The uses, and abuses, of uncertainty
In How Not to Be Wrong, mathematician Jordan Ellenberg uses a John Ashbery line as a guiding principle for those making claims or predictions based on probabilistic mathematical models (or any models, really): “For this is action, this not being sure.” Ellenberg calls it “the greatest summation I know of the way uncertainty and revelation can mingle, without dissolving together, in the human mind […] It is a sentence I often repeat to myself like a mantra.” He once asked me if, as a poet presumably, I thought he was “reading Ashbery too literally,” but Ashbery can only be read literally out of context, and then why not?
Literature seems to depend on uncertainty to qualify as art: A sculpture or a piece of music just exists, but language is so often used to argue or persuade that writers of literature (I use this term only to avoid the silly, infantilizing “creative writing”) must actively steer away from those tendencies. It’s easy enough in poetry, the most open and least linear of genres; for writers of fiction, less so, but semantics is on their side, since fictive means made up. With essays, it’s much trickier; many essays do attempt to persuade. But what if an essayist just wants to play? How does she signal to readers that the essay is an exploration and not an argument?
Recently, I have noticed an overabundance of uncertainty in literature – across genres, but especially in essays. The tricks we use to appear uncertain – asking questions instead of making definitive, declarative statements, for example – have become tics. Overuse these tricks and the piece assumes a pose of ignorant wonder – What is such & such abstract concept? Who can say? How can we ever know?
More… “Uncertain Terms”