The Beauty of Contradiction

Monday, 19 March 2012

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.


alexandra said...

I'm a bit suspicious of anyone who hasn't contradicted themselves at some point. I think it demonstrates a capacity to second-guess your own assumptions; to reevaluate, etc. In short, I think contradiction is a necessary part of growth/learning, and particularly important capacity for 'an academic.'

I absolutely love your posts - thank you for giving me something to read besides fashion/baby blogs (not that those blogs do not have their own virtues; i just mean to say that the variety your blog provides my 'feed' is very much appreciated).

alexandra said...

Also, Mr Whitman comes to mind here: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"

Leah said...

I can't imagine how you deal with situations like that. I think I probably don't deal with them, just stay home, don't make friends or 'go out' because people who behave like that make me furious. Why can't they see nuances in others? Why can't they accept differences and stop feeling intimidated by choices that they didn't make?

I've got a Gail Jones book waiting to be read, Sixty Lights. I've been looking forward to it for ages after seeing how much you like her work.

Solanah said...

I agree Alexandra! It's a little concerning when someone refuses to contradict themselves.

I am full of contractions, in nearly every aspect of life. To firmly plant my feet on one side of things would feel so closed mined and stunted. It's not to say one can't have firm viewpoints, but I find exploring each side of things is a lot more interesting!

You put this into words so much better than I can, so I'll just stop before I type something that comes out completely absurd :)


odessa said...

Hila, I was going to write to you about Jeanette Winterson's reading but what a coincidence that you posted this. Because she said that her first line in Written on the Body:

"Why is the measure of love loss?"

She said she doesn't believe it anymore. And jokingly, she even said, "damn, it was such a good line." But she also added that she believed it at that time and that's what matters.

So a big yes, indeed, to each of our contradictions.

Anna Emilia said...

How much I long for to sit on a beach and get washed once in a while with a wave. Drinking tea -in- the ocean sounds and looks very good too.

Still I enjoy the wet huge snowflakes looking like lace outdoors, the spring how it slowly happens in this part of the world.

A contradiction of a Monday morning.

Happy new week Hila, and thank you so much for visiting my small weather diary.

pRiyA said...

So well said yet again Hila. I'd love to be able to express something as complex as that in the very readable way that you just did. I especially agree with '... sometimes I feel like our complex humanity is flattened out into superficial generalisations of what and who we ‘should’ be'. Being a single woman, I couldn't agree with that more.

Amelia said...

I'm sorry, but what type of person goes around trying to prove that people who earned a PhD are stupid? I mean, there's a lot of work to get a PhD. I'm sorry you had to go through that :(

I think I'm going to buy Dreams of Speaking.

By the way, I don't know if you have done this before but could you recommend some Australian authors(poetry or prose). I realized I haven't really read Australian Literature.

Sarah Rooftops said...

This is lovely - I don't really have anything to add beyond that; I just agree.

Monica said...

people will always poke and attempt to derail anything that is out of their norm, whether it's a phd, or any degree really, or a high status job, or lifestyle.... so many people are envious and bitter and mostly, uncertain.

the fact is, there are those where such achievements are worn as badges - i know one phd person who somehow gets it into every other conversation and blog post. that is, you CAN'T not know she has one.

i remember when i was vegan, oh boy, i got it bad, those questions and attacks. and they were also looking for loopholes, hypocrisy, anything to undermine my choice. despite the fact that i have never suggested anyone else ought to be vegan! people just took the defensive position from the get go.
and as above, i knew plenty of vegans/vegetarians who pushed their beliefs.

but like all things, we generalise. as george clooney said in that flight film - i stereotype, it's quicker.

as for contradictions, well, i think we're all influenced by the scientific mind, of logical rhetoric.
i know it drives me nuts in a debate when someone contradicts themselves AND doesn't see it. i am a logical thinker.

but as for the bigger picture, well, i love contradictions in people. i know i have many. how flat we would be without them.

melania said...

