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  Meaning and Plurality  
Copyright © 1998,
Dorian Scott Cole
Seventh in a series about adding 
meaning to characterization

Can you create...? | Plurality of meaning | Thinking alike |

Can you create...?

Can you create a character who wants to return to prison - that is, for whom prison is the right environment? How about a character who wants to go back to Communism or a dictator? How about one who wants to remain unmarried or childless? Or one who rejects religion, or one for whom a very strict fundamentalist religion is the right one? How about someone who values being poor? Or how about someone even more abstract: a good thief among bad thieves - honor among thieves, or family values in the Mafia. Imagination doesn't always create believable characters. Creating these characters can require an ability to understand other's value systems (things which create meaning for them), as well as understanding the many different influences that shape their lives. Meaning can be different for different people - meaning is plural.

Plurality of meaning potentially has wide application in society. It doesn't mean (in my opinion) just tolerating religious differences in our melting-pot world. It means accepting other's cultural differences, political differences, psychological and sociological differences, philosophical differences, etc. It means seeing others as unique individuals for whom our singular conceptual ideal doesn't necessarily apply. Having a broader perspective can mean tolerance, and it can also mean understanding a variety of meanings. 

We tend to see the world through the eyes of what we need, what we are accustomed to, how we believe the world should be. For example, Americans tend to use the words freedom, freemarket, and democracy as alternative words for government and God. Who could think anything else could be appropriate? Yet the US government is not totally democratic - it is a representative government. American citizens don't make choices, their elected representatives do. And there are a number of socialist economies on the face of the earth that seem to work well, as well as a number of different kinds of political systems. So while we may know that some things often lead to disaster, we can't say that our thing is always right for everyone.

Plurality of meaning

I was going to focus this article on certain things, but I read one book that parallels very closely the best advice that is given to writers. But the book wasn't about writing, it was about religion. It bolstered my feeling that there is a mystical leaning in most writers. (Incidentally, I'm a Christian, and not promoting any religion - except the value and problems of religions.)

The mystics in all religions have typically been the unexpected stranger who shows up and then decides to stay - welcome or not. Individual mystics claim to have a direct channel to God. Unlike the meditation of those who are contemplative, the mystic's meditation is transcendental - it transcends time, place, person, and goes directly to God. When the mystic describes the mystical experience, religions can't quite fit the mystic into their conception of God as expressed in their doctrines and teachings. So the mystic is viewed with considerable skepticism and treated as an annoyance if not an outright rebel - they challenge the authority of the religion, and particularly the authority of those responsible for guiding the people. But unless you can discredit the mystic, you can't just take them out and burn them, which makes them a real challenge. 

Many mystics have gained the historical acclaim of their religion. The Christians have had many mystics during their history, and the Muslims have the Sufi mystics, who are of the Ismailis people of Iran, and who are of the Shi'i Muslim faith. Historically the Sufis have gained wide respect and influence not only among Muslims but among others as mystical writers and poets. 

One distinguishing characteristic of the Sufis is that they embrace multiple interpretations of meaning. They don't just tolerate it, they encourage and understand pluralism. One reason given for this is the limits of people's capacity to understand. For example, where one person sees a simple bowl, another sees the labor, tools, and materials that were required to make the bowl (experience). Another person sees the food products served in the bowl and the satisfaction of hunger for all those who use it (practical). Yet another person sees how the utilitarian value serves the people and helps a nation grow (conceptual). And finally another sees it as a vessel holding offerings or communion used in a religious ceremony (symbolic). So while one person is limited to, "a bowl is a bowl," another sees what that bowl means in much more abstract ways. All the meanings are completely true. 

The discouraging tendency among people as they grow is to abandon the "embarrassing" lower meanings of things in favor of the higher meanings. This makes meaning exclusive, not inclusive. As the world grows in knowledge, the tendency among intellectuals and religious leaders is to declare the teaching and interpretation of knowledge and faith to be their exclusive domains. Others do not have the right to knowledge or legitimate religious experiences without the official stamp of the elite. 

So arrive the Postmodernists who are skeptical of "metanarratives" and people with exclusive rights to define knowledge. While we as a society once laughed at witch doctors, today pharmaceutical companies cull folk remedies for wise and more natural medicines. While many have become skeptical of religion and faith, today the power of prayer (both personal and from others) is studied scientifically and confirmed, or even demonstrated to have dramatic results. The past has become less embarrassing to the present. 

