Levels of meaning


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Exoteric                                 -                      Esoteric


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Those of us living in a Western culture can today best understand a Nhunggabarra story in terms of four levels of meaning […]

A Nhunggabarra person, undergoing the traditional education, would gradually learn more and more meanings. Not everybody would learn them all; how many meanings one learned depended on one’s role.

The four-level model […] meant that all stories could be told freely to the whole community; the four levels and the education process ensured that each person understood the story on the level that fitted their individual level of development.

Children would understand the first level and have their curiosity satisfied, while the older people could reflect on the higher levels of meaning. And everybody, young and old, would enjoy the drama and the excitement of the performance.



First level

The first level is the text itself […] This level answers some of the fundamental questions that little children living in a natural environment probably pestered their parents with: why does the crow have black feathers and white eyes?

Typically, the first level is also exciting and entertaining.




Second level

The second level of meaning concerns the relationships between the people within the community. The second level meaning does not come straight from the story and it was never told explicitly. You had to extract the meaning as part of your education and you had to have some pre-knowledge about the law to be able to do this.

This level therefore remained hidden for non-initiated people.




Third level

The third level concerns the relationship between your own community and the larger environment - that is, the earth and other Aboriginal communities. Again, the third level does not come straight from the story and it is never told explicitly. You have to pull out the meaning yourself and you have to hold some pre-knowledge about the law.




Fourth level

Many, but not all, stories had a fourth level. The fourth level taught spiritual action and psychic skills; it was more doing than talking and listening. The fourth level included practice, ceremonies and experiences, which gave access to the special esoteric knowledge hidden in the story.

The wiringins were the only ones who learned the fourth level of the stories. 

They passed through very striking ceremonies and had experiences which gave them access to a special body of spiritual and esoteric knowledge. They had insight into the minds of their fellows, and by observation they built up a wealth of information about the members of their community, which they could draw upon when needed […] The wiringins were […] ‘men of high degree’.

[Karl-Erik Sveiby & Tex Skuthorpe]
Treading Lightly, p. 42, 45, 48-51, 148

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True Detective: Too Sure, and Not Sure Enough


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"Rust knew exactly who he was, and there was no talking him out of it. And Marty’s single big problem was that he never really knew himself, so he never really knew what to want.”

['Maggie Hart']
True Detective 


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Rust tends to extremes. He lives an austere lifestyle, spending too much time alone. He appears to be something of a mystic, in touch with a wild world, beyond the fringes of normality. He feels strange energies; sees and hears things that most others can’t.

In walking a singular path with conviction he has found himself in uncommon places; cresting mountains, and plumbing seas. Such things are the boons of the extremist. However, in walking to the periphery he has become estranged from the centre, from normality.

Marty is his link to the normal world, and normal people. No matter how much Rust may prefer his rarefied air, he cannot exist as an island: he still needs the conventional world. He exists at the borderline of society, but is not so extreme as to have stepped beyond it (or so it appears). A large part of him pulls outward, away from the centre; but another, smaller, yet significant part, keeps him in its orbit. He is connected to society, and so lines of communication, strained as they may be, must remain open.

However, Rust’s time in strange lands has given him an equally strange dialect, one that most normal people can’t understand. They are repelled by his tones - he seems aloof, terse, obscure, idealistic. They cannot tolerate him long enough to see beyond their first impressions.

Not so for Marty, who acts as a mediator between Rust and the conventional world. With Marty by his side, Rust becomes just about palatable to normal people. He acts as translator, able to frame Rust’s needs in the language of normality, and through him Rust is able to act in the world of people, able to make things happen. As he finds out following their estrangement, without Marty he cannot act as effectively: he lacks the language, the contacts.

As in any close relationship, an exchange takes place. Their friendship lights a path between them, allowing each to venture along it; Marty edges outwards, becomes a little more reckless, entertains wild theories and notions; Rust edges inwards, becomes conventionalised, to a degree - goes on a date, tries a romantic relationship. Without Marty he drifts back to the extremes, and to the few people whom he can tolerate, and who will tolerate him.

Chances are that Rust has always tended to extremes - I think certain people are naturally drawn to the frontiers - but we gather that at one time he was more conventional; a family man, with a wife and child. These things probably tethered him, to a certain degree, and prevented him from drifting too far out: without them there was nothing to stop him from floating off. It may have been at this point - free from a tempering influence - that he came to know ‘exactly who he was.’ Turning his back on normality, he retreated to the simplicity of extremism; a place without shades of grey, give and take, or compromise: a place where they speak a pure dialect, in a sure voice.

And so Rust became solid, like a statue: frozen forever in a single pose. He knows who he is, and doesn’t want to be any other way (or can't be any other way). His personality has very definite outlines; impassable boundaries with specific entry and exit points. He must be tackled in a certain manner, from a certain direction; it is easy to get it wrong, and to rub him up the wrong way.

As with anybody who is stuck in a definite position, Rust can only communicate effectively with very specific types of people: those we are like him, or those who fit his shape without too much of a rub. It is an unconventional shape, and not one most people are used to accommodating, but Marty has just enough flex to adapt to it, unusual as it is. And this, it seems to me, is to his credit.

Marty is not as solid as Rust. He has a little give in his system, is softer, more supple. He does not know what he wants - hasn’t settled into an exclusive position - and so flits between poses; now the burdened family man, now the carefree youth. The only problem is that one pose threatens the other: he cannot do both, at least not in the long run. He must decide.

And so the fact that he doesn’t know himself - that he can’t hold a single position - is a problem for Marty. However, whilst you could say, along with his wife Maggie, that Marty’s problem is his lack of self-knowledge, you could, on the other hand, say that Rust’s problem is that he does know himself, that he is too sure of who he is.

