David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: william empson (page 1 of 2)

The Pale, Quiet, Episcopalian Breast: On a Phrase of Jeffrey Eugenides

The title phrase comes from Jeffrey Eugenides’ new book The Marriage Plot. I probably won’t read it. I read a bit of The Virign Suicides and didn’t care for it. My interest in Eugenides now is because this phrase is a perfect example of a style of “literary” writing that holds a lot of sway in contemporary fiction.

The TLS reviewer Edmund Gordon singled it out for praise:

Eugenides tells this story in a voice of careful anonymity and untroubled omniscience, moving between the perspectives of several of his characters and sometimes getting away from all of them together. The opening paragraph takes the form of an impersonal inventory of Madeleine’s bookshelves; later, we are told (though he himself is apparently unaware of the fact) that Mitchell’s letters to his parents are “documents of utter strangeness”, and (while Madeleine is lying hungover in bed one morning “with a pillow over her head”) that the sun is “shining on every brass doorknob, insect wing, and blade of grass” outside. For a work that employs such a majestic narrative standpoint, though, the touch is light, the tone unusually sweet. Here, for example, is Mitchell, remembering the occasion – as they were taking refuge from a toga party in the laundry room of her dorm – on which he caught a lucky, life-haunting glimpse of Madeleine’s half-exposed nipple:

It was amazing how an image like that – of nothing, really, just a few inches of epidermis – could persist in the mind with undiminished clarity. The moment had lasted no more than three seconds. Mitchell hadn’t been entirely sober at the time. And yet now, almost four years later, he could return to the moment at will (and it was surprising how often he wanted to do this), summoning all of its sensory details, the rumbling of the dryers, the pounding music next door, the linty smell of the dank basement laundry room. He remembered exactly where he’d been standing and how Madeleine had stooped forward, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, as the sheet slipped and, for a few exhilarating moments, her pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast exposed itself to his sight.

She quickly covered herself, glancing up and smiling, possibly with embarrassment.

The prose here is relaxed – almost indecently so in comparison to Eugenides’s first two books, and sometimes by any standards to the point of laziness (“the rumbling of the dryers, the pounding music”) – but fuelled by just enough hard-working detail to keep it buoyant; take the brilliance of that “pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast”, the last two adjectives of which are so unexpected, yet which fit so intimately to religious, callow Mitchell’s perspective.

The trivial objection would be to say that a breast is almost always quiet and almost never Episcopalian, but I have no problem with synecdoche. And in fact “quiet” is not particularly problematic: it may be superfluous or slightly trite (it doesn’t seem so unexpected), but it does not seem to be a distinctive artistic move.

“Episcopalian” is another matter. Superficially, it makes sense in the context of the scene, as Mitchell is apparently interested in theology and comes from a Greek Orthodox background. Yet what work is “Episcopalian” being asked to do? Here are some of the attributions that we could make from that adjective, in rough order from most plausible to least plausible in the context of the scene:

  • Merely a reminder Madeleine’s religion, a salient characteristic to Mitchell
  • Foreign, alien, not of Mitchell’s religion
  • Religious, theistic
  • Forbidden, taboo
  • Sacred, pure
  • Anglo-American, non-Greek, comfortably at home
  • Uptight or upright, proper stiff
  • Parochial, lacking central authority

These are not all entirely compatible, and some are downright unlikely in context. The word “Episcopalalian” could be taken to mean some of these, but not all of them simultaneously. The word is too overloaded. Now, as William Empson tells us, ambiguity can be a passport to richness, but not at the expense of precision. Which attributions did Edmund Gordon make that caused him to praise the choice of adjective?

(I note that “Episcopalian” is not used anywhere else in the novel. “Anglican” is used twice, but both times literally.)

I have read the surrounding text and know what sort of character Madeleine is, and that knowledge does not resolve the matter. If “Episcopalian” is merely meant to show that Madeleine is Episcopalian in Mitchell’s eyes at that moment, then the synecdoche falls apart, because there is no greater whole for which the naked breast can stand: there is no evident reason why Madeleine’s naked body should be more Episcopal than her clothed body. But if the word is meant to suggest any of the other associations, then the matter is terminally ambiguous. Why use such a word then?

