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Ambiguity

Tower of Babel

 

Both Karl Kraus and Ludwig Wittgenstein used language to get us thinking.

Wittgenstein used the method of “literal autopsy”; thus dissecting a simple statement and asking us to ask ourselves what language is and to think about how we use it.

Wittgenstein

Kraus searched for every missing comma and other literate errors. He used these examples as a metaphor for what was wrong with the world and a base for his polemics.

Karl Kraus

A favorite example is Wittgenstein’s “Five Red Apples.”

Five Red Apples

Now think of the following use of language: I send someone shopping. I give him a slip of paper marked “five red apples”. He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked “apples”; then he looks up the word “red” in a chart and finds a color sample next to it; then he says the series of elementary number-words – I assume that he knows them by heart – up to the word “five”, and for each number-word he takes an apple of the same color as the sample out of the drawer. — It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words. — “But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word ‘red’ and what he is to do with the word ‘five’?” — Well, I assume that he acts as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere. – But what is the meaning of the word “five”? – No such thing was in question here, only how the word “five” is used.

So that is the way Wittgenstein makes us think. He asks us how we really know what “apples” are, what “red” means and what the term “five” signifies. What he intimates is what he hasn’t said about the subject. How did the grocer know there were charts? How did he know which chart? How did the grocer know that five was a quantity and not a star or a bird?

Whereas Kraus’ example, would be signified by a time when people were generally decrying the Japanese bombardment of Shanghai. Kraus, at that very moment, was struggling over one of his comma problems.

“I know that everything is futile when the house is burning. But I have to do this, as long as it is at all possible; for if those who were supposed to look after commas had always made sure they were in the right place, Shanghai would not be burning.”

Kraus makes us think about all the connections between his comma being missing and Shanghai. He makes us think about the Japanese, the war and the bombardments. He makes us think about news-writers who may be as sloppy about reporting important events as they are about not paying attention to their commas. Do they really understand the importance of either?

So, now that I have repeated Wittgenstein’s and Kraus’ words and their philosophies about words, I will be expected to say something brilliant.

How about if I say something only half-brilliant, something dusky, something foggy, something like the crack of dawn on an overcast day, something ambiguous?

I can and I will. But first I must confess to being a hypocrite.

I once departed a very large corporation where clarity was honored. It was a learned characteristic for me; not instinctive. To be ambiguous was the kiss of death for one’s career. I learned my lessons well and survived.

Upon departing that corporation I joined an Ivy League university where ambiguity was used as a tool. Muddying the water was a well-practiced skill; especially at the faculty level. The ‘faculty senate’ minutes were bathed in ambiguity. And I don’t even want to get into the ambiguous statements used in meetings of individual departments.

Responsibility could be avoided by being ambiguous about one’s personal thoughts and opinions.

So that is one half of my confession on hypocrisy.

I hated ambiguity.

Now, I must confess the other half.

I have learned to embrace ambiguity. Why? Because; it enhances the reader’s experience.

I know; that is a very strange thing to admit.

I do not say it because I am a lazy writer. I say it because I realize that if two people read something there will be two versions of whatever was written. And if two hundred people read the same writing there will be two hundred versions of what was written.

That is the beauty of the written word. Each person’s mind sees a different image. This is not only true for the story, as a whole, but for each individual word.

Forgive me for introducing yet another philosopher of words; Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges uses the ambiguity of words to fool us, to turn us around, to make us think such things as “Is he telling us a true story or making up another one of his glorious lies?”

Borges was the master of obfuscation and ambiguity. He would lead his writings with facts and figures and places and dates and documents, then, once he had us hooked, he would unwind his fiction. Or, he would lead off with a fiction and then give us a truth.

For example;

“Whether profiled against a backdrop of blue painted walls or of the sky itself, two toughs sheathed in grave black clothing dance, in boots with high-stacked heels, a solemn dance—the tango of evenly matched knives—until suddenly, a carnation drops from behind an ear, for a knife has plunged into a man, whose horizontal dying brings the dance without music to its end. Resigned, the other man adjusts his hat and devotes the years of his old age to telling the story of that clean-fought duel. That, to the least and last detail, is the story of the Argentine underworld.”

 

Borges now has us hooked; our imaginations have us located in the back alley of some Argentinian city. But as he continues we find ourselves in a much different venue.

 

“The story of the thugs and ruffians of New York has much more speed, and much less grace.”

 

And midway through the story of “Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities” Borges finally offers what it is that Monk purveys.

 

I, wishing to remain ambiguous, leave this small missive hoping to have planted two seeds in your mind.

 

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