His lack of flexibility condemns him to the outskirts, to a frontier lifestyle that, by conventional standards, is toxic. It seems, then, that each could stand to learn something from the other; Maggie certainly seems to see it this way. She wishes her husband were a bit more like Rust, more able to commit to a single pose; and she wishes, although she may not see it this way, that Rust were a little more like Marty; more flexible, more inclined to come in from the fringes and lead something approaching a normal life.


Perhaps what Maggie's perspective misses is the positive aspect of these problems. Yes, Rust may be too extreme for his own good, but his extremity makes him an extraordinary detective. And yes, Marty may not know himself well enough, but his lack of sureity makes possible his relationship with Rust; a relationship that allows each to be more effective in certain ways.

Is it possible to know who you are whilst remaining open to other ways of being? Is it possible to be sure without becoming a statue?

Perhaps Rust’s main problem was not that he knew who he was, but that that there was no talking him out of it. If what life demands of us is to become solid and commit to a position, then perhaps what it also demands is that we allow ourselves to be talked out of it, at least every once in a while.


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Apollo / Dionysus


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Apollo                                 -                      Dionysus
Culture                                 -                      Nature
Centre                                  -                      Periphery
Conscious                            -                      Unconscious
Light                                     -                      Dark 
Heaven                                 -                      Earth


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In The Birth of Tragedy Apollo and Dionysus, whatever character each of them possesses in other contexts and different bodies of lore, are defined as opposing forces.

Dionysus is a god of nature, associated with forces biological and violent, orgiastic mysteries, with everything that refuses to be civilised. Apollo is the god of civilisation: if he were linguistic, he would be the perfectly formed sentence, self-possessed in its transparency.

Dionysus wants not to possess himself but to lose himself in an ecstasy in which he and nature are one and the same: the methods of ecstasy are intoxication, sexuality, the Dionysiac music and dance, the dithyramb in which the barrier between man and nature are overwhelmed.

As he appears in the Bacchae, Dionysus is wild, god of maddened group, people who drive themselves out of civilisation by wine, drugs, dismemberment. Modern versions of the Dionysiac include the forces active in bullfights, cockfights, rock concerts, wrestling, charismatic revival meetings.

In Nietzsche, tragedy is the form in which Dionysus and Apollo are reconciled.

The Dionysiac music, by itself, would be unbearable, because it would defeat culture and shatter the necessary limits implied in character and individuality. The Apolline hero is a hero because he takes upon himself the Dionysiac experience and, not at all transcending it, incorporates it in himself, reconstituting his experience now as form and beauty.

[…] the Greeks allowed for an Apolline incorporation of Dionysus, and did not try to suppress him:

“The delight in drunkenness, delight in cunning, in revenge, in envy, in slander, in obscenity - in everything which was recognised by the Greeks as human and therefore built into the structure of society and custom: the wisdom of their institutions lies in the absence of any gulf between good and evil, black and white.

Nature, as it reveals itself, is not denied but only ordered, limited to specified days and religious cults. That is not the root of all spiritual freedom in the ancient world; the ancients sought a moderate release of natural forces, not their destruction and denial.”

We are not supposed to hanker after an aboriginal state of union with nature, as if culture had never happened. Drink and drugs are deemed to be harmful for many reasons but mainly because they remove the cultural distinction between a man and the nature from which he has been rescued. Apollo must win.

Each society recognises that there are Dionysiac forces at large, and it makes some provision for them. The carnival of Fasting in Germany is a few days of tumult and licence followed by Lenten rectitude. Public entertainments, sports, including blood sports, motor racing, and sporadic limited wars are provided, as far as possible under controlled conditions.

If we continue extending the definition of culture so that it covers virtually the whole of experience, leaving nothing to nature, we will make it impossible for ourselves to understand violence and obscenity except as failures of ‘the system’.

It would be wise to regard culture as a partial and improbable transformation of natural impulse rather than a comfortable norm. That way, manifestations of violence could be considered without the normal accompaniment of shock, horror, and insult.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 83-5


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The Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual of ancient Greece and Rome which used intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music) to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a natural state.

It also provided some liberation for those marginalized by Greek society: women, slaves, homosexuals and foreigners.

'Dionysian Mysteries'


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Restraint / Engagement


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At the broadest level of trait description, therefore, variability in human personality appears to reflect restraint and engagement.

Stability appears to be associated with refraining from a variety of behaviors associated with disruptive impulses (such as drug use and reactive aggression), whereas Plasticity appears to be associated with engaging in a variety of behaviors associated with approach behavior and exploration (such as creative expression and attending social events) [...] behaviors consistent with an underlying exploratory drive.

These results are consistent with the theory that the metatraits reflect serotonergically mediated self-regulation and constraint on the one hand and dopaminergically mediated exploration and engagement on the other.

In particular, some of the processes underlying these traits may best be understood in terms of the different systems that are being restrained or regulated in each case. Process models that are consistent with this view include those linking Agreeableness to the inhibition of interpersonal aggression, Conscientiousness with the inhibition of distraction, and Emotional Stability with the inhibition of negative affect.

Stability appears to be reflected most strongly in restraint from drug use and hostility and in the absence of disrupted sleep. The association of Stability with stable sleep is consistent with the finding that Stability is associated with circadian timing, such that people higher in Stability tend to be ‘‘morning people’’ with circadian rhythms more strongly entrained to the daily light–dark cycle.


[Jacob B. Hirsh, Colin DeYoung, and Jordan B. Peterson]
'Metatraits of the big five differentially predict engagement and restraint of behavior', p. 11-13


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