Many thanks to Lawrence Upton for his clear account of this memorial.
Alice and I were going round the Orangerie in Paris with Ginsy a couple of
years ago and an immensely serious American came up, carefully identified "Mr
Allen Ginsberg," and announced that he himself was a professor and was writing
a book called Meaning and Life, not Meaning of Life, eh emphasised. Allen,
courteous as always, introduced Alice and myself. So the prof said, "My book
ends with one three-letter word which sums up the title. I'd like to ask you
three poets what that word is." Allen suggested SUN, Alice GOD, and I -- to
be awkward -- YIN. The prof said, "No! It is ART." Allen pointed out that
this might be a bit limited and cited a poem by Emily Dickonson.
We all continued touring the gallery and when I was on my own, the prof sudden
appeared behind my shoulder.
"What was that poem Allen Ginsberg mentioned?" he notebookedly asked.
Does this anecdote have any reference to the copious discussions of meaning?
Karlien's very fine piece on SA also reminds us that it is one thing to float
multiplicity of meanings in an art piece through various less or more
interesting abstractive processes. But then it is another to say there's a
multiplicity of meanings to the sentence, "Parts of Africa such as southern
Sudan are starving, yet it's mainly the war logistics that are disrupting food
Because, of course, there is in fact a multiplicity of possible meanings there
too, some integrationist muslim, others Catholic, others aid agency policy,
others from various governments, others simply humane. But the fact that
there's no apodictic truth to any pronouncement is not, this time, the thought
closest to our hearts as we speak this sentence. Why is this? Because our
personal beliefs and emotions are engaged in the performance of the meaning.
We are obliged to choose the meaning most in conformity with our beliefs. To
let it all float into a competition of varying discourses would not answer our
So Karlein's piece is a reminder, too, that meaning is not information content
or signifier relationship, but has twisty influence from emotion and belief
and cultural context etc upon its ... er ... vectors -- an influence that is
not undesirable, actually, or even untruth-making exactly, but is part of
whatever truthfulness we can manage, however judged afterwards, and by
whomever. The danger, whether in the floatingest of meaning fields or in the
sharpest political focus, is that of being reactionary: that is failing to
respond as fully as possible. Unfortunately for us all, there are many ways
of being reactionary (some seemingly very enlightened) which we don't even
suspect we have.
I think the professor's book should have ended not with a three-letter word
but with an address to all readers (including us, listers). It would have a
question mark followed by: "This is your question mark, jerk. You'd better
make sure you answer it satisfactorily, or otherwise when you hit extreme old
age you may feel really bad."