Simply put, it was an utterly exquisite evening in the mountains. The leaves were making their final crescendo into a fortissimo of red, yellow, and blood orange; the effect was only accentuated by the final rays of a setting sun. The temperature of the air was precisely at the boundary between lukewarm and distinctly chilly, perhaps the perfect essence of the term “crisp.” The lower hills flowed so perfectly into the plains below it looked like God himself had used a wide-brimmed paintbrush to bring the landscape into existence.
The effect of the scene, however, was entirely lost on Danny as he once again attempted to understand the point Lauren was making.
“But wait. I feel like we’re operating under different definitions of the word ‘representation.’ Maybe that’s why I’m not getting what you’re saying?”
Lauren sighed. They were walking on a trail high enough in the mountains that the setting sun still illuminated the forest around them. It was already dark further down the mountain in areas too low to be hit by the sun’s increasingly horizontal rays. Lauren felt a tinge of apprehension at the prospect of descending the mountain in the dark, and then turned her attention back the nigh impossible task of getting Danny to see something differently.
“You’re always so focused on structures and representations,” said Lauren. “If you stop thinking about them for a second, it’ll be more clear.”
“I’m not entirely convinced you know what you’re talking about.”
Lauren stopped and glared at Danny.
“That’s a cheap tactic. You’re just trying to avoid letting go of your precious theories. Can’t you just think about this differently for two seconds, and then return to your precious world of representations?”
Danny, secretly affronted by Lauren’s implication of his intellectual immaturity, decided to press the offensive.
“You do understand that in ‘thinking differently’ about this, all I’m doing is adopting a different intellectual representation towards the matter at hand.”
Checkmate, thought Danny. Though still internally quaking at the ease with which Lauren was able to perceive his insecurity, Danny relaxed his shoulders and smiled at Lauren like they were playing a delightful game.
Incidentally, Lauren actually didn’t pick up on Danny’s feeling of weakness, and instead perceived a smug twerp who clearly thought too highly of himself. Breaking up isn’t out the question, she thought.
“Fine,” she said, and promptly turned around and continued up the trail.
After the last three months, Lauren knew Danny well enough to know the effect this response would have on him. Danny really did crumble remarkably quickly if he thought he had hurt her feelings. All she had to do was sufficiently “commit to the bit,” so to speak.
True to Lauren’s intention, Danny stood dumbfounded for several seconds. The term “jagweed” kept reappearing in his mind. What an utterly bizarre term, he briefly thought before compulsively turning the entirety of his mind towards relational reparations. How quickly a perceived checkmate turns against you.
“Lauren, I apologize,” said Danny after accelerating to catch up. “My last comment was aside the point. What were you saying about art again?”
And this point, the pair was crossing a boulder field, and Lauren took the opportunity to step onto a large rock, distinctly looking down at Danny. She crossed her arms and slightly narrowed her eyes, completing the effect.
“Are you actually going to listen to me this time, or are you just going to look at me, nod your head, and pretend like you’re listening?”
Danny, though feeling thoroughly chastened, noticed for the first time that Lauren’s left eye was slightly further from her nose than her right. Perhaps it was the combination of their relative positions together with the angle of the sun that gave light to this fact. Though it by no means detracted from her attractiveness, Danny quickly filed the observation under his mental cabinet of “Things to never say, under any circumstances.” A second-order analysis revealed that he was violating the implicit request she had literally just made, which he found equally ironic and potentially dangerous within the scope of the discussion. As such, Danny took a deep breath and then positively clamped his attention onto Lauren’s disapproving face.
“Yes, I’m listening,” he said.
Ironically enough, Danny had been making careful eye-contact with Lauren despite his flurry of distracted mental activity, and therefore she didn’t pick up on his instantaneous faltering of attention. As such, her irritation with the schmeag standing in front of her softened a bit; in fact, she was overtaken by a faint sense of amusement.
“Ok, good. But we’re losing light, so I’m gonna need you to listen and march at the same time. I know that’s hard for you.”
