How the uncertainty of words challenges interpretation and understanding
By Manfred Weidhorn
What separates human beings from animals is, obviously, reason and its concomitant, language. We rely on these to understand, and sometimes to master, the world. The scope of our success is shown by the fact that, though many beasts are physically stronger or faster than us, they are the ones behind bars. Yet reason and language clearly are defective; taming the beasts is merely one successful project out of many which are not so successful. Either the imprecision of words or the elusiveness of reality creates obstacles.
Imaginative writers have long wrestled with this problem. The late 17th-century scientific interest in a nascent symbolic logic that would diminish ambiguity prompted Swift in Book III of Gulliver's Travels to satirically describe a race of people who, for the sake of absolute clarity, eliminate language in favour of the things denominated. Carrying with them bags full of objects, these men converse by means of the items instead of words. Rather than calling a spade a spade, they exhibit it. This is an excellent device for the elimination of all confusion – until, that is, you want to talk about battleships or dialectical materialism.
The ambiguity and uncertainty of words is embarrassing when compared to the relative clarity to be found in mathematics and the hard sciences. These have usually only one correct answer, thus two plus two equals four, not five or minus three. By contrast, in almost all other fields where words dominate, especially in the humanities, there are multiple answers, which in effect often means no one dominating answer.
The rise of Theory in the last four decades has furthered our anxieties by showing in just how many ways literary texts can be treacherous. Just as overturning a rock brings to light all manner of worms and insects operating out of sight, Theory uncovered a complex network of unexamined assumptions made by those notorious Dead White European Men. These assumptions, for thousands of years passed off as Truth and shaping the Western canon, were now seen as social constructs, each the product of a particular time and place. In assigning the reader a place as important as the text in the determination of meaning, the proponents of the various interpretative theories were quite literally bringing Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle from the realm of particle physics to that of literary study: The observer impacts on and alters the observed text, which has no existence outside of the interpretation.
But even before the rise of Theory, there was the New Criticism. One of the main contributions of the New Criticism – a contribution that prepared the way for full-blown Theory – was to heighten awareness of the role of irony and ambiguity in the reading and interpretation of literary texts. The novel approach of the New Critics was to study ambiguity in literary texts in a systematic way. William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity in 1930 became a sort of bible or textbook – or perhaps also, some might say, a reductio ad absurdum. Confining himself to poetry, Empson (who was a New Critic malgre lui) ranged through the centuries and found (or fabricated) double and triple meanings, not always making clear when the ambiguity was intentional or unwitting. Preferring to present possibilities rather than to make categorical interpretations, Empson occasionally left the reader confused as to the import of some of his discoveries. Yet the book opened or greatly advanced a fruitful discussion and, 80 years later, still retains its allure. However, there remain classic cases which escaped his attention and which, in the spirit of his approach, deserve an airing. Here are a few:
A Word (or Two)
Sometimes the interpretation of a work may turn on one word. Its location at a critical juncture, or the weight it is made to bear, can be crucial. In Part Two of Swift's Gulliver's Travels, the protagonist and the King of Brobdingnag are in a protracted colloquy about the ways of Europe in general and of England in particular. Though Gulliver censors himself, enough incriminating information leaks out to enable the King to make a severe condemnation: "The bulk of your natives [is] the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth."
Much turns on the word "bulk". It can mean "as a whole, the whole lot", according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in which case Swift (insofar as the King speaks for him as an objective observer) is subscribing, as the good Christian he is, to the doctrine of Original Sin. But the OED also has a definition as "the greater part… the majority, the main body." In that case, Swift retains a smidgen of hope about the possible existence of a precious few souls who, like Cordelia in King Lear or the hypothetical righteous 10 men in Sodom and Gomorrah (according to the concession Abraham draws from God), would redeem the human species. Hence the reader is left with the question: Is Swift a complete pessimist or only a partial one?
