George is certainly right about the centrality of "justification." The
very word assumes that there is something to be justified in any
reading. And what has to be justified is the relation between any
reading and the text itself.
If one constructs the discussion--as Peter does--as a simple opposition
of open, intellectually generous people who know language is not
simplistically transparent, and closed, oppressive academics who think
that it is (though almost none now do), of course it is easy to mock the
latter. But since they are either a nonexistent or rare breed (why does
anyone spend a life focused on thinking only to be a non-thinking,
oppressive fool?), it seems essential to recognize the vast continuum
between assuming that words are absolute signifiers to some absolute
world and the view of one of the characters in "Alice in Wonderland" who
asserts with great self-satisfaction that "when I say a word, it means
exactly what I say it to means" (close paraphrase--I don't have the
exact quotation here.) The humor, of course, is that one can say "moon"
with an image of a cow in one's mind, but it will not evoke that image
in another unless you create some way to evoke also the cow who jumped
To get back to Eliot, when he sent the TWL mss. to John Quinn, he also
wrote to him "I hope they don't bitch the punctuation because it's
essential." They did bitch the punctuation, and if you look at almost
any edition of the poem other than the facsimile, you will find "HURRY
UP PLEASE ITS TIME," though the mss. has an apostrophe in "IT'S": that
omission led to at least one distorted interpretation. But Eliot had
apparently no intention to make it a possessive; it's a contraction.
Now what you do with that line may vary enormously and lead in many
directions, but it does not lead toward a possessive because it is not
there. That is, if I understand him, what Carrol intends by
But apart from the somewhat trivial dispute this has raised, there is a
very important and fundamental and unsolved question here about the
degree to which one can create a transferable meaning with words and the
degree to which any interpretation can be considered not "right," much
less "the only right," and simply wrong. As George also says, if I say
black is white, I'm wrong. The Catholic Church insisted for centuries
that the sun revolved around the earth, but it didn't.
>>> [log in to unmask] 07/16/05 11:58 AM >>>
> If a student came to me with an apparently absurdly unjustifiable
> rather than generating a negative learning response, I would
> occasioned that response by the student, and do my best to turn it
> a positive learning occcasion, or adjust my own view if the student's
> response turned
> out to have justification. In effect NO response to a poem is wrong.
But "justification" is the key; if there is no meaning, how can an
interpretation be justified? Or would you say that any "apparently
absurdly unjustifiable interpretation" can be justified by simply "it's
what I think, so there"?
> Who was it who said something like
> A poem must not mean but BE.
There are many famous quotations that are also rather stupid.
> I agree that it is absurd to make students agree with one's own
> but in fact that absurdity is perpetrated ALL the time by many in
> in academia. The fact that they tend not to be stood up to and
It pays to rethink things, to listen to new opinions, to keep an open
mind. But to say "any opinion is equally valid" is, I think, rather
daft: I can tell you that black is white, but I would be wrong. This is
not a matter of opinion. Yes, we should question values,
interpretations, common knowledge. But we should also be prepared to
answer those questions.