Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Seven Types of Ambiguity

In his review of Michael Wood’s On Empson (The New York Review of Books, 10/26/17) David Bromwich cites the following sentence from the famed critic and author of Seven Types of Ambiguity (quoted in the volume under consideration): “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.” Whether Wood is Empson’s Boswell is besides the point, by underscoring the relationship between ambiguity in life as well as art, he points to the etiology of ambiguity. Oxymorons, nouns in apposition with opposite meanings, are often like dreams. They evince the presence of the kind of contrariety exemplified by unconscious or primary process thinking. Can we say that the power of ambiguity therefore resides in the fact that it evinces the oneiric function of Freud’s “royal road to the unconscious?” Of course there are times when people are simply being ambiguous and there are ambiguities in literature which are not constructive and essential only serve to confuse the reader. In this case, to quote Freud again, “a cigar is just a cigar.”

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