On the Contrary   Leave a comment

My mind keeps on coming back to this passage in W.B. Yeat’s A Vision (1925), in which he talks about how his reading of William Blake helped him to understand the difference between a contrary and a negation:

“I had never read Hegel, but my mind had been full of Blake from boyhood up and I saw the world as a conflict – Specter and Emanation – and could distinguish between a contrary and a negation. ‘Contraries are positive,’ wrote Blake, ‘a negation is not a contrary,’ ‘How great the gulph between simplicity and inspidity,’ and again, ‘There is a place at the bottom of the graves where contraries are equally true.'” (p.72)

It returns to my mind not as a vague philosophical problem, but as a difficulty related to the puzzle of my own life. You see, I, too, understand Blake instinctively. He means that it’s uncreative, lazy thinking simply to negate. You like white? Well then, I like black. You love something? Well I hate it. You believe in God? Well, I’m an atheist. Negation is banal because it masquerades as something different, when all it has done is to rearrange the surface of something rather than its fundamental, underling mode of existence.

I remember an instance that took place while I was at a conference held at Georgetown University in 2007. The conference was on Australian literature – Georgetown and UT-Austin being the centers of study for Australian literature in the United States – and I was feeling a little overwhelmed and alienated by the presence of so many other Australians. I had been having lived in the States for about six years at that point, having left my past in Australia behind me like a bad dream. Over lunch, an older Australian woman started asking me about religion.

“So, Peter,” she said. “Are you religious?”

“No, I’m an atheist,” I replied.

“What about your family?”

“Very religious. My father is a Protestant minister.”

“Oh,” she said. “So your lack of faith is a reaction formation. You’re rebelling against your upbringing.”

I’ll never forget the look on her face when she said these words. It was an expression that combined triumph, self-righteousness, arrogance, and smugness into a single expression, as if her diagnosis had pinned me down as a simplistic fool who knows no better than to negate. With a little wisdom, a little experience, her face intimated, I would see the error of my ways and return, like her, to the religious fold.

“No, I’m not rebelling against my father,” I replied. “In fact, I have come not to negate my father’s words, but to fulfill them.”

Despite making what I thought was a pointed and clever reply – it amused me to echo the words of Christ in my affirmation of atheism – the woman was clearly unconvinced. She had placed me in her simplistic category, and there was no getting out of it. Thankfully, the conversation ended soon afterward, and we did not get to discuss whether my decision to leave Australia was, like my lack of religious belief, also a reaction formation. That would have been a rather more complicated matter.

Like Blake, I was convinced of the superiority of the contrary over the negation. For years, I ensured that everything in my life carried with it a texture of thoughtfulness and complexity. I was open-minded. I carefully exhaled the last vestiges of racism, sexism, and homophobia that one inevitably ingests when enveloped in a cloud of conservative thought, and instead engaged in a new and critical way of approaching the world that was full of consideration and responsibility.

It didn’t matter that my mindset was a contrary and not a negation. It didn’t matter that how I thought and acted was complex and philosophical, that it bore an ethical relation to the other. It got me nowhere, as the last few years have shown. My marriage, in particular, faltered, and this approach for dealing with problems was perhaps the worst I could have taken. I tried to talk through things. I forgave when I should have walked away. I was understanding when I should have been angry. When it was over, I remained friends.

Sometimes, I have come to realize, you need a little negation in your life. Sometimes simplicity is better than complexity. Hatred can be like a spice that burns your tongue, pleasant only if it is in small enough quantities not to overwhelm the taste of the food. It feels good no longer to be friends with my ex-wife, to admit that I hate her for the things she did to me.

In the end, though, it doesn’t matter all that much whether you choose the path of complex contrariness or simple negation, for they are both negative modes and equally destructive in their own ways. I would prefer to echo Nietzsche’s greatest desire: “And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.” Learn from your enemies, is the logic behind this wish, but don’t waste your whole life negating – at some point, forget your hatred and create the life that you want to live.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Advertisements

Posted February 29, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

Tagged with , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: