The Beauty of Contradiction

gahetNA National Archives

Over drinks in a small bar Alice told Mr Sakamoto of the incident in the Métro, of the journey to the bookshop. She told him about the woman with the tattooed arm. Then she said that although she was studying modernity, she had bought a novel by Henry James.

‘So what is the problem?’ he asked. ‘You are large enough to contain contradictions. We are all large enough – are we not? – to contain contradictions.’

-Gail Jones, Dreams of Speaking, London: Harvill Secker, 2006, p. 83.

I had a funny, but not unusual, incident with someone yesterday. Sometimes, when I’m with a group of people and someone in the group finds out I’ve done a PhD, I get a barrage of smart-arse questions. I’ve encountered this quite a few times. I don’t really understand why the whole ‘PhD’ thing comes with so many assumptions about my personality. For example, it’s assumed I live in an ivory tower (as if, show me that damn tower, it doesn’t exist), that I’m privileged (cough, cough, I’ve earned my education on my own, I was on scholarships and worked, and I was mostly poor throughout), or that I’m pretentious and snobby (sigh, that’s all I can say to that).

A very common reaction to the ‘PhD’ tag is to ‘show me up’, to reveal how much smarter the rest of the world is than me, in an effort to discredit my years of study as fluffy nonsense. So, I’ll be entered into pointless arguments about various topics, where the person arguing with me will try to find a loop-hole in my line of thought to prove that ‘aha! You’re not really that smart, you’ve just contradicted yourself!’ I used to get really annoyed by this, but yesterday, I started thinking about what contradiction entails.

I probably do contradict myself, just like every other human being on the planet. I’ve probably contradicted myself on this blog – so what? If that invalidates everything I have to say, then I plead guilty of being human. We’re not static beings, our ideas and perspectives change as we grow older and our life changes. Does that signal some hypocrisy, some form of betrayal of who we are? Not in the least. I am curious though why contradiction is perceived so suspiciously all the time. Granted, I understand how it can be a form of hypocrisy. But there are other forms of contradiction that are not based in hypocrisy, but simply express our three-dimensionality as human beings.

I don’t really know what the point of this post is, other than to say perhaps that I find beauty in the idea that we are so large, that we can contain contradictions. I always think back to that quote by Gail Jones when I question myself about this issue. We live in a world that likes to pigeonhole people into ‘types’ and categories, and sometimes I feel like our complex humanity is flattened out into superficial generalisations of what and who we ‘should’ be. The thing is, people often don’t make sense, and when you seek to make them 100% consistent, you’re erasing a part of their humanity. I prefer to think of us all as large entities with plenty of room inside and out to hold subtleties, randomness, and yes, contradiction.

Image source: Photo from the gahetNA National Archives, found via Miss Moss. This photo just oozes contradiction to me, don’t ask me why.