omnibus omnia

The (sort-of) semiotics of milestones

In Atheism, Birthday, Christianity, Culture, Faith, God, History, Holidays, Language, Life, Love, Opinion, Personal, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Theology, Thoughts, Values on December 19, 2008 at 05:34

To call an act/event a milestone and mark it with some little ritual is an affirmation of the meaningfulness of life… (Revised into a somewhat more readable post here.)

The word ‘milestone’ is one of those figurative expressions that have become literal through sheer length of alternate usage, not to mention the obsolescence of its original meaning. The literal meaning was, of course, perfect for the metaphor. Milestones began as-what else?-stone markers (actually columns) that indicated the distance from Rome on points along the old roads that the greatest empire-builders of Mediterranean antiquity strewed throughout their realm (which stretched from Spain to, at one point under Trajan, the Persian Gulf). Hence the metaphor for events of such significance that they starkly demarcate the past from the still unfinished future, an especially potent temporal symbol for the linear ideologies of the West.

Which is my first point: it’s a symbol. We need not go into complicated semiotics to see the symbol-aspect of a metaphorical word or phrase, which signifies (through some linguistic convention that usually happens to be stable, pace Lacan) a concept that signifies (through abstraction of general from particular) a thing (which, following Shankara, retains moral value even if we deny its ultimate reality) that in turn signifies (through another convention) another thing. Thus, the word ‘milestone’ signifies our idea of a milestone, which signifies the rocks placed along actual roads, which signify, by way of metaphor, the important events in our lives.

I mention this because ‘milestone/s’ is what might be called an efficacious sign, a ‘sacrament’ in its larger sense as a sign that brings about what it signifies in the very act of signifying it. To use a political example, the moment the United States formally recognized the government of the Soviet Union–on a mere scrap of State Department paper, to brutalize Bethmann-Hollweg’s infamous expression–it carried with it a train of consequences, from giving the USSR state immunity in US courts to allowing it to send ambassadors that the FBI couldn’t touch. Leaving aside the declarative/constitutive debate, that recognition was a symbolic act, a verbal recognition, but it also brought about what it symbolized. It was therefore an efficacious sign, a ‘sacrament’.

For more anon, I recommend an essay by Jacques Maritain in his book Redeeming the Time (which I read some centuries ago), but we may apply its insights here by noting how the very act of identifying an event or action as a ‘milestone’, in a “mystical” fashion, makes it a milestone. For think: Just why are conception and death, graduation and marriage, the first day at work and the last day in one’s native country, or a birthday, especially one of the big-0 birthdays (30th, 40th, 50th, and 60th) really ‘milestones’? From a purely temporal perspective, one event is physically no more “significant” from another–and even death, materially speaking, is simply one step in the process by which an organism goes from functioning as an integrated biochemical system to one that doesn’t (and cell death doesn’t happen till days after the heart and brain stop).

Hence, the moment we say some act or event has especial significance as a milestone, the moment we assign it “milestone-value”, we give to a material change–materially speaking, simply another step along the road of time–a spiritual significance. This is by making the value judgment that this act/event is somehow higher, more significant, more meaningful (or perhaps meaning-full) than others before it or after. But a value-judgment is simply an application of love, for we say something is good/bad, higher/lower according to its relation, or the relation it gives us, to an object of love. Chocolate is better than broccoli, or vice versa, depending on whether we like sweet taste or nutrition better; and in a higher sense, being away from a family member is bad because we love the family member (as an end in him-/herself), and we love the comfort of being together.

Ignoring the nominalist-realist (or empiricist-idealist) controversy, we may say that, therefore, calling something a milestone is an act of intending founded on love. Of course, ‘love’ here means much more than just romance or sex, notwithstanding vapid movies like The Fifth Element, and is not limited to the psychosomatic emotion of delight. We love God or deities, our parents and our country with reverence or on (that barely translatable Japanese word), and friend and neighbor with agape and/or with fraternal affection; a Christian may also love the Summa and St. Peter’s, Dante’s Comedy and Bach’s Mass in B Minor as oh-so-dazzling fusions of faith and genius; and I like pizza, pasta, and chocolate despite my doctor’s despairing prohibitions. Love really (and very widely) means freely needing, giving to, or revering a person, thing, or quality. We love when we see and choose the object of love as a basis of meaning, a world revolving around and illumined by the One loved most.

Getting back to the point, a milestone is more meaning-full than other acts/events because it especially affects or implicates an object of love. The love of youth is implicated by the big-0 birthdays; the love of home by leaving for college or a new country (which, by the way, is what college often feels like); the love of one’s spouse by marriage and (Heaven forbids) divorce; the love of life by conception, birth, and death. We love, therefore the object of love is important, therefore the act/event that affects the object of love is important. It is, above other acts/events, a milestone.

In this sense, to call an act/event a milestone and mark it with some little ritual, like taking out an old wedding video or blowing candles or calling to a deity, is an affirmation of the meaning-fullness of life against the void that constantly lurks beneath our joys. Even to mark a person’s passing is to proclaim meaning, despite the plunge into chaos that the event itself often opens for us. As anyone who has grieved would know, the last rites and funeral customs have a strange therapeutic or perhaps normalizing effect, and I think it’s because with those rituals we declare that the one who’s gone was not a mere mass of protein kept going by the Krebs cycle, but a person, substantia individua naturae rationalis, with a unique significance that can never be denied and can never be replaced. Cosmic time becomes divided into the time s/he was with us and the time s/he is not; and the emptiness s/he leaves behind is not an abyss that looketh back at one condemned to be free, but a memory of one who was raised in conception from nothingness to being and raised in death from time to eternity, and in between knew and was known, loved and was loved.

That applies, mutatis mutandis, to all meaning-filled acts/events–why else are New Years and weddings and awarding of military decorations so ritualized, if not for how they remind us of the meanings that they are pregnant with, which are symbolized by fireworks and the ball on Times Square (which, BTW, is a tawdry-looking place outside the holidays), the march down the aisle to say “I do” (instead of just signing the certificate), the men in attention and the drumroll? This may be why the most ancient religions mark life-transitions and time-transitions with rich symbolism–think baptism and Rosh Hashanah–and associate them with some spiritual value; for to mark the transition is precisely to spiritualize it and deny that it’s just atoms and quanta exchanging spaces; it is to say that here, now, matter is marked by spirit, and the relative and limited becomes a door for the noumenal, the absolute, the divine. Hic terribilis locus iste!

This richness of symbolism is more pronounced in time-transitions that commemorate theophanies, like Passover and Kumbh Mela, which remember how the deity/deities made a moment significant through an act of favor or kindness; and it reaches semiotic heights in the Eucharist, at once symbol and remembrance, perpetuation and outpouring of the sacrifice of God-made-man for our salvation. The heightened ritual significance has a reason, for theophanic transitions remind us that milestones are not mere subjective artifices or intersubjective conventions or arbitrary demarcations of time, but are rooted in these objective facts: that we were loved first; that One who, in absolute freedom, loves us absolutely, even unto death says Christianity, knew us already in the womb, and has written our names in the palm of His hand.

Time is fleeting because matter is changing, but life is meaningful because love remains, as eternal and ineffable as the One who, because He loves us, makes us worthy of love.

May God bless us all.

  1. Tough read!

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