Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity vs. Auerbach, Mimesis








(This was the first idea for our blog. It obviously didn’t last. But it’s also a good reminder that thinking and writing, and even reading, takes time, failure, editing, and sometimes even time off. Take them for what they are.)

Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity


Auerbach, Mimesis


This blog is supposedly about practical criticism, but I don’t think you even know what that means.  We need some concrete examples, and they need to be old and important.  Which would you say is more practical, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1935) or William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930)?  What, for that matter, would it mean for criticism to be “practical” anyway? – Craig


Apparently, I. A. Richards – who wrote a book called Practical Criticism (1929), and was William Empson’s advisor at Cambridge – explained the origins of Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) this way:

At about his third visit he brought up the games of interpretation which Laura Riding and Robert Graves had been playing [in A Survey of Modernist Poetry, 1927] with the unpunctuated form of ‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame.’ Taking the sonnet as a conjuror takes his hat, he produced an endless swarm of lively rabbits from it and ended by ‘You could do that with any poetry, couldn’t you?’ This was a Godsend to a Director of Studies, so I said, ‘You’d better go off and do it, hadn’t you?’

This little gem raises a lot of questions, the first being: my God, should we change the title of our blog?

The second would be this: as someone who reads and occasionally teaches literature, do I really want endless swarms of rabbits?  I don’t think I do.  So, for that reason alone, I’m going with Auerbach’s Mimesis as the more “practical” version of criticism here.

I hate saying that, because I probably owe everything I love about “close reading” to Empson (and Richards).  When I teach, I try to encourage my students to: a) see words and their ambiguities as forms of intense pleasure; b) trust their visceral reactions to those ambiguities, and follow them as lines of thought; c) distrust symbols, and regard metaphors as temptations; and d) remember that it’s what a poet or author doesn’t say, and goes to great effort to not say, that’s usually the most important thing any given work does say.

Those four rules are a pretty good condensation of Empson’s Seven Types, right?  And they’re pretty practical!  If you can show a room of people, like Empson, that Faustus’s final godforsaken cry – “Ugly Hell gape not; come not, Lucifer / I’ll burn my books.  Ah Mephistopheles” – almost sounds like an ambiguous affirmation – Let Ugly Hell gape, show me Lucifer” – then you can show quite a lot of things.  Things about belief, theater, Marlovian verse, audience. Lots of rabbits.

What we don’t have, however, is what we cannot say about ambiguous language. Empson implies in the first chapter of the book that we learn what we can and can’t say about ambiguity by being grown ups, by having a kind of encultured sense of what we are “prepared to apprehend,” and, through all that, by becoming attuned to poetry’s “powerful means of imposing its own assumptions.”

That sounds very early 20th century, tweed-jackety, and impractical.  A “practical” criticism should also be able to show us how literature asks us to grow up, or at least pushes against our endless swarms. In Mimesis, Auerbach actually gives us a history of where this kind of reading comes from.  His most-read essay, “Odysseus’s Scar,” basically uses Homer and the Bible to show how Western literature moves back and forth between emphasizing the unsaid or implied “background” of a story and the “foreground” of surface details.  Ambiguity in a piece of literature depends on these relative emphases, and the result, Auerbach says, is that “interpretation in a determined direction becomes a general method of comprehending reality.”

I like that, mainly because it historicizes the emergence of what sends us looking for ambiguity in literary works in the first place.  It turns ambiguity away from just a host of different possible meanings and to a specific question of how ambiguity operates in our own specific literary history.  I’ll leave for you to unpack whether or not it’s right, or whether mimesis is a “practical” question to begin with.  But I think the idea of a “determined direction” – and how works portray, through their ambiguity, the demand for determined readings – is the most practical image I have of non-rabbity criticism.

– Joel


If we were putting Empson and Auerbach in “necessary” and “sufficient” categories, you would say that Empson is necessary but not sufficient. Mine would be the opposite.

Ambiguity is what makes literature interesting and valuable. From the beginning (or a beginning), Homer told a story about a war that even his audience could not see, was not present, and may never have happened in the exact way he describes. Literature only happens because language can lie, can mean in non-literal ways. But that non-literal meaning is essentially ambiguous precisely because we’re asked to take something as true that is patently false.

But you seem to be saying that “ambiguity” was part of a style that we need someone like Auerbarch to historicize, to show that it is only one and very recent way of reading and valuing literature. Yes and no. Certainly, extreme postmodern, deconstructive forms of ambiguity are like that. But there’s also 19th century subjectivism, early modern metaphysical poetry, medieval mystical writing, and ancient rhetoric (among many other examples), all of which live or die on the ways that ambiguity affects reading. There’s also the simple “universal” truth that literary language can only function by being, at its very heart, ambiguous.

I have a suspicion that everything Auerbach loves about literature could actually be performed in an essay. Why does “mimesis” have to happen in fiction? Isn’t it better suited to straightforward accounts? What Auerbach seems to value in literature occurs at the level of explanation rather than in the language or experience of the fiction itself. By following Auerbach, we can become more reflective about literature’s role in a culture’s history, and in that sense, sure, maybe Auerbach is ultimately more practical and more “grown up.” But, in the end, isn’t Auerbach more concerned about reality than literature?

If so, I’m no longer interested. What I like most about Empson’s book is that its investigation of literature ultimately stays with the language and the “lies” of words in order to see what happens. For Empson, “ambiguity” eventually comes to stand for literary language being precisely that: literary. It can be reflective of reality. But whatever an ambiguity ultimately means, Empson’s book suggests that it is only through ambiguity – through the possibility that language and poetry can produce countless bunnies pulled out of a hat with a disorienting array of ways to choose which bunny is best – that we ever understand how it operates in the first place.

Learning that fluency with ambiguity is eventually much more “practical” than any theory that claims to know how to interpret it or make it grow up into something useful for some other purpose. Perhaps that attitude is Romantic, but I actually think of it like the relationship between Socrates and Plato. Plato taught a philosophy with a particular system and end, but Socrates taught philosophy itself, to question no matter how unsystematic it was or which end it led to. Socrates was the better teacher because he gave his students tools rather than answers, and, of our two, Empson is the more Socratic.

– Craig



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