A similar uncertainty resides in two very short words in Shakespeare's Macbeth. When Lady Macbeth goads her husband into committing murder, he hesitates, "If we should fail?" Her simple response is "We fail?" Her words may well be an exclamation of incredulity, as in "We fail? Don't be silly! It's out of the question; success is a sure thing." Given that the punctuation in the First Folio is, as Dr Johnson suggested, not carved in stone, one could argue that the question mark is more variable than it seems.
Without tampering with Shakespeare's words, a performer may replace it with a period or an exclamation mark. That would produce two other major interpretations. "We fail", period, would be an expression of resignation, the words spoken with a shrug and with face lowered, with stoic acceptance of the inevitable: "So be it!" Or "We fail!", words spoken with triumphalism and pride: "Having given it our best effort, we will go down swinging; we will depart with grandeur." What the elocution of the otherwise self-evident words of the text say about her personality impacts on all her other words and actions. Is Lady Macbeth a boisterous immoralist from the beginning, or a stoic soul, or someone who evolves? And the interpretation of her in turn affects the portrayal of her husband.
One of the most pervasive vices of writers is self-contradiction. Like strained backs among gardeners, it is a vocational affliction, for when one turns out thousands of pages, such lapses are unavoidable and forgivable. But that they appear even in the presumed word of God (or of divinely inspired men) may disturb some readers. Seeming inconsistencies have given theologians a career and Tom Paine a horse to flog. For those moderns who treat the Bible solely as a work of literature, the damage caused by self-contradiction involves more the question of how to read than of how to live.
Among the most important of these is the character of Jesus. In Luke 9:50, he says, "He that is not against us is for us." The speaker seems to be a tolerant, easy-going person, someone confident that most people, being merely apathetic, will eventually see the light. Yet a mere few pages later, he says, "He that is not with me is against me." Now he sounds intolerant, paranoid, pessimistic. Not only does he have overt enemies, but even apathetic persons are suspect; he seems to be a purist who proclaims that, in the great battle between good and evil, there can be no neutral bystanders.
These two readings of his personality appear contradictory: he could not have been both types of men at the same time. One way out is to suggest an evolution in character. But if that development is intended by Luke, it is poorly carried out, as the narrative skills needed to present a step by step nuanced change are missing. So we are left with an enigma.
One of the most contentious textual ambiguities in recent American history is, of course, the Second Amendment to the Constitution. "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." The phrase "A well… State," is technically a nominative absolute, a construction which leaves the grammatical connection to what follows unclear. Conservatives, rushing into the breach, are quick to conflate "militia" with "people" and imply that all people are potentially members of a militia. Liberals insist that the reach of the word "people" is limited by "militia" and refers only to people within a militia and not to the populace at large: Thus there is something like a causal connection between a "militia" and the right of its members to bear arms, while the rights of others – of non-militia people – are here not addressed.
The problem being insoluble because of the odd syntax, the reader must settle for agnosticism and modesty. These traits are obviously not evident on either side of the dispute because the discussion is hemmed in by ideology, which is but a rationalisation for emotion, for raw, naked power, for wilful assertion. That seems especially the case when one considers that the late conservative Chief Justice Warren Burger called the conservative interpretation "one of the greatest pieces of fraud".
One form of ambiguity is not in the original text but brought into being by the passage of time. Four classic examples are the interpretations of Falstaff, Malevolio, Shylock, and the Misanthrope, men whom the changing social environment turned into characters that would have puzzled the author. An intriguing case involves John Donne. Asked to write a commemorative poem about a girl from a prominent family who died young, he produced in 1611 An Anatomy of the World. In it, he followed the traditional Christian meditation form by devoting the first two thirds of the poem to a survey of the vanities of this world preparatory to turning to God in the remaining portion. As part of his pessimistic survey, he made use of his reading of the recently published Siderius Nuncius (Starry Messenger or Message). This heaven-altering and therefore earthshaking pamphlet by Galileo breathlessly announced (incorrectly, as it happens) the first use of the telescope on the sky. The resulting exciting discoveries about the moon, the Milky Way and Jupiter called into question some central cosmological ideas. As an intellectual, Donne understood right away the shocking consequences of the overthrow of a 2,000-year old tradition: "New philosophy calls all in doubt."
