“This is without doubt, but nothing against heaven, since heaven means, precisely, the impossibility of crows.”
Now there’s a verb I think about all day! “Means”. The scale of meaning is screwed up. Everything means too much, except for things that mean too little. The confederate flag, to people who want to like it: “oh, it doesn’t mean support for a slave-owning plantocracy!” (Of course it does). This is in large part a question of how much of what we say we are obligated to mean, and it — and its opposite problem, of meaning too much — is something that keeps me up all night and improperly focused on other things all day, so I am going to try to talk about it here.
The opposite problem I think about the most when I think about sports, which is too often. Tom Brady is one of, and possibly, the best quarterback of all time. But to a lot of people one of the things that “mean” that he is a great quarterback is that he has won four Super Bowls and only lost two. The most recent one that he won seemed like it might go into the L column, until Malcolm Butler (who is not Tom Brady) intercepted a pass from Russell Wilson (who is also not Tom Brady). Nevertheless, for a particular way of making meaning, this sequence of events was extremely important for the question of whether Tom Brady is a great quarterback (4 Super Bowls!) or (somehow?) not so great (he’s won as many Super Bowls as he’s lost!).
This is related, I think, to my ongoing suspicion — voiced earlier here on my sentence analysis blog — of knowing too quickly, at the beginning of a sentence one’s reading, where things are going to go. The more you can assume about how a sentence ends from how it begins, the less work you have to do, which is normally helpful and normally fine. Outside of growing bored during bar sports arguments, it doesn’t really matter if someone tells you that Malcolm Butler’s interception made Brady a better quarterback. “A championship type quarterback” is a thing that is easy to talk about, easier than getting into whatever specifics make up the Tom Brady story. And life is hard! Lots of things are good to do the easy way.
And yet: it does rankle, this gravitation toward the smoothly narratable, the desire to sand the edges of something that one has come across until all of a sudden it matches something we already know about and then we can fit it into a name we know. The struggle to make meaning is often the struggle to get something to fit under a meaning that is in our armature, and then to move on to something else. In both directions: this flag only means this, this interception entirely means that. I spend most of my life trying to figure out the right level of meaning to ascribe to everything, and I assume that I am almost never not wrong.
Professionally, I am supposed to be in the camp where anything can mean enough if we put enough into it. I spend a good chunk of each semester trying to get eighteen year olds on board with this idea. Why, I ask them, do they think that Nell Zink decided to have the protagonist of Mislaid decide to pass as an African-American woman? “Just because,” they say. “The book would be too short if she didn’t.” Which: true. But on the other hand: we are not yet utterly committed Wittgensteinians; we have not decided yet that there is nothing we can speak on and that all we can do is be silent. So we ought to say something; which runs into my troubles in civilian life, when I am constantly suspicious that things mean too much, that the right attitude is closer to a kind of Wittgensteinian quietism.
This long excursus on mostly sports has been in the service of talking about the sentence above, which is the second half of an entire story by Franz Kafka*. The first half of the story goes like this: “The crows maintain that anyone of them could destroy heaven.” And in case you’ve forgotten the sentence that we’re here to talk about, it is: “This is beyond doubt, but nothing against heaven, since heaven means, precisely, the impossibility of crows.” And because of what I think about all day, as I’ve tried to describe in the foregoing, I am so keenly interested in, and half in love with, Kafka’s “means” there. What could this possibly mean, that heaven “means precisely” (precisely!) the impossibility of crows?
*(One of these days, I might have something to say about a story of Kafka’s that is only one sentence long, and which the great Donald Barthleme used to demonstrate what good sentences ought to do; as a sneak peek, it’s about leopards and has, if I remember rightly, two semicolons).
Obviously it does not work the same way as the confederate flag meaning what it means, or Malcolm Butler’s interception failing to mean what it is purported to mean. The abstract condition is introduced last, even though it is the title of the story (“Impossibility of Crows”); it is preceded not only by an outrageous threat — the destruction of heaven — but also by the marvelous announcement of the belief maintained by the crows, and also by the wonderfully forgiving dismissiveness with which the speaker grants the crows their long maintained belief. (I am putting a little plug here to once more announce that someday soon I will write about my favorite sentence, but also to point out that this gem from Kafka might be my second favorite sentence). And it all comes down to what heaven means, which is the impossibility of crows. What could meaning there possibly mean — as a metaphor? a metonymy? an allegory? I have no idea. And that is why I love so much this sentence, and its rich resistance to meaning too much or too little.