In Praise of Ambiguity

On Empson

by Michael Wood
Princeton University Press, 212 pp., $22.95
New Directions
William Empson, circa late 1940s

Ambiguity has been an arresting feature of language ever since people learned to care about words for reasons unconnected with utility. An instruction manual on fixing a wheel shouldn’t leave you uncertain whether a wood or a metal spoke is preferred. But diplomacy can allow for “strategic ambiguity,” well understood by all parties, where too much specification would hamper an agreement.

Ambiguity in literature is a more elusive thing—not a matter of tacit meanings suppressed to secure a particular end. An ambiguous moment in a poem may indicate a suspension between two states of mind, in a situation where someone confined to either state could not know the reality of the other. It commonly turns on a hidden complexity that the reader is prompted to notice in a single word—for example, the word “honest” in Othello, as applied to the character of Iago. Or it may emerge from the cunning deployment of a genre like pastoral, which induces readers to reflect on themselves while looking at something apparently unlike themselves.

None of this would have seemed implausible or unfamiliar to Johnson, Coleridge, or Hazlitt, the great critics of the eighteenth and the nineteenth century. Yet the widespread practice of “close reading” was only settled in the mid-twentieth century; and its original genius and greatest practitioner was William Empson. His first three books, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), and The Structure of Complex Words (1951), all deal with motives and doubts of a sort that don’t declare themselves on the face of a work.

How recondite is this concern? Michael Wood in On Empson picks out a remarkable sentence from Seven Types to show the connection between ambiguity in action and in writing:

People, often, cannot have done both of two things, but they must have been in some way prepared to have done either; whichever they did, they will have still lingering in their minds the way they would have preserved their self-respect if they had acted differently; they are only to be understood by bearing both possibilities in mind.

The passage suggests a broader truth. Empson’s criticism is full of sympathy for human weakness and blindness, but this need not coincide with a high estimation of humanity. He thinks we are creatures who can’t fully know ourselves: there is a strong parallel here between Empson on ambiguity and Freud on the unconscious. Our reasons are never identical with our motives; the condition seems incurable. Still, we are right to want to understand its nature and manifestations.

Empson had a consistent aim as an educator. “The main purpose of reading imaginative literature,” he wrote in the Festschrift for his teacher I.A. Richards, “is to grasp a wide variety of experience, imagining people with codes and customs very unlike our own.” He said it another way…

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