On Ambiguity

Todorov writes that the fantastic occupies the duration of time in which there is uncertainty. It’s “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.” Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the realm of the fantastic for another genre. It is in ambiguity that the fantastic resides.

So I have been thinking a lot about ambiguity lately and wondering why I love ambiguity in art but am profoundly uncomfortable with it in real life. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Who doesn’t find the moment when Fred pulls off the mask and Wilma explains the monster was really Old Man Wilson to be the most disappointing part of a Scooby Doo episode? I mean really. It’s almost vulgar. And I can’t be alone in my discomfort with ambiguity either. Isn’t it this discomfort that is at the root of all religion? We want to know. We want to be certain. We all hate ambiguity in politics, too; it’s enraging when politicians say things that can mean both one thing and its opposite. Uncertainty in our relationships is even more unsettling.

Discomfort with ambiguity must be in our genes. Those who were made uncomfortable by not knowing if there would be rain or no rain, food or no food, violence from neighbors or peace, were probably more likely to survive because it spurred them to action. To achieve that kind of comfort in the not knowing and not acting meant you were some kind of monk. And monks don’t generally pass their genes along. 

On a recent podcast of On Being, I learned about the ultimate in difficult uncertainties, it’s a thing known as ambiguous loss. Dr. Pauline Boss developed the theory 1973 and has studied it ever since. This is from her web site:

“All losses are touched with ambiguity. Yet, Dr. Boss’s research and practice have revealed that those who suffer ambiguous loss, losses without finality or resolution, bear a particular and challenging burden. Whether it is the experience of caring for a parent who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or a child with mental illness, the experience of loss is magnified and is more significantly challenging to overcome because the loss is linked to a lack of closure.” In the podcast she says people experience it in less acute forms in families that go through a divorce, or when people break up, or when someone who is physically present becomes emotionally absent. Because there is no actual death, there is no closure, and so there is just this feeling of perpetual loss that never goes away.

I am someone who falls into this category. I lost my brother to a severe and degenerative mental illness that started twenty years ago. He is gone and yet he still comes to visit. I no longer have any hope that he will come back, because he never left, but I still grieve for having lost him, even though, and especially because, he is still here. Pronouns become confusing. Is he the person that used to be, or is he the one that is? True self is murky business. My experience with this kind of murkiness must be what draws me to the fantastic. As a reader, I find myself seeking out the same type of story again and again, and I love all the various ways it can be told.

So what is the solution to ambiguous loss? According to Boss, there is only one — becoming comfortable with the fact that there is no solution.

I was talking to a friend of mine recently about the sense of injustice he feels that some people seem to have solvable problems — dissatisfaction with work, terrible bosses, stress over money, problems with the misses — while others have to learn to live with unsolvable ones — depression, crippling phobias, anxiety, perpetual grief. I think it’s hard for people who don’t experience it to understand, especially now, especially in the West. We want to fix things. If there is a problem, we want to find a cure. We hate suffering and so we pathologize sadness. We medicate. 

But imagine having a problem that no matter what you do — switch to a new medication, move to a new town, get a new job, a new boss, a new wife — this problem will always be with you. It will never go away.

I assume this is why we read and write and make art and consume art. Human connection and the search for meaning in it all is the only thing that seems to help. So it makes perfect sense that I would be drawn to ambiguity in art. It holds a mirror to my experience. Like seeks like.

I read two books recently that deal with ambiguity rather well. The first, Aura by Carlos Fuentes, is a novella about a man who answers a classified ad for a job that seems eerily made for him. He shows up to interview and finds that his potential employer is a decrepit old woman who wants her dead husband’s journals turned into a publishable manuscript; and she insists that he work on the book at her home — a ruinous, musty building infested by rats and so dark that candles are necessary to make one's way from the bedroom to the dining room. The only up-side to living in this strange, unknowable place is that there is another person living there with them — a beautiful young woman named Aura, the old woman’s niece. But there is something very strange about Aura. She is both trustworthy and untrustworthy, innocent and all-knowing, young and old, beautiful and frightening, real and imaginary. You don’t really know who or what she is. You don’t exactly know where she is — where she is in the house or where her self resides. When the old woman speaks, Aura’s lips move. And Aura’s age seems to fluctuate from day to day — at first she is obviously a young lady, but later looks as though she is approaching middle-age, perhaps she’s closer to forty. The absence of windows and the darkness of the house makes everything seem unknowable there, and in the end nothing is made clear — breaking the pact between reader and writer — namely, that a story’s conflict will be resolved, that mysteries will be solved, and events will be understood. It was oddly perfect.

The second book was The Visitors by Simon Sylvester. This novel is set on an island off the coast of northern Scotland and it draws on the myth of the selkie. I was a bit disappointed by the definitiveness of the ending, maybe because the rest of the story was so misty and atmospheric and rich with ambiguity. I didn’t want the mystery to be solved. I wanted to be left in a state of wonder. Closure is overrated in fiction, so why do I need it so bad in real life? 

There is a town in Belgium called Geel where the mentally ill have taken refuge. Geel’s patron saint is the Irish Saint Dymphna, the patron saint of those who suffer with nervous and mental afflictions. The town is considered paradise for the mentally ill because for over one hundred years locals haven taken the afflicted into their homes as boarders, sometimes for the night, but in some cases, as long as twenty years. They claim it’s really no trouble at all. I know from experience how much trouble it can be, so I can’t really fathom this. How do they do it? What is their secret?

On the Invisibilia podcast, “The Problem is the Solution”, there are interviews with some of these caregivers. Over and over, they say the reason it is no problem is because they don’t think of the afflicted person as a problem that must be fixed. They have learned to be comfortable with daily uncertainties and profound and ongoing ambiguity. They have built up a tolerance to open-endedness, to complexity and contradiction. 

But there was one woman. She had taken in boarders her whole life, but when her own son suffered brain damage things were different. She kept wanting him to be the person he used to be and this led to stress and conflict for everyone involved. The upshot — the secret to Geel may be that family members aren’t always the best caregivers.

So what does it all mean? I don’t know. I’m trying to become more comfortable with my own solution-less problems, trying to accept that some sadnesses I will just have to carry, and I guess I'll have to start try- try- trying to appreciate the uncertainties in life, as much as I appreciate them in fiction.