Why all this Ambiguity and Ambivalence?

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From Elizabeth Wright’s “The New Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism”:

“The question naturally arises why we should bother ourselves about unstable meanings.  What do we gain from proving that an author is ambivalent, and he did not know he meant it when he said it?  It seems that on the one hand we are taking a share of the credit away from him, but on the other hand we are also giving him credit for an act of living communication.  Instead of treating the author virtually as an egoist we are treating him as a subject whom we could enlighten.  We do this not by gleefully uncovering hidden meanings of which he had only a blurred view, because no one can project perfectly and infinitely into the future” (399). 

I liked many of the points that Wright made, yet at the same time, when I first read it, I felt that her article was not quite focused enough.  She discovered many intriguing ideas about “Benito Cereno.”  For example, the idea that Delano “create Babo as his symmetrical opposite” (296) is certainly an interesting claim.  Nonetheless, the many different ideas she pointed out didn’t really come together in any sort of relationship.  It seemed almost like she was just going through the text pointing out different disparities without any really sort of thesis.  In many ways, I felt the same way about her article as I did about McDonald’s.  I like the observations they make, but not their conclusions, because I feel in many ways that there is no conclusion.  McDonald’s article in fact, seems to include some poststructuralist elements.  McDonald observes repeated patterns in The Tempest, but then says, “There is small profit in seeking ‘meaning’” (105) in them. 

It is for this reason that I like Wright’s article better than McDonald’s.  Wright addresses head on the issue of “non-meaning” (my term, not Wright’s or McDonald’s).  In other words, she doesn’t just observe repeated patterns (like McDonald) or just remark the contradictory nature of many elements of “Benito Cereno,” she addresses “what…we gain from proving that an author is ambivalent.”  She doesn’t just point out the ambiguity, she explains why she is highlighting it.  These ambiguities allow the reader to appreciate not just the intended meaning of the author, but many others.  In other words, by taking all these “unstable meanings,” we uncover more meanings than we could have ever imagined without addressing this “ambivalence.”      

Read more on Wright’s article. 

2 Comments

Angela Palumbo said:

After reading this entry, Greta, I'm a little clearer on Wright's essay. I'm still waiting for my "Aha moment" for post-structuralism though. I also liked how you related your two articles. I agree with you. Wright's article seemed to have more of a point than McDonald's. I don't get how we are able, as critical readers of a text, are able to derive meaning from dessembling the structures in a text. Do we dessemble a text and undermine the structures to better understand them? How is that different than structuralism?

Greta Carroll said:

We dissemble them to show their complexity. Deconstruction is meant to show that works of literature can have different and contradictive meanings. I may interpret something to mean one thing and you may think it means something else, deconstruction allows both of us to be right. Deconstruction points out that things aren’t black and white, instead there is always ambiguity.

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