So beautifully written. Reminded me of a time when we had an amazing lunch at a cafe attached to a meditation centre. I was so taken aback at the time by the woman who served us. She seemed so cranky and I wondered what we had done. I felt it was a huge contradiction to be like this at a place that was supposedly calm and peaceful. Later, in telling the story, a guy we had just met laughed and declared that he loved that kind of contradiction. Just seeing that we are what we are. And it doesn't always make sense. So true, and such a good point. There are always reasons and complexities. It's not important to always know why. I'm sure it makes life more interesting!

Petra said...

people always need to reassure their own position, usually at the expense of pretty much everything else. anything that may question their own values and opinions needs to go. it's sad. why not live and let live, embrace the differences and contradictions? but not a lot of people are secure and strong enough to tolerate different lifestyles, dreams and hopes...

Sage said...

i like that idea. you see, if people didn't contradict themselves, we would never get anywhere. and life would be extremely tedious.

Blaze said...

Lovely post. I often times try to squeeze myself, my artwork, or others into boxes, leaving me more confused than before... It's just not that simple.

Miss Bibliophile said...

I think some of the most interesting people are those who aren't afraid of contradictions. Lovely image and quote...I'm adding Dreams of Speaking to my To Read list.

Sam | ashore said...


This reminded me of the Dave Eggers' essay Mistakes We Knew We Were Making in the back of Heartbreaking Work .

"We don't label our days Serious Days or Humorous Days. We know that each day contains endless nuances - if written would contain dozens of disparate passages, funny ones, sad one, poignant ones, brutal ones, the terrifying and the cuddly."

life is like that. learning is like that. we are never just one thing.

Alexandra and Odessa,
such poignant lines and powerful connections from Whitman and Winterson! Thanks for sharing them.

deconstructingthegirl said...

Hila, another interesting topic and discussion point you bring up. Over the last few years I have come to realize how significant contradictions in my life are .... realized how much of a contradiction I can be in my train of thought and the pattern of my actions at times. Really I agree with you, I think that contradictions are part of life - part of growing and changing. My thoughts on life and how I want my life to conduct itself has dramatically changed over the last few years, and I think that is important. Like your quote states, we are all large enough to contain contradictions.

Jamie said...

I think that contradiction can be equally infuriating and beautiful, the latter as an expression of the oscillation that is necessary for all of our lives to work as they do. But that's just words. Wonderful, as ever, Hila x

Pinelopi said...

I totally agree with you about the complexity of the human nature...We even change opinion if we are under certain sentimental situation or if we are facing a problem from another angle, we're full of contradictions but we don't accept contradiction in others..and that's not right.

Sasha said...

That quote is really beautiful. A very philosophical and lovely post as well. Constant food for thought. If people never changed (or contradicted themselves) this world would be a very scary place to live.

Iren said...

I was nodding all the time, while I was reading your post. Bravo!
We are large, wide and endless like the cosmos, aren't we? And we are strong, colorful, vibrant and vivid, if we allow ourself our contradictions. The ones that you described.
Maybe, it's also a cultural thing - I was often in Russia when I was younger, and people there seemed much more living their life with all their contradictions, without feeling guilty. I always admired that.

(and what people see in you, is what they have inside themselves, so don't even start to answer seriously to people like you met yesterday...)

deux chiens et un garcon said...

Wanting to say thank you so much for your writing. It gives me hope and I love reading your thoughts. You have such breadth.

My whole life has been a contradiction , I think.

It amazes me how some people can be so rude. I have people saying to me, such and such has a PHD so they are a "real doctor" and look at me as if they are saying "what do you think of that". I am mean what are they trying to say? That I know nothing of my field in medical practice and I am a quack?

I am totally in awe of someone like yourself who has dedicated themselves over and beyond what can be fitted into a day and given so much into a project.

Loving what you do


twinkilingeyes said...

you hooked me up with the first 3 lines of that novel,i am buying the book today!
and yes we are full of contradictions that what makes us different.

Hotly Spiced said...

I've contradicted myself so many times I now don't let it bother me. I love that image of the family dining away seemingly oblivious to the waves and the tide and the people etc, as they are clearly so engrossed in their own world.

hungryandfrozen said...

I am consistently contradicting myself, but at least it's consistent! I love your take on it - that there's beauty in how we are "so large, that we can contain contradictions", that's beautiful.

