Levels of meaning

Exoteric                                 -                      Esoteric

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

Benjamin Boyce: Do you think that that's a fault in certain modes of discourse, that they try to constrain thought or sense-making to one level?

Jonathan Pageau: Yeah, definitely. I think that the levelling of thought has been one of the problems of the modern age. We see everything at the same level.

BB: What is it about modernity that has led us to this levelling of thought?

JP: I think it is, in a certain manner, the fact that scientific thinking has taken over the horizon of thought, and people want to approach everything as if it were equivalent to a scientific problem.

If you want to think at different levels you can't level everything like that, you have to be able to see hierarchies of purpose [...] hierarchies of beings even.

There's so much going on right now which is good - the fact that everybody is trying to talk about emergence, complex systems - all of this stuff is showing that the simplistic levelling of thought has run its course, and now we have to understand that the world has levels and manifests itself in hierarchies of beings, and we can't avoid that.

[Benjamin Boyce & Jonathan Pageau]
'Masculine Actualities, Feminine Possibilities'

Are they new friends of 'truth', these coming philosophers? In all probability: for all philosophers have hitherto loved their truths. But certainly they will not be dogmatists. It must offend their pride, and also their taste, if their truth is supposed to be a truth for everyman, which has hitherto been the secret desire and hidden sense of all dogmatic endeavours. 

'My judgement is my judgement: another cannot easily acquire a right to it' - such a philosopher of the future may perhaps say. One has to get rid of the bad taste of wanting to be in agreement with many. 

‘Good' is no longer good when your neighbour takes it into his mouth. And how could there exist a 'common good'! The expression is a self-contradiction: what can be common has ever but little value. In the end it must be as it is and has always been: great things are for the great, abysses for the profound, shudders and delicacies for the refined, and, in sum, all rare things for the rare. 

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
Beyond Good and Evil, 43

True Detective: Too Sure, and Not Sure Enough


"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 


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 entirely cut ties with normality: 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 a common tongue, and through him Rust is able to act in the world of people, 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 who 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 is, by conventional standards, 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.


Related posts:-
Land and Sea
Centre / Periphery
Status Quo