Ⓒ Rod Madocks

Without Contraries

“How wonderful that we have encountered a paradox. Now we can make some progress.” Niels Bohr

I was an awkwardly precocious youth. I read The Metaphysical Poets all the time in that old orange Penguin edition by Helen Gardner and I seemed to revel in the violent yoking together of heterogeneous ideas I found in those pages. I was disinclined to study and was happy to accept that things could be both true and false at the same time and so there was little purpose in applying myself to the fixed polarities of the traditional school curriculum. I performed spectacularly poorly and still have a report that records that I once came 59th out of 60 boys in my year. I think the 60th was poor Kelly who had epilepsy and was tortured by the other boys who liked to watch him throw lavish fits on the dormitory floor each night. The head master wrote at the bottom of the same report, Madocks continues to hide his light under a bushel. The school eventually began to think that I might be what they called in the withering terminology of the time — subnormal. I was sent to see an educational psychologist who looked puzzled after trying to test me. In the end he just said, “I think you are an unusual young fellow with excess imagination.” He didn’t know the half of it. My head seethed with conflicting savage thoughts. Scission and dissonance predominated.  I was in opposition to just about everything. I remember that my favourite drawings which I scrawled on my school papers were not the ribald cartoons of my contemporaries nor yet the traditional Heinkels getting shot down by Spits of the other boys’ graffiti.  No, my efforts seemed to keep refiguring the snarling face of the double-headed god  Janus who was always looked both ways.  I liked to quote with approval, Pathos einai panta  biastikon —  the soul is always violent. It came from the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus I was particularly enthusiastic about him after finding that he supposedly died from a violent fit of laughter after he’d seen a donkey eating a load of figs. Maybe the philosopher was seized with hilarity imagining the inevitable explosive results on the beast? Guided by Chrysippus and the other Stoics like Heraclitus, it seemed clear to me that the deepest truths about life could only be plucked from the horns of paradox. I only half understood it all but I was determined to live in that ambiguous oppositional world, not to die by what Oscar Wilde called “creeping common sense”.

So, I grew up to be  a cunning fox who knew many things, not a dumb hedgehog hunched over his unitary truths. That’s why I applaud F. Scott Fitzgerald’s approval of contradictory ideas. Like him, I keep beating on in my own little boat whilst being borne  back ceaselessly into the past.  Even though my boat might go backwards I carry on repeating William Blake’s “Without contraries there is no progression.” It’s a sort of mantra for me. I still believe that a man is wise who knows that he knows nothing. I still look on with wonderment at the deep enmities of the English. It seems to me that the English have far more worrying things on the horizon than to spend so much time despising each other.  All of my friends from the educated elite have the same sort of set views and a shared fixed dislike of their ideological enemies. I live alongside them but not of them, in reality I’m indifferent, utterly indifferent, to their notions of fairness, class warfare, liberality, rule of law, compassion for the underdog etc. I suppose these ideas have value but I can also appreciate their reverse propositions. I’m a reed vibrating with the contradictory winds. Most ideas seem true in their own way but they live side by side with their sleek and dangerous opposites.

I have sometimes considered that I’m an instinctive Hegelian in my processes of thought. I can venture a little way along the normal narrow tightrope of accepted ideas but sooner or later I find everything trembling with dissonance. Nabokov once quoted with approval the French expression,  Du choc des opinions jaillit la vérité.  Jaillir,  that’s a good word.  It means a spurting or spouting forth, a wobbling jet. Shaking like blancmange on a plate —that’s my brain quivering with the effort of apprehension in the dialectical battle to grasp the world. I tend to perceive things like an upward spiral. You tread the first spiral of the thetic upstroke, everything seems sound and straightforward for the moment.  Then you are skidding on the slippery,  antithetic down slope until you jump over all obstacles with a gasping synthetic revelation that fuses the two opposites, a sort of  leap of understanding. Well, that’s the theory. Most often I just flit between opposing notions of the world, happy to live in that latent interface. Of course sometimes I have a nostalgia for everything being straightforward . A longing for thought as an arrow, a pellucid logical line. I might even read a few pages of Aquinus for example and swim briefly in his cool, calm, teleological flow then I lurch back to the broken waters of my old faith.

What did F Scott Fitzgerald mean  by “two opposing ideas”? He gave us an example in the same passage from The Crackup:

One should for example, be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.  

He also clarified things in a letter to his daughter he wrote shortly before his death:

Life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat and the redeeming things are not “happiness” and “pleasure” but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.

He’d become quite a grim fellow once his talent had been washed away by all those gin rickeys, hadn’t he? But he stuck to his guns to the end. He kept on rejecting the goal-oriented artefacts of thought and belief and instead embraced Heraclitean flow, turmoil, the potency of striving.

As for me, I’m still Spartacus, or maybe both Spartacus and anti-Spartacus, No, wait I’m going to change my mind! That is not it all! What I meant to say was …Ok I’ll tell it straight. I’ll start by saying ‘all novelists are liars’. I am a novelist. How’s that? Did you know that Chrysippus apparently wrote twenty three books on the liar paradox?

All of the above may or may not be true but I can live with that, all things are a-flowing, as sage Heraclitus said.