“It sounded good,” may be the most obvious answer, and perhaps it is sufficient. But the use of such a word also poses a challenge to readers, forcing them to stop and assess the significance of the word, then derive the intended meaning of it. Normally, the implied meaning is fairly obvious, but Eugenides picked a word that relied on specific cultural knowledge while also being detached from any particular adjectives he might have been intending to imply, making it paradoxically more parochial and more unclear. Yet the reviewer gives praise to the use of the term, taking it as a given that even out of context, the brilliance of the term’s use shines through.

What I want to suggest is that it is exactly this additional indirection, the use of concepts once-removed from the concrete adjectival properties, is taken to be good writing. I am not sure that it is. The ambiguity we should be seeking in writing is that which opens up fissures in the relations of the characters and the progressions of their thoughts. This, however, opens up a fissure between what the writer is trying to say (whatever that may be) and what is actually being communicated.

A challenge is given to a reader by using a word like “Episcopalian,” but the solution is purely formal: figure out what more direct, concrete adjective the word could be substituting for. There is the satisfaction of having done work in reading and trying to understand the sentence, but nothing is learned. Rather, something is taken away; a word was invoked with only part of its meaning having any significance to the matter at hand. Most likely, the superficial sense is all that was intended.

Such an approach to language robs words of their power by invoking them with only a partial, vague sense of their full significance. The result is a narrowing of meaning and a celebration of cleverness over insight. Yet the additional work required may make the work seem more “literary,” all the more so if no definite answer is forthcoming.

It is not a matter of style per se. Both ornamented and unornamented prose can be free of such hollow prestidigitation. Craig Raine highlighted this passage from Adam Mars-Jones’ Cedilla that does not lose clarity in its baroque language:

A Mars bar does indeed have veins, chocolate tubes breaking the surface of the bar, as if caramel was circulating through them, supplying the nougat core with vital nutrients and access to unthinkable sensations. The whole ridiculously penile confection was alive. It was a soft hard-on. It was Cadbury’s Flake that had the fast reputation, and its adverts always portrayed Flake-eaters as oral nymphomaniacs, but the Mars bar was every bit as concupiscent.

On the other hand, the sparse, precise prose of Agnes Owens does not lose evocative power by being direct, as with this bit from Like Birds in the Wilderness:

She said that she was cold and wanted to get home because she didn’t feel well. We walked back through the park in silence. When we reached the gate where she caught the bus I asked her if she would see me the next afternoon at the same place. She sighed and said all right in a sullen manner. She allowed me to kiss her, but her lips were cold.

Both of them are writers who learned through the experience of their imagination, and not, as Robert Musil says, “with the aid of borrowed terms.”

Jacob Bronowski, William Empson, Wittgenstein, and Ambiguity

Most of human sentences are in fact aimed at getting rid of the ambiguity which one has unfortunately left trailing in the previous sentence. Now I believe this to be absolutely inherent in the relation between the symbolism of language (that is, an exact symbolism) and the brain processes that it stands for. It is not possible to get rid of ambiguity in our statements, because that would press symbolism beyond its capabilities. And it is not possible to get rid of ambiguity because the number of responses that the brain could make never has a sharp edge because the thing is not a digital machine. So we have to work with the ambiguities. And nearly all discussions about Turing’s theorem or about poetry always come back to the central point about ambiguity. One of my fellow mathematicians, William Empson, who did mathematics with me at Cambridge, turned to poetry and at once published a book called Seven Types of Ambiguity–it is still a kind of minor bible, but a bible written by a mathematician, never forget that.

Ambiguity, multivalence, the fact that language simply cannot be regarded as a clear and final exposition of what it says, is central both to science, and, of course, to literature.

Jacob Bronowski, The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination

Bronowski carved out a niche for himself a bit like that of C.P. Snow, but I think he was more sensitive to, well, ambiguity.

The other figure lurking in this passage is that other Cambridge mathematician and logician who turned to the mysteries of language: Ludwig Wittgenstein. F.R. Leavis, who was not a genius, talks about Empson and Wittgenstein (who were geniuses) as near-polar opposites. One was protean, the other was anything but protean.

It may seem ironic that Wittgenstein would be the one to completely reject the system he created, but it’s actually entirely fitting, for it’s the most immutable among us who are sometimes forced into such complete renunciations when they finally change their minds.

Shakespeare’s Sick, Twisted Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure is a sick and disturbing play. Every change Shakespeare made to the source material, including the shift from tragedy to comedy, made it even more twisted. It’s never a good idea to speculate on Shakespeare’s motives, but this sickly comedy leaves religion, politics, and theater all looking terrible.

