That paradox just isn’t subversive anymore

Artist Patrick Hughes fills his book Paradoxymoron with self-contradictory gems and enjoyably vicious circles – but are his paradoxes as radical as he thinks?

Angus Kennedy

Topics Books

Paradoxes have always been central to the work of British artist Patrick Hughes. He revels in contradictions in terms, plays with perspective and upsets expectations. He has also written about puns and vicious circles and has now updated and expanded his 1984 book More On Oxymoron , giving us the definitive Paradoxymoron. Here, he catalogues the various forms that make up the witty and foolish wisdom of those who look at things upside down, back-to-front and inside out – including oxymoron, paradox, self-contradiction, reflection, infinity, figure/ground reversal and tautology.

Hughes is a self-proclaimed warrior against common sense and finds his allies in the likes of Heraclitus, Oscar Wilde and Rene Magritte. He admires the irreverence of the paradox and the immediacy of the aphorism. Paradoxymoron is a democratic and internationalist weapon of resistance for him, ‘a way of thinking creatively, escaping the hidebound’. He sees himself as an outsider, challenging the dullness of the real. ‘My philosophy is paradox. I am of a logical cast of mind, and find common sense hopeless.’

Hughes wants us to refuse to accept things as they are presented to us. There is nothing wrong with that of course. However, when the marginal becomes mainstream and every business consultant urges outside-the-box thinking, it makes you wonder if being a warrior against common sense is quite as radical as Hughes thinks it is.

Hughes is committed to finding truth under and on the surface of things. ‘I embrace the contradictory and celebrate the paradoxical. A paradox to me is like a pearl.’ There is a truth in paradox then, a pearl of wisdom. Each chapter gives many examples of such pearls, both verbal and visual, interspersed with annotations by Hughes and supplemented with a good number of appendices on people ranging from Karl Marx and Mae West to Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn, a Polish immigrant, routinely mis-expressed himself poetically and profoundly: ‘Ah, to be immortal for a day!’

Some of these paradoxes are not funny ha-ha, but funny in that they reveal a different world from what appearances indicate. The anti-militarist slogan ‘a bayonet is a weapon with a worker at either end’ does indeed express what Hughes terms ‘uncommon sense’ although, to me at least, this one comes closer to being a cliché than a paradox: it can’t help but express the unchanged reality that today workers are still killing each other. The cutting edge of the original has been blunted – maybe that joke just isn’t funny anymore.

Hughes is aware of the danger of collections of funny things not being funny. Try reading a book of jokes if you doubt this. As Hughes warns his readers: ‘This book is made up of so many plums, so little pudding, it makes your inadequate brain hurt. It is exhaustive and exhausting.’

The best approach is not to digest Paradoxymoron’s plums all in one sitting. Rather dip in and savour each thought bit by bit. Not all plums are pearls after all. It’s a matter of taste. I could pick many examples but one ‘Irish bull’ made me laugh out loud:

‘Hey, Arthur, what was the score in this afternoon’s game?’
‘Who won?’

Here the result is conflated with the teams. This, Hughes argues, is an example of taking an idea and imposing it upon life, ‘as if life had to conform to the idea, and not the other way around’.

While this is true, there is a danger of missing the joke. What I find really funny in this example, unlike, say, the line ‘For Sale. Man’s suit. Perfect fit.’, is actually achieved through punning. It’s just not as funny if Arthur answers ‘Four-two’.

Funny or not, paradoxes and contradictions in terms can express something of universal and timeless interest. Even in the ancient world, thinkers were struggling with what paradox reveals: the separation of the world of appearances as we perceive it and the hidden but underlying truth of things.

The Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea employed a series of paradoxes in arguments designed to show that the world we perceive – full of many things, plurality, in movement, always changing – was in fact an illusion. Reality, ‘what-is’, as Zeno’s teacher Parmenides argued, is one. There is no change; no motion; no time. Only Being. Our world of opinion, of becoming, is one in which our senses are deceived by the appearances of things. Only seeming.

