Sunday, October 08, 2006

Seven Types of Ambiguity

The first blow falls, with energetic vulgarity, on page 9:
Critics, as 'barking dogs,' […] are of two sorts: those who merely relieve themselves against the flower of beauty, and those, less continent, who afterwards scratch it up. I myself, I must confess, aspire to the second of these classes; unexplained beauty arouses an irritation in me, a sense that this would be a good place to scratch; the reasons that make a line of verse likely to give pleasure, I believe, are like the reasons for anything else; one can reason about them; and while it may be true that the roots of beauty ought not to be violated, it seems to me very arrogant of the appreciative critic to think that he could do this, if he chose, by a little scratching.
Thus the scheduled opponents – the advocates of Atmosphere and Pure Sound – are floored in the first round of Empson's book, published when he was twenty-four and spoiling for a fight. We spend the rest of it waiting for more formidable opposition, which never arrives.

If the project is in part to reassure us of the value of poetry – by giving reasons for beauty – it depends on the answer to a question that Empson does not address. Why does ambiguity matter? Backed into the ropes, Empson flutters away, taking his reassurance with him. Ambiguity is everywhere:
I remember a very fine [headline] that went 'ITALIAN ASSASSIN BOMB PLOT DISASTER'. […] Bomb and plot, you notice, can be either nouns or verbs, and would take kindly to being adjectives, not that they are anything so definite here. […] The extended use of the adjective [Italian] acts as sort of syncopation, which gives energy and excitement to the rhythm, rather like the effect of putting two caesuras into a line; but of course, the main rhythm conveys: 'This is a particularly exciting sort of disaster, the assassin-bomb-plot type they have in Italy,' and there is a single chief stress on bomb.
The roots of beauty may not be violated by the critic's scratching, but it is hard to distinguish them from the roots of a weed.

When a counter-punch is imminent, Empson anticipates, and his face disappears behind his fists.
I have continually employed a method of analysis which jumps the gap between two ways of thinking; which produces a possible set of alternative meanings with some ingenuity, and then says it is grasped in the pre-consciousness of the reader by a native effort of mind. This must seem very dubious; but then the facts about the apprehension of poetry are in any case very extraordinary.
It's a pity that his guard is so close, because the implicit objection is important: the idea that there are reasons for beauty can be as tempting and as puzzling as the idea of reasons for love. How do these reasons operate in the "properly-qualified mind" when it takes no notice of what they are, and when its pleasures are not within its own control? How far can they constitute a rational response?

If Empson does not "treat poetry as a branch of applied psychology" because "the act of knowing [a poem] is itself an act of sympathizing" and therefore not an act of science, and if his book "make[s] poetry more beautiful, without [our] ever having to remember the novelties, or endeavour to apply them", what kind of reasons does it provide?

There is no need to apologize for all those "niggling pages": the outcome of the match is not in doubt. But after seven rounds, the sceptic is left standing. Empson wins on points.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a copy of Seven Types Of Ambiguity amongst a lot of other unread tomes, decorating a shelf. Would it be best if I read it all before tackling this subject?

Empson's essay collection Argufying has an interesting short piece about Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian. I also have a book of his own poems, the one I remember was something about an ancient civilisation "growing tired of metaphysics", something like that.

He was a contemporary of F.P Ramsey, wasn't he?

11:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was called Dissatisfaction With Metaphysics and unfortunately I can't find an on-line copy of it, although there might be one on JSTOR, which I can't access. Someone helpfully describes the poem in the reader comments here

11:19 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Thanks for the reference! Empson's tutor in mathematics at Magdalene was Ramsey's father, and I suppose they must have been contemporaries. But I haven't read the new biography, so I don't know whether they interacted much. I don't think Empson was an Apostle, for instance, though it's hard to know for sure.

12:18 PM  

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