restricted access 3. Elemental Meaning and Gerard Manley Hopkins
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38 4HREE Elemental Meaning and Gerard Manley Hopkins An hour east of Seattle, in the heavily forested Cascade Mountains near Snoqualmie Pass, there is a short trail that leads from a side road off the freeway to a secluded clearing. In college days, friends and I used to make the drive from Seattle on sunny afternoons to sit and talk in this spot on the bank of a rushing stream called Denny’s Creek. On one such occasion, I became entranced by a spot in the stream where the rushing water near the far bank dashed into a rock and sprayed up into the air, droplets flashing in the sunlight in constantly changing movement. I became absorbed in watching the bursting into air of the water, always the same and always different, with the colors of diffracted sunlight in the spray contrasting with the solid green water . Fascinated, I watched with growing discernment of detail, moved and excited by beauty. I watched for a long time. What was I thinking while I watched? Well, in the usual sense of the word, I wasn’t thinking. I was watching and feeling and focusing and dwelling. I had fallen in love with this manifestation of beauty, and I focused my whole consciousness on it, seeing its elements more and more distinctly and their unity more and more fully, in an increasing tension of absorption. Absorbed, I wasn’t trying to figure out anything. I wasn’t thinking about why the stream was so powerful, nor wondering if the spray might photograph well. And I wasn’t trying to express in words what I was experiencing. I didn’t care what it meant. But it was still an experience rich with meaning. Elemental Meaning and Gerard Manley Hopkins 39 What kind of meaning? The kind that Lonergan calls elemental meaning. Let us examine what he means by this term. Lonergan on Elemental Meaning Elemental meaning is meaning bound to the level of experience, where something ’s meaning and its embodiment, or concrete presentation, are indissolubly one. The meaning is encountered in the experience and cannot be separated from the experience: one must have the experience to discover its meaning.Lonergan,to illustrate this notion,uses the example of a smile.When a smile, he says, acts simply as a spontaneous communication of meaning, its meaning is carried by and perceived in the facial movement that reveals one person to another. It is embodied meaning, and it communicates nonconceptually .1 Or, for a different kind of example, we might consider the meaning of a favorite movement from some symphony—say, the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Its meaning cannot be separated from the hearing of it. The music certainly mediates meaning, but that meaning is nonconceptual . Elemental meaning is precisely that meaning that interests or moves or fascinates one, but where there is no distinction between the “meaning” and what is “meant.” If you try to explain in words to someone the meaning the Adagietto has for you, you have moved beyond elemental meaning to linguistic , conceptual meaning. And you run the risk of sounding like an idiot. Now, although engaging elemental meaning is bound to the level of experience , this does not mean that the other central aspects of cognition, such as understanding, judging, evaluating, and deciding, are not also engaged—but they are engaged in a subsidiary way, as informing the appreciation of elemental meaning in the flow of experience.2 To return to that day by the creek, certainly not only my sensing, but my intelligence, too, was intensely engaged in my appreciation of that beauty of stream, rock, and sunlit spray. That is, my intelligence was apprehending the intelligibility in the data, but, in Lonergan ’s words, I was engaging that “intelligibility in a more concrete form than is got hold of on the conceptual level.”3 And in that absorbed apprehending, it can also be said that in some sense I was, as an “intending” conscious subject , simply “one with” the sensed and intelligible pattern I was experiencing. Lonergan uses the language of Aristotle to describe this identity of subject and object. He writes, “As Aristotle put it, the sensible in act and the sense in act are one and the same. . . . Similarly . . . intelligibility in act coincides with an intelligence in act.” The point, he continues,“is that meaning has an initial stage, which is the Aristotelian identity . . . and by elemental meaning I mean that first stage.” Thus...