Clarity and ambiguity

April 3, 2007 at 1:36 pm (Uncategorized)

In an email, an Empsonian friend of mine has suggested that the style of literary criticism may on occasion need to contain a little more of the ‘inexplicit’ than I suggested in my last post – that the elliptical, the aphoristic and the oblique in literary criticism play an important role in constituting a style through which we can entertain ideas, as opposed to expounding them.

I agree with him – though you wouldn’t necessarily guess so from the post in question… this blogging business makes it riskily easy to misrepresent one’s self to the world….

I’d better make it clear what I meant, and then try to figure out what I really think on further reflection.

In that post I was thinking mainly about what should happen when ‘we step out of criticism into a more abstract discursive space’ of theory, rather than about literary criticism in general. Coming to think of it I wouldn’t want to defend this opposition as an absolute – but it’s useful. My final comments were supposed to suggest that a division of labour of some sort (even if not an absolute one) would be a very good thing, if we are hoping to sort out questions like ‘the question of literary value’ in the abstract (rather than just in practice – my preferred option). I didn’t mean to demand that practical criticism be ‘logical’ or anything other than suggestive. I think I do think that theory should be logical, most of the time. If it’s not, I’m not sure it’s really ‘theory’ at all – though I guess it might be philosophy – in the sense that Wittgenstein thought of his work as the latter but not the former. Perhaps he was doing ‘practical criticism’.

But that last example leads me to the conclusion that I was unhelpfully lumping together a whole load of inexplicit and non-logical forms of expression, a whole lot of motives for inexplicitness, and a whole lot of different critical activities, and lashing out at them all in my annoyance with the attitude of suave non-committal which, it struck me, Jarvis’s gentile reticence had helped him take up on the fence.

‘Good’ ambiguity has been through clarity and come out the other side. Bad ambiguity can’t make it to clarity. Bad ambiguity is vague and underdetermined, suggesting nothing in particular and drops the thread of the argument – good ambiguity is precise in its indecision, and trembles on the tension in the argument. Good ambiguity deserves an ‘hmmm’; bad ambiguity an ‘eh??’ Ambiguous, suggestive writing is riskier than clear, logical writing. There is the risk that we may be duped into an appreciative ‘hmmm’ because we feel the lack is in us, rather than in the writing – like Austen’s Fanny Price teaching Mr Rushworth his lines — trying to ‘create a brain’ for the muddled writer out of the superfluity of our own, or like Dorothea Brooke, whose ‘faith supplied all that Mr. Casaubon’s words seemed to leave unsaid: what believer sees a disturbing omission or infelicity? The text, whether of prophet or of poet, expands for whatever we can put into it, and even his bad grammar is sublime.’ But of course Dorothea’s faith is admirable as well as wrong-headed, and there is the contrary risk that that we may go ‘eh??’ because we lack the brains or the patience or the generosity for a fruitful ‘hmmm’. We don’t want to limit ourselves to Celia’s ‘pretty, carnally minded prose’.

But then there’s the second-order danger that we can be accused of one of the first-order mistakes whenever we try to talk about a piece of ambiguous writing…

For these reasons we might, pragmatically, choose to decide to stick to clear writing in some contexts. No one wants a suggestive instruction manual for the VCR, and some bits of literary critical writing are closer to that pole of the continuum than others. For example, I think when impugning the scholarship of other individual writers we should probably stick to trying to say what we mean as clearly as possible. Someone else’s bad work probably doesn’t deserve to be dignified with the grandeurs of indeterminacy.

I guess we need to be realistic about the attention and ‘hmmm’ing with which our readers are likely to grace a given piece of writing. They will probably entertain each ambiguity in an article in a scholarly journal with a little more patience and imagination than they are willing to grant their instruction manual, but probably a little less than they’re likely to grant a poem…If our criticism is truly brilliant, we may, in good conscience, take up with our critical silences some of our reader’s time and imagination that he might otherwise bestow on, say, The Prelude – but if we aren’t thatbrilliant…

Not that any of these decisions about the appropriate degree of reticence or ambiguity are going to be clear-cut – a matter of logic or demonstration – we’re going to have to fall back on inchoate judgments and appeals to taste…you know what I mean…and I eat my tail…

When I wrote that ‘in literary studies we need to take particular care to resist the vanity and self-indulgence of indulging in boring abstraction in the name of theory, in conceptual tangles in the name of complexity, and in careless obscurity in the name of profundity or elegance’ I meant to leave open the possibility of abstraction, complexity and profundity and elegance, not to cancel them. We do need special license for non-logical writing as literary critics, but we need to earn that license by care and attention to what we’re writing about, and not abuse it as a cover for cowardice, or just plain laziness or stupidity – something even their enemies could never accuse a critic like Empson, or thinkers like Nietzsche or Adorno, of doing. That’s what we need, I think, in the face of the ravages of Theoretical non-sense – a more scrupulously conscientious theoretical and critical rhetoric.

If anyone ever reads this – got any good examples of good and bad ambiguous critical or theoretical passages?

3 Comments

  1. Webbo said,

    I’m sure you’ll be astonished to hear that I agree entirely with your “hmmmm”/”eh??” distinction. I have read far too many reviews – consumer journalism as well as academic – which are frustratingly obscure about what the reviewer actually thinks about the artifact under scrutiny. I would rather read Leavis openly discounting all he doesn’t enjoy, than another essay which ducks under the cover of “interesting” rather than giving an honest “good” or “bad” (saying something is bad makes it sound a lot more intriguing than saying it’s interesting). Good critical ambiguity is the sort which asks to be argued with, like Virginia Woolf writing about Eliot – the sort of writing that makes footholds for the reader’s curiosity. Bad ambiguity is the sort that asks to be taken on trust – the sort of writing that implies the reader should accept the lapses of the argument because there is some greater prize in store to reward the believing. I would give an example, if it wouldn’t make it achingly obvious how little I’ve expanded my reading since we last talked literature… I suppose I have an Orwellian belief that if an argument can’t be made clearly, it isn’t worth making. Clarity to my mind doesn’t exclude paradox and suggestiveness – but it does exclude asking the reader to embrace without understanding.

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