Clearing Up Ambiguity

Spirit of Lycabettus.jpg

Herbert List/Magnum Photos

Herbert List: Spirit of Lycabettus XXI, Mount Lycabettus, Athens, Greece, 1937

“I like middles,” said John Updike. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”

“A marvellously ambiguous ending,” says Barry Norman of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Blood Meridian is wonderfully ambiguous on these questions,” says Scott Esposito of Cormac McCarthy’s novel.

“The greater the ambiguity, the greater the pleasure,” declares Milan Kundera.

“Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse is a beautifully composed, wonderfully ambiguous celebration of sexual liberation,” says an Amazon blurb.

So what is it about ambiguity that it has to be praised to high heaven by all and sundry? Above all, how did it come to take on, at least for some, a cloak of liberal righteousness, to shift from being an aesthetic to a moral virtue, as if the text that wasn’t clear, that didn’t state its preferences clearly, were ethically superior to the text that does.

In every other sphere of expression ambiguity is a flaw. Clarity is prized. Politicians are condemned for their ambiguity. There is nothing worse than bureaucratic forms or technical instructions that are not clear. It is famously said that the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War was the result of an ambiguously worded order. Hundreds died. But in literature ambiguity is positive. “Authors and readers alike have a stake in textual ambiguity,” writes critic Janet Solberg, because “literature both illustrates and depends on the ability of language to create and to obscure ‘meaning.’”

At the same time, of course, in order to evoke experience for the reader, literature has to be precise. The more we recognize what is being described the more likely we are to engage with the narrative. Here is Thomas Hardy describing Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles: “She had stretched one arm so high above her coiled-up cable of hair that he could see its satin delicacy above the sunburn; her face was flushed with sleep, and her eyelids hung heavy over their pupils.”

Nothing ambiguous here. Hardy wants us to see Tess. But isn’t this kind of precision at loggerheads with the idea of the ambiguous text? Or are we to take it that ambiguity only has to do with point of view, character, and narrative outcome, not with the details? To set my mind straight on this, I recently went back to the fountainhead, the first man to acclaim ambiguity as somehow essential to literature, William Empson.

And what struck me as I opened the pages of Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) was the precision with which different manifestations of ambiguity are described. In examples ranging from Greek tragedy to the present day, but concentrating above all on Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, Empson always distinguishes between the merely (but perhaps excitingly) vague and the semantically complex, between the suggestive nebulousness of Thomas Nashe’s “Brightness falls from the air” and the complexity of possible meanings in a later line in the same stanza, “Dust hath closed Helen’s eye,” where, as Empson points out, the poet hints at a statue with dust falling on it, rather than an eye turning into dust. In any event, toward the end of his exposition of “the first kind of ambiguity” (when a detail is effective in several ways at once) he remarks:

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.

Setting aside the question of an exact definition of ambiguity, it’s soon clear that what Empson is really trying to do is pin down all the ways literature can be dense, can create complexity, with always the implication that in doing so it in fact achieves a kind of realism, since experience itself is complex and dense and not easily deciphered. He speaks persuasively of “a general sense of compacted intellectual wealth, of an elaborate balance of variously associated feeling.” After a wonderful analysis of the ambiguous placing of “alas” in these lines by Ben Jonson

Pan is our All, by him we breathe, we live,
We move, we are;…
But when he frowns, the sheep, alas,
The shepherds wither, and the grass.

he goes on to claim that,

Both in prose and poetry, it is the impression that implications…have been handled with more judgement than you yourself realise, that with this language as text innumerable further meanings, which you do not know, could be deduced, that forces you to feel respect for a style.

That is, contrary to the drift of Janet Solberg’s remarks, language in general actually tends to the simplistic, offering a reductive account of what it seeks to represent—it could hardly be otherwise. Hence we prize someone who has managed to put into language, with its relentless and crude semantic segmentation of experience, some of the density and indeed perplexity we feel as we try to get a grip on what is going on around us.


At this point you might say that if our experience of reality is that it is far from clear, any literature with a mimetic vocation will have to be on the one hand precise in the presentation of the physical detail and on the other ambiguous in its vision of the whole, what the details add up to. But there are those who see a value for ambiguity and multiplicity beyond mimesis.

