Cole Swensen on Four Specific Modes of Ambiguity
Cole Swensen, writing in Poets on Teaching, has the following to say about four types of ambiguity, or perhaps what can be seen as four traditions in ambiguity. I like the way she talks about these, it creates a kind of buffet of possibility, a thought experiment of affiliation. Here she is (I’ve reformatted it a bit so that it’ll look better in the blog format):
Keats’s negative capability, Rimbaud’s dérègelement de tous les sens, Shklovsky’s ostranenie, and Lorca’s duende. Each of these takes the point at which knowledge, including one’s own bearings, begins to slip and uses that exact slippage as a vehicle to get to the interstices of language, to occupy, even if for just an instant, a place where language cannot go. But, coming from four different cultural traditions, each approach gets there in an entirely different way:
Keats, with his air of calm suspension, as if a kind of radical acceptance could leave us hovering in a zone of distilled space and time;
Rimbaud, casting off all the controls that regulate the senses and welcoming an ungovernable onrush of sensory data;
Shklovsky, seeing in rigorous attention the possibility of returning to the objects of this world their bottomlessness, their unknowability, the true uncanniness of which our lax attention has robbed them;
and Lorca, suggesting that we can tap into a power beyond the individual to participate in the soul of an entire people, or, more precisely, an entire art.
Each of these approaches has its own hidden assumptions:
Keats’s, that there are uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts to be wallowed in;
Rimbaud’s, that there’s a tumultuous world of impression and sensation always trying to bombard us;
Shklovsky’s, that every little thing has a unique and limitless nature;
and Lorca’s, that there is a soul, both individual and collective.
Despite their differences in detail, all these approaches rest on a radical faith in the world, not necessarily the faith that is safe or good, but simply that it is, and that the experience of its is-ness is fundamentally different from the knowledge of it. Furthermore, the work of these poets and their writings intimate that language, with its constant production of knowledge, blocks us from experiencing that is-ness, and yet, paradoxically, can be used to get beyond the very blocks it sets up.
Here are the Wikipedia definitions of the four terms, just for fun. It’s nice to see this alternate take, to color in a bit what Swensen sketches above.
1. John Keats used the term negative capability to describe the artist as one who is receptive to the world and its natural phenomenon, and to reject those who tried to formulate theories or categorize knowledge. In a letter to his brothers on December 21, 1817 he employed negative capability to criticize Coleridge, who he thought sought knowledge over beauty:
“I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason - Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”
2. Rimbaud, wishing for new poetic forms and ideas, wrote:
“I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed – and the great learned one! – among men. – For he arrives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his own soul – which was rich to begin with – more than any other man! He reaches the unknown; and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!”
3. Shklovsky is perhaps best known for developing the concept of ostranenie or defamiliarization (also translated as "estrangement") in literature. He explained the concept in the important essay "Art as Technique" (also translated as "Art as Device") which comprised the first chapter of his seminal Theory of Prose, first published in 1925. He argued for the need to turn something that has become over-familiar, like a clichè in the literary canon, into something revitalized:
4. [A]t least four elements can be isolated in Lorca's vision of duende: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical. The duende is a demonic earth spirit who helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding him that "ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head"; who brings the artist face-to-face with death, and who helps him create and communicate memorable, spine-chilling art. The duende is seen, in Lorca's lecture, as an alternative to style, to mere virtuosity, to God-given grace and charm (what Spaniards call "angel"), and to the classical, artistic norms dictated by the muse. Not that the artist simply surrenders to the duende; he or she has to battle it skillfully, "on the rim of the well", in "hand-to-hand combat". To a higher degree than the muse or the angel, the duende seizes not only the performer but also the audience, creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort. It is, in Lorca's words, "a sort of corkscrew that can get art into the sensibility of an audience... the very dearest thing that life can offer the intellectual." The critic Brook Zern has written, of a performance of someone with duende, "it dilates the mind's eye, so that the intensity becomes almost unendurable... There is a quality of first-timeness, of reality so heightened and exaggerated that it becomes unreal...".
Lorca writes: "The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, 'The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.' Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.". He suggests, "everything that has black sounds in it, has duende. [i.e. emotional 'darkness'] [...] This 'mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains' is, in sum, the spirit of the earth, the same duende that scorched the heart of Nietzsche, who searched in vain for its external forms on the Rialto Bridge and in the music of Bizet, without knowing that the duende he was pursuing had leaped straight from the Greek mysteries to the dancers of Cadiz or the beheaded, Dionysian scream of Silverio's siguiriya." [...] "The duende's arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm." [...] "All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present."
As Swensen writes: “On a more mundane level, focusing on knowledge and its limits shifts the class’s perspective, taking the attention away from notions such as craft, which, while they have their place, can also be distracting . . .”