The quick summary of the relevant plot points: the Duke thinks he has been too lenient in governing Vienna (nice choice of setting!), so he turns his power over to the hypocritical puritan Angelo, who promptly sentences Claudio to death for getting his fiancee pregnant. Claudio’s chaste sister Isabella, a nun, pleads for clemency, and Angelo says he’ll spare Claudio, but only if she sleeps with him. So she does, but Angelo executes Claudio anyway, because he’s worried that Claudio will kill him if he ever finds out.

But no! The Duke has been in disguise as a friar the whole time and arranged it so that Angelo’s ex-fiancee, whom he dumped when her dowry sank at sea, pretended to be Isabella in bed. The Duke also manages to prevent Claudio’s execution by conveniently substituting a prisoner who just died of illness the same day. The Duke reveals himself and lets everyone off, including pardoning an amoral murderer who’s been sitting on the fringes of the action (and whom the Duke was initially going to substitute for Claudio before the other prisoner happened to drop dead). Then the Duke proposes to Isabella and the play ends before she can answer.

To the basic tale, Shakespeare added the bits after “But no!”, borrowing from a few other plots, in order to turn the grim morality play into a comedy. You can go on for ages looking at the various mirrored situations and the oozing moral and physical viscera all over the place, but I want to focus on the biggest problem of all, the Duke, and particularly his rhetoric.

Any interpretation of Measure for Measure that does not turn on an indictment of the Duke renders the play morally indefensible. He carelessly then carefully manipulates and tortures the characters as much as a Coen Brothers villain, and were the tone different, it would play as A Serious Man or a Kleist tale.

This has been a longstanding view. Coleridge was nauseated by the whole play, and I’m genuinely scared by those who see the Duke as some sort of moral paragon. E.K. Chambers (1906) gives a standard indictment:

The duke can be nothing but a travesty of a Haroun-al-raschid. Why does he conceal from Isabella, in her grief, the knowledge that her brother yet lives? To what purpose is the further prolongation of her agony, after his return, by the pretended disbelief of her story and the suspicion cast upon the friar, in whose person he has counselled her?

These are the antics of a cat with a mouse, rather than the dispositions of a wise and beneficent ruler; and it is difficult to see anything in the grave elaboration of them, except a satirical intention of Shakespeare towards theories about the moral government of the universe which, for the time being at least, he does not share. As yet, indeed, his nascent pessimism has only advanced to the point of finding ineffectiveness and not deliberate ill-will in the ordering of things. The thorough-going denunciations of King Lear are still to come.

E.K. Chambers

Now, there is room for some complication here. The Duke himself has some bizarre quirks, as well as the evident split personality.First he abdicates power, then he abdicates knowledge, as though the combination of the two is too great a burden for him to bear. And obviously it is.

But I want to pay attention to his rhetoric. No one else in the play speaks like him. Every time he opens his mouth, the play goes into another register, whether he’s in verse or prose. His speech is just as labyrinthine as his theatrical machinations. He speaks in some of the twistiest rhetoric of anyone this side of Love’s Labours Lost. Even his moralizing is knotted up:

That we were all, as some would seem to be,
From our faults, as faults from seeming, free!


Did you get that? “If only both (a) we were as little subject to our faults, and (b) faults were as free of being in disguise–as much as some people seem to be free from faults.” It’s a bizarre and unbalanced construction that uses the two similes in unorthodox fashion, especially since at its heart is an incoherence: Faults should be as free of disguise as much as faults are in disguise.

This is par for the course for the Duke. His opening discourse on governing is little better, to the extent that scholars from Samuel Johnson on have wondered if miscopying had marred the meaning.

Of government the properties to unfold
Would seem in me t’affect speech and discourse,
Since I am put to know that your own science
Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice
My strength can give you. Then no more remains
But that, to your sufficiency, as your worth is able,
And let them work.


I could believe in the textual corruption if the obfuscatory rhetoric didn’t fit so nicely with the Duke’s personality. Throughout the whole play, the Duke’s rhetoric tends to fall on empty ears anyway. He can be as cryptic as he wants, because (a) he is pulling the strings, and (b) no one really cares what he says. People want things from him; they have no relationship with him.

When the Duke visits the condemned Claudio in prison, his “comfort” to Claudio is like Hamlet’s soliloquy as delivered by Polonius, encouraging Claudio to accept death as a release from the pain of life, even as he plots to free Claudio from the freedom from life of death.

Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep….
If thou art rich, thou’rt poor;
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear’s thy heavy riches but a journey,
And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner.


The Duke’s “comfort” works on Claudio…for about a minute. As soon as Isabella shows up to tell her of Angelo’s bargain, Claudio jumps at the chance for life and tosses the Duke’s stoicism into the rubbish bin:

CLAUDIO: To die and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible and warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; . . . ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death. . . .


The Duke’s high-falutin’ rhetoric is not only pointlessly obfuscatory, but no one is listening. Whether the former caused the latter or vice versa is a question for later.

For right now I’ll just maintain that the Duke’s bloviation is intimately tied up with his peculiar sense of morality. Indeed, he frequently sounds like a cross between Polonius and King Lear‘s Edgar. The Edgar connection, which must have been made before but which I haven’t seen, is most blatant in his deception of Isabella. He tells the audience:

But I will keep her ignorant of her good,
To make her heavenly comforts of despair,
When it is least expected.


These lines could come straight from Edgar at Dover Cliff in King Learjust as he tricks Gloucester into thinking he’s been saved by God from his attempted suicide. But there Edgar attributes the miracle to God’s presence. Here the heavenly comforts are those of the Duke himself.

And so it’s at least understandable that some would try to allegorize the troublesome plot. One of the more popular ways to justify the Duke has been to turn the whole thing into a Christian allegory. This was G. Wilson Knight‘s approach, and it’s ironic that after pointing out Hamlet’s moral perfidiousness, Knight would then go on to construct an elaborate mechanism to excuse equally bad actions performed by a character in with much greater power and far less excuse. G. Wilson Knight: right on Hamlet, wrong on the Duke.

But these arguments are great precisely because they mirror Christian theodicy. The play is not an allegory, but it is a nasty analogue of the sort of behavior you see in God in the Old Testament.

William Empson does condemn the Duke, as you’d expect, but even though he loathed Christianity with uncommon passion, Empson doesn’t press the point that the game-playing Duke does rather resemble the Judeo-Christian God at his wackiest, with Job, with Isaac and Abraham, with Jephthah and his daughter, etc.

While the seemingly endless cycle of Judges mirrors the “No one has learned anything” ending of Measure for Measure, the Book of Job seems most present. The cruel deceptions, the implicit, staged “bet” with the devil Angelo, blithely pardoning an amoral murderer (who uncannily anticipates Moosbrugger in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities) while berating someone who had the audacity to insult you, the staged, last-minute interventions: the Duke’s mood swings and arbitrariness are quite Yahwehish. It’s not exact and it’s not an allegory, but the similarity is unmistakable.

The opaque rhetoric, then, is there to underscore the Duke’s sheer unaddressability and his disconnection from the rest of us mortals. His rhetorical skills have turned cancerous, weaving his words into thick knots that no one can fully decipher, certainly not the other characters. His rhetoric can hypnotize, but only momentarily; excluded from human discourse, it’s only his exercise of power that affects the other characters. Turning this sort of divine relationship into a secular comedy makes it into a cruel joke.

By the end of final scene, the other characters seem more tired than anything else, as the Duke rolls out his mercy. He’s God, and we’re just grateful we’re still alive by his arbitrary grace. The sophistry piles up as he justifies his actions, and certainly no one will call him on anything. (They promptly fall all over him with praise and gratitude.) The Duke claims Claudio no longer fears death and can enjoy life even more now:

And you may marvel why I obscured myself,
Labouring to save his life, and would not rather
Make rash remonstrance of my hidden power
Than let him so be lost. O most kind maid,
It was the swift celerity of his death,
Which I did think with slower foot came on,
That brain’d my purpose. But, peace be with him!
That life is better life, past fearing death,
Than that which lives to fear: make it your comfort,
So happy is your brother.


Angelo, who expresses great remorse and says he just wants to die, also gets off free and marries his ex-fiancee. (Assuming that his death wish is sincere, sparing Angelo does make for a bit of an “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” situation, cf. the Harlan Ellison story where all-powerful God/computer AM keeps five humans around to torture and play with after killing everyone else.)

The Duke doesn’t propose marriage to super-chaste Isabella at the end so much as dictate it (she doesn’t get to respond). Why not? He’s the Duke! He knows the value of everything and the price of nothing, which is just as bad as the reverse. Sure a murderer went free and everyone is scarred for life, but didn’t we have a good time? The Duke did!

