Huck gets close, but not close enough, to the edge

The Edge of Meaning
October 25, 2002

Each of us, according to James Boyd White, seeks "a way of imagining life as a whole, on which our own action and thought and speech, our own relations with others, can sensibly and effectively be based". White does not analyse this search nor explain what, exactly, it is a search for, but instead sets out to demonstrate a connection between two areas of thought where we make use of a notion of meaning: the meaning of a life and the meaning of words or other forms of representation.

White plausibly argues that how one conceives of one's self and of one's possibilities for action depend on the languages one has available. Suppose, though, that one finds no language able to capture the particularity of one's experience. Language itself, then, may become an object of critical attention. It is here that we meet "the edge of meaning".

This theme frames the various discussions within this insightful yet somewhat frustrating book. It is a book with a theme rather than a thesis, proceeding by way of illustration rather than argument. The reader is presented with the unusual puzzle of trying to work out what, exactly, this is a book about. Chapters discuss Henry David Thoreau's Walden , Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn , The Odyssey , reading Greek, the sentence as a vehicle of meaning, Plato's Phaedrus , the poetry of Robert Frost and George Herbert, a modern law case, and finally the art of Vermeer (in total, a sort of elite liberal arts course). Many, perhaps even all, of the chapters are wonderful. Whether they add up to a wonderful book is less clear.

Consider the three chapters that comprise part one. The first chapter, on Walden , explores the notion of sincerity; what it is to live a life of authenticity and what it is to attempt to find a voice to express oneself. In the second chapter, Huck Finn is introduced as a person on the edge of two worlds - of the town and of the woods - neither of which makes full sense to him. White focuses on the famous episode of Huck's friendship with Jim, the runaway slave, and Huck's inability to follow the promptings of his conscience that instructs him to turn Jim over to the slave-hunters.

Odysseus, in chapter three, is represented as moving between three worlds: of heroic Troy, of "the world of his wanderings" and of Ithaca. White's readings of these texts, in the light of the general theme of the book, are illuminating. But whether they really advance our understanding of meaning and its edges seems to me less clear. They are chosen, I think, because White has interesting things to say about them, rather than for any cumulative effect they may have in building an argument or definite position.

The three chapters in part two are more complex and much more unusual. We are taken through the translation of a fragment of The Odyssey , providing a salutary lesson in the virtual impossibility of translating any work in which the form of expression contributes in a significant way to its meaning.

Next is informal linguistics, in which doubts are raised about the usefulness of "what we call" the sentence, and continuing the theme of the previous chapter by focusing on meaning as a form of experience. This is followed by a long chapter on the Phaedrus , emphasising its complexity, and resistance to summary as a set of propositions. The open-endedness of poetry, law and painting are illustrated with style and panache in part three.

Perhaps, in the end, this a book about learning. White is an extraordinary polymath, and a little of what he knows is displayed and explored with great aplomb. Every chapter sets out to teach, some even with exercises for the reader. One comes away from the book with the sense of having had a number of fascinating lessons from a wise educator (who reveals snippets of autobiography as a coda to each chapter). But despite its initial promise, this book never quite turns into a sustained contribution to a debate about the nature of a meaningful life.

Jonathan Wolff is professor of philosophy, University College London.

The Edge of Meaning

Author - James Boyd White
ISBN - 0 226 89481 9
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £17.50
Pages - 301

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