And without a backward glance, Lauren hopped off of the rock, began hiking, and launched into a lecture about the meaning of art. Danny stood watching her for a moment, and felt a slight chuckle take command of his throat. Heavens, she really is quite compelling. Then he dutifully hurried to catch up with her, straining his ears to catch what she was saying. It really can be cursedly difficult to hear someone who’s hiking in front of you.
“Ok, here’s what I’m saying,” Lauren began, “and I honestly thought you’d like this more, because I think it’s kinda like all the stuff you’re always talking about with representations. Ok. So when I was running yesterday, I was thinking about the word ‘meaning,’ as in the ‘meaning of life.’ And I was thinking to myself, ‘that’s kinda a sucky phrase, because it doesn’t feel like it’s even being used properly—’”
“Wait, hold on,” interrupted Danny, “What do you mean by ‘meaning,’ in this context?”
“That’s literally what I was getting to, if you’d stop interrupting me,” said Lauren with another backward glare, “But I guess it’s a fair question. Let me think about it.”
She stopped for a moment, breathing heavily, and thought about it.
“Ok, here’s what I think I mean. Imagine there are a bunch of kids playing in a room, and they’re breaking a bunch of stuff. Then the dad comes in and is like: ‘What’s the meaning of this?’ I’m talking about meaning in that sense. …does that make sense?”
“I suppose so,” said Danny, “so wait, it seems like you’re talking about ‘meaning’ as an associated explanation. Is that right?”
“Hmm, maybe? I think the idea of association is important for how I’m using ‘meaning.’ Like two things being associated with one another? …yeah I think that’s it. It’s like when you’re looking for the meaning in something, you’re pursuing associated information about the something. Does that make sense? But actually, you know what? I think it’s more general than information. And yes, I know I’m being vague about my definition of ‘information,’” said Lauren, countering a frequent source of intellectual incoherence between herself and Danny. “I guess without specifically defining ‘information,’ I think ‘meaning’ is more general than just having to do with information just because information seems too concrete to me. Like it doesn’t capture the emotions of the situation well enough. Ok, yeah so in talking about art—”
“Wait, hold on,” said Danny, “it’s hard to hear you. Let me go in front so I can hear you better.”
Having said that, Danny bounded around Lauren and continued forward. He squinted off to his right toward the sunset. Probably about 30 more minutes of light. Good thing we brought head lamps.
“Ok, sorry about that. Keep on going,” said Danny.
“You’re good. Yeah, so I guess I’m interested in why the idea of ‘art’ is so loosely defined. Like imagine trying to define ‘art.’ It’d be as hard as trying to define ‘love,’ or ‘joy.’ But what if you asked the question, ‘what is the meaning behind the Mona Lisa?’ Or maybe ‘what is the meaning behind a Rembrandt?’ It’s a weird question, but I think it’s easier than trying to define ‘art’ itself.”
“So I guess based on what you were saying earlier, you’re thinking about this in terms of associations, or associated explanations?”
“Yeah I guess so. And actually, yeah, I think that’s the right way to think about it. Maybe, at least. Like art is something that’s typically created, right? But, I mean, our brains are constantly forming associations between different concepts, emotions, structures, all of that. Like all the stuff you’re interested in.”
“Yup,” confirmed Danny.
At this point, Danny was getting an increasing sense that what Lauren was talking about could more simply be discussed within the framework of representations and entities, but it seemed like a tactical blunder to bring that up in this present moment, so he kept his mouth shut and let Lauren keep talking.
Lauren, for her part, was quite aware of what Danny was thinking, given that it seemed to be the only thing he ever really seemed to think about. That, and me. Ha. She allowed herself a silent smirk and continued describing her thought.
“Ok, so I think that’s getting close to what art actually is. This isn’t totally exhaustive, but you could say art is something that is created and is associated with a set of emotions.”
“I mean, yeah,” said Danny, frowning, “but isn’t that kinda …obvious? I mean, would anybody say that’s not the case?”
