Sunday, September 25, 2011

Comments and Queries on "Seven types of Ambiguity" by Wiliam Empson

Seven types of Ambiguity: By Wiliam Empson

“An example of the seventh type of ambiguity, or at any rate of the last type of this series, as it is the most ambiguous that can be conceived, occurs when the two meanings of the word, the two values of the ambiguity, are the two opposite meanings defined by the context, so that the total effect is to show a fundamental division in the writer’s mind”. (192).

This definition applies very well to Thoreau’s dilemma with John Brown, specifically the metaphor that he was an “angel of light”.

“It is at once an indecision and a structure, like the symbol of the Cross.” (192)

“Now a Freudian opposite at least marks dissatisfaction; the notion of what you want involves the idea that you have not got it, and this again involves the ‘opposite defined by your context,’ which is what you have and cannot avoid. . .The notion of what you want involves the notion that you must not take it, and this again involves the ‘opposite defined by your context,’ that you want something different in another part of your mind.” (193)

Thoreau wanted to impose his form of morality, but to do so would undermine the very freedom that he wanted to force upon people.

“I invoke primitive languages on the authority of Freud can cannot pretend to understand their mode of action. The early Egyptians wrote the same sign for ‘young’ and ‘old,’ . . They ‘only gradually learnt to separate the two sides of the antithesis and think of the one without conscious comparison with the other.” (from Freud, Notebooks vol. iv. No. 10) When a primitive Egyptian saw a baby he at once thought of an old man, and he had to learn not to do this as his language became more civilized.”

Empson seems arrogant here. It is actually a profound and meaningful concept that youth and age are coined together as one, for as soon as you are born, you start to die. Perhaps the dicthotomization of that word into two actually impoverishes a language. . .

How can Freud claim that the Egyptian language was primitive? Seems rather arrogant . . Like Otto Jespersen referring to Hawaiian as a childish language compared to English (See Growth and Study of the English Language)

“It seems likely, indeed, that words uniting two opposites are seldom or never actually formed in a language to express conflict between them; such words come to exist for more sensible reasons, and then may be used to express conflict.” (195)

Pg 196: Why does Empson quote this stanza from Dante’s Inferno, and why in Italian?
I remember that it related how Dante saw Lucifer on his head, and how he was afraid that Virgil was leading him right back to Hell, when in fact he was not. There was an anxiety about direction. Dante wants to leave, it looks like they are going not just the wrong way, but back the way the had just left.

But Why Dante? There must have been other poets he could have quoted who faced a similar dilemma?

“A maze may be said to have no plan, when it was designed with a plan to start with, but the plan has since been lost, or at any rate is not being shown to you. Or it may be said to have no plan when it is merely an untidy set of walks, and there a variety of ways of getting to the centre. Or it might (these are the meanings that Pope was not allowed) mean that there is no way of getting to the centre, or even no recognisable centre at all.”(203, 204)

“Crashaw’s poetry often has two interpretations, religious and sexual; two situations on which he draws for imagery and detail . . . . However, when Crashaw is not being directly witty on this theme the situation is more complicated. Though he lays them side by side and talks about both the two forms of experience are as different as possible; one is good, the other evil. “The ‘context’ here is that a saint is being adored [in itself sacrilegious] for her chastity, and the metaphors about her are veiled references to copulation. . .The context defines the two situations as opposites; two opposed judgments are being held together and allowed to reconcile themselves.” (217-218)

“Crashaw certainly conceived the bliss of the saints as extremely like the bliss which on earth he could not obtain without sin.” (220)

“One must not say that Crashaw described a sensual form of mysticism, only that he was content to use sexual terms for his mystical experiences, because they were the best terms that he could find.” (ibid.)

From an analysis of The Windhover, to Christ our Lord, by Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Thus in the first three lines of the sestet we seem to have a clear case of the Freudian use of opposites, where two things thought of as incompatible, but desired intensely by different systems of judgment, are spoken of simultaneously by words applying to both; both desires are thus given a transient and exhausting satisfaction, and the two systems of judgment are forced into open conflict before the reader. “ (225, 226)

George Herbert, The Sacrifice

“Herbert deals in this poem, on the scale and by the methods necessary to do it, with the most complicated and and deeply-rooted notion of the human mind.” (233)

What are the oppositions that he is trying to resolve? That God became man, that the wrongdoing of mankind was actually right doing because it furthered the will of God the Father, who allowed his son to be killed by his own creation.

“The first line now at last, with an effect of apotheosis, gives the complete quotation from Jeremiah. He climbs the tree to repay what was stolen, as if he was putting the apple back; but the phrase in itself implies rather that he is doing the stealing, that so far from sinless he is Prometheus and the criminal. Either he stole on behalf of man (it is he who appeared to be sinful, and was caught up the tree) or he is climbing upwards, like Jack on the Beanstalk, and taking his people with him back to Heaven.” (232)

In other words, is Herbert trying to make Jesus out to be a real criminal, as opposed to one merely a perceived criminal in the eyes of the world? Or is he trying to reconcile the fact that he was a criminal, because he violated the laws of man, yet he was God, and as God how could he then be a criminal, and to be condemned by his own creation, at that?

“Thus in two ways, one behind the other, the Christ becomes guilty; and we reach the final contradiction:

Lo here I hang, charged with a world of sin
The greater world of the two . . .

“As the complete Christ; scapegoat and tragic hero [“tragedy” comes from a word meaning “goat song, by the way]; loved because hated; hated because god-like; freeing from torture because tortured; torturing his torturers because all-merciful; source of all strength to men because by accepting he exaggerates their weakness; and, because outcast, creating the possibility of society.

Between two theeves I spend the utmost breath,
As he for some robberie suffereth.
Alas! What have I stolen from you? Death:
Was ever grief like mine?
“Herbert deals in this poem, on the scale and by the methods necessary to do it, with the most complicated and and deeply-rooted notion of the human mind.” (233)

Empson’s exhaustive analysis points out a problem for religious poets. Is it appropriate to aesthetize the passion of Christ? Passion is the proper word, since it suggest both suffering and feeling. Can one do justice to the Eternal work of Jesus Christ? Should one even try? Perhaps this conflict permeates, or at least engenders, the Seventh Type of Ambiguity that Empson writes about at length.

Empson concedes that the division in the author’s mind may indeed be conscious, and in fact be inevitable, as in the case of Christ’s suffering.

I am interested in the division in the author’s mind which an author is trying to hide.

This discussion falls apart on another problem, which is how anyone, whether writer or critic, can discern how people would have reacted to any piece of language, or what any author was intending in the first place. Empson tries to do that a lot. Umberto Eco would certainly challenge that approach (see Interpretation and Overinterpretation)

Example “But how Crashaw arrived at the quatrain I have been considering, what his public thought when they read it, I cannot pretend to know. They probably just thought it curious and Biblical and let it go at that.” (224)

See also foot note on page 226. He assumes that his analysis of Richard’s poem would cause the Jesuit to suppress the whole poem. How on earth could Empson make such a supposition?

Deconstruction is based on the idea that language has a structure which undermines an author’s intent. Thoreau wants to praise John Brown, yet the ambiguity in his metaphor betrays not only his praise, but his conflict. Then again, for me to talk about discerning the conflict within Thoreau’s mind is ultimately moot, since that would make me just as guilty as Mr. Empson.

Then for Empson to argue about the division in any author’s mind is obsolete, since appartenly thinkers like Saussure, Derrrida, and Eco have made stronger arguments for intention operis as opposed to Empson’s frequent search for intense autoris.

Empson has fallen victim to the Intentional Fallacy.

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