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Hopper, S.R. (1978). Kafka and Kierkegaard: The Function of Ambiguity. Am. Imago, 35(1-2):92-105.
    

(1978). American Imago, 35(1-2):92-105

Kafka and Kierkegaard: The Function of Ambiguity

Stanley R. Hopper, Ph.D.

As one might expect in a study of ambiguity, there are at least two ways of moving into the subject. One way is by quoting some lustrous epigram, such as that of Theodor Adorno on Kafka: “Kafka's world is a parabolic system, the key to which has been lost.” This both defines and exhibits the ambiguity and its function in Kafka. It obtains its perspective on Kafka by standing within the ambiguity, and it obligates me to do the same, which is how the ambiguity functions.

The other way is to note with Empson that there are (at least) seven types of ambiguity, that the word ambiguity is itself ambiguous, that “every linguistic expression is ambiguous” (Urban)—this proposition being itself an illustration of the problem.

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.

(Eliot)

Where, then, does the ambiguity in Kafka and in Kierkegaard fall? In Empson's seventh type of ambiguity perhaps?—which is “the most ambiguous that can be conceived,” and in which “the criterion… becomes psychological rather than logical, in that the crucial point of the definition has become the idea of a context, and the total attitude to that context of the individual.” Here the usual modes of linguistic ambiguity have been sprung, and the context within which the function of ambiguity is to be thought has become metalinguistic.

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