Only things that have no value are free of charge; those things are worthless but nothing is meaningless. – Jim Murdoch, Milligan and Murphy
One man’s sunrise is another man’s sunset. It all depends on your point of view.
I have for a very long time been fascinated by words and their relation to meaning. I’m not the first to get caught up in this tangle and I have no doubt that I will not be the last. It never ceases to amaze me how as complex a society as we live in can function when so much of it is based on the vagaries of the communication process. I had never really considered that my novel Milligan and Murphy was a book about communication and yet, on closer examination, I find I do talk about it quite a bit:
Communication was a rudimentary craft when practiced here; there was no art in it. Words contained only their essential meanings and when they were emptied, someone filled them up again with exactly the same stuff.
“Say what you mean and mean what you say,” their mother had repeated ad nauseum throughout their childhood and so, if they were unsure what they were talking about which was much of the time, they tended to opt not to talk, at least around her. It was the course of least resistance; something they were practiced at. If they couldn’t call a spade, a spade they tended not to mention it at all.
If you've not read the book—which will be the case for a lot of you—let me give you a quick summary. John Milligan and John Murphy are half-brothers who have lived a secluded (and mostly idle) existence in a small, out of the way village in Ireland; physically they're grown men but with very little life experience. One day their mother sends them to a local farm on the outskirts of town to seek work but they never get there. At the road junction to the farm they meet an old tramp who gives them food for thought and they end up, for the first time in their lives, leaving town. Having left they have to decide where they're going and why but what they struggle with the most is understanding why they left in the first place. Throughout their journey they're helped by a variety of characters all of whom give more to think about as well as providing practical assistance.
Philosophers have long struggled to explain the correlation between words and meanings and it’s not surprising to find there is no easy answer. Let’s consider three points of view:
- the meaning of a word is the denoted object
- meaning is something in the speaker’s mind (idea, image, concept, intention)
- meaning is a set of conditions of satisfaction
All three can be illustrated with a single quote from Milligan and Murphy:
“I wonder if Mary will be in the pub tonight,” wondered Murphy out loud as he towelled his face dry. He would have been rhetorical but it wasn’t his way; mountains were there to be climbed and questions were there to be answered.
“Just Mary or The Two Marys?”
“Mary. Just Mary.”
“You’d be meaning Mary Maguire then?”
His brother sighed, folded the towel in half and folded it again over the back of his chair; it was its place. It flopped off onto the floor but he didn’t see fit to retrieve it. One place is as good as another.
“Milligan, are we acquainted with any other Mary? I mean, apart from The Two Marys and what would they be doing in a pub anyway?”
In Murphy’s mind the term ‘Mary’ is transparent. It is not that he doesn’t know there are other people in the world called Mary, it is simply that he didn’t mean any of them when he asked the question assuming the context would make it abundantly clear who he’s talking about.
At the very beginning of Herbert Clark’s book, Using Language, the author states his thesis:
Language use is really a form of joint action [...] A joint action is one that is carried out by an ensemble of people acting in coordination with each other. [...] When Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers waltz, they each move around the ballroom in a special way. But waltzing is different from the sum of their individual actions. [...] Waltzing is the joint action that emerges as Astaire and Rogers do their individual steps in coordination, as a couple. Doing things with language is likewise different from the sum of a speaker speaking and a listener listening. It is the joint action that emerges when speakers and listeners – or writers and readers – perform their individual actions in coordination, as ensembles. – H.H. Clark, Using Language, p.3
Of course Astaire and Rogers were professionals, at the top of their game. Most of us can’t waltz to save ourselves but it always takes two to tango.
Meaning, of course, can apply to an action or a sequence of actions as well as a word and this is something the two brothers struggle with. When Milligan and Murphy want the priest they encounter to tell them if they did wrong abandoning their old mother he has this to say to them:
“Gentlemen,” [the priest] began and then thought to soften his message, “Boys … lads … not everything in this life is reasonable. It is easier when you’re talking about good things and bad things. You murder a man in cold blood, for example, and then you think to yourself, Self, did I do a good thing or a bad thing? And your self says to you, ‘Look up Exodus Chapter Twenty,’ and you do and there it is in black and white. It’s a lot harder when it comes to reasonable and unreasonable things.
