Can We Know the Meaning of Life?

Can We Know the Meaning of Life?

I realize I’ve been discussing meaning in other articles, namely in my Giegerich commentaries, but I thought I would jot down a few passing thoughts before they flit out of my head.

Meaning is a very nebulous topic. Some of us claim we are searching for “meaning in life,” or the lofty “meaning of life.” This sounds very nice, spiritual, and important. But do we really think about what we’re saying? Are we saying we want to translate life’s puzzlements and perplexities into something the rational mind can fully comprehend? The word, meaning, means “the end, purpose, or significance of something ( Can the mind comprehend the vastness of the universe? If we were to suddenly know “the meaning of life,” it would absolutely melt us where we stand. Just as Soul, in its unfathomable depths can never be traversed, just as God will never be rationally explained, so Life, too, will remain an enigma.

Trying to comprehend the meaning of life is similar to trying to interpret a dream. Let’s say you dream of a serpent slithering out of a cave. It is very large and frightening. It speeds toward you, encircles you, and begins to squeeze your body in its coils. Suddenly, you awake in a cold sweat. You’re a Jungian, a disciple of Jung. You have your dream dictionary handy (even though Jung told you not to use one). You, very meticulously, with the aid of your dictionary, weave a “meaningful” interpretation. There you have it! The dream now has meaning for you.

James Hillman wrote:

. . . the dream requires translation into waking-language either to extend waking-consciousness’ domain or to serve nature’s demands for the more broadened and balanced quality of consciousness. In developing my thesis further, I shall follow Freud and Jung both–but not only: Freud by insisting that the dream has nothing to do with the waking world but is the psyche speaking to itself in its own language; and Jung by insisting that the ego requires adjustment to the nightworld. I shall not be following them in bringing the dream into the dayworld in any other form than its own, implying that the dream may not be envisaged either as a message to be deciphered for the dayworld (Freud) or as a compensation to it (Jung) (Dream and the Underworld, by James Hillman, pages 12-13).

My comparison of life with a dream, I believe, is an apt one. Life is certainly like a dream; it just has a different kind of language, which is that of rational discourse. When we attempt to search for the meaning of life, we are saying we want to bring the mysteries of life into the dayworld. We try to drag all the answers to life’s mysteries up from the befuddling blackness of the Underworld into the light of rationality. It’s a Greek myth retold; the archetypal hero, Hercules, sets out, once again, on a journey to Hades. We view our so-called heroes in the light of Hercules’ victories. Hercules is the heroic ego of Western culture. Have you ever wondered why we are fascinated with solving puzzles and watching TV mysteries? 

One more point: a dream can have a multitude of meanings. The idea that there is one meaning for a dream, or that there is one ultimate meaning of life is a product of our culture’s insistence on a monotheistic worldview. In my view, it is not natural to posit One from the Many. Images have many meanings and we are all images, as is the Imago Mundi.

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