In a previous piece I discussed the anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s comments on art and painting in Bali. Alarmed by the modern world’s tendency to privilege the conscious, purposeful, “problem-solving” mind, at the expense of less conscious practices and traditions, Bateson suggested that one of the purposes of ambiguity in art might be its capacity to confound and undermine this hubristic, hands-on impulse to be forever sorting the world out. So a painting of a cremation procession, which, curiously, can also be read as a phallic symbol (the tall cremation tower in the center has a roundish elephant on each side at the base) is not, Bateson feels, “really” about any of the elements we see, but an invitation to reflect on their possible relatedness. As such it encourages a contemplative rather than a purposeful state of mind, a dazzled respect for the world’s mysterious complexity, undermining the thirst for active engagement. Unsurprisingly, one of Bateson’s favorite works of literature was Alice Through the Looking Glass; his Steps to an Ecology of Mind has a charming discussion of the scene where croquet is played with flamingos for mallets and hedgehogs for balls, in which he suggests that Carroll is inviting us to contemplate the madness of seeking to bend the natural world to our purposes.

Arguably D. H. Lawrence was thinking on the same lines as Bateson and anticipating Empson’s enthusiasm for ambiguity when in 1925 he asserted that the greatness of the novel was that within fictional narrative “everything in the world is relative to everything else,” hence novels are incapable of assuming an absolute position on anything. An author like Tolstoy might have a Christian purpose “up his sleeve,” but for a fine novelist the sheer process of paying attention to life’s complexity would, in the end, subsume this purpose and make it merely, or intriguingly, only one of the work’s elements to be put in relation to the others.

So the novel “won’t let you tell didactic lies,” Lawrence concludes. As with Bateson he is praising art for a resistant, or negative quality. At which point we realize that, going back even further, this idea was already there in Keats’s notion of negative capability, “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Case closed then? Ambiguity, uncertainty, multiplicity are positive in literature in so far as they act as a corrective against a dominant and potentially harmful manipulative hubris. This seems well and good. But in order for art to achieve this quality, Bateson observes, the artist has to be genuinely open to the unconscious, to all that lies outside rational, control-oriented behavior. Lawrence agrees: for the novel to avoid didacticism, the novelist has to be truly open to the world he describes; it is the multiplicity he then inevitably lets into the text that overwhelms the petty habit of knowing better.

But what are the consequences of recognizing “ambiguity” as a quality of literature, something to be encouraged in creative writing courses and punctually praised with blandly intensifying adverbs—“wonderfully ambiguous,” “marvellously ambiguous” —with no discussion of how and why the text is indeed complex? Nothing is less attractive, in a poem or novel, than the feeling that “ambiguity” has simply been constructed or contrived. Anyone looking for an example of this might turn to Haruki Murakami’s recent novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage, where structural ambiguity—mysterious trigger points on the anatomy alerting us that a relationship is important, strange stories of amputated sixth fingers preserved in a bag by an artist doomed to die, etc.—has become little more than a mannerism, or signature, at the service of the very rational and purposeful goal of producing another Murakami bestseller.

Worse still is the hijacking of literary ambiguity for use as a political tool against fundamentalism. Reviewing Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, in which an evil “cultmaster” seeks to destroy a fertile ocean of fiction where stories of many different kinds flow together, Hilary Mantel remarked: “This tyrant hates stories because he aims to rule the world, and fiction creates an alternative world, a multiplicity of worlds he can never command.” Here the structural ambiguities of fiction are purposefully deployed in the battle against obscurantism. Nothing could be further from Bateson’s vision of art as an invitation to a contemplative state of mind, or Lawrence’s sense that the novelist’s enterprise was simply greater than the didactic purposes he might have.


And we arrive at the core issue. To have learned how a piece of literature affects and stimulates us—and nobody gets closer to explaining such effects than Empson in Seven Types of Ambiguity—is not to have learned how to create a similar piece of literature. For this reason, it would be as well when we talk about ambiguity in this or that novel to be as precise as possible about its nature and implications and above all to avoid the sort of perfunctory, reflexive praise that simply aligns this quality with a special kind of cleverness. As if we could just all decide to be “wonderfully ambiguous.”

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