Every experience is a paradox in that it means to be absolute, and yet is relative; in that it somehow always goes beyond itself and yet never escapes itself.”
— T.S. Eliot
Paradox is the end of logic. It’s the impasse arising out of apparently valid premises that yield self-contradictory conclusions; they don’t seem to make any sense. And yet, they’ve been used throughout history as devices to express, or provoke, the true nature of reality. It’s fittingly ironic that despite all our intellectual & technological advances as a species — and our pride in them — the closest we can come to articulating what’s really going on here is through the careful use of nonsense.
Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form”
— The Heart Sutra
The dialectic use of paradox is perhaps most notable in Zen koans, where the often startlingly disjointed relationship between question and answer reflects the transcendence of logic in favor of intuition.
But beyond this form, other fascinating recognitions of paradox as a wisdom-symbol deserve attention. The following casts light on three sightings: the term Sandhyabasha, or “twilight language”, used in Sanskrit poetics and reimagined through the ink of Jack Kerouac; poet John Keats’ description of “negative capability”; and Carl Jung’s view of paradox as the only way of transcending the psyche’s polarity.
The spontaneous prose of beatific poet Jack Kerouac embodied his philosophy of “first word, best word”. When fellow poet & zen tea master Gary Snyder suggested it was time Kerouac write sutra, canonical scriptures of collected aphorisms, generally records of oral discourses from a Buddha, Kerouac took it seriously. Very rarely did he depart from his spontaneous form and spend time editing his work, but this is what the sutra calls for.
This uncharacteristically revised work, rather than creating a manageable sense of coherence in the way we may be accustomed to, produced even greater perplexities:
The cause of the world’s woe is birth, The cure of the world’s woe is a bent stick…
…Though it is everything, strictly speaking there is no golden eternity because everything is nothing: there are no things and no goings and comings: for all is emptiness, and emptiness is these forms, emptiness is this one formhood…
…Roaring dreams take place in a perfectly silent mind. Now that we know this, throw the raft away…
…Sociability is a big smile, and a big smile is nothing but teeth. Rest and be kind.”
— Kerouac, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity
In Anne Waldman’s introduction to the scripture, she likens the topsy-turvy nature of Kerouac’s sutra to a style of Sanskrit poetics, Sandhyabasha:
To the outsider these illogical syllogisms sound like gibberish, double-speak. They’re golden to a poet’s ear. Sanskrit poetics speaks of Sandhyabasha or twilight speech, which is an ‘upside-down’ language harboring contradictions and paradoxes.”
Sandhyabasha, translated either as “twilight speech”, or as “intentional” or “secret” language, employs paradox to provoke an otherwise indiscernible wisdom alluded to in Kerouac’s 27th verse:
Discard such definite imaginations of phenomena as your own self, thou human being, thou’rt a numberless mass of sun-motes: each mote a shrine. The same as to your shyness of other selves, selfness as divided into infinite numbers of beings, or selfness as identified as one self existing eternally. Be obliging and noble, be generous with your time and help and possessions, and be kind, because the emptiness of this little place of flesh you carry around and call your soul, your entity, is the same emptiness in every direction of space unmeasurable emptiness, the same, one, and holy emptiness everywhere: why be selfy and unfree, Man God, in your dream?
Next, poet John Keats (1795–1821), in a letter to his brothers, coined the term negative capability, describing the capacity of great minds to pursue their art even when it leads beyond the clarity of the intellect. The term places artistic intuitions, renderings of truth, as often beyond logical comprehension:
…at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
— John Keats, Letter to his Brothers George & Thomas, 1817
It’s precisely this “irritable reaching after fact and reason” that paradox provokes, that zen koans mock. The ability to abide in the ineffable, to feel the murmurs of that muffled experiential dimension lying just beyond comprehension is the quality Keats recognizes in a “man of achievement”.
This style of receptivity, aimed at dissolving any aversion towards mystery and cultivating a comfort with an ever-present unknown, is Keats’ idea of improvement:
The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing — to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.”
In this timeless sentiment championed by Socrates, we’re reminded not to treat paradox as an indication of error. The incoherence, or infinite trap, evoked by paradox may not reflect our inability to comprehend what’s going on, but logic’s.
Carl Jung (1875–1961), founder of analytical psychology, was a man possessed by a quest to probe the deeper layers of human experience. As he notes in his early years:
My whole being was seeking for something still unknown which might confer meaning upon the banality of life.”
— Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1962)
His work revolves around the psyche, which he describes as the “totality of all psychic processes, conscious and unconscious”. While discussing the psyche in his autobiography, Jung makes the claim that any statement regarding metaphysical reality must be paradoxical in order to be valid:
Now if the dynamic conception of the psyche is correct, all statements which seek to overstep the limits of the psyche’s polarity — statements about a metaphysical reality, for example — must be paradoxical if they are to lay claim to any sort of validity. The psyche cannot leap beyond itself. It cannot set up any absolute truths, for its own polarity determines the relativity of its statements…Through one-sidedness the psyche disintegrates and loses its capacity for cognition.”
— Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1962)
This polarity, for Jung between the conscious and the unconscious, cannot be reconciled; paradox is not a problem yet to be solved. Jung writes:
…the greatest and most important problems of life are all in a certain sense insoluble. They must be so because they express the necessary polarity inherent in every self-regulating system. They can never be solved, but only outgrown.”
— Carl Jung, The Secret of the Golden Flower (1931) Commentary in CW 13: Alchemical Studies.
“Outgrown”, in the sense that logic must be transcended in pursuit of these “greatest and most important problems of life”.
Paradox does not instruct, but provokes. Rather than rote knowledge, it seeks to incite something more personal and subjective. This is precisely how Emerson characterized the pursuit of spirituality, “Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.”
No matter what discursive path taken, logic inevitably rubs up against one harbored contradiction or another. This is the idea behind Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, mathematically substantiating E.F. Schumacher’s claim that “life is bigger than logic”.
Troublingly, what seems to make the most metaphysical sense is nonsense. And if we’re sentenced to eternally partial understandings of what’s really going on here; if our highest hopes can only amount to fleeting, private moments of lucidity; are we to stare life in her irretrievably distant face and shrug in apathy? Waldman doesn’t think so. In characterizing Kerouac’s sutra, she leaves us with a timeless aphorism on the suchness of our human, selfy situation:
We’re here to disappear, therefore let’s be as vivid & generous as we can.”
— Anne Waldman