Scholars and critics in the first part of the 20th century who participated in the rediscovery of Donne saw his poetic technique as distinctively "modern". And being mainly non-believers, they tended to make him an early doubter like themselves. But saner heads prevailed and pointed out the ambiguity of the word "all". If it is an absolute – all inclusive – then Donne is indeed a modern skeptic. But nothing about Donne or his poetry allows for that interpretation. "All" merely refers to sublunary, terrestrial, manmade matters. Galileo's discoveries add to Donne's thesis of how little man really knows about this world. ("The sun is lost….All coherence gone.") It lengthens his list of the vanities of this world. Such metaphysical ignorance therefore provides him with a new reason to throw himself into the certainties of God, Christianity and the hereafter. Evoking the fideist viewpoint, the line actually is an additional argument in favor of religious faith, not at all against it.
Though Donne's lines in the Anatomy of the World turn out to be a vote of confidence in religion, the concept of doubt is not so easily dismissed. Donne may have had no hesitation about the Christian paradigm, but, being Christian, answered one set of questions while raising another set. So long as the Roman Catholic Church held sway as the one Christian faith, there was no epistemological problem. You were a Christian or you were an infidel. But once Luther's Reformation was able to gain traction and to endure, Europe was divided into two camps. The result was a military and a theological stalemate. The Bible now was interpreted in two different ways, and no test existed to ascertain which was the correct one. Nor did the problem cease there. Religions splinter. In the polemics between Catholics and Protestants, an argument made by the Catholic side was that the Protestant approach of having each individual read the Bible and find God there for himself would create anarchy. That judgment was mainly correct, as Protestantism soon broke up into numerous splinter groups.
So along came Donne, an inquiring, intellectual Christian unwilling to settle for unexamined assumptions. He faced a problem which any thoughtful Christian must face, even today: Which of the many branches, each dismissing the others as false versions of the faith, is the true Christianity? That post-Reformation quandary is the topic of Donne's Third Satire. It being an unanswerable question, the best solution he can come up with, after surveying the merits of the leading sects, is: "Doubt wisely." Such a succinct injunction is eminently sensible, indeed profound. As someone has said, one should have an open mind but not so open that the brain falls out. But the principle is hard to apply. What is wisdom in this case – ie. when is doubt called for? So here is one kind of ambiguity which involves questions that are not just unanswered but are unanswerable.
Many Christian rules of conduct – say, the prohibition of adultery – are relatively clear. Whether a platonic relationship or oral sex constitutes a violation of the rule is a marginal, technical matter which does not obfuscate the rule. But "doubt wisely" is an admonition that offers no handle, no contact with experience. It therefore has as much practical value as that standard stock market advice, "Buy low, sell high." As an explanation of how someone in the past succeeded financially, these four words are either brilliant or self-evident. As a prescription for action in the present or the future, however, they are nonsensical – and will remain so until someone discovers a magic formula for determining what is low and when is high. So then, in religious inquiry, when and how far are we to doubt? Actually, Donne seems to mean almost the reverse, "Believe tentatively" – in the spirit of Nietzsche's "Convictions are prisons." But the riddle of "when?" remains.
A generation later, another English literary giant faced another central Christian riddle. Is Jesus God, or the Son of God, or a member of the Trinity, or (like Achilles and some other Greek mythological figures) semi-divine, or a divinely inspired prophet, or just one very smart and insightful human being in a godless universe? For each theory there is a sect, a branch of Christianity.
