In Defense of Ambiguity


In his review of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a seminal experimentalist novel by David Markson, David Foster Wallace describes Markson’s narrative technique as “deep nonsense.” That novel tells the story of a woman who lives alone in a house on a beach, believing, rightly or wrongly, that she is the last human being on Earth. She recounts, presumably as a way of maintaining her sanity, every fact she can remember about Western civilization. But we soon notice that these facts are endlessly repeated, and that every time, a detail or three is changed. Einstein has become Churchill. It is not Proust who is gay, but Joyce. We start to read these “facts” not for the truth of their words, or even their literal sense, but for their incantory quality and for the desperate loneliness they reveal. Though the narrator is unnamed, and though she tells us almost nothing about her previous life or what happened to everyone else, we grow to know her via a sort of metaphorical and emotional through-line that allows continuity of meaning even while shattering the agreed-upon bonds between common signifiers and signifieds. The title of the book is no accident: the woman herself is Wittgenstein’s mistress; she is a speaker of the “private language” that Wittgenstein rejects in his Philosophical Investigations. If language is no longer communal then it means whatever its “author” chooses it to mean. However, the very fact that we are reading and understanding her words actually supports Wittgenstein’s argument: her language is not private after all. And hence the term “deep nonsense” to explain how words that are detached from their original meaning nevertheless manage to communicate.

Deep nonsense is, of course, not nonsense at all. Its sense is simply not the traditional, or superficial, one. This is where the word “deep” comes in. But how does a writer use language to create that sense of depth? How does he avoid mere nonsense? It seems to me that this is what the best surrealist film does; it is the aim and duty of certain poetry; and it is the effect of the lyrics of some of our greatest bands – to achieve a rich and suggestive ambiguity, while avoiding opacity.

***

Music, in particular, can be a great vehicle for deep nonsense. It operates not just on our linguistic sense, but on our auditory sense. As we listen to it, we are often engaged in other activities – driving, cleaning the house, mingling at a party. The lyrics can seep into our brain without too much active analysis. When we are confronted with a poem, on the other hand, we are alone with the words and there is a kind of obligation and challenge to understand them immediately. For this reader at least, the brain often butts up against a wall of inscrutability and grows frustrated. We live in an impatient age; we don’t want to read a poem 20 times. A song on the other hand, can be played over and over without much effort; all that is required is opportunity and time. And slowly a private meaning (which is not the same as a private language) creeps in. It may not be the lyricist’s intended meaning – nor, in fact, did the lyricist necessarily have an intended meaning – but it is the meaning we have made, and there is a joy that is both intellectual and visceral at having unlocked the puzzle’s secrets. Once we have decided on a song’s meaning, it sticks with us, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. What comes to mind is an episode of the Aaron Sorkin comedy Sports Night, where sports anchor Dan Rydell, convinced of impending trouble, references the song “Hide Your Heart, Girl” by Three Dog Night. When fellow anchor Casey McCall tells him that the “Eli” in the phrase “Eli’s coming” is not an occult symbol of impending doom, but rather an “inveterate womanizer,” Dan replies that he knows, but that that’s the way he interpreted it at first and it has always stuck with him. Like the readers of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and like the narrator herself, Dan has constructed an alternate meaning behind the literal one.

***

Let’s move to a more specific example of how one listener – this listener – constructs meaning from seemingly nonsensical lyricstuff. Here, in their entirety, are the lyrics to “Soft Pyramids” by a now disbanded postpunk outfit from Washington D.C., Q and Not U. The dashes in Line 1 indicate that the words are spelled out, letter by letter.

S-o-f-t p-y-r-a-m-i-d-s e-v-a-p-o-r-a-t-e at daylight.
Internationally fashioned like d-i-sease.
Patterns, a-l-w-a-y-s yes, maybe no.
This soft is building the softest buildings.
This soft is raising the firmest ceilings.
This soft is dimming the brightest cities every night.
Midnight, midnight.
Midnight, midnight.

How can we ask for a blanket and a habitat?
How can we ask for a place?
We can’t imagine that.
How can we ask for the brightest cities every night?
Midnight, midnight.
Midnight, midnight.

Select a color for your checklist.
Color for your checklist, na na na.
Kiss every comma in your checklist,
Commas in your checklist, na na na.
Ah-ha, commas in your checklist,
commas in your checklist na na na, na na na.
Please pick a color for your checklist,
Color for your checklist, na na na, na na naaaa.

How can we ask for a blanket and a habitat?
How can we ask for the best?
We can’t imagine that.
The softest blackout is soft and black
outside and in.
Clue me in.

