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Ask Dr. Salvo

June 20, 1995

Ask Dr. Salvo

Dear Dr. Salvo,

Your column of late has been rather frivolous, perhaps fetid at times, and it is time for you to get serious. In the past 8-9 years you have on occasion demonstrated that you could do without the slapstick and motley, descending creakily, it is true, from the nest you inhabit atop the 200 foot bald cypress on the Eastern Shore.

Perhaps this reproach sounds vague, but it is at least well intended. Many of us would enjoy an occasional serious discussion about most anything. The subject I would prefer is the meaning of meaning. Or, call it at the outset "the making of meaning." If this meets with your agreement I want to hear a series of three 8-hooter owl calls tonight before 9 P.M. No matter where I'll be at the time.

Meaningful Listener

Dear M.L.,

Thanks for bringing me back to serious thinking. It only hurts for a little while, then it is just as much fun as playing the fool.

Much of what I will say is pure opinion and prejudice, tendentious fragments of an argument I've kept up for forty plus years. It is my hope that some readers will take me seriously, enough to raise further questions. There will be loose theorizing in plenty. For example, do you believe the human mind behaves more like a thesaurus, (recall Roget's Thesaurus) or rather more like a big dictionary? Why? And so on.

Do you think that figures of rhetoric reveal some things about how the mind works in making meaning? Do you find any pleasure in these "tropes"?


Meaning does not just happen, it is made, [like law, case by case, by judges] by a person. Therefore keep in mind that the Universe in itself has no meaning. You will have to build it!

Meaning in the dictionary sense is defined [de-limited = limited], and denotative. It is unlikely that the human mind makes meaning that way, unless under artificial constraints, e.g., logic, mathematics, physics.

More probably the mind spontaneously works thesaurus fashion, making meaning in an additive, summative way, e.g., "the story means A + B + C + D + E + (N)" It does not unless forced to, say, "It means this only and not (Recall. Freud's idea, "the Ves has no negation -- or can't say no") B + C + D + E + (N).

The outcome, then, will be probabilistic instead of determined -- perhaps one could term it: the "major trend of all signals together strongly hints at such and such a meaning."

Furthermore it seems that meaning-making has an anticipatory character. It, the process, anticipates the answer to the question posed by the predicate and subject in the first part of a statement. Cite human sexual foreplay as prefiguring coition and suckling, etc., etc.

As in a sentence completion test, but more swiftly and subtly, people tend mentally and sometimes overtly, to complete what another person starts to say. [a "projection test"? but often fairly accurate guessing] Recall the passage in Love in the Ruins when the priest says, "The channels are jammed, the word is not getting through." His audience thought he meant the P.A. system, his housekeeper thought it was about the T.V., and so on. That is, people will take even a garbled or metaphorical message and make their own meaning out of it. Also, the brain's visual system accepts optic fragments of objects seen, and fills in the missing parts.

Figures of speech [Rhetoric] sich as metaphor ("He is a tiger") , or simile ("He is like a target") probably differ in the degree of conscious and unconscious assent they elicit.

Figures: of speech, of thought

trope, phrase, expression; image, imagery; personification, metaphor, simile, metonymy, synechdeche, catachresis, autonomasia, enallage; satire, irony; allegory, apologue, parable, fable.

Metaphor: he was a lion, or "the Lion of Judah"

Simile: she was like a fox, a breeze, etc.

Metonymy: W.C. Fields hit the bottle "in the White House has decided"

Synechdeche:three leagues away stood twenty sail (part for a whole?); bread, for food; or "the array," for "a soldier" Catachresis: strained or mixed metaphor, misuse of language

Autonomasia: "his honor" for the judge or use of proper n., "Quisling," for traitor

Trope: a turn of speech, a figure

We should reexamine these figures and experiment with them to find which are useful in bringing about change in patients. The same consideration applies to "the mechanisms of defense," Thematic Apperception Stories, and Rorschachs' responses.

Metaphor thus appears in the light of a ready-made [by the culture-language- history nexus], mental collapsing device, a synthesizing method. This may have had evolutionary survival value in that they are an aid in overcoming our "anti- meaning [entropic?] tendencies, which can be dangerous, and are typified by dissociation, repression displacement, isolation, etc.

These defenses too may well have had survival value in managing stress and emotion. But when they are overdone, the worser trouble starts. For instance "healthy denial" in the face of danger may appear as "courage." Unhealthy denial might take the form of rashness, foolhardiness, and self destruction. This is similar to Hans Selze's account of endocrine physiology getting out of hand under stress and continuing to operate protectively -- but now the protection is injurious. (Nature does not always know best!)

To return to meaning-making, we know that a continuous signal or an absence of signal conveys nothing. In the latter case, as in On The Beach, we might conclude that everyone but us is dead -- but nothing more.

Radio astronomy searches the universe for meaningful signals, i.e., some with a pattern and some repetitions, e.g., 1,2,3,4,5 pulses at a time separated by short "silences" "between pulses and "long" silences between clusters. (cf Morse code)

Thus the "and, and, and" of our own meaning-making is made meaningful by intermittent and final bracketing or "scoping." One can hear the short or long pauses, falling inflections, etc. in oral speech. In the written speech one sees various punctuation marks "standing for oral" (and mental?) stops, semi-stops, etc.

Tight narrow brackets [cf. tight, narrow people] may reduce the quantity of meaning attainable. Might it not also elevate the quality,via specialization? Eskimos have words for several dozen different kinds of snow. But what else is there to see or describe? Do they have a broad or narrow view of snow? Perhaps a narrow world leads to a "deeper" view(s) of snow?

-- June 20, 1995

The Harbinger