In writing what he hoped would be the Christian epic, Milton sought to address all Christians by avoiding futile theological debates. So he resorted to a deliberate ambiguity in first describing Jesus in the opening lines of Paradise Lost as "one greater man". That phrase is an umbrella covering all the theories and offending no sect. If later in the narrative Jesus does things that may violate the theology of this or that group, Milton gambles that by then the reader, having been caught up in the story, will be less captious. The important thing was that the beginning of the work must not repel the Christian by pushing something doctrinal. The reader is thus left free to interpret that nebulous phrase in whatever way he prefers.
A special case of misreading has to do with the vagaries of the grapevine, with the products of the game or experiment known as "Telephone". Thus Lord Acton's famous saying, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely" is usually quoted as "power corrupts". Famous remarks are often misattributed or misquoted, and this one alteration seems to inflict no major injury on the original. But that is an incorrect perception. The consequences are indeed important.
If a virtuous young person, eager to repair the world and aware that that can best be done through the political process, hears only the misquotation, with its air of absoluteness, she would be inclined to skip politics out of a desire to retain her purity. But if she hears the actual quotation, with its making allowance for exceptions ("tends to"), she might take a chance on the basis that she would be one of the strong few who would be able to resist temptation and corruption.
Worse than a possibly inadvertent misquotation is the deliberate tampering with the text. One egregious example of an ambiguity not intended by the author/speaker but created by a later addition is in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said (Matthew 5:22): "Anyone who nurses anger against his brother must be brought to judgment" (New English Bible translation). But then the careful reader is arrested by an unobtrusive footnote: "Some witnesses insert 'without good cause'" – ie. after the word "brother".
This note, little known or commented on, causes cognitive dissonance. A note in the Interpreter's Bible brings us to the threshold of an uncomfortable conclusion: "'Without a cause' is not found in some of the best MSS and earliest fathers. It is a gloss which seriously weakens Jesus' teaching." "Seriously weakens" is an understatement. The difference between the two versions is like that between day and night. Delete the phrase "without good cause" and you have a pacifist position; include the phrase, and you proffer a loophole big enough through which to drive a crusader's army.
Human beings excel in convincing themselves, or at least others, that they act on a just cause. Even Lenin and Hitler, along with their followers, believed that they were acting altruistically for the greater good of the superior motherland (be it Slavic or Aryan) and ultimately of mankind. There is no atrocity that has not had a rationale which persuaded some people. "Without good cause" is therefore as slippery a slope as anyone ever encountered. That is why absolute pacifists are chary of allowing for any exceptions.
What did Jesus really mean? The way to an answer is provided by a prominent New Testament scholar who in effect elaborates the comment in the Interpreter's Bible: "Although the reading 'without good cause' is widespread from the second century onwards, it is much more likely that the word was added by copyists in order to soften the rigour of the precept, than omitted as unnecessary." This is nothing less than the scandal of Christianity: A central tenet of the faith is ambiguous. Whether Christians are to be pacifists, whether resorting to violence is ever legitimate, is left unclear by the textual muddle. This all-important moral issue remains an enigma at the heart of one of the world's great faiths.
An Entire Work
One kind of ambiguity involves the interpretation of an entire literary work. Consider this passage spoken by the mother in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Because she is haunted by her conscience, she is urged by her husband to forget the past. She cries out: "How can I? The past is present, isn't it? It's the future, too… We all try to lie out of that but life won't let us."
The way one reads the passage determines the meaning of the play, but what is the reader or audience to make of it? Does the passage, like the person uttering it, stand as the moral centre of the play, or are they held at ironic distance? Are we to look up to the mother as courageously and accurately expressing the painful truth of our universal entrapment in the past, our lack of free will, our chronic lying, our addictions and distractions, and our sense that "hell is other people"? Is she then the spokesperson for the author, the choral commentator representing the norm and expressing the grim truth, the only one of the victims in the play who has insight and who, by holding a mirror to us, is sitting in judgment on us all?
