While pondering “the meaning of food” is rare, pondering “the meaning of life” is common. Deservedly? Buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Your life and mine are not arbitrary symbols used by a third party to communicate with a fourth party. Don’t let sweating “the meaning of life” interfere with living.
Meanings are tricky. Colors provide a simpler way to explore some of the relevant ideas, but exposure to a common misuse of language may mislead some readers into objecting to the following subsection’s first paragraph. If U want to object, please wait until U have read §1.3. Don’t want to object? U can skip §1.3 but are welcome to read it anyway.
§1.1: What Color is the Number Six?
The question heading this subsection is inane, bordering on nonsensical. Many different kinds of thing have colors, but numbers don’t. Making sense is harder than just having sensible-looking syntax.
One of the ways that philosophy made substantial progress in the past century was the realization that some “deep” questions could be as inane as the one heading of this subsection. Determining which ones are really deep will take a while. Inane questions may sometimes be failed attempts to pose serious questions that might be more tractable with better wording, so some inanities may deserve more sympathy than the heading of this subsection.
§1.2: What Color is the US Flag?
Flags do have colors, but the question heading this subsection is still inane. The US flag is red, white, and blue. While mostly red, the Chinese flag also has some yellow. How many nations have flags of just one color?
Nobody is silly enough to speak of “the” color of a nation’s flag, but people often do fall into the trap of speaking of “the” thingamajig when there are in fact several relevant thingamajigs. I posted 4 varied examples (and there are many more).
It does make sense to say that white is the color of the stars in the US flag, that green is the color of the fake foliage in my Xmas wreath, and so on. But look at the ribbon on my wreath:
The color I see at any place on the ribbon is intricately context-dependent. Where is the light coming from? Where am I standing? While the solid red ribbons on other wreaths are easier to describe, my iridescent ribbon is prettier to see.
§1.3: Numerals Ain’t Numbers
For clarity and emphasis, I will wrap words in square brackets when I want to write about them rather than with them. Italics will be only for titles or foreign words; quote marks will be only for quotations.
Nobody confuses the English word [six] or the German word [sechs] with the number six. The words are names for the number, not the number itself. Likewise for the numeral , but people often do confuse numerals with the numbers they name. Now that Arabic numerals like  have displaced Roman numerals (and strings of them like [VI] to mean six) for nearly all purposes, the confusion usually does not matter. But it matters here.
One of the many kinds of synesthesia responds to reading various letters or numerals by also seeing various colors that are not in the text. It’s called “grapheme-color synesthesia” and discussed on many web pages, with some variations in details of the definition. (What about a color response to a whole word rather than just to a prominent letter in it? To a symbol like [@] that is neither a letter nor a numeral?) Close reading of the oversimplified definition in Psychology Today (and elsewhere) suggests that the authors were thinking of numerals when they wrote “numbers” in something like
Grapheme-color synesthesia occurs when
letters and numbers are associated with specific colors.
Some discussions of this kind of synesthesia do say “numeral” when discussing color responses to reading numerals, as they should.
I found one page that touches all bases and, despite prose obfuscated by refusing to use the word [numeral], recognizes the distinction between names and what they name. The Syntax Tree goes on to assert that some synesthetes do have color responses to numbers themselves, not to numerals. How could that be verified? The page does not say.
Suppose Ulrika Zweisprachen is bilingual in English and German. Suppose she sees the color lime green when reading a passage in English with the word [six], a passage in German with the word [sechs], or a passage in either language with the numeral . The number six does have the color lime green for Ulrika, but not by itself. Pedro Doslenguas may see orange when reading a passage in English with the word [six] or a passage in Spanish with the word [seis]. And so on. In short, numbers don’t have colors.
In a comment on a much earlier version of this post, Sue Ranscht remarked that [nonsense] (where [inane] appears now) was an overstatement. She also broadened my horizons about kinds of synesthesia. I had only known of the sound-color kind. Thanks, Sue.
The word [mole] has utterly different meanings in chemistry, dermatology, and espionage. Even if we suppose it makes sense to attribute a meaning to life, pondering “the” meaning of life may still be like pondering “the” color of the US flag, “the” color of an iridescent ribbon, or “the” meaning of [mole].
Like mathematical notations (and many hand gestures), words are arbitrary symbols with enough consensus about what they mean to support use in communication. Who uses life to say what to whom? Your life and mine are not arbitrary symbols used by a third party to communicate with a fourth party. Numbers don’t have colors and don’t need them. Words don’t have unique meanings and don’t need them. Life doesn’t have or need anything like “the meaning” of a word.
I posted 4 imagined responses by an old Yankee to a novice philosopher’s bloviations; one of the responses is
Wehrds need meanings; life don’t.
§3: How to Live
Maybe some concerns about “the meaning of life” are poorly worded concerns about how to live fully and righteously. Preferring the workable to the grandiose, I try to abide by a short list of simple rules:
- Have some fun.
- Do more good than harm.
- Don’t sweat “the meaning” of it all.
– above post (on phone) or beside it (on desktop). –
Click here to see episode 2 of the Writers’ Co-op Show Case curated by Sue Ranscht, which begins as follows:
Those submissions are due by the end of Monday, November 1, 2021, and will be published here the following Friday. Please attach yours as a .docx, .doc, or .pdf to an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Guidelines: any genre, approximately 6 – 1,000 words.)
– above post (on phone) or beside it (on desktop). –
Zen lore includes some stories with endings of the form
At that moment, __________ attained enlightenment.
Fill in the blank with the name of somebody who studied Zen for some time and finally saw the light when his teacher said or did something outrageously weird.
While my story Satori from a Consulting Gig does not presuppose any knowledge of Zen lore, it does have a surprise ending (partly inspired by those Zen stories) with my own way to fill in the blank. Using the past tense in my story’s last sentence helps make the allusion to Zen lore clear to those who might care about it.
Did I choose to write my story in the past tense because I planned to end it that way? Not consciously. I just set out to write a short story. I’ll write some fiction. I’ll use the customary past tense. Doesn’t everybody?
Not quite. I got over 16 million hits when I googled
present tense vs past tense fiction
much later, in preparation for writing this post. Before discussing some pros and cons that are out there (and some that may be new), there is a little more to be said about my story’s tense situation.
My story was written for an anthology whose editors asked the contributors to supply blurbs. I wrote a blurb in the same tense as the story, then noticed that other contributors wrote blurbs in the present tense for stories in the past tense. Why? I found the inconsistency troubling.
Another contributor (Sue Ranscht) kindly remarked that the present tense “creates a punchier tease” in blurbs than the past tense does. Indeed. Why not make the actual story (not just the blurb) be as vivid and engrossing as it can possibly be? Unless there is a specific reason to use the past tense, why not write in the present tense?
§1: Perilous Present
Written in the present tense, my newer story Entanglements begins with
Squatting over the airport, a thunderstorm supercell demolishes …
Yes, the word demolishes might be misread as (a typo for) demolished. Yes, the reader might be a little disoriented at first. Worse, the reader might suspect that gimmicky writing is camoflage for weak content. Such concerns loom large in a thoughtful page that recommends using the past tense by default and the present in some special cases. We can agree on the bedrock principle that one size does not fit all, even as we disagree amicably on where to draw some lines and how strongly to weight some concerns. That’s a respite from the train wreck of contemporary politics.
Dunno how 16 million hits in my Google search compares with how often the present tense has actually been used in good stuff. As good uses accumulate, the prudential reasons for defaulting to the past tense will gradually weaken. Of course, there will always be people who believe that the earth is flat, the moon landings were faked, and
Thou shalt write fiction in the past tense.
came down from Mount Sinai with Moses.
§2: Perilous Past
Readers (and writers!) may not be native speakers of English. As with many other aspects of language, English is exuberantly irregular in how it forms the past tense. People learn the past tense of a verb later (and less thoroughly?) than they learn the present tense. Can U hear the rumble of an approaching storm?
When offline (or distrustful of Google Translate), Pierre consults his French/English dictionary. How can he say prendre in English? No problem. Just say take. But Pierre is writing in the customary past tense. Neglecting to look up take in the other half of the dictionary, he says taked where he should say took.
Consider 3 common ways that verbs ending in -it can form their past tenses: hit/hit, pit/pitted, and sit/sat. Quick now: knit/knit or knit/knitted? Shit/shit or shit/shat?
