- Pope Francis named Time’s ‘Person of the Year’
- Ben Affleck: Fundraising for Democrats started to ‘feel gross’
- Vladimir Putin orders military to boost presence in Arctic
- Brooklyn, N.Y.: ‘Lesbian capital’ of the Northeast
- Elian Gonzalez: It’s America’s fault that my mother died
- India top court rules homosexuality is illegal
- Aaron Hernandez, ex-Patriot, on prison life: ‘I’m way less stressed in jail’
- Man pulled from water believed to be disgraced D.C. cop
- Kabul airport hit by suicide bomber who targeted NATO gate
- Space probe on course to land on mile-wide comet
Life’s vexing question
“There used to be a debate in literary criticism about whether the meaning of a poem is somehow already there in the work, waiting for the reader to come and pluck it out, or whether it is something that we, the readers, bring to the poem. If it is we who invest the poem with meaning, then don’t we simply get out of it whatever we put into it? In that case, how could the poem ever surprise us, or make us feel that it is resisting the way we are trying to read it? There is an analogy here with the idea that life is what you make it.”
Ultimately, we cannot create ourselves ex nihilo, we cannot “start from scratch,” for “we are already plunged deep in the midst of meaning, wherever it is we happen to find ourselves.” “Any meaningful life plan which fails to accommodate the realities of kinship, sociality, sexuality, death, play, mourning, laughter, sickness, labour, communication, and so on is not going to get us very far.” These “universal aspects of human life” bulk so large in any individual life that, in the end, “Many of the central features of personal life are not personal at all.”
In the final chapter, Mr. Eagleton gives what turns out to be an extremely traditional answer to the meaning-of-life question: We attain our own happiness by loving those around us and being loved in return. As jazz musicians flourish independently in musical freedom, so we must exercise our own freedom to love each other and promote the flourishing of all. This is, as Mr. Eagleton points out, pretty much the answer Aristotle gave, or perhaps the answer he would have given if he had ever heard jazz.
This traditional, common-sense conclusion calls to mind the ending to “Monty Python’s” film treatment of The Meaning of Life: A talk-show hostess opens the envelope and says, “Well, it’s nothing special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”
Mr. Eagleton probably would not mind the comparison; he includes two stills from the movie in his book and writes in his preface that he is trying “to treat a high-minded topic as lightly and lucidly as possible, while at the same time taking it seriously.” But as G.K. Chesterton recognized a century ago, “It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch.”
“The Meaning of Life” may be “light” relative to how much more a scholar like Mr. Eagleton might have said, but it is still a work that demands close attention from readers who are already well grounded in literature and philosophy.
Mark Grannis is a lawyer in Washinton, D.C.
By Donald Lambro
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