Seven Types of Ambiguity

At last.  I could practically hear the clamoring out there in the blogosphere.  “I’ve been following this blog for weeks…when is he going to explore some freakin’ ambiguity?!?”  Your patience has now been justly rewarded…

Just finished reading Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman. This was actually my second time through it, and while I remembered liking it the first time, I enjoyed it just as much if not more this go around. I usually don’t like re-reading books because I feel like I’m wasting time that could be spent reading something new. However, I rarely have to worry about being bored with the second read, because I pretty much forget the plot of most books within a couple hours of finishing them (this is a genetic trait…mostly from my Mom’s side…I believe she’s read Rebecca 217 times). 

Anyhow, I won’t bore you with an in depth review, but just a little background.  The plot is pretty simple and is really not the main attraction…so I won’t bother delving into it.  The main character is a highly intelligent, good looking, idealistic, iconoclastic, and brooding young fellow (my ears are burning) who becomes deeply troubled after losing his teaching job.  He is completely obsessed with his girlfriend from his college days (10 years in the past).  He is also obsessed with the literary theory book by William Empson, also called Seven Types of Ambiguity, which from what I could gather is a thesis stating that there are seven different types of ambiguity in literature and poetry and all good literary works are defined by how the author uses these types of ambiguity to further his message.  (I know…I know…you are all practically jumping out of your seats with excitement and have probably purchased both books on Amazon in the time it has taken me to type this sentence, but please try to control yourselves and bear with me for just a few moments.) 

What I like most about this novel is the character development and the different points of view.  All of them are pretty convincing…male and female.  And also, the overriding theme of the book is a topic that never ceases to fascinate me, namely psychological neuroses and human reasoning (one of the main characters is a psychotherapist).  From depression to addiction to general mental suffering…you get a little bit of everything.  Definitely a lot of angst here…and you know how I feel about angst.

In that vein, the following was one of the psychological ideas (in discussing the psychiatrist’s perception of the main character Simon) that the author raises that really makes you think…

"This madness (of Simon’s) he (the psychiatrist) felt was, in part, the cost of so much time spent seeing things too clearly.  It’s a cost that most people know instinctively is too high…So most of us get by by not seeing things too clearly.  Everything is a little blurred but, being always this way, people don’t notice it and we say that each of them is a picture of mental health
…(the psychiatrist) was interested in the question of how people respond to the burden of unremitting acuity…(there is) a division between those people who are burdened by the clarity with which they see the world and those who arenot.  For those who are not, any semblance of emotional stasis or equilibrium is threatened only by things particular to them.  If they, personally, can avoid poverty, substance abuse, sexual abuse, unemployment, divorce, physical illness, random violence, or moving house, they might well feel and be considered mentally healthy.
But what about the other group, those who, even if only fleetingly and from time to time, are encumbered by their perception of the way the world really is?  Was (the psychiatrist) prepared to categorize only the fortunate and simple or obtuse as mentally healthy?  Most people are not all that fortunate and not that simple.  Was he really prepared to deem the vast majority of people mentally unwell?
…(the psychiatrist) hypothesized that many, if not most, of those people who were neither fortunate nor obtuse learned to be helpless.  This is how a huge portion of society goes through each day.  Whatever you think of this, it certainly accounts for those people who recognize the way things really are both in the world and in their lives and who do nothing about it.  They do nothing because they feel helpless."

I found this to be a very intriguing line of reasoning and one I think many of us can relate to.  It’s not uncommon that when I’m at my lowest…the proximal cause is my awareness of the problems in the world that don’t relate to my everyday life.  Everyone expects periods of depression caused by negative events in their personal lives, but it’s more frustrating (if not more acutely depressing) to suffer due to your awareness of the suffering of others.  Because that larger suffering will never go away…no matter what each of us does.  No matter how much good we might do in our lives…we can’t fix everything.  It can all seem so overwhelming.  Thus, many times our only recourse (to maintain our mental health) is to blur the background out…and become completely immersed in the minutiae of our daily existence.  It’s certainly a difficult choice to make if you have that vulnerable psychological make-up...