“You’ll have heard it said that everything happens for a reason. Well, poppycock! Simply because someone makes a statement like that doesn’t make it any truer than my insisting that the moon is made out of green cheese which it may or may not be; I have no empirical evidence either way. Yes, God has His grand plan – I have to believe that (it’s more than my job’s worth not to) – but it will come to fruition despite what we do not because of it. Make no mistake, we are all spanners in God’s works, you and I and everyone else. That’s what free will is all about.
“People do unreasonable things all the time – and by that I mean things for no good reason at all – and when they start to look for reasons why they did what they did in the first place they find there aren’t any. That doesn’t mean that answers won’t ever exist for what they did, however, the answer comes at the end of the sum not before it. How would you feel Mr Murphy, Mr Milligan if your schoolteacher had asked you one day what equalled four?”
“Two and two equals four,” fired back Milligan.
“Which can be true,” said the priest, “but what about three plus one or seven minus three or the square root of sixteen?” He had lost them there. “Reasons, if they exist at all, are always to be found before we do things; answers, once we’ve worked them out (if we ever figure them out), always come into being after the fact.”
The emphases didn’t help.
“So did we sin or not, Father?” enquired a now more-confused-than-ever Milligan.
“That … is for each of you to answer.”
Knowledge is one thing. Meaning is another. How often does someone say, “Oh, I know what you mean!” when the odds are they don’t really.
When people have to cope with difficult situations in their lives, they sometimes reassure themselves by saying that everything happens for a reason. For some people, thinking this way makes it easier to deal with relationship problems, financial crises, disease, death, and even natural disasters such as earthquakes. It can be distressing to think that bad things happen merely through chance or accident. But they do.
The saying that everything happens for a reason is the modern, New Age version of the old religious saying: “It’s God’s will.” – Paul Thagard, 'Does everything happen for a reason?' Hot Thought, 11 February 2010
Milligan and Murphy wonder about this. In fact as one point Milligan asks his brother if he thinks there's someone up there looking after them.
Don’t you feel as if someone’s looking after us?”
“Someone? You mean someone… up there?”
“I do not.”
“It stands to reason. God, or possibly one of the saints, maybe; if He’s too busy.”
In their case there is someone watching over them. We're never told for sure who he is—unlike Dan Milligan in Puckoon who gets to have exchanges with his writer—but there is a godlike individual watching over them. So they don't have free will. So their actions don't mean anything. Or at least the meaning is not of their choosing.
Knowledge consists of learned facts and figures, the raw data, e.g. I know that E=MC2 but I don’t understand it.
Understanding knows the meaning or reason of a thing. It is about knowing why something is, and how it is so. The more intelligent a person is the more they are capable of understanding but intelligence is not a guarantee of understanding; for starters I’m not interested in knowing why energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.
Wisdom is the ability to look past appearance into substance, to read between the lines, to know the truth of a matter. Not everyone draws the same conclusion from the evidence presented however. The apostle Paul proposes that the physical world provides sufficient proof of the existence of God (Romans 1:18-20) but, if that is the case, why do so many people choose not to draw that conclusion? Wise people know what to do with the things they understand. Clever people worked out how to split the atom but it wasn’t wise people who built the atomic bomb.
Actually Milligan and Murphy know quite a lot considering where they’ve been brought up courtesy of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia. That said, they’re not very bright and they spend the best part of the book hoping that, by following things through to their natural conclusion (whatever that conclusion may be), they will end up understanding why they’ve done the things they have and can move on from there.
Murphy, in a burst of uncharacteristic eloquence towards the end of the novel does his best to sum up why they need to go on.
“People, Mr O’Fallon, rarely find the things they think they’re looking for. You could be searching for a missing button and find an old ha’penny. Most of us don’t know what we’re looking for out of life but we don’t look very far and so we don’t find much that might fit the bill; you can only find what’s there to be found so you marry the girl next door, you drink in the pub on the corner, you work in the farm down the road and get buried in the cemetery on the hill. There are no choices so you make none.