Or, to make a drastically different reading, is her plight peculiar to her and her inferior type of person? Are we to have contempt for her cowardice, evasiveness and whining self-pity – her taking refuge in lies and inertia in lieu of her exercising her free will and taking charge of her life? Do we sit in judgment on her, rather than she on us? Using the other characters and the rest of the play, or the canon of O'Neill's works, either interpretation can be made plausible – but not definitive. Uncertainty has the last word.
The plasticity of meaning, the relevance of a text to unsuspected situations, can be found in connection with a late short story by Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle. It is about a man, John Marcher, who believes that he is marked out for some special destiny. He has the "sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen."
The years pass as he waits in vain for that destiny to manifest itself. He befriends a woman to whom he confides his secret and who becomes his companion in watching and waiting. He is so preoccupied by his personal destiny that he has no emotional room for her. She eventually falls ill and dies. As he visits her gravesite, he has an epiphany: He suddenly realises that she herself was the one who could have played a special role in his life and that his missing that signal indeed made him someone special, after all. He was a man singularly fated to have nothing ever happen to him. "She was what he had missed… The fate he had been marked for he had met with a vengeance… He had been the man of his time, the man, to whom nothing on earth was to have happened. That was the rare stroke – that was his visitation… The escape would have been to love her; then, then he would have lived. She had lived – who could say now with what passion? – since she had loved him for himself; whereas he had never thought of her… but in the chill of his egotism and the light of her use."
This fascinating story is partly of its time and place and partly universal. The story is of its time in that, increasingly in the 19th century, various writers struggled with a new theme in literature: the anxiety of the unlived life. The universal can be seen in the way in which the vast majority of the world's population looks ahead to a transformative event. Orthodox Jews await the coming of Messiah; Christians, the Second Coming; Muslims, the Twelfth Imam; secular souls used to – and, in developing countries, still do – look ahead to The Revolution. Even individuals without a communal affiliation or ideology look ahead to winning the lottery. Our daily lives are apparently so dull, frustrating and petty that we are unable to adjust to the idea that that is all that life has to offer. So we live on in the hope that something spectacular will bring us to a higher level of experience.
James' story differs from all the other ambiguities here recounted in that the meaning of the story is crystal clear. What prompts its presence in this survey is its surprising resonance, its unexpected meaning. Suppose one applied that idea to the Jewish experience as interpreted by Christian thinkers. The Jews, very much like James' Marcher, acquired in antiquity the sense of being set apart for a special destiny. They were favoured by God to carry a heavier burden of morality and ritual than other people. Then misfortunes and misadventures followed, and they were deprived of both Temple and homeland. Scattered among the nations, they had to reinvent their history. Their destiny seemed to have become one involving exile and suffering, but by way of compensation they retained that sense of a special fate by adopting a new belief – in Messiah. He would come and end the Diaspora, rebuild the temple and usher in an age of justice.
Now, further comparison between what happened to Marcher and what happened to the Jews can be made, in view of Cardinal Newman's An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent:
The prophecies announced that the Messiah was to come at a definite time and place… [The Jews assert] that He did not come at all… The Jews… were right in their general interpretation of Scripture as far as it went, [but] they stopped short of the whole truth; nay even when their Messiah came, they could not recognise Him as the promised King.
Connecting a private, intimate story about overlooked love to a Biblical tale involving all of history and the whole universe may seem far-fetched, but it does show that what literature dramatises, be it ever so trivial or local, often has wider application in the broad realm of psychology than the author could know or aspire to. T.S. Eliot has written that, to a thinker, the reading of Spinoza and the smell of cooking cabbage are part of the same world. Literature offers an infinite number of entry points to the human condition, and like a vast maze or network, all are interconnected. The meaning of a story is thus ambiguous in the sense that it can shed light on all sorts of disparate matters which no one person, not even the author, would have thought to connect.
To see the world in a grain of sand, indeed.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 2 Apr 2011