The Tree of Meaning

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The thirteen lectures in The Tree of Meaning were delivered by Robert Bringhurst at eminent Canadian, U.S., and European universities and academic venues, including the University of British Columbia, Vancouver; the University of Victoria, British Columbia; the College of France, Paris; and the Universidad de la Laguna, Tenerife (delivered in Spanish). At least five were named memorial lectures. While all are serious academic performances, the tone and style vary, ranging from fairly casual and relaxed student-centered talks about vocation to a sensitive and nostalgic memorial to a deceased Haida artist friend to uncompromisingly scholarly anatomies of Native American prosody and literary technique, rife with extensive quotations from any number of languages, including Native tongues. (Translations follow all quotations.) All are unified by Bringhurst’s charm, articulate speech, and engaging ideas, but even more so by continuing threads and themes returned to with fresh perspectives in each talk. There is no repetition or recycling; even when Bringhurst refers to earlier work, the new context changes our understanding artfully. The goal is to provide what amounts to a unified field theory, not of physics (the term was coined by Albert Einstein), but of language and literature, and especially of North American Native languages and literatures. A Theory of Everything, as field theories are sometimes called jokingly, attempts to explain how disparate phenomena and systems work as a meaningful whole, a particularly relevant exercise given the scores of indigenous American languages, their fearsome appearance when transcribed phonetically, and the seemingly bizarre myths and creation stories they tell. How do these apparently alien works couched in inaccessible languages fit in to world literature? The traditional response has been to say they do not, relegating the thousands-of-years traditions of the first American literature to quaint folklore or puzzling religious myth.

Bringhurst credits Franz Boas (1848-1942), the progenitor of modern anthropology, with taking the first step toward understanding in the late nineteenth century. Boas was a physicist and later a geographer; he pushed his students, occasionally against their will, to record phonetic versions of disappearing oral narratives. Bringhurst is a kind of modern version of Boas, born to a widely traveled family and beginning as a physics student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1963-1964) and finishing at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City (1964-1965). Bringhurst studied Arabic at the Defense Language Institute, Monterey, California (1966-1967) and served in the U.S. Army in California, Israel, and the Panama Canal Zone (1967-1969). He worked as a journalist in Beirut, Lebanon (1965-1966), before beginning a long residence in Canada, mostly in British Columbia, where he taught at a number of universities and practiced his main profession, poetry. Now a Canadian citizen, Bringhurst is widely admired as among the best practicing Canadian poets, with nearly thirty books to his credit, including A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World (1999). He is the author of The Elements of Typographic Style (2004), a respected work on print graphics now in its third edition.

Though an expert in oral literature, Bringhurst wrote an important book about print, seemingly contradicting the emphasis of his primary interest, orally delivered poetry. In like manner, his linguistic accomplishments defy easy categorization. Like Boas and Sapir, European-trained experts who became consumed with the study of North American languages, Bringhurst brings to his New World languages and literatures insights from the Old. He has translated the ancient Greek writer Parmenides, reads Arabic, delivered one of the lectures from his book in Spanish, and seems familiar with Chinese and Japanese. In every case, unlike many modern linguists he criticizes, he has mastered these languages for the insights their poetry and literatures provide, not simply as a technical exercise in phonetics and syntax. Bringhurst rightly sees much...

(The entire section is 1695 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Canadian Literature, no. 196 (Spring, 2008): 127-128.

Poetry 191, no. 5 (February, 2008): 438-440.

University of Toronto Quarterly 77 (Winter, 2008): 451-453.