Not sure what those fools who try to get the better of you about your PhD are hoping to achieve...that you say "Oh, you're right, I wasn't ready for a PhD after all, silly me" ? Anyway: fools.

Siubhan said...

I really like that top quote. I find, a lot of the time, that people are desperate to pigeon-hole, and are then surprised when someone doesn't fit into the mould (as you were saying on Twitter this morning actually!) There is definitely room in everyone for contradiction, and why not!

I find the reactions that you get to your PhD really bizarre - I'm always amazed by people who do PhDs personally, but I do wonder where the other reactions stem from.

erica-knits said...

Wow, first of all, I love that quote. I've always felt I contain many contradictions. As for the PhD thing, my partner gets that all the time (he actually quit his PhD years ago, but it still comes up). Setting out to prove "stupidity" in people with PhDs is so silly and must speak to their own insecurities. I've always believed that everyone has a 'smart', something that they are brilliant at. Whenever people get testy about my education, I like to focus them on what they're good at. Sometimes it helps them realize that it's okay not to be brilliant at everything, or have an advanced degree because they have their own smart.

I would hate to be held to the beliefs or ideas about the world that I had years ago. It's so important to me to grow and be flexible in my beliefs. I think I'll truly feel old when my ideas become entrenched (hopefully, never).

Chuck said...

I find it so strange that a PhD can get a negative reaction. The world is weird. x

Sophia said...

Well, I've been so disappointed with people lately (one of the many reasons is for what you have spoken on this post, referring both to your logical reaction and this other person's agony over his/her complexes)so, it's the least to say what "a ray of sunshine" felt for me what you wrote. Thanks for sharing! said...

I find people really intimidated by my PhD, as if there's nothing they could possibly have to say to me. It's as though they suddenly noticed that I have antennae growing out of my ears. Though my sister teases me for my lack of math skills (my degree is in art history).

I think contradictions are what make people so marvelously human, and allowing for them makes the world so much more interesting.

Hila said...

Alexandra: Thank you for that quote, it fits perfectly with what I was trying to express here. I agree, I find it difficult to relate to someone who has never contradicted themselves, because I view it as something that happens as we grow older and gain some perspective.

Leah: I'm not sure I deal with those types of situations in the best possible manner. I sometimes get defensive and angry. It's like being put in a position where you constantly have to defend yourself, and then you realise that you really have nothing to defend. It's odd.

Solanah: You haven't said anything absurd at all.

Odessa: Does that mean you managed to speak to her after all? If so, I'm dying of jealousy here, just so you know ;) That's perfect though, I love that she admitted that. I've had a similar feeling about certain things I wrote. As she says, it's still truthful, because I believed it at the time. That's what counts.

Anna Emilia: My pleasure :)

Priya: I wonder how 'readable' I really am, but thanks for the compliment!

Amelia: I think it was more a case of trying to discredit the PhD as something pretentious, rather than proving I'm stupid. Still, it's annoying, and I don't see the point really. As for Australian literature recommendations, perhaps you'd like to email me and I'll give you some.

Sarah : thanks :)

Monica: I definitely don't wear my PhD as a superiority badge. But I'm also proud of it, because it's the product of hard work. It's always strange for me when people place their insecurities upon my own life decisions.

melania: I feel for waitresses, because it's such a hard job and people can be so rude to them! But that is a funny story :)

Petra: I think that was part of the logic of the 'debate' I had, it wasn't really about me.

Sage: agreed :)

Blaze: exactly, because we're not neat little entities that fit perfectly into categories.

Miss Bibliophile: It's a great novel, I hope you enjoy it.

Sam: That's such a great quote, thank you!

deconstructingthegirl: I've realised that too. I've noticed that my contradictory reactions to certain things have led me to examine them from a different perspective.

Jamie: yes, amen to that! And thanks :)

Pinelopi: I think my own contradictions allow me to be kind to other people and empathise with them better. That can only be a good thing.

Hila said...

Sasha: exactly.

Iren: I think there is a certain guilt associated with contradiction, I know I've felt it. But it's silly really because it's not like we can avoid it in life.

