Victor Nuovo: Lucretius and the Meaning of it All

Editor’s note: This is the 15th in a series of essays on Lucretius, an early philosopher who provides a link to “lost classics” through his epic poem “On the Nature of Things.”
So, what is the meaning of it all? The question keeps coming up, whenever one reflects on life, the universe, and everything. A philosophical naturalist has a ready answer. “No meaning at all.” Nature as a whole has no more meaning than the atom, which is the primary stuff of everything. It has no more meaning than the alphabet, an aggregate of sounds or letters. But this meaningless collection of things is instrument to a boundless universe of meaning. It’s like Scrabble on a grand scale, beyond measure. And so it is with the manifold of nature and human history spilling out on top of it. They are full of meaning, or rather they are sources of it, just as they are the sources of life, but sources need to be ingested and processed before life and meaning occur.
It is with respect to the latter that humanity enters in. All human meaning originates in the mind, or the brain — Darwin described thoughts as “secretions of the brain,” products of its ruminations; its hidden processes repeatedly burst forth in moments of lucid consciousness, of wonderful clarity and expressiveness, facilitated by words and a plenitude of symbols (sounds, gestures, facial grimaces), which though finite in number, are infinite in their result.
Without words our thoughts would evade our grasp, and we would each be imprisoned in our own mind, mere dreamers. Words are our liberators. This may seem cause for celebration. But one must be cautious. Words captivate too; they just as often entrap us. I am reminded of the ironical remark by the American poet, A.R. Ammons (1926–2001): “Grooming does for baboons most of what words do for us,” which is to say that they are more often employed as instruments of vanity than of wisdom. There is meaning in vanity, but those who are vain are last to know it.
Ammons made his living in words, so we must consider his remark carefully before we decide what it means. Ammons was one of the most celebrated American poets of the last century, which shows that he took his vocation very seriously; others thought so. Furthermore, his poems reveal affinities with Lucretius. His subject is nature. Another American poet, Richard Howard, has said it nicely: “Ammons is our Lucretius, swerving and sideswiping his way into the nature of things, through domestic doldrums, cardinals and quince bushes, fields of sidereal force, out into what he so accurately calls ‘joy’s surviving radiance.’” Ammons’ joy, however, does not break forth in ecstatic celebration; it is a joy in spite of our mortality, bittersweet joy.
I hope my philosophy will turn out all right and turn out to be a philosophy so as to free people (who are trapped, as I have been) from seeking any image in the absolute or seeking any absolute whatsoever except nothingness: nothingness, far from being failure’s puzzlement, is really the point of lovely liberation, when gloriously every object in and on earth becomes just itself, total and marvelous in its exact scope, able to exist without compromise out to the precise skin-limit of itself …
Ammons’ point, I believe, is this: Nature as a whole, which is all that is really real, has no meaning, but it is filled with meaningful things and happenings, diverse meanings and forms of life, some sad, some joyous, never far from death and the nothingness that follows, hence poignant and bittersweet. Poets, more than philosophers, are tasked with retrieving this meaning, so that it may fill our minds, and make them satisfied.
His interpreters like to point out his affinity with early Greek philosophers and Lucretius; like Democritus, he found all human pretense laughable. Furthermore, he was a materialist, and therefore deeply sensitive to the fact that all things perish and bequeath their remains to other things in an endless cycle of becoming. He imagined this to be the way of everything, and hence, the way of all flesh.
But whereas ancient philosophers whom he liked only consider two aspects of natural things, generation and corruption, Ammons ironically but meaningfully added a third: Everything comes to be, perishes, and is recycled. And he found nothing more representative of this cycle of existence than garbage heaps, “mounds or heights of discard,” which are the great monuments of human civilization, great Ziggurats of civilization.
To illustrate his point, or to prove it, in 1993 he published a long poem titled “Garbage,” which he dedicated “to the bacteria, tumblebugs (i.e., beetles), scavengers, wordsmiths” whom he hailed as “transfigurers, restorers.” If we interpret meaning as use, then, the fact that garbage dumps are alive is evidence of the creation of meaning: Bacteria and dung beetles do their thing out of sight, and if we can help it, out of smell, yet as recyclers, they discover and create new life and, for us, poignant symbols of existence out of the discards of civilized society.
Every garbage heap is a future archaeological site, a testimony to future generations of human life that went before, a symbol of its monuments and their inevitable decay. This may seem a grim but unmistakable truth, testimony to human extravagance, profligacy and environmental irresponsibility. It is fitting that Ammons dedicated his poem to bacteria and dung beetles. They are nature’s recyclers, envoys of the creativity of nature in the face of human folly and wastefulness. Everything is recyclable. And so far as one can tell, there is no end of it.
This, I suspect, is as close to eternity as we shall ever reach. It is not an unpleasant prospect. Indeed, there is much quiet pleasure in the thought of it, although it requires an ironic sensibility to see it. And it gives inspiration and useful occupation to the wordsmith.

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