Not long ago, I sat by the ocean and watched the surf break. Each wave brought with it its own sense of drama, crashing against the rocky shore and drenching backwards, spit through teeth. It was like serialized television: I couldn’t look away. Some of the waves were majestic, cresting towards me from far away and exploding up in milky foam, but some were disappointments. These would approach and then die out, shoved backwards by the recession of their predecessors, or else just losing steam. Others still were happy surprises, unassuming until their final curl, at which point they would smash to shore as joyful and furious as headbanging teenagers.
No matter its type, each wave was a delight to me. They would rise, approach, bend, explode, and I would feel anticipation followed by a mild catharsis. After which I would immediately begin craving the next wave. When it came time to go home, I couldn’t decide on my moment. Was it appropriate to leave when the water was calm, as if the ocean was sending me in peace? Or was it better to wait for a fireworks finale? Did the water send a big wave in after a lull to celebrate my patience, or condemn my indecision?
Why did I think any of the waves meant anything?
Human beings in general are designed to look for meaning. This is often explained in terms of our ancestral needs: to memorize the stripes of the tiger in order to know how to escape next time it comes pacing through the grass. To learn the signs of edible plants peeking through the soil, and what times of year they can be expected. To follow the tracks of our prey through woodlands: footprints, scat, trampled leaves.
In contemporary society, although such needs have largely been eclipsed by the dubious advantages of industrialization, the pattern-making switch does not seem to be one we can turn off. Instead we watch dragons on TV and learn the words that will make them spit fire. We watch each other, for signs of love and safety and mania, based on past experience and subtle twitches of the mouth. We make art that hints but doesn’t say in order that the viewer might have to interpret, pictures that look almost like, but not quite like. Like what? Like anything. Because we can, we finish each other’s sentences.
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1948 story “Signs and Symbols” follows an elderly couple of Russian exiles, visiting their troubled son in an insane asylum where he suffers from the delusion that everything in the world is secretly communicating information to and about him. Nothing much happens in the story: the father decides his son should come home, where a familiar environment might be of help to him. The couple receives three mysterious phone calls, twice being asked to speak to an unknown person named “Charlie.” They look at a cluster of tiny jelly jars on their table top.
Or are the phone calls mysterious? The central question of the story, to most critics, is whether there are in fact secret messages coded within the text which reveal a more acute narrative (there are certainly puzzles and signs), or whether the attempt to look for such clues is a form of “referential mania” (the son’s diagnosis) of its own. It seems important, to these critics, to know which reading is correct, because not only do people like making meaning, they dislike, greatly, being tricked. Nabokov was aware of this tendency, and not above prodding people about it.
Human pattern-making can be a little bit embarrassing: it’s humiliating, after all, to admit that we can be driven to a frenzy for no discernible reason, as a biological imperative. But this embarrassment doesn’t seem to make our hunger for patterns less intense. We like searching for things, because it gives us the feeling that there is something to be found. Hence conspiracy theorists and their red-string murder boards; hence, probably, the popular 1990s phenomenon of Magic Eye posters and the ubiquity of crossword puzzles. The point being to look at a seemingly illogical jumble and pull out of it a coherent framework for existence, proof that you are safe and alive and know exactly what’s going on. Hence, one would suppose, the concept of God.
I personally am driven to a level symbology that’s just shy of nonsense, though I am passionate about neither crossword puzzles nor religion. (I did have a period of really enjoying conspiracy theories when my college work-study assignment in the P.E. Center put me in constant proximity to a man with opinions about 9/11 as an inside job; I had to fold a lot of towels, and his stories helped pass the time.) The signs I look for are personal ones, private messages from the universe, like a bird showing up on my windowsill and looking at me just-so when I’m sad. The morning my husband and I moved out of our Chicago apartment—something we did with a certain amount of regret—the bathroom ceiling peeled open like a banana, spitting dirt and water all over our toilet, and I could never decide if this was a wail of sadness at our leaving or a well-placed kick to send us out the door.
Consider this description of the son from Nabokov’s story: “Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to each other, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His in- most thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees.”
I’m aware there’s a likeness.
But consider this, too: today I spotted an online ad that offered “Four Signs Your Heart is Slowly Failing You” and a piece of news analysis titled “Fact Check: What is the Moon?” Both of which seem like clear indications that civilization is currently failing to make meaning out of any information at all. An equally troubling proposition.
