Saturday, September 23, 2006

Curious about Ambiguity: One of Leonardo da Vinci’s Steps to Genius

Definition of Ambiguity: The quality or state of being ambiguous; doubtfulness or uncertainty, particularly as to the signification of language, arising from its admitting of more than one meaning; an equivocal word or expression.”

Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.” - Sigmund Freud

Last week I mentioned Michael J. Gelb’s fascinating book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Everyday Genius. I have finished it, but am so impressed with it that I have ordered a copy for myself and several for gifts. It includes many excellent exercises that I haven’t had a chance to pursue.

Anyway, what does this have to do with ambiguity? Leonardo embraced ambiguity and Gelb uses it in defining one of the “Seven Steps.”

Even though I didn’t find an overabundance of quotations, the ones I did find and will share with you are positive, creative and eye-opening.

In general:
  • On the road from the City of Skepticism, I had to pass through the Valley of Ambiguity.” - Adam Smith
  • I'm a participant in the doctrine of constructive ambiguity.” - Vernon A. Walters
  • If I take refuge in ambiguity, I assure you that it's quite conscious.” - Kingman Brewster
  • The awareness of the ambiguity of one's highest achievements (as well as one's deepest failures) is a definite symptom of maturity.” - Paul Tillich
  • I have always felt that a woman has the right to treat the subject of her age with ambiguity until, perhaps, she passes into the realm of over ninety. Then it is better she be candid with herself and with the world.” - Carl Sandburg

In the area of creativity and artistry:

  • Ambiguity is necessary in some of my stories, not in all. In those, it certainly contributes to the richness of the story. I doubt that thematic closure is never attainable.” - Gene Wolfe
  • The blues is an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances, whether created by others or by one's own human failing.” - Ralph Ellison
  • The purpose of narrative is to present us with complexity and ambiguity.” - Scott Turow
  • People ask me if I left the lyrics open to ambiguity. Of course I did. I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics had to do with the state of society at the time.” - Don McLean

In politics and journalism:

  • The warning message we sent the Russians was a calculated ambiguity that would be clearly understood.” - Alexander Haig
  • My observation is that after one hundred and twenty years of modernization since the opening of the country, present-day Japan is split between two opposite poles of ambiguity.” - Kenzaburo Oe
  • How is a reporter supposed to feel about ambiguity? As a human, you react to the overwhelming tragedy of it.” - Jessica Savitch

How do you feel about ambiguity? Do you make use of it? I am a storyteller, and often after I have finished telling, listeners will ask, “Was that true?” Rather than disappointing them and, I feel, hurting the story, I will answer rather ambiguously. “What do you think?” or “Every story has some truth.”

Complexity and ambiguity do go “hand in hand.” I feel that if we examine our lives and our work, we will discover that our days are filled with them. So chew on these last quotations and do let me know what you think.

You know, people who almost- yeah, there's a slight reluctance there - but there's also an ambiguity. What are their morals? What is their code of living? What are they really doing here? And it is just interesting because it is never black or white.” - Matt Robinson

But also because ambiguity haunts one's mind and ambiguity... it's out of ambiguities that we make choices.” - Dennis C. G. Potter