We usually pretend that words are neat little signs which point at things. The word "elephant" points at a great big thing with a trunk and floppy eats and a disconcerting tendency to hide in rooms where embarrassing subjects aren't being discussed. That's because we've agreed to use "elephant" to mean "big grey pachyderm". We might have agreed to use "elephant" to mean "skinny blueberry muffin" or "counter-reformation". The staff in Starbucks get confused if I ask for a tall Americano and an elephant, but "gay" means "joyful" whatever the confirmed bachelor lobby want to pretend it means.
If I say "the cat was lapping up the cream" you think of a little furry thing that likes sitting on mats. But if I say "the cat was laying down some hep riffs, man" you spot that I'm talking about a fashionable black American from the 1950s, and not a furry animal at all. But for some reason, if I say "Blackbeard punished the sailor with the cat" you don't imagine the pirate thumping someone over the head with a jazz saxophonist. Or maybe you do.
Suppose I write a story in which the main character sees a whale. You know what I mean by "whale". Big fish shaped chap, lives in the sea, squirts water out of its head. But when I say "whale" you don't only think of the big swimmy mammal: you also think of Jonah, who was swallowed by one; and Ahab, who chased one; and hippies, who want to save them. And you probably also think of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home which probably made you think of Moby Dick. And One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing and Pinochio – which were intended to make you think of Jonah, whatever intended means.
If I'm a clever author, I probably know that if a guy in my story goes hunting a whale, then you'll probably think of Captain Ahab. But Moby Dick is such a big famous story that it will spill over into my little story whether I intend it to or not.
A lot of perfectly sensible people thought that the title of the movie "The Passion of the Christ" meant "The Really Strong Feelings of the Christ", "How the Christ Got Really Really Angry" or even "The Love Affair of the Christ." Once upon a time "He loved her passionately" meant "He loved her so much it hurt". But we don't use the word "Passion" in that sense any more. And poor Mel couldn't stop the title meaning a thing he didn't want it to mean, however much he say at home in his room "intending" really, really hard.
It would be very nice if words and symbols all contained nice little nuggets of meaning, in the same way that Christmas puddings contained sixpences. But they don't. They mean lots of different things, and when you put them next to other words, which also mean lots of different things, they mean even more different things. Most of the time, the best we can do is pay attention to who is saying them, and to whom, and where and why and when and make a sort of guess as the kinds of things they probably mean this time.
This is scary and disconcerting and counter-intuitive. People with Aspergers, I'm told, find it particularly hard to deal with. Why, they ask, can't people just say what they damn well mean?
The totemic text during my English degree was not The Golden Bough or Hero With a Thousand Faces or The Interpretation of Dreams: it was Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory. I can't remember if I read that, either.
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