I often get caught in a feeling I call “narrative overload.” This occurs when my daily regimen—of reading books, writing books, checking my phone, sending texts, going on Twitter, skimming articles/headlines in the New York Times, listening to podcasts while I walk my dog, and watching TV to unwind—collapses catastrophically onto my psyche, rendering me inert. There is, in short too much meaning. Too many stories, and threads of stories, coming together logically to tell me something about the world.
In the grip of narrative overload, stories become ever more obscure to me, growing hazy and suggestive, like hieroglyphs pre-Rosetta Stone. Too much meaning becomes no meaning at all, as my attempts to make sense of reality slough off all at once, like leaves from a gingko tree. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
After all, as a society we no longer agree what is true and what is false. We’ve splintered into factions, each accusing the others of mis-reading the data, abandoning recognizable structure and order in favor of a new reliance on intuition and signs. We have been let down by many of the stories we used to tell, and in this heightened state of anxiety, we can’t be sure what else we might have been getting wrong. Narrative exhaustion of this kind can be an incredible source of stress, as we look at something that should be straightforward, and are forced to wonder, what am I missing? We are left feeling stupid, and nervous about being stupid. All of which is tiring, too.
Sometimes, I hold a pillow over my face and opt instead for total silence. Sometimes I throw a book across the room.
Here’s the thing, though: I love narrative. The way it can enclose so many people, so intimately, all at once. The way it sends its strands out to seemingly unrelated places and ties them together into a neat braid. The reason narrative overload is so distressing to me is that it unspools the braid, making it clear that the coherence I derive from stories is mostly imaginary. Why did I ever think there was going to be a reason, I wonder in these moments. For anything?
Put another way: why was I ever searching for a narrative, when what I needed was a poetics? The ability to sit back to watch the wind move through trees, or go to the beach and peruse the waves, which are somewhere between logic and illogic, in thrall to forces that don’t even exist unless you have a real sense of scale. To allow objects and ideas to untether themselves from received meaning, so that my mind will be free to make new associations.
The day I got my wisdom teeth removed, I woke up a bit too early from the general anesthesia, and became semi-aware of myself being moved down a dim hallway towards the recovery room. Except what I was actually aware of was awareness, only: I was an undifferentiated bubble of consciousness, ego-less but awake. I knew in the moment that this was not right, but it was all I had access to, and the dissonance was scary.
When I finally got settled in recovery, I began to recall small snatches of selfhood: that I was a woman, that I had a name, that I was on Earth. I clung to these, using them to build a bridge back to the person I had once been. (Or so I assume.) But now, in retrospect, I find it fascinating that I could exist and react to the world without understanding my place in it; that I could dissociate from my own received identity, which is normally my most prized possession. I wonder what I could have experienced in that state if I had been less agitated: it could have been wonderful, shedding my selfhood but not my body, freed from past, and future, and time. Without the stories I knew, I could have written new ones.
Maybe the world is not so insane, to be going through its own narrative crisis. Maybe things are about to get interesting.
I like this David Lynch quote: “I don’t know why people expect art to make sense. They accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense.” And he’s right. Often the most affecting part of a story is the mystery, the things we do not know. A hint that something great and clear is on the horizon, just out of our reach.
I think this, too, is what Nabokov is pointing at in “Signs and Symbols”: the incomprehensibility of everything, which is a form of meaning all its own. The old man and woman in the story lost their country of birth; they lived through the Holocaust. Does it matter, in the face of all that, if they received a misdialed phone call, past bedtime? Does such a call connote more horror than the entirety of their lives up to that point? It might. Or it mightn’t.
And that’s our world, too. We get tired from hearing so many stories not just because some of them aren’t true, but because so many of them—terribly, beautifully—are. The universe is a living, breathing thing, quite possibly insane. But we live here.
That’s what I would think the point was, if I was certain there was any point at all.
Adrienne Celt was born in Seattle, Washington, and now lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she misses the ocean every day. She’s the author of the novels End of the World House (Simon & Schuster 2022), Invitation to a Bonfire (Bloomsbury 2018) and The Daughters (Norton/Liveright) which won the 2015 PEN Southwest Book Award for Fiction and was named a Best Book of the Year by NPR, as well as a collection of comics: Apocalypse How? An Existential Bestiary (DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press 2016).
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