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June 2004
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The Chameleon

This discussion reminds me of "The Chameleon", a tome of indeterminate age, existence, and reality, that supposedly has a different meaning for each person who reads it. Thus one reader might perceive it as a prose poem on the indeterminancy of life, whereas another might perceive it as a bathic fiction about the loss of a beloved kitten.

I have never myself obtained a copy of the work, nor have I read it. My understanding is that there is an underground that circulates it to those who are felt to be particularly worthy or who are particularly in need of it. My inquiries on this point are met with cryptic remarks to the effect that I will understand why I got the book when I read it.

Not only is there a cult that reads and circulates the work, there is also a larger group that has not read it, but has heard about it, and that speculates about it endlessly. For example, there is a group that claims that the work contains but a single word, and that the formal text is "The ...", the implication being that the reader supplies the rest of the text themselves. Holders of this view seem quite insistent upon the correctness of their view and are not dissuaded from admitting the very possibility of error, even though none of them have seen the book.

Others, who are an elite of which I am not a member, have formed a study group, which has the objective of discovering or rediscovering how such a work could be written, a matter quite distinct from whatever might be in the book. That is, they attempt to reconstruct the mode of thought that permits and enables the writing of such a book. One of the difficulties is that the author cannot foresee all of the meanings that readers might devise for the work; how then can he ensure that each reader will find a different meaning.

There is a smaller group that claims that the work has no author at all. I find their arguments singularly difficult to refute. When I point out that there must have been a time when the book did not exist, they readily agree. And, when I point out that, the nature of the world being what it is, there must have been a finite number of copies over time, most are willing to agree. I say "most" because some hold to a view of infinity that is not quite in accord with the views of mathematicians. When I go on and say that, given that there are but a finite number of copies, and given that each copy has a slightly different date of production, then inevitably must be a first copy. This they do not accept. I am met with the cry, "If there was a first copy, then what precisely was its date of production." Naturally I cannot answer this question; the dates of production of any of the copies is known only in the vaguest of ways. They go on to claim that there being no definite evidence of a first copy, they see no need to believe in one. I am certain that they are in error, but I see no definite way of convincing them of their error.

I had had difficulty with seeing how a single finite work could have a arbitrarily number of distinct meanings. However my confusion in this regard was set to rest by a colleague, a literary theorist with a touch of mathematics, who explained the matter thuswise: Suppose we have some fragment of text, this very essay for example, and we wish to say what it means. What we do is to produce an explanation, a longer bit of text about the initial text we can append to it. That, however does not totally capture the meaning or the original text because we will need in turn an explanation of the explanation and still further an explanation of the explanation of the explanation, and so on and so forth. He held that the meaning can only be represented accurately by an infinite chain of explanations. Since the cardinality of infinite sequences, C, is greater than the cardinality of finite sequences, aleph-null, it follows that every text has an infinite, indeed uncountable number of meanings. He may well be right, but I wouldn't count on it.

Speaking for myself, I doubt the existence of the book, believing that the entire affair is a charade, designed to mulct the gullible, and assuage the hopes of the hopeful. If perchance it does exist, though, I hope it will be there when I have need of it.


This page was last updated June 9, 2004.
Copyright © 2004 by Richard Harter

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