By making the comedic resolution utterly unacceptable, Shakespeare does penance for the laughter thrown at the oh-so-funny manipulations of previous comedies. Yes, this is what happens when misunderstandings and manipulations pile up: queasy horror.

There’s a lot more that could be said and countless further complications. But the Duke is the heart of it all.

Hugh Kenner on Louis Zukofsky, Canadian Proofreading, the MLA, the OED, and Everything Else

Hugh Kenner was a very sharp, eccentric critic best known for his work on James Joyce and Ezra Pound (two writers whose critical apparati seem to welcome eccentrics more than most), but he also was responsible for a textbook on geodesic domes that demonstrated his reverence for R. Buckminster Fuller, and a tutorial book on the Heathkit computer. (Thanks to Dan Visel for educating me on those last points.) The Heathkit was a bit before my time, but let’s hear it for computer-polymath types: Kenner, J.M. Coetzee, Elvis Costello, Scott Miller, Ray Davis.

Kenner was also almost completely deaf, which had to have had a huge impact on how he perceived language, and a peculiar counterpart to Joyce’s near-blindness in the last decades of his life. It probably helped to account for his enthusiasm for Buster Keaton and Chuck Jones. (He wrote books on both.)

I was reading through his essay collection Mazes, which collects febrile bits and pieces from mostly popular magazines like Harper’s and Life and National Review (ugh), and while his opinions range from enlightening to crackpot, he does frequently pull out amazing anecdotes. A few that jumped out at me:

Critical Texts

[Edmund Wilson complains about his American classics project being suppressed by some MLA conspiracy.]

Edmund Wilson was especially funny about eighteen Twain editors reading Tom Sawyer, word for word, backward, “in order to ascertain, without being diverted from this drudgery by attention to the story or the style, how many times ‘Aunt Polly’ is printed as ‘aunt Polly,’ and how many times ‘ssst!’ is printed as ‘sssst!'” Since the MLA had ordained that “plain texts”–books you just read–were to await the establishment of “critical texts”–books that with full display of evidence sift out printer’s errors and restore lost auctorial revisions–we’d be waiting, he estimated, “a century or longer.”



Set promised trouble as early as 1881, when James Murray, the chief editor, came to doubt if the language contained a more perplexing word. An assistant had already spent forty hours on it, and Murray anticipated forty hours more. Set (the verb) was completed more than three decades later, and the time its final arrangement took Murray’s chief associate, Henry Bradley, was something like forty days, in the course of which he improvised twelve main classes with no fewer than 154 subdivisions, the last of which (set up) required forty-four further subsections.

The result, a treatise two-thirds as long as Paradise Lost, is from most points of view a triumph of ingenious uselessness, reminiscent of Yeats’s A Vision in being nearly impenetrable through sheer complexity of classification. Someone who had heard of hunters “setting” to fowl would toil long and hard through those columns en route to his quarry, low down in the final clause of #110: “set: to get within shooting distance by water.


Canadian Proofreading

A newspaper editor once told me why proofreading standards in Canada declined in the 1940s. Reading proof–a dull underpaid job–had once kept retired clergymen from starving. It was when the aged clergy commenced to draw pensions that papers had no recourse save to hire less literate drifters.


William Empson and George Orwell

[Is this really true?]

Orwell’s wartime BBC acquaintance, William Empson, warned him in 1945 that Animal Farm was liable to misinterpretation, and years later provided an object lesson himself when he denied that 1984 was “about,” some future communism. It was “about,” Empson insisted, as though the fact should have been obvious, that pit of infamy, the Roman Catholic Church.


Mortimer Adler

In thirty years Adler’s Institute for Philosophical Research have only made a start on repackaging “the whole realm of the great ideas”–so far “two volumes on the idea of freedom; one volume each on the ideas of justice, happiness, love, progress, and religion; and a monograph on the idea of beauty”? That such books will help save mankind is a notion so high-minded it verges on self-parody.

[I remember reading something or other by Adler for a class in high school and writing a sneering dismissal of it, referring to him as “Morty” all the way through. I don’t remember anything about the content, but I suspect the sort of tone Kenner describes is what set me off.]


Louis Zukofsky

No one that I’ve known knew English half as minutely as the late Louis Zukofsky, who began its acquisition at twelve and kept the habit of looking up everything including “a” and “the.”

