Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Meaning is what we make of it. Momentarily.

“To live in the world without becoming aware of the world is like wandering about in a great library without touching the books.” (Manly P Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, 1928.)

Finding meaning is a thankless and purely human preoccupation, often amounting to obsession, come to think of it. Imagine the worst-case scenario of a man lusting after an inaccessible woman plucking petals from a hapless flower and going “She loves me, she loves me not”. Jesus Christ! Coming to terms with the likelihood of life being totally, blissfully meaningless is beyond the ken of most people. (P.S.: The “meaningless” hypothesis is also capable of taking coincidences in its stride.) Our family physician is a guy who would rather short-change himself than overcharge a patient whenever he happens to be short of change. On the other hand, I know another general physician who declares that many of his patients are crooks. They often diddle him out of his modest fees and don’t keep “firm” appointments fixed over the telephone. So, his relationship with this wretched lot is governed solely by his own interests, Hippocratic Oath or no Hippocratic Oath. For instance, when planning a pleasure trip, he doesn’t give a damn about how they will cope in his absence. He doesn’t arrange for a reliable locum, either. Those days are gone for good, he avers. (My niece who has her own clinic in Canada could not come to India to visit her ailing sister for a long, long time because she could not find a trustworthy locum.) If you want to read meaning into these random happenings according to conventional wisdom, the former as also the doctor from Canada are selfless and noble healers and the other Indian doctor, a selfish, conscience-less scoundrel in perpetuity. Then, there’s the curious case of a placebo doing the work of a medicinal drug to bring about a cure. Here, the patient’s faith and trust in the doctor and his prescription impregnates the make-believe medicine with meaning to make it do the job of the real thing, as it were. Trying to find meaning may well be a trespass into an alien culture at times. Picture, if you please, a Martian hopping into a Mumbai cab and, after being taken on a long and bumpy ride by the cabbie, concluding that all Mumbai cabbies are crooks. Or, alternatively, think of the same ET quitting the cab sans his weird-looking hand-held Meltdowner 5.0, receiving a call from the cabbie about his forgetful faux pas, retrieving his invaluable weapon and reaching the diametrically opposite conclusion about the integrity and honesty of the cabbie tribe in the megapolis. Then there’s an ad currently on the idiot box that has a somewhat plump, attractively attired and distinctly flirty young woman literally bumping into a young man in a mall to catch his eye and his fancy and then flitting around to lead him into a merry chase all over the place. Were they to be quizzed, I bet the ad agency and the client would try to pass it off as an innocent fun ploy to sell the soft drink. But the way she behaves on camera with cloying, come-hither coyness, she could well be a high-priced sex worker successfully turning a “trick”. Finally, the recent controversy about the pejorative label “slut” points to the temporality of meaning. The word was originally used to describe a dirty, slovenly or untidily dressed woman. It donned its offensive sense in as late as the late 19th century. Attire is still very much the context, though.