“Columbus wanted to find a new route to the Indies and he ran into America; De Soto hunted for gold and came to the Mississippi River, and Ponce de Leon wanted a fountain of youth, so that he might drink the waters and never die, and instead of youth and life he found Florida and death. I have no idea what my brother and I will discover about the world we’ve been born into or about ourselves, Mr O’Fallon, but we know this: there’s nothing to be found if you go nowhere or if we go back there to spend the evenings, when one hasn’t even the price of a pint to one’s name, thumbing through Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia trying to locate photographs of half-naked Africans.”
“I see,” said the detective, “Seek and ye shall find.”
“… It’s more … proactive, looking for what you know you’ll never find rather than waiting for what will never arrive. Don’t you think?”
By that he means going looking for Godot rather than waiting for him.
The notion is not a new one. People spend their whole lives looking for something they don’t expect to find whether it be the Holy Grail, Mr Right, proof of extra-terrestrial life or the answer to that question they should have asked when they had the chance. Pragmatists insist that the meaning of an expression lies in its consequences. If that is true then the true meaning of the brothers’ actions probably cannot be assessed until many years later, possibly not until they die and there are no more variables to factor into the equation. That said, in some cases the significance of a person’s words or deeds carries on well after his death, e.g. the teachings of Buddha or the writings of Shakespeare.
There is also the danger that people come along and try to impose their own meanings on the words. The narrator of the book – who may or may not be God (or me playing God or a fictitious narrator playing God) – makes an important point about the search for meaning when he says:
There are coincidences in this life. Sometimes they make a difference, mostly not. What is this thing with humans? Why do they insist on trying to read meaning into everything? They can’t look at the stars at night or the clouds during the day and not make something out of them that’s not there. And just as there are optical illusions so there are mental illusions where the mind thinks it sees or understands something. Why did the chicken cross the road? Have you ever looked into the mind of a chicken? It has no idea why it’s crossing the road. It doesn’t even register that there’s a road there. What’s a road to a chicken? Chickens only know the here and now.
Beckett told Sir Ralph Richardson that “if by Godot I had meant God I would [have] said God, and not Godot.” For years people have wondered who Godot was or what he symbolises but all the evidence we have is what's on the page. And there are those who still insist he is God. Again, as Beckett recalled that when Richardson "wanted the low-down on Pozzo, his home address and curriculum vitae, and seemed to make the forthcoming of this and similar information the condition of his condescending to illustrate the part of Vladimir ... I told him that all I knew about Pozzo was in the text, that if I had known more I would have put it in the text, and that was true also of the other characters." Is the narrator of my book Godot? Until two minutes ago I'd never considered that possibility but if he is then perhaps that's why he's manipulating the two brothers' lives to get them to where they need to be to take over from Didi and Gogo. Every generation needs two of its own to wait for its own Godot.
Meaning is often something we impose on an object or a situation. Take, for example, the penny they find on the way out of town:
“I saw it first.”
“But I recognised it first.”
“That you did,” he conceded. “Still, there’s not a lot of luck going around, Murphy. We should be careful.”
“In what way?”
“Well, is it the finding of the penny that brings the luck or the act picking it up?”
“Ah, I see.” Murphy retracted his hand, stood up and stroked his chin. He considered the matter for a moment or two, then a moment longer and then suggested that it might require both the discovery and the recovery of the coin for a portion of luck to be devolved upon the fortunate individual.
At the end of the book all they are left with is a single penny between the two of them:
Between the two of them they had nothing left bar one penny, as it happens, the very penny they had come across in the mud; not that it is of any consequence, but it will be of interest to those of you out there who like to read between the lines.
Is that significant? Or is it a coincidence? We're so desperate to attribute meaning to things that there's a danger of us fabricating meaning. As Freud is supposed to have said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" and sometimes a penny is just a penny. It's not luck that has got them from their home in Lissoy to the coast but sometimes it's easier to believe in luck than accept facts where they lead you.
All things said and done, I’m a writer not a philosopher. I’m interested in making people think, not in answering questions. I have no idea what happens to Milligan and Murphy and I have no interest in writing a sequel. What I set out to write was a book about where we see a pair of Beckettian characters at the start of their adventures rather than, with Vladimir and Estragon, at the end. I wanted to write Looking for Godot and Milligan and Murphy was the end result.