[Is it common knowledge that Zukofsky’s first language was Yiddish? I feel like I should have known this a long time ago.]



Barthes has little to say about real literature. He flutters brightly around its edges: “Proust and Names,” “Flaubert and the Sentence.” Its coercive powers exceed what the codes account for. And decade by decade we keep remaking it in replenishing its power to remake us.


Many Meanings Can Have One Word: Sigurd Burckhardt

Under the headings pun, rhyme, metaphor, and meter I have in fact already been discussing an aspect of poetic language which, since Empson, no treatment of poetics can afford to ignore: ambiguity. For Empson, ambiguity became all but synonymous with the essential quality of poetry; it meant complexity, associative and connotative richness, texture, and the possibility of irony. The ambiguous word proliferated like a vine, wove or revealed hidden strands between the most various and distinct spheres of our prosaically ordered world. By exploiting the ambiguity of words the poet could ironically undercut the surface meanings of his statements, could avail himself fully of the entire field of meanings which a word has and is. I want to shift the stress of Empson’s analysis a little. He made us aware that one word can–and in great poetry commonly does–have many meanings; I would rather insist on the converse, that many meanings can have one word. For the poet, the ambiguous word is the crux of the problem of creating a medium for him to work in. If meanings are primary and words only their signs, then ambiguous words are false; each meaning should have its word, as each sound should have its letter. But if the reverse is true and words are primary–if, that is, they are the corporeal entities the poet requires–then ambiguity is something quite different: it is the fracturing of a pristine unity by the analytic conceptualizations of prose. The poet must assume that where there is one word there must, in some sense, be unity of meaning, no matter what prose usage may have done to break it. The pun is the extreme form of this assumption, positing unity of meaning even for purely accidental homophones, such as the sound shifts of a language will happen to produce.

Ambiguity, then, becomes a test case for the poet; insofar as he can vanquish it–not by splitting the word, but by fusing its meanings–he has succeeded in making language into a true medium; insofar as it vanquishes him, he must abdicate his position as a “maker.” I would say, therefore, that he does not primarily exploit the plurisignations of words, as though they were a fortunate accident; rather he accepts, even seeks out, their challenge, because he knows that in his encounter with them the issue of his claim is finally joined and decided. A pun may be a mere play, a rhyme a mere jingle, even a metaphor only an invitation to conceptual comparisons; true ambiguities are another matter. With them it is not a question of taking two words or meanings and showing how, in some sense, they are one, but rather of taking one word and showing that it is more than a potpourri of the meanings we have a mind to attach to it. Since the poet’s credo must be the opening of St. John: “In the beginning was the Word,” he meets the temptation of meaning ultimately in ambiguity.

Sigurd Burckhardt, “The Poet as Fool and Priest” (1956)

Some of this, in its talk about meaning and intention, may read as a bit naive, but I think that’s mistaken. Rather than positing some Platonic meaning that a work aims at, one locked inside the poet’s head, I think Burckhardt means to talk about how there is inescapably the notion of some intent on the creator’s part that a reader has to deal with. There is some particular instantiation of meaning that a poet was working with. The “pristine unity” is private, maybe even an illusion. Meanings may be primary, but they are still private in their particular essence, even if it is by them that we are able to live and function. The writer’s intent is not decipherable or recoverable, but at the same time we do have the fact that such an intent existed at the time of creation. If “intent” and “meaning” are too specific, just take it that there was some unified surplus in the poet’s mind at the time. Some critics try to externalize that surplus onto historical surroundings, about which we know far more; other critics try to minimize the role of that surplus by exploding the amount of sheer ambiguity in the words themselves. Yet the collateral effect is also to dampen a sense of unity. Despite the clear attempts made by critics to reconstruct a more complex unity from the proliferations of meaning, there is a point where such unities are no longer comprehensible or plausible to a lay reader, and so multiplicity rules over unity.

Another irony is how some of those obsessive close reader critics complained about the advent of theory and other cultural readings, as though there were limits to what ambiguity could suggest, when in fact the Ambiguists had opened the door to such diversity in the first place. By positing that any “pristine unity” lay precisely in the multiplicity of meaning, they abdicated their hegemonic throne, a la Richard II. Theorists then made a rear-guard action by reclassifying where the “pristine unity” could be, outside the realm of the text-in-isolation. I love much of the work of the Ambiguists, but they should have seen it coming. They were climbing Jacob’s ladder.

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