creator: It is one of the ways, and often the most important way, that she manages to make life feel meaningful. Not creating is depressing because she is not making meaning when she is not creating.”
I’ve been contemplating Maisel’s words for some time. When I first read them, something didn’t quite seem right. If creators manage to find meaning, why do they have trouble maintaining it? Do the things we find to be meaningful at a point in time inevitably cease to be so after a while? And, as one who is convinced that existence as a human animal on a small planet in some insignificant part of the cosmos indeed is quite meaningless by any objective measure, and as someone who is not prone to superstition and myth, do my attempts at making meaning amount to self-deception?
Maisel may be relieved to know that after much thought I concluded that I agree with his points, albeit with a small caveat. Yes, I do believe that meaning is fleeting; that new meanings need to be found—and older ones reaffirmed or supplanted—with some consistency. And I do not believe that in considering my work or my life to be meaningful I am deceiving myself, despite believing that ultimately all existence—at least so far as we are given to understand it—is meaningless. The caveat, for me, is this: in my work I don’t make meanings, I express meanings found by other means.
The paradox of meaning in a world that is—by any objective measure and rational analysis of reality as we know it—meaningless, is resolved only when meaning is asserted not in objective things, but in subjective experience at a point in time. My emotional gestalt—the sum of thoughts and feelings I experience right now, whether “real” or not—is the only thing I can defensibly consider as real and meaningful. Some meanings may persist as I journey in time, some may change and new ones may arise. My experience may be influenced by physical sensations, inner reflections, creative epiphanies, knowledge and speculation; but it can only be considered as meaningful in a subjective sense, and at the time I experience it.
This is not to argue with anyone who finds solace in faith or in mystical intuition about the meaning of existence and consciousness. I respect those who do and at times also considered such notions. For better or worse, however, my own mind is incapable of such leaps without at least a model that is convincingly consistent with objective, scientific, rationale. Anything I can plausibly doubt—or that does not reconcile with knowledge accomplished by reason—I am incapable of accepting as meaningful. Faith, to me, is not a fixed quantity; it is the gap between what I know and what I don’t know—a gap that, by definition, must constantly shift, adjust and change as my knowledge grows and evolves. I acknowledge, however, that some things will for ever remain unknowable to me, and in those I find philosophical thinking to be a more powerful tool for placing my wagers on what is most likely to be true than any fixed scripture.
In acknowledging that meaning is both subjective and transient, I can, in the words of Eric Maisel, “lay a veneer of meaning over meaninglessness,” and it is why I ultimately agree with his characterization.
As stated, I do not feel that in my work I am making meaning but rather expressing meaning—meaning found in subjective experience, only a small portion of which has to to directly with art. This is of great importance in explaining my choice (random and unintended as it was at the time) of photography as my means of expression. I do not doubt that, for many artists, engaging in creative work serves as a catalyst to great epiphanies and meaningful inner experiences. For me, however, the most profound experiences almost always are experienced in the wild, removed physically and emotionally from the mass of humanity. In the height of such fleeting sensations, photography is so far the best tool I found to express what inspires me, not by virtue of the camera’s power to capture objective appearances, but due to it being an intuitive means of employing literal aspects of the experience as visual metaphors for my inner feelings, in real time.
As Maisel’s discussion explicitly links meaning with depression, I wish to also address this topic. I have been prone to episodes of depression for as long as I can remember, and long before I became an artist. What I concluded from personal experience, and what some likely may find difficult to reconcile, is that at times the solutions for depression may be worse than the problem. With quite a long history of self examination, as well as a good amount of research into the psychology (and to a degree also the physiology) of both happiness and depression, I came to believe that inner peace is not for everyone.
In the past I attempted to pursue inner peace as a goal, by means of meditation, and on the occasion that I managed to accomplish a semblance of it I learned this: it did not suit my temperament. More to the point of this essay, what I discovered is that I am not incapable of accomplishing inner peace, but that inner peace is—at least to a significant degree—incompatible with my emotional make up: despite finding the experience elevating, relaxing and joyous, it did not feel meaningful to me.
Depression is a severe and painful condition; it is a pain for which there is no equivalent in the physical realm, and those who do not have personal knowledge of it understandably may be dismissive of its, lacking a frame of reference. In severe cases depression can be fatal, too. Alas, having struggled with (at times severe) depression, I also realized that I could not live the idyllic life, not because it lacks in joy and satisfaction but because by nature I crave mystery and intense sensations, which to me are essential to a meaningful life; and I am willing to put up with a (quite high, at times) degree of inner conflict—even the occasional bout of utter misery—in order to experience them. I have come to accept that in order to experience the highest highs that I am capable of, it is necessary for me at times to also experience very low lows.
And so, when I use the term, “meaningful,” it is not as mere platitude, linguistic flourish, or for dramatic effect. What I am referring to are things—both joyous and painful—that are essential to my living experience; and without which I would not be the person that I am, let alone the artist that I am.