The Uses of Ambiguity


If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, meaning is too. After seeing Francis Bacon’s paintings at the Art Gallery of NSW (beautiful or ugly? human or animal? wrestling or fucking?), I found an incisive review of an essay collection by Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (1981). What struck me as I read was that anyone can buy an art education (an audio guide or book, if not a degree), but to meet a painting on its own terms, to feel its effect on your nervous system with all the angst or rapture that might entail, requires a rare kind of openness – dare I say soulfulness? – in our science-possessed age.

The ‘logic of sensation’ – isn’t that an oxymoron? If art can’t bypass or disarm logic, the ego’s ultimate defence, what use is it (beyond decoration or subject matter for academics)? As critic Ben Davis says in ‘Bacon, Half Baked’: ‘intellectual life moves slowly, weighed down by the structures of tenure, inherited prestige, institutional inertia and so on.’ If that’s true, how much light can art theorists or philosophers like Deleuze throw on the work of a painter who (to quote AGNSW blurb) ‘claimed that the successful image came from a balance between critical faculties and accident’? Enshrined under glass, torn and paint-stained photos from Bacon’s disordered studio hint at the extent to which he improvised; courted chaos.

Any work of art, be it visual or literary, that aims to slip under the radar of logic must employ ambiguity – the language of the unconscious. And what, exactly, is genius if not the knack of getting out of one’s own way? However, like ‘soul’, ‘genius’ has more than one (hence, an ambiguous) meaning. (To avoid needless confusion, what I mean here by ambiguous is: ‘lacking clearness or definiteness; obscure; indistinct’ – Macquarie Dictionary 5th edition, def. #3.) Yet in our individualistic culture, both concepts function as ego extensions: from birth and for eternity, one is a genius or has a soul – as if those qualities didn’t come and go. Art, originating in bone carving, cave painting and ritual, and historically preoccupied with transcendence, is today an ego accessory for both artist and collector/investor (despite much grandiose posturing to the contrary). Galleries built to echo temples increasingly push entertainment. Major exhibitions are demystified like science projects; explained. And, despite their sacred origins, books rely on vulgar formulas (heroic quest, dramatic climax, happy ending) to flourish today.

For obvious (if not always good) reasons, journalists shun ambiguity. Its relative absence distinguishes nonfiction from fiction and, within the latter category, genre from literary. Genre readers know what they like, and so, must be able to recognise it. They want to know what happens next, not to have to guess. Yet, who’s never read a passage in a novel or short story that left them unsure of what actually happens? And on reading some such scene, discomfort would be understandable. But then, do you assume that the author (or editor) doesn’t know what they’re doing? Or do you wonder whether you might have missed something? And if rereading yields no clues, do you widen your search to include, say, reviews?

Not long ago, I was shaken to learn from a plot summary of The Sound and the Fury (1929) by William Faulkner, which I’d read to my partner (who shared my surprise), that one of the four point-of-view characters suicides. But hey, if feeling dense is the worst risk incurred by reading widely, I don’t consider it a waste of time. I used, as a tween reduced to wresting a sex education from my parents’ tame library, to dwell at length on veiled or elliptical prose. Could straining my brain to decode such scenes have trained me over time to believe that cryptic bits must hold more significance, more excitement?

Years ago, an Indian friend lent me her favourite novel, Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker-winning The God of Small Things. Often with hardcore literary fiction (e.g. Ondaatje’s The English Patient or Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled), I’ve spent months slogging through the first hundred+ pages before devouring the rest (a reason why I tend to read several books at once). Roy’s book took me ages. But when I returned it, assuring my friend that it was worth the effort, her face clouded over for a moment. So, she asked, did the twins have sex? They must have, we concluded. Here’s the key passage (a masterpiece of circumlocution):

There is very little that anyone could say to clarify what happened next. Nothing that (in Mammachi’s book) would separate Sex from Love. Or Needs from Feelings.

Except perhaps that no Watcher watched through Rahel’s eyes. No one stared out of a window at the sea. Or a boat in the river. Or a passer-by in the mist in a hat.

Except perhaps that it was a little cold. A little wet. But very quiet. The Air.

But what was there to say?

Only that there were tears. Only that Quietness and Emptiness fitted together like stacked spoons. Only that there was a snuffling in the hollows at the base of a lovely throat. Only that a hard honey-coloured shoulder had a semi-circle of teethmarks on it. Only that they held each other close, long after it was over. Only that what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief.

Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much (p. 328).

Of course, the above makes more sense if you’ve read the rest. But in our permissive age, why not just call a spade a spade? Could it be that an element of doubt is in fact conducive to pleasure, leaving room for readers to entertain multiple meanings (instead of passively waiting to be entertained)? Nature and life (same thing or not?) seethe with ambiguity: insects mimicking birds or plants, flowers that smell like rotting flesh, a mouse with a faux human ear on its back, androgyny, paedophilic priests… So why look to fiction – a mirror of life, however distorted – for predictability?

Most books that have lingered in my memory for three or more decades require the reader to enter imaginatively into the narrative, e.g., Voss (1957) by Patrick White. However, some novels I read growing up had disconcerting gaps. Take Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847). Cathy dies after giving birth to a girl… but when was her pregnancy mentioned? That such taboos have long since ceased to apply should in theory free all of us who write fiction to be as subtle or as blunt as we like – bearing in mind that subtlety, in our multiple-choice, pop-up-swamped culture, is seldom what you’d call commercially viable.

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