When I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking earlier this summer, I was particularly struck by a passage where Didion writes about finding meaning in geology:
“As a child I thought a great deal about meaninglessness, which seemed at the time the most prominent negative feature on the horizon. After a few years of failing to find meaning in the more commonly recommended venues I learned that I could find it in geology, so I did. This in turn enabled me to find meaning in the Episcopal litany, most acutely in the words as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, which I interpreted as a literal description of the constant changing of the earth, the unending erosion of the shores and mountains, the inexorable shifting of the geological structures that could throw up mountaintas and islands and could just as reliably take them away. I found earthquakes, even when I was in them, deeply satisfying, abruptly revealed evidence of the scheme in action.”
Later, she quotes a passage from one of her own novels, in which a character talks about viewing the landscape around her through the lens of geology, so that “A hill is a transitional accommodation to stress…A waterfall…a self-correcting maladjustment of stream to structure.”
I never thought about the world in this way before.
Right now I’m reading a novel called Russian Winter, by Daphne Kalotry, that’s slated for release in September. I’m only a few chapters into it, but the book revolves around jewelry which the young ballerina Nina Revskaya brought with her when she escaped Stalinist Russia for the United States. Years later, in present day Boston, she has decided to auction off her jewels to benefit the ballet company she danced with during her career.
The associate director of the auction house she has chosen is writing the background matter for the auction, and she thinks about one of the pieces, an amber necklace, in a way that remembered me of Didion. She “consciously viewed the pendent as a jewel with its very own private and organic past. A gemological creation of the natural world, nothing to do with human travails.”
I know this passage is tiny compared with the quotation I took from Didion’s book, but the two interest me in relation to one another because they demonstrate the diverse origins of meaning, or meaningfulness, and the way that things change when we interpret them differently.
I don’t know whether it’s more that we see meaning in the things that speak to us, the way geology speaks to Didion and gems speak to Drew, or that we read meaning through whichever lenses suit us best. I guess the question I’m getting at here is “where does the meaning originate?” In the fault lines or the amber itself, or in our interpretation of these natural occurrences as meaningful?