We should begin with the title, since that offers a critical legend by which I map the rest of the song. When I hear the phrase “soft pyramids,” one thing comes to mind, and it is not a Salvador Dali painting. I am thinking of the pyramid, with its embedded Eye of Providence, found on the reverse side of the US dollar bill. Money being made of paper, this pyramid is of course “soft.” We also get the connotations of “soft money” and “pyramid schemes,” two capitalist phenomena associated with corruption, greed and the illusory appearance of sturdiness. Line 1 spells out, in a kind of ironic cheer, this impermanence. This is no “Y.M.C.A.”; the singing of individual letters is not meant to celebrate, but to fragment. Without reading the lyrics, it is very difficult to determine what is being spelled. But the last two words are said in their whole: “at daylight,” in other words, under the “harsh light of day.” These soft pyramids will not bear up to real scrutiny.

This idea is further expanded in the Line 4: “this soft is building the softest buildings.” Apart from its nice punning quality, this line is essential to the meaning of the song. “This soft [i.e. – money] is building [structures of impermanence].” The next line is harder to parse, as it seems to contradict the idea of impermanence, but it’s possible that “ceilings” refers to the limits set by capitalism for certain groups. Remember that this is a private meaning I’ve created, mostly by associative accident, and that not every detail has to fit into the schema. In fact, some are flat-out ignored if they can’t immediately be made to cohere. However, this idea of the natural oppressive limits of capitalism is buoyed by the next “stanza” (I use poetic terminology because this song lacks clear verses and choruses).

This stanza asks a series of rhetorical questions, presumably from the point of view of the disenfranchised. “How can we ask for a blanket and a habitat?” is another way of saying, “How can we, the disenfranchised, expect food and shelter in this corrupt system?” This idea of impossible expectations carries into the next line: “How can we ask for the best? We can’t imagine that.” The speaker’s very imaginative capabilities are stunted by a system that has taught him not to ask for too much. The last phrase echoes a phrase in the first stanza: he/they cannot ask for “the brightest cities every night,” the same brightest cities that are “dimmed” by “this soft.”

Now comes the tricky part. For a long time, I chalked the next stanza up to pleasant and nonsensical wordplay. But recently, I’ve come to see them as a critique of another societal superstructure, bureaucracy, and its fetishism of forms and irrelevant details. What could be more irrelevant than the color of a checklist? The idea brings to mind multicolored, triplicate forms. That it is a fetish, and not just a baroque accident, is emphasized in the phrase “kiss every comma in your checklist,” which stresses the punctilious nature of bureaucratic systems while vaguely sexualizing them.

***

So what do we get when we add it all together? For you, perhaps nothing. But for me, we get a critique of the corruption of the capitalist façade, the way it uses “soft pyramids” to erect “soft pyramids,” an endless feedback loop which can be seen as a metaphor for money itself. It only has value insofar as we agree that it does. Like the bureaucracy that manages it, it has a “shared value.” Sound familiar?

I do not know Christopher Richards, guitarist and vocalist for Q and Not U, personally. I have never had the opportunity to ask him what “Soft Pyramids” means to him. Does it even mean anything? Perhaps it is all just witty wordplay and sonic free association. But it is suggestive: I am able to construct from these ambiguous materials a definite meaning. But because the materials are ambiguous, the meaning is not predetermined. It is flexible, variant. And this seems connected to the project of good art: to avoid the overdetermination of meaning while suggesting possible interpretations. There is more than one way to do this. Some art presents a crystal-clear surface that only later yields its ambiguities (the poems of William Carlos Williams might be a good example). Some, like “Soft Pyramids,” operates on the principle of deep nonsense. This art is not willful or disobedient. Rather, it uses language, image or narrative in non-traditional ways, challenging us to not simply interpret, but to reinterpret whole systems of interpretation – to find the shared language in the seemingly private. This strikes me as an endlessly fertile project worth defending.

About raulclement

Raul Clement lives in houses. His poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have been published in many journals. He is a senior editor at Mayday and New American Press. The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, a novel coauthored with Okla Elliott, was released by Dark House Press in 2015.
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One Response to In Defense of Ambiguity

  1. Okla Elliott says:

    This piece reminds of one of my favorite Schönberg quotes in which he says that one of music’s strengths is its lack of semantic specificity. Given that the human voice serves as both musical instrument and speech mechanism in song lyrics, I wonder if the lack of semantic specificity you are talking about here isn’t particularly suited to song lyrics for precisely this reason.

    Also, kudos for getting our music criticism ball rolling. I’ll get on my “The Children of Brecht” piece and my lovefest on Destroyer in the next week or three.

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