Contradiction, paradox and the text

An enormous difference exists between a text that ‘contains’ a paradox or contradiction and one that ‘holds’ them. A text that simply contains contradiction does so either without being conscious of the conflict, or whilst being uncomfortably aware of it, and refusing to address it. A text which holds contradictions/paradoxes, on the other hand, seems to revel in it: it is completely aware, and addresses the conflict simply by revealing it, holding it up to the light.

Obviously I’m thinking of Keats’ negative capability: “that is, when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (letter to George and Tom Keats, dated 22 December 1818, Hampstead). The tension of a contradiction or a paradox in a text can be electrifying if it is properly held. Kafka exploits the potentials of paradox all across his work, to dizzying effect.

Shalamov’s ‘Kolyma Tales’ has plenty of examples of contradiction, such as when he states that the Gulag destroys any sense of morality in man and then disproves himself a couple of pages later with descriptions of moral acts. Similarly, Holocaust survivor memoirs (such as Primo Levi’s) sometimes assert that survival was impossible, which is contradicted by the author’s own biography. But by properly holding contradictions, these texts reveal deeper truths. The experience of the Gulag was such that moral life was perceived to be suffocated, and yet individual examples of morality survived. Likewise, the experience of the Holocaust’s concentration camps was eschatological, inescapable, yet people did survive. Contradictions in logic do not necessarily provoke contradictions in experience. As memoir and literature deal in experience rather than fact, ways must be created for them to hold these contradictions with a sophistication that appears, at first glance, to be inconsistency.

David Shields’ ‘Reality Hunger’ (yes, I am still going on about this) performs another act upon the contradiction: it forces it into the text in a forlorn bid for complexity. Yet his contradictions are too unsophisticated to hold any power: the sort of mental luminescence provoked by a well-held contradiction is entirely lacking from such insights as “these categories are plastic. But they aren’t. Ah, but they are” (p. 187), which is sophistry masquerading as sophistication.


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