Ambiguity Is a Good Thing

by / Tuesday, 21 December 2010 / Published in Blog, Home-left, Uncategorized

During the past dozen years or so, I have developed a healthy taste for ambiguity.

One of the reasons I enjoy poetry, for instance, is how a good poem pretty much insists that the reader learn to savor the swoon of ambiguity.  The productive ambiguity of good poems obliges the reader actually to participate with the text, that she collaborate as a co-maker of meaning.

That is to say, a great poem—even a pretty good one—isn’t ever done saying what it has to say, so long as successive generations of alert and energetic readers continue to pick it up.

Ambiguity in any substantial literary text, then, indicates that the significance of the telling doesn’t end with a single reading, and delivers a compelling nudge to the reader that she assist in the telling and the re-telling, the continuing labor of meaning-making.

I also have come to think that this goes for ambiguity in general, ambiguity in life.

And might serve as well for all flavors of uncertainty.

And for perplexity, to boot.

And it occurs to me that perplexity is not such a bad disposition to cultivate, considering the complex circumstances of our lives.  Perplexity is, at the very least, preferable to an array of clear, comprehensible, and mistaken certainties.

Confessing our uncertainties in the face of complex circumstances may prove finally to be a very good thing, even something of a gift.  They bring us face to face with the limit where human understanding fails—as it inevitably must do.   Apprehending that limit serves to make a healthy dent in our pride and sense of self-sufficiency.

Moreover, our noticing that limit of knowledge—that line across which we can never proceed—can nudge us into suspecting how the actual, the True, is immeasurably immense, how it necessarily exceeds us.

I love how W.H. Auden begins his wonderful poem, “Archaeology”:

The archaeologist’s spade

delves into dwellings

vacancied long ago,

unearthing evidence

of life-ways no one

would dream of leading now—

concerning which he has not much

to say that he can prove:—

the lucky man!

Knowledge may have its purposes,

but guessing is always

more fun than knowing. …

I have a very keen sense that our Mr. Auden—prince among poets—also had developed a very healthy taste for ambiguity.

Whatever the Truth turns out to be, it is not a comprehensible body of knowledge, even if that Truth is made manifest—is revealed—in the apprehensible Body of Christ.  We do not—will not ever—comprehend the Truth; rather, the Truth, presumably, comprehends us.

Scott Cairns is Catherine Paine Middlebush Chair in English at the University of Missouri.  His nine books include poetry collections, spiritual memoir, essays, and translations.  He serves as a reader/psalti at Saint Luke the Evangelist Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia, Missouri, and will serve as Visiting Professor of English at Saint Katherine College in spring, 2012.

6 Responses to “Ambiguity Is a Good Thing”

  1. Prudence True says :

    Truth, Mystery, and Ambiguity
    obscure . . . almost invisible

  2. Scott Cairns says :

    And by this cryptic comment, you mean to say…?

  3. Prudence True says :

    Truth, Ambiguity, and Mystery are all components of Faith. They are all invisible.

    Oh, dear. I’m explaining my poem . . .

  4. Scott Cairns says :

    Sounds like a poem I’d like to see!


  5. Fred says :

    Ambiguity is a natural law. Everything is a circle, related, so it has its opposite. Truth is perspective to the “truths” held by the observer. A Jew, a Catholic, a Christian, and an Agnostic will all see a “Truth” that the others disclaim. No two people of the same faith hold the same truths(as my marriage, though profound and deeply loving it has been, has shown me). So if truth is in the eye of the beholder then by its very nature it is ambiguous. Its a shame that so many people choose instead to fight, hurt, and kill others in the name of their “Truth” instead of exploring the ambiguity of it. Simply accepting the face value or someone else’s explanation is so much cheaper and wasteful than exploring the beauty of it yourself and coming to your own decision, though by its very nature will be flawed. It is the flaws in a diamond that make it beautiful. And the flaws in ourselves that leave space for us to grow and overcome.

  6. […] when he has already done such an excellent job of it here, at the St. Katherine College blog? Read this.So, my Friday night is still young. I’m going to open a book of good poetry — maybe even […]