Aristotle preserved Zeno’s famous paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise in his Physics: ‘In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.’ As Achilles races after the Tortoise, the distance between them can always be divided into an infinite number of points. The Tortoise will always be infinitely ahead.

The story goes that Diogenes the Cynic, on hearing Zeno’s paradoxes on the impossibility of motion, stood up and walked out: he was a philosopher of action not logic splitting. (Although Diogenes was fond of paradox himself; he is reported to have walked around in daylight carrying a lamp, answering the curious that he was simply seeking an honest man.)

Parmenides, though, was at the beginning of a tradition that elevated the human capacity for abstract thought over the evidence of our senses. He did not believe that facts and data could lead us to the truth: we could only rely on thought to approach reality. The Pre-Socratic philosophers believed in and ordered a world of underlying principles. While the phenomenal world might appear chaotic, that was just our senses deceiving us. As Heraclitus said: ‘Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for men.’ Although the ‘true nature of a thing tends to hide itself’, the human mind could speculate about the unobservable and reach knowledge of underlying principles through reason.

Hughes, too, is deeply interested in the paradox of this duality, that what might appear to us as real can also be unreal. And it’s true, appearances can be deceptive. As Karl Marx put it ‘all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided’. Marx of course argued that the appearance of society was not natural but the historical form taken by a specific set of social relations.

Marx, as it happens, was a master of paradox. ‘Time is the place of human development’ is one of my favourites. Pride of place, though, maybe goes to: ‘It is not enough that thought should seek to realise itself; reality must also strive towards thought.’ I think what Marx meant by this is that we live in a society which, although man-made, is not under our conscious control. We are estranged from our own creation. If we want to change things, thinking differently is not enough, we must also live differently.

So while being made to think differently by an arresting paradox is valuable, it’s not enough in itself. We have to live differently, too. That, however, is not simply a matter of choice. We don’t think and live the way we do because we have straightforwardly mistaken ideas about the true nature of things. By itself, uncommon sense won’t shake us from our entrapment in a world of dull, commonsense appearances.

It is not radical to reject the conventional just because it is conventional. Rather it is the conventions of representation, of art, that allow us to make the natural unnatural. We have the ability to tell stories and paint pictures that use forms and conventions to create illusion. Painting, for example, as EH Gombrich argues in Art and Illusion, is never about trying to paint what you see. It is always an act of interpretation, an ‘effort after meaning’. The paradox for Gombrich is ‘that the world can never quite look like a picture, but a picture can look like the world’. A picture is an invention that – through technique and tradition – allows the world to be ‘contemplated as pure appearance and as a thing of beauty’.

It’s not fashionable to talk about beauty and truth in art but I think we must continue to make the effort. Hughes says that many ‘of the pictures in this book belong to an alternative tradition of illusion, formal invention, wit and speculation. To my partisan mind, official Western art is as dull as ditchwater in its relentless searching for either bourgeois realism or transcendent soul-searching.’

I’m partisan, too, in thinking that the ‘effort after meaning’, the relentless search for the real and transcendent, is far from dull. I’m not objecting to the witty and the popular, just recognising the ability of us all to appreciate the beauty of great and serious art when it captures the sensuousness of human life. And I think that the pursuit of beauty and truth needs to be ever more relentless in a world that is increasingly cynical about our ability to understand it.

It can seem as if everyone now doubts that the way things appear is the way that they are. Everyone suspects hidden truths behind closed doors and demands transparency. Seeing is no longer believing. Our default position too often is that we are being deceived by politicians, by the media, big business or secret cabals. Conspiracy theories are rife. And so, in such an atmosphere, Hughes may be preaching to the choir. While Paradoxymoron usefully reminds us of the possibility of being seriously silly and uncommonsensical, it is worth considering today if the more pressing requirement is to remember that the common can make sense of the world.

Angus Kennedy is a member of the organising committee of the Battle of Ideas festival.

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