That statement would have been annoying to Lauren, but to her satisfaction she could tell that Danny was speaking purely analytically, which meant he actually was paying total attention to what she was talking about. As if that should be something that makes me happy. It shouldn’t feel like a battle to actually get his attention. Whatever.
“Yeah, I guess it’s obvious. But, I mean, it doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Emotions, desires, thoughts, sensations are all stuff that appear in consciousness at the most basic level, so it seems important that the certain creations we call ‘art’ have a pretty fixed set of emotions and sensations associated with them.”
“Wait, that actually is super interesting,” said Danny, again stopping briefly to check the position of the sun. “Hmm… yeah. It’s actually really interesting to think about pieces of art as carriers of a particular set of emotions. And actually, there really is something to be said about the fact that the piece of art itself was created by a person. Like for some reason you almost automatically want to figure out why the artist did what he or she did. Hmm… did you ever read the Mysterious Benedict Society?”
Lauren laughed. This is why she kept Danny around. It was fun to get him excited about something and watch him compulsively bump around between different subjects. “No, but I think I’ve heard of it. It’s that kids’ book, right?”
“Actually, it’s more of a young adult novel. I think my sister calls them YA novels. What a ridiculous acronym. But anyway, the villain is a dude called Mr. Curtain, and basically he has this machine that transmits thoughts around the world. But one of the most interesting parts about the book is actually how he packages information. So basically, he has this institute that’s set up to fill kids head with propaganda. Like they’ll be taught stuff like ‘the government is like a poisoned apple, and society is like a poisoned worm.’ Stuff like that. Anyway, after he’s brainwashed these kids, Mr. Curtain hooks them up into his machine, and then has them project thoughts like ‘poisoned apples, poisoned worms.’ It’s cool because even though it’s only those words that are transmitted to people, the connotations of the words themselves are also transmitted. So even though a kid might only be saying ‘poisoned apples, poisoned worms’ into the machine, they’re also projecting a bunch of anti-government propaganda.”
Danny fell silent for half a second.
“Wait, where was I even going with that?”
Lauren laughed again. It was probably a good thing she found this conversation amusing, because otherwise she and Danny would be entirely incompatible.
“I think you were talking about art being a carrier of emotions,” she said.
“Oh, yeah yeah yeah. That’s right. I guess I was thinking that art kinda becomes like the propaganda words from Mysterious Benedict Society. Like not in terms of societal decay, but in terms of carrier of meaning. But why would something like a piece of art be better for that than just any old thing you’d find in nature?”
“I think there’s something about the artist’s intention,” said Lauren. “Like I think you expect that if an artist is being genuine, they had some particular purpose in how they created their…creation. Even if it wasn’t totally conscious while they were creating it. Like the purpose, I mean. Unless you like believe that there’s a God that created everything with a particular purpose, then if you’re just looking at a scene in nature, there’s not a strong of a reason to think that it’s not all totally random.”
“Wait, yeah. That’s actually kinda weird,” said Danny, frowning again. “Why are humans so obsessed with purpose? Or I guess meaning. Yeah, why are we so obsessed with purpose and meaning?”
“I mean, isn’t that kinda obvious? Isn’t that the whole purpose of philosophy? Like basically trying to answer the basic question of ‘how should I live my life?’”
“No, I don’t think that’s obvious. You just basically said humans are obsessed with purpose because they’re trying to figure out how to live their lives. That seems circular.”
“What are you talking about? How isn’t that obvious? Ok, so I guess if you take a step back and look at the human experience, we basically have a set of experiences that are either perceived to be good, like happiness, or perceived to be bad, like pain. So then you’re basically trying to figure out what you should do to maximize the good and minimize the bad.”
“But what does that have to do with purpose? And I mean, we’re also kinda getting off track. We started out by talking about the purpose behind a piece of art, which I think is a different discussion than speaking about the purpose of a human being.”
They fell silent for several seconds. The summit looked like it was about four minutes away.
“Hold up,” said Lauren, stopping and shading her eyes, “are you seeing this sunset?”