How do the modern Ismailis escape this cynical, skeptical view of the world? How did they manage to become, and remain, so pluralistic in their views? Rafique Keshavjee of the Institute of Ismaili Studies, studied the Ismailis to learn why, and published his findings in Mysticism and the Plurality of Meaning, 1998, Islamic Publications LLC Their attitude can serve us all well, and Keshavjee discovered the following points that influence their attitude:

  1. They hearken to a legacy of multiple meanings. They want modern knowledge for their young people in order for them to do well, and they contrast modern Iranian religious ideas which are influenced by "official" or print religious views with their great ancestors, who had the insight to grasp multiple layers of meaning.
  2. They view meanings conceptually and realize that the idea can't be totally separated from their environment. The environment is the people who live the idea. It is through them that the idea becomes alive, not in the written literature or the religious intellectual. It is the people who interpret the meaning of the concept. The idea is expressed experientially. 
  3. Unity plus diversity. Despite diversity of opinion between various groups, they unite annually on sacred occasions to revisit the past and reunite it with their daily lives, yet they dine separately (not as a group), emphasizing the individuality of their beliefs. 
  4. Investigation instead of blind following. They freely (and often passionately) debate serious matters that define the boundaries of their community. They do not believe in literalist imitation. Instead they believe in allegorical interpretation. 
  5. Living faith, not pie-in-the-sky. Their intent is to encounter the spiritual here and now, and not settle for the promise of after death. 
  6. Internal source, not external. They look to the spirit within themselves, not to an external source. They believe that the source of all great achievement, such as in technology and rationality, is the spirit within. 
  7. The spirit is demonstrated through life. They do not separate the spiritual world from the everyday world. For example, they consider worship as nothing more than service to mankind. Life without serving others is worthless.
  8. Their fundamental question is, "What does it mean to be human?" This question bridges the human and the spirit within. Self knowledge is a process. 
  9. Dynamic religion. Their religion changes with them, accumulating wisdom. 
  10. Each of them are teachers to others on the path, and students to those before them on the path.
  11. Multiple meanings plus imagination. In interpretation, what counts is the ability to understand the different levels of meaning. The person's capacity to understand meaning is the key to interpretation. Imagination is what they contribute. 
Keshavjee felt that allegory was critical to their embracing history: 
  1. Allegory turned history into a metaphor for the inner life, allowing them to distinguish between form and essence, and even to change form to preserve essence. 
  2. Allegory enabled them to go beyond the literal, emphasizing interpretation.
  3. Allegory works as a mirror for personal ethics, shifting debate on ritual to spiritual significance.
It seems clear to me that an active inner spiritual life has focused the Ismailis on the purpose of religion. They escaped the trap of substituting things that symbolize religious concepts, such as ritual and mimicking text, for what religion was supposed to accomplish in their lives, such as understanding, service to others, and growth. (Similar ideas, of course, are echoed in mainstream Islam and the teachings of other religions. The Prophets of ancient Israel, for example, often spoke against thinking religious rituals made them good while they continually mistreated their fellow man.) By focusing on purpose, the Ismailis did not get trapped by form. In other words, the symbols of religious experience didn't get substituted for the purpose of it. 

I have often seen the perversion of society rules, organization charters, and religious teachings. What people tend to do is bend these things to preserve their particular way of life. For example, government organizations soon develop the main purpose of perpetuating themselves. Social mores often develop into a mechanism for excluding others and separating one group from another. Religion often becomes a social club with the main goal of promoting the desires and beliefs of the participants. In religious groups, politics, business, social division and exclusion become synonymous with God. So when the desire and purpose of the group is threatened, it is perceived as an attack on the original purpose of the group. (I don't mean by this that these tendencies are true for all.) Extreme examples of this are Neo-Nazi groups, the Ku Klux Klan, and white supremacist groups. 

By looking to the spirit within, instead of to outside authorities, the Ismailis' focus remained on interpretation, meaning, and purpose. This was assisted by debate. They did not consider the form and teachings of their religion as locked, unchangeable. It is a dynamic religion that can change with them as they change, and whose new meaning will become clear as they grow. 

Thinking alike

Writers and the Ismailis think alike. Writers think about the human condition; the Ismailis think about what does it mean to be human? The Ismailis look to the spirit within for guidance; writers have characters find the resources within themselves (usually) to solve their problems. Writers draw meaning from a story; the Ismailis find multiple meanings within a story. The Ismailis express spirituality in their actions; writers express character intent through character action. Imagination takes an active role in Ismaili interpretation; imagination takes an active role in a writer's story. What we can learn from the Ismailis is to keep purpose paramount in our minds. Not to confuse purpose with training, format, or symbols - form vs. content - and to keep the context in mind. Purpose reflects the true ideals of the person or group, even when it isn't reflected in the activities of the participants. 

What is the purpose of a character who wants to remain in prison? Possibly to maintain the status-quo - a way of life that he has learned and accepts, so to avoid the challenges (threats) of the outside world. What is the purpose of the person who wants to remain unmarried? Possibly to pursue some job that isn't compatible with marriage (such as those with high and unexpected travel). Possibly to avoid the challenges (threats) of getting along with someone else. Possibly to avoid rejection. 

In developing characters, a character's purpose should be clear as a bell in the story. The audience should have no doubt what the character is about (unless confusion is part of the character's story). It is the character's purpose and the antagonist's purpose that collide and create conflict. The repeated conflicts, that come as the protagonist and antagonist try to reach their purpose, form the plot. Stating the character's purpose in the concept can help keep the entire story in focus.

- Scott 

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