There are a few verbs with 2 ways to form the past: an irregular usual way and a regular way for a special usage:
- Starting a road trip, the team flew out to Chicago.
Swinging at the first pitch, the batter flied out to left field.
- The picture was hung in a prominent place.
Nathan Hale was hanged as a spy on 1776-09-22.
This last nuance is subtle enough to trip up some native speakers.
§3: Perilous Past Perfect
Pierre is back. The draft of his story has a short paragraph about some taking that happened at an earlier time. Not fond of flashbacks, he has a good reason to put this paragraph as late as it is, not earlier in the narrative.
Sadder but wiser after being corrected by a ten-year old whose first language is English, Pierre refrains from writing had took for the past perfect for the verb take. He looks up the actual past participle and writes had taken.
Pierre’s pluperfect paragraph is grammatical but clunky. What to do? Rewrite the main narrative in the present tense and the clunky paragraph in the past. That will be a chore, but such a clear and distinct idea deserves the effort. Descartes would approve.
§4: John and Jane Get Tense
John has been writing screenplays that often use flashbacks. Now he wants to write a novel and still likes flashbacks. He realizes that readers would be confused if nothing but a paragraph break separates what the characters do and experience “now” (from their viewpoint) from the start or end of a flashback. There is a lot of sensible advice out there about things like narrative transitions to and from flashbacks, but John wants to stay closer to his cinematic roots. He uses the present tense for the main content and the past tense for the flashbacks. If he also switches to a noticeably different font for the flashbacks, that might be enough in most places (after narrative transitions for the first few flashbacks).
Jane has been writing historical fiction and using the past tense to make it look like history. Now she wants to write fiction with a first-person narrator and package it as a rather one-sided conversation with an implicit listener. She plans to keep the past tense for the main content and add some present-tense remarks, often in response to what the listener has presumably just said. The present-tense remarks will be frequent and incongruous. The narrator will tell a self-serving version of a sequence of events in the past tense while accidentally revealing the darker and/or funnier truth in the present tense.
I warned Jane that readers (especially impatient thick-headed guys like me) may just take the narrator to be ditzy and bail out early. But Jane is game to try. If she does make it work, I know a good place to submit her story.
§5: Recurring Rabbit
The Rabbit Hole is a series of anthologies of weird stories, with a troika of editors. Volume 1 came out in 2018, Volume 2 is scheduled to come out on 2019-10-01, and the editors hope to continue annually. Maybe Jane can contribute to Volume 3.
While every extended narrative in Volume 1 uses the customary past tense, Volume 2 will have at least two stories told in the present tense. No, the editors’ fondness for weird stories does not extend to a fondness for weird writing. As originally submitted for Volume 2, my story Entanglements did have some weird writing at the end that seemed unavoidable to me. One of the editors (Curtis Bausse) suggested a strategy for avoiding the unwanted weirdness, and the strategy worked. There was no fuss at all about my use of the present tense. That is as it should be.
The cloud images in this post were in an earlier post (for a photography challenge) that emphasized synergy between pastel pink and green. Now I am responding to a haiku challenge with emphasis on synergy between poem and image in a modern haiga (with a photo as the image). Haiku #2 uses the modern kigo abalone.
To those who have not seen many nacreous clouds, the poems’ metaphors might seem far-fetched. Presenting the photos along with the poems they inspired may reassure readers willing to trust that the photographers refrained from deceptive editing. I took the calm photo; Sue Ranscht took the dramatic one.
to old eyes.
Molten pewter clouds:
some are tinted pink or green.
This post ends with 2 haiku, each inspired by a photo of clouds imitating clams. I took the calm photo; Sue Ranscht took the dramatic one.
Tho I usually prefer deeply saturated colors, I love the pastel pink and green sometimes seen in a cloud, when the angles are just right in the triangle formed by the cloud and the sun and the viewer. At my latitude, it is a rare sight. I have had just one chance to photograph the elusive synergy of pastel pink and green:
[mother-of-pearl clouds] or [nacreous clouds].
There is also the marvel by Sue Ranscht that appears below. Fair warning: the image credit links to a post in a series, with a striking image for each episode in a fantasy epic. The series is so addictive that it hooked me despite my aversion to fantasies and impatience with epics.
to old eyes.
Molten pewter clouds:
some are tinted pink or green.