324. Difficulty at the beginning (IV)
The pervasive meaninglessness often complained of in modernity cannot be resolved through objectives, plans, and cause-and-effect relations. While I am not sure what meaning actually is exactly, I can tell you what destroys meaning: lack of continuity. It is connected to the way in which a genuinely meaningful event is holistic; it is not quantitative, it is not broken down into a cause-and-effect relationship—even if such a relation has continuity, it is insufficient. Mathematics requires a developed memory that can recall each segmented step in a calculation as the mathematician progresses through it; and yet this continuous segmentation is not holistic, by its nature it divides into parts. Indeed, the first thing any maths teacher asks his pupils to do is to break the problem down into smaller parts.
This is why the creation of plans—say, for example, as I used to do, five-year plans for your life—will not create a meaningful sensation. The plan has continuity, but it is rational and guided by cause-and-effect relations; it may even be quantitative (e.g. earn £50,000 p.a. by 33)—and all this actually destroys meaning; and it cuts both ways, my desire to increase my salary is not different to the Soviet with his five-year plan. It is not so much that both are motivated by greed, for more money and for more production—though maybe that is so—it is more that the relation to reality is fragmentary.
Activities that are meaningful are holistic and non-quantitative, hence music is meaningful; and when we listen to music, though it could be described mathematically, we have no sense that it is determined numerically at the time, except insofar as our own intuitive sense of rhythm guides us; further, the piece is a whole. This is why classical radio stations, when such things were popular, destroyed classical music. These stations broke up pieces so that they could be played like pop music and so become commercially viable, e.g. a five-minute fragment from Beethoven’s 9th; and yet this destroys the entire organicism that gives the symphony its artistry.
Pop music is meaningless because it is instrumental, even if it uses instruments; it tends to be about sex and money, and these suggest targets or goals to be attained and so are ultimately meaningless. Classical music, by contrast, seeks to capture reality itself, its integral rhythm; and this amounts to the spirit or the soul.
Persistent questioning can also lead back to meaning. Spinoza noted that people resort to God when “why?” runs out; in other words, they ask and ask why something is the case, as with a child, and when at last they have no reason to hand they say: “Oh, it must be God.” Hence Spinoza held that “God” is just a metaphor for “I don’t know” and so can be ignored; but another way to think about this is that it is highly advisable to ask, “Why? Why? Why?” because the questioning will, as the Buddhists say, eventually knock you back to reality by a process that takes you beyond cause-and-effect relations—and this is what men really mean when they say “God”. The illusion is that meaning lies “beyond” or within an intellectual formula or life achievement; correctly, meaning is now—to look out the window at watch the clouds against the trees.
It follows that the place to find meaning is in nature—countryside, sea, or desert—and not in the cities, since the cities, especially in modernity, are entirely instrumental places designed from rational schemes. Medieval cities that grew up organically will be meaningful, since these tend to retain a holistic relation to reality; yet, overall, meaning must be found in nature—animals, wildlife, and so on; and in the birth of a child, since the child is a holistic entity and microcosm of the whole that reawakens us to the whole through its discovery of the world. In a pinch, in very dreary surroundings, you can always look at the sky.