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Too Much Ambiguity

It’s pretty cool when a single speech can mean two different things. The oracles liked to do this. For example “To war you shall go. You shall return. Never by war shall you perish” also meant “To war you shall go. You shall return never. By war shall you perish.”

There are stories that admit of more than one interpretation. For example, The Lady or the Tiger, ends on a cliffhanger. We don’t know whether the spurned princess is sending her lover to her rival and life, or death in the jaws of the tiger. The story ends — what do you think? Alan Moore performs a similar feat with his story “What Ever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”

And evocative allegories and fables can give you even larger sets of possible interpretations.

“Alas”, said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I am running into.”

“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up

Who is the cat and who is the mouse in Kafka’s fable? Is the cat death? Authority? Guilt? Our own true self? God? All we know is he says to the poor mouse who finds the possibilities of life closing in on his head “You have only to change your direction!” and eats him up.

There’s something better, or as I said cooler, about a sentence or a story that admits of a finite set of interpretations where that set is greater than one, as opposed to the sentence or story that admits of a single interpretation. That leads one to wonder though if there is a limit. Wouldn’t the best story be one that admitted of a maximally large set of interpretations? “Mumbo wails” for example where Mumbo could be anybody and the reason he wails could be anything, giving something like a thousand times a thousand interpretations?

Or even better maybe the best story would be a blank page offering us the ability to imagine literally anything was written on it? Or our actual lives which we can apply as many stories to as methods of interpretation as have ever been told? For each of us our life would be the maximally ambiguous story, capable of being resolved in infinite ways.

I think though the answer to that is pretty clear — that would be too much ambiguity.

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One thought on “Too Much Ambiguity

  1. Alan Moore said it well in his introduction to *Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow:*

    “This is an imaginary story. Aren’t they all?”

    Anything that’s not irreducibly simple allows multiple interpretations. The facts of our lives are what they are, but their meaning is up to us. We can be heroes or villains, victors or victims: that, at least, is largely in our control. The margins are already set in our lives’ pages. What is written between the margins comes from our own hands. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

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