Ambiguity Is a Good Thing
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,
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.