Types of Sense

A little while back, Hunan wrote a post about nonsense. He very thoroughly describes what it means for something to be meaningless. But how do we decide when something is meaningful? Sense isn’t entirely straightforward, and sometimes it involves a bit of nonsense.

What is sense? How do we determine when a sentence has enough grams of sense to satisfy our daily intake? What's the meaning of life, the universe, and everything? I'll try to answer at least one of these questions here.

Defined

The sentences I'm writing now make sense to anyone who understands English. If I'm careful, you won't point to any of these words and call them gibberish. The sense of these words is predefined by our knowledge and practice of the language, and supplemented by dictionaries and grammar handbooks. When we encounter a word we don't recognize in the midst of clear English, our first instinct isn't to call it baloney. We might look it up or try to figure it out based on context, or we might simply guess its meaning and continue reading. We "make sense of it."

English accommodates shared definitions and overlapping senses. That's why I can tell you about the gravity of a situation without labeling it in meters per second squared. It's also why you might have to inquire further if someone tells you that a friend "bought the farm."

Defined sense includes words from other languages now natural to the English vocabulary, such as "deja vu."

Linked

I remember reading a retelling of "Beowulf" that departed significantly from the original text. Thankfully we can look at one sentence without debating the author's liberties.

"Black bats flew there, with wings like coffin-lids."

This sentence makes sense, but it isn't quite the same as defined sense. I'm referring specifically to "wings like coffin-lids." Both wings and coffin-lids are predefined, but a new kind of sense emerges when we string them together. I'll call this linked sense. But what are coffin-lid wings supposed to look like?

Linked sense brings "wings" and "coffin-lids" together in a way that can't be accomplished visually, and it would be a stretch to say that bat wings really do look like coffin-lids. The words combine to form a graveyard tone rather than a discrete image.

Let's stay with coffins for a moment, as I'm reminded of peg-legged Ahab:

"While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap."

What is a coffin-tap, anyway? Did people go around tapping on coffins to prevent reruns of Poe's premature burial? The defined sense of "coffin" has no special meaning here. A comic book wouldn't write "coffin-tap" as a sound effect. But Melville's Ahab is a man half-dead, and his coffin-tap reminds us of that fact.

Linked sense extends naturally in some directions and not in others. If I have a car, and I tell you it's an oversized paperweight, you probably won't imagine me setting it on my desk to keep papers in check. More likely you'll think of a broken-down car that might as well be a paperweight. We can draw two conclusions here about linked sense: that it is ambiguous and imprecise, or that it is ambiguous and full of possibility.

The heart of linked sense is metaphor. It's the result of combining defined things in unique and undefined ways. Linked sense lets us get away with just about anything, though we should mind certain limits. "Bats with wings like burial urns," for instance, probably won't get the job done.

Undefined

Here’s some of Hunan's nonsense:

"T.S. Eliot is a prime number."

This is nonsense - within the limited parameters defined for "prime." But it sounds like something you might find in contemporary poetry. (Whether we choose to be comforted or discouraged by that is a matter of taste.) This non-sense must be interpreted in order to be meaningful. Because one person might interpret it differently from another, we can't reasonably call it linked sense: it just lacks universal definition.

Undefined sense lets us draw conclusions from phrases we might otherwise regard as meaningless. Poetry is a great source of these phrases: "I heard a Fly buzz - when I died." One could argue that undefined sense is really nonsense in disguise, but it’s the kind of nonsense we write in order to make sense out of something we don’t understand, like T.S. Eliot.


About my previous post, Essays & Essayists: If you really want to write about spats or other shoe covers, ornamental or functional, please. No one will stop you. There's a book out there documenting the history of salt (I hear it's actually pretty good). If we can learn something from that, it's that one should never be discouraged from writing.

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