Am I alone in thinking that we could all be reading too much into this search for meaning?

The appetite for conclusive explanation has always been provoked by certain kinds of art - as the recent correspondence in this paper about the "true" meaning of Waiting for Godot reminds us. Earlier this week, one reader advanced the highly ingenious theory that Godot should actually be read as "Go. Dot", in other words "Go. Full stop", the moral instruction of the play presumably being that movement in any direction is better than paralysis. Others talked of obscure French cyclists, Resistance fighters, Balzac characters and concealed homophones (God / Eau). This itchy compulsion to elucidate isn't exactly a mystery itself, of course. Enigmas do not suit our contemporary habits of mind; they are an affront to a culture of transparent meaning. But the impulse to explain arises, I think, out of a misapprehension - because all art is in some sense a coded message, it is an understandable, though false, assumption that there must be a single clear-text solution to that code. Even in works that are calculatedly ambiguous, the conviction that there is a privileged reading that has dominion over all others is difficult to dislodge.

Writers, including Beckett, can sometimes be mischievous about exciting this sense of a tantalisingly elusive clarity. Waiting for Godot, Beckett noted, would be perfectly comprehensible to anyone who managed to read it attentively, an instruction that has probably resulted in some hapless sap anagrammatising every other line in the search for secret messages. Martin Amis did something similar when he published his novel Other People - subtitling it "A Mystery Story" and announcing in interviews that its apparent opacities had a simple explanation. Julian Barnes, he said, had "got it" first time but others might have to read the novel twice to solve the puzzle. As a way of securing a certain knotted attention from your readers, this could hardly be improved upon and, for a time at least, there was a vigorous exchange of theories about how best to solve the mystery.

Nor is it just good art that provokes the audience in this way. Dennis Potter's last two television plays have generated a similar, if smaller, cottage industry of exegesis, because for the compulsive decoder there is no such thing as a loose end. That dangling thread is just as likely to be the handle to a trap-door, which, pulled open, will reveal a concealed chamber within the work. Authorial forgetfulness, waning powers, the hurried rush to beat death to the final page? Don't be so naive. Again, Potter has encouraged the process, filling both plays with sly allusions that hint at hidden treasure and I confess that I am guilty of code-breaking myself, arguing in one review that the name of the main character in Cold Lazarus, Emma Porlock, was a not-very-covert acknowledgement by Potter that this was his "Kubla Khan", a morphine dream set down in a moment of dazed inspiration.

Some of my correspondents have dug a little deeper: "Am I one of the few people who has picked up the message in Dennis Potter's Karaoke and Cold Lazarus?" writes Mr Robinson, noting that both plays end with the murder of the villain and that Potter joked in his final interview about shooting Rupert Murdoch. The plays, Mr Robinson suggests, may be a deliberate incitement to media terrorism. It wouldn't be beyond Potter, certainly, though you would have thought he could have come up with a less risible acronym for his secret army than RON - hardly an aid to recruitment.

Mary Rensten has another suggestion: "I wonder if I am alone," she writes, "in seeing another allusion... in the naming of his hero Feeld. Are we to interpret this as Potter's Feeld, or rather Potter's Field, a public burying place?" As it happens, she has company - Alex Burns advances a similar theory in the Evening Standard: "Has anyone else noticed that the writer in both plays is named Feeld. So Potter-is-Feeld and traditionally Potter's Field is the burial place of those who have failed, right? I wonder what other barbs may be buried in these texts?" he continues, unleashing the verbal metal detectors on that uneven terrain.

Alert decoders will have noticed a common theme in all these letters - the almost formulaic inquiry as to whether the writers have company in their conjecture - "Am I alone?", "Has anyone else noticed?" and so on. This speaks to the other fascination of gnomic texts, the promise they hold out of a kind of intellectual VIP lounge, accessible only to those who have worked out the password. The mass of the audience will be content to remain passive consumers, but some will attempt to penetrate backstage, to discover the tricks that animate the performance. But it may be that there is no secret room, in either good or bad art - that the struggle for comprehension by readers is itself the meaning of a great impenetrable work, and a charity we confer on those that are merely empty.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Commercial Manager / New Product Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company mission is to be th...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Tester

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Software Tester is required t...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Developer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: The Company sells mobile video advertising sol...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Executive

    £16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have a vacancy within our ra...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project