Jill: seriously? I'm shocked someone said that to you, how rude. I usually get the other end of that statement - i.e. that a PhD is not a 'real' doctor. I'm not sure what these types of people who like to tell us what is and isn't a 'real' doctor are trying to achieve.

twinklingeyes: I hope you enjoy it.

Hotly Spiced: I shouldn't let it bother me, but I guess I'm still young :)

hungryandfrozen: ah yes, silly me, the PhD was a mistake ;)

Siubhan: I think those other reactions come from the strong anti-intellectural culture in Australia. There are a lot of silly stereotypes about anyone who has a PhD and academics here, some people expect me to represent these stereotypes.

erica-knits: I'm glad you know what I mean here, I'm sure I'm not the only one who gets this reaction to the whole PhD thing. It is all about insecurities, but I'm tired of absorbing other people insecurities - I've got enough of my own :)

Chuck: weird indeed!

Sophia: My pleasure.

melancholyswan: yes, I know exactly what you mean. I get the 'intimidating' reference all the time. It frustrates me, because I don't feel I should have to change who I am and what I've done to make someone else feel comfortable. But if they bothered to get to know me as a person, rather than simply as a PhD, they would find out I'm a pretty decent person (at least, I hope I am!).

megan said...

thanks for this post, hila. your thoughts on contradictions--and the lines at the top, about being large enough to contain them--remind me very much of one of my favorite walt whitman quotes, as well: "do i contradict myself? very well then, i contradict myself. i am large, i contain multitudes." multitudes, to me, are much more important than contradiction.

p.s. a big "psshh" to the people who try to belittle your ph.d. i'm sorry you have to deal with that.

Megan Champion said...

I have found several close friendships in people who have PhDs (which I always think is funny, because I am not a college graduate, nor did I graduate high school formally)

What I have learned about them all, is that they are a vast array of personalities and the thing I find most common in these incredibly different people, is their love of learning and knowing more.

They all want to understand more, even if that challenges their current beliefs, or makes them a contradiction to themselves.

Anyone who is foolish enough to ignorantly best someone with the purpose of 'proving them less than' is truly insecure and will likely behave badly toward people, regardless of their education (or lack thereof).

Hila said...

Megan: aww, thanks :) Sometimes I find being around people exhausting ... and then I feel guilty for that.

Megan: yes! Curiosity is what ultimately drives me. I admit that this also comes with ambition, but this does not make me 'pretentious' or 'snobby'. I just want to know more and think more, and I'm honestly tired of the assumptions my education comes with.

Denise | Chez Danisse said...

Very thought provoking. I think I'd feel more uneasy with a person who never changed his/her mind. We have experiences, find new information, gain wisdom. It seems our opinions must shift on occasion.

sarajo frieden said...

very nice (and thoughtful) post. keep up the thought provoking, containing multitudes work! cheers...

Hila said...

Denise: yes, and there's nothing wrong with shifting.

Sarajo: thanks.

Tangle Key said...

I do love what you've said so very well here-- that we are losing that wonderful and frustrating complexity of humanity when we stereotype. I teach 9th grade English, and this is one of those truths I want them to learn through literature through interactions with others but remains so difficult to teach. It is easy to fall into that habit of labeling and boxing ( I did it just now as I thought how students of this age seem to so easily see the world through those eyes that desire, create, continue labels --when perhaps it's all humans. We all struggle with it. ) It simplifies life for some I think but how much they are missing.

I love that moment when I feel another one of my perceptions (misconceptions) fall apart.

Congratulations on your Ph,D -- After watching my mother (at 58! Yay!) complete her doctoral I do realize just how much work and money you've put into earning that degree. I often feel a little jealous because I want to go back to school. Perhaps this is all a defense mechanism for them to prove to themselves that they are better or just as good. Not a good excuse, just me trying to work out reasoning so I can better understand too.

Excuse the ramblings of my disordered brain. I just discovered your blog and I'm certainly enjoying the thoughts you've shared (they help whet my own ideas.)

Hila said...

Tangle Key: I worry too, especially as we live in an age where everything is categorised and where people and things are reduced to 'brands', 'types', and 'markets'. And thank you, the PhD was a huge achievement for me, and definitely one of the hardest things I've ever done. Congratulations to your mother!