Danny had been staring at the ground while thinking about their conversation, and experienced a minor jolt as he escaped his thoughts to return to the present. Looking up, he could see why Lauren had stopped. The sun was now at the very edge of the horizon, and appeared like a blood-red orb behind a distant mountain range. Equally compelling was the fairly thick blanket of clouds to the east. The red of the sun was bounding across the cotton-candy blue sky to paint the clouds with a delicious shade of pink. Those are the two colors on a sour gummy worm, Danny realized. Naturally, this only added to the effect.
Turning his gaze slightly downward, Danny looked more closely at Lauren, and experienced a second jolt as he realized just how beautiful she was. The same rays that illuminated the clouds to the east were playing across her face, which only accentuated her expression of quiet satisfaction and joy.
“Wait, stay right there,” said Danny. He bounded down to a slightly lower position where he could see a three-quarters view of Lauren against the clouds behind. Having found the proper position, he closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath.
“And what are you doing?” asked Lauren, somewhat bemused.
Danny opened his eyes, taking in the scene before him, once again.
“Perfection,” he said. “Absolute perfection.”
It was these sorts of things that informed Danny’s family’s decision that he was the most dramatic member of the bunch.
Lauren laughed, perhaps a bit nervously, then struck a pose with her hands on her hips thus becoming a caricature of a broadway model.
Danny laughed a well, and then ran past her back up the trail.
“Come on, let’s get to the top!”
For some entirely intangible reason, the scene of Lauren against the clouds had rapidly lifted Danny out of his prior contemplative state and had filled him with an altogether boyish energy. Coupled with the equally intangible (though carefully hidden) male desire to impress Lauren, Danny directed this burst of energy towards sprinting the rest of the way up the mountain.
Lauren, for her part, thought the display somewhat childish, though perhaps amusing. She most certainly had not experienced the same arbitrary burst of energy; in fact, she was feeling the altitude. As such, she proceeded upward at her previous pace.
Danny had exhausted his temporary well of energy with about 100 feet left to the top. However, given his latent desire to not look weak, he decided to press onward at his needlessly rapid pace. As could be predicted, Danny was so sufficiently winded upon reaching the top that he immediately crouched downward and thoroughly scrunched his face in a desperate attempt to avoid heaving. Thankfully, he narrowly avoided that fate and had roughly a minute to compose himself before Lauren herself summited.
Lauren, entirely oblivious to Danny’s self-imposed plight, had been taking the last several minutes to continue pondering the meaning of art. Upon reaching the top, she immediately began vocalizing her thoughts.
“You know, I was thinking about what you said. Like how humans focus on a piece of art in a different way than they would focus on some other thing. Even without knowing exactly why people do that, it’s interesting that a piece of art would become the focus of so many people’s attention.”
Danny, caught off-guard by a combination of the rapid return to conversation and an oxygen deficit, didn’t immediately grasp what Lauren was talking about.
“It’s what we were literally just talking about! I’m just saying that it’s interesting how famous pieces of art basically become the focus of intense meditation. Or maybe that’s the wrong word? You get the idea. It’s almost like everyone is convinced that the piece of art has meaning, and they’re all arguing and trying to agree upon what the meaning actually is. Or, I mean, everyone who actually cares. But anyway it’s almost like the whole point of the piece of art is to attract attention, and then the generations of viewers imbue the art with meaning that can be communicated and has value.”
At this point, Danny had re-centered his attention within the conversation.
“I don’t think that properly acknowledges the aesthetic value of art, but you do bring up an interesting point about how people effectively normalizing their collective opinion about the meaning behind a piece of art. I guess that’s also interesting to me on a functional level, because then motivated individuals can then use the particular piece of art to invoke a certain set of emotions in an audience, which can be used for political purposes. I suppose that’s just the essence of propaganda.”
Having both completed their respective thoughts, the pair watched as dusk faded into twilight, bringing with it the first indications of stars.
“I guess you did know what you were talking about.”
Lauren closed her eyes out of exasperation. Jagweed, she thought. And then: What a weird term.