From Mr. Terry to Yoko Ono

Forty-three years ago, I played a trick on my high school English teacher that I have felt bad about ever since. One week, I wrote an excellent piece on some subject or another, and Mr. Terry praised my talent. The next week we had a free assignment to write on anything. Knowing he admired me, I did something reprehensible: I wrote an obscure little piece of fiction that actually had no real meaning. I called it “Icebergs”, an allusion to suppressed memories or some such. But it was pretty much content-free. I deliberately packed it with words that were clearly allusions to something deeper—but the thing is, there was nothing deeper. Mr. Terry was fooled, or at least uncertain, and gave me an A or maybe even an A+. I am ashamed of this story.

Forty-three years later, walking down Broadway after hastening through a Yoko Ono retrospective at MoMA, I found myself thinking about “Icebergs”, and rather incredibly, it occurred to me for the very first time that my act of creating art without meaning was no more than what artists and writers do all the time. Sometimes an obscure work has a meaning, but you can be sure not always—and what’s more, it’s not certain this is a bad thing. (See any of my index cards on Bob Dylan.) How did it take me all these years to realize that my indiscretion was standard procedure?

[7 September 2015]

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