Friday, April 30, 2010

The Intentional Introduction of Ambiguity

Sometimes we readers just can't tell whether a writer (a poet and translator perhaps) has intentionally introduced ambiguities.

I'm thinking now of Nancy Mair's quotations of Michel de Montaigne, which indicate to her that he's one who, like her, seems to "try to sustain a kind of intellectual double vision: to see the feminine both as that which language represses and renders unrepresentable by any human being, male or female, and as that which in social, political, and economic terms represents experiences peculiar to the female."  Ironically, she says of him:
Montaigne’s begins to sound like a feminist project. Which is not to say that Montaigne was a feminist. (“You are too noble-spirited,” he was able to write to the Comtesse de Gurson when she was expecting her first child, “to begin otherwise than with a male.”) But whether intentionally or not, Montaigne invented, or perhaps renewed, a mode open and flexible enough to enable the feminine inscription of human experience as no other does.
I'm also thinking of Wayne Leman's quotations of Eugene Peterson's translations of the Psalms, and whether the latter was after some intentional rendering of Hebrew or Hebraic Hellene ambiguities.

I'm also thinking of that old / new Irish Hymn, translated, and of another Hebrew / Hebraic Hellene passage of Creativities in the Beginning when God's image was translated rather ambiguously - intentionally?


And yet, sometimes writers will declare (as Mairs does) their intentions of introducing ambiguities.  Remember how Nancy Mairs says it?
In my writing, I try to sustain a kind of intellectual double vision: to see the feminine both as that which language represses and renders unrepresentable by any human being, male or female, and as that which in social, political, and economic terms represents experiences peculiar to the female. I want my femininity both ways—indeed, I want it as many ways as I can get it. I am the woman writer. Don’t ask me for impregnable argument. As far as I’m concerned, my text is flawed not when it is ambiguous or even contradictory, but only when it leaves you no room for stories of your own. I keep my tale as wide open as I can. It’s more fun this way. Trust me.
And here's how Jorge Luis Borges says it, translating his español into his English or is it the other way around?
Mi suerte es lo que suele domoninarse poesía intelectual.  La palabra es casi un oximoron; el intelecto (la vigilia) piensa por medio de abstracciones, la poseía (el sueño), por medio de imagenes, del mitos o de fábulas.  La poesia intelectual debe entretejer gratamente esos dos procesos.

My luck lies in what might be called intellectual poetry.  The term is almost an oxymoron; the intellect (wakefulness) thinks by means of abstractions; poetry (dream) by means of images, myths, or fables.  Intellectual poetry should pleasingly interweave the two processes.
And now, after reading what Borges says about dreamy poetry and the wakeful intellect, I'm thinking about Alan Lightman's novel, Einstein's Dreams.  How clever to realize, to intellectually understand by the images of a work of fiction, all that might have led you to your understanding of time as relative, especially in relation to your own waking understandings of light.  This is what Lightman's fantastic first novel does for you, and for me, and of course for Albert Einstein.  The book's been translated now into more than 30 different languages.  I asked Lightman about these, and he confessed he'd never yet read a single 1 of these renderings of translators.  I'd been listening to the novelist, who is also an acclaimed astrophysicist; he'd been saying that novelists and other artists use their guts and their hearts to try to capture the imagination, the belief of their readers and viewers.  But scientists, claimed Lightman, do something altogether different:  Lightman says that scientists use their heads to name things objectively, without regard to their readers' belief or imagination.  So I asked Lightman if he'd rather the translators of his novel be artists or scientists.  And do you know what his brilliant answer was?  He said Both.  Of course, translators must intend ambiguities!  They have to both render a work believable and they also must use those "intellectual abstractions."  Yes, "the intellect (wakefulness) thinks by means of abstractions," admits Borges, who also says, "el intelecto (la vigilia) piensa por medio de abstracciones."  And also there's so much more.

And now I'm thinking about novelist Yann Martel.  He's done something very difficult in writing a Holocaust novel, while he himself is neither a Jew nor a historian.  The novel I'm reading now is his Beatrice and Virgil.  His main protagonist, Henry, comes in starting to pitch a novel about the Holocaust to his editors, to the booksellers, to us Martel's readers.  Without spoiling the whole thing (and I'm not finished reading yet), he also tells how the project fails, that it absolutely flops.  But, at the very least, he imagines that he must intentionally introduce ambiguities.  Henry has chosen to use a flipbook format in which the book is read forward to the middle one way but then must be flipped over so that the back cover becomes the new front cover for the second half of the book or, rather, another book in another literal direction.  (Later, Henry struggles with the fact that flipbook is also, ambiguously in an unintended way, a completely different sort of book format as well).  Martel and Henry have to define what they mean:  "a book with two sets of distinct pages that are attached to a common spine upside down and back-to-back to each other."

Here, hear a bit:
        Henry chose this unusual [flip book] format because he was concerned with how best to present two literary wares that shared the same title, the same concern, but not the same method.  He'd in fact written two books:  one was a novel, while the other was a piece of nonfiction, an essay.  He had taken this double approach because he felt he needed every means at his disposal to tackle his chosen subject.  But fiction and nonfiction are very rarely published in the same book.  That was the hitch.  Tradition holds that the two must be kept apart.  That is how our knowledge and impressions of life are sorted in bookstores and libraries--separate aisles, separate floors--and that is how publishers prepare their books, imagination in one package, reason in another.  It's not how writers write.  A novel is not an entirely unreasonable creation, nor is an essay devoid of imagination.  Nor is it how people live.  People don't rigorously separate the imaginative from the rational in their thinking and in their actions.  There are truths and there are lies--these are the transcendent categories, in books as in life.  The useful division is between fiction and nonfiction that speaks the truth and the fiction and nonfiction that utters lies.
What Martel does from this point is to begin to deconstruct the whole notion of intentional, intended ambiguities introduced anywhere, anyplace, anytime.  But we begin to get a bit of what the novelist intends.  It's intention as clever as Nancy Mairs's, and Jorge Luis Borges's, and Alan Lightman's.  (A good interview with Martel is here.  Although the critics seem to be panning his book, I think they haven't read it yet -- at least not its flip side on the other side of the ambiguity.  The best review I've read so far is here.  In another good interview, the novelist defends his fictional writing on the Holocaust here, at Vox Tablet.  What is very clear, whether you like the book or hate it, the author intends to introduce ambiguities; and I like that.)


Jared said...

I've always thought Hebrews was always able to use ambiguity to great effect. Perhaps I should write on it when I have time.

J. K. Gayle said...

Jared, I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on how Hebrew uses ambiguity. (My own thoughts are that there's a huge tradition of using ambiguity for great effect among Jewish writers, even those using Greek for translation of Hebrew. But they're also tapping into a legacy of Greek wordplay that goes back to Homer, Hesiod, and Sappho).