I contain multitudes

My address this morning is entitled ‘I contain multitudes’, after a line in Walt Whitman’s famous poem ‘Song of Myself’. The address itself reflects on contradiction, a word or a concept often considered in a negative way. Instead, a case will be made for seeing contradiction in a more positive light, and will argue that the embrace of contradiction adds a richness to our personal and social lives.
          Walt Whitman, born in 1819 in New York state, is America’s world poet a latter-day successor to Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Yeats. Along with Emily Dickinson, Whitman is considered one of the architects of a uniquely American poetic voice. His overarching themes the individual, the nation, the body, the soul, and everyday life and work mirror the primary values of America’s founders. Because of his friendship and association with Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, he, and indeed these three writers, are much loved in the hearts of Unitarian Universalists.
          Whitman’s great poem ‘Song of Myself’ is, in its way, an American epic. It is a sprawling combination of biography, sermon, and poetic, even Biblical, meditation, and is a poetry, largely written in free verse, of commonalities, truths, inclusivity, complexities, and contradictions. In ‘Song of Myself’ Whitman uses the figure of the self (or ‘I’) to speak not just for himself, but for the many, to explore a unique combination of American, and indeed human, experience in all its conflicting and contradictory dimensions. It includes the much celebrated three lines:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Contradiction is my favourite word in the English language. When I encounter a contradiction, my eyes light up. When I hear a contradiction, my ears move into a Maeve Binchy-like listening mode. I listen to a statement of a position, or outcome, opposite to one already made, and I look forward to some vigorous argument. But so often, there are, as we are fond of saying, two sides to the story, two sides to the strongly held position, to the possible outcome, to the subject or phenomenon under discussion. Indeed, each apparently contradictory account, idea, or outcome may be equally true or valid in different circumstances.
          The context is key. The circumstances, in all their complexity and practicality, must be best fully understood and considered. Then, a blunt, categoric, either-or declaration or solution – a black and white mindset – can evolve into a more nuanced, inclusionary, both-and approach to understanding and resolving contradictions.
          It is noteworthy that the oft-used Gaelic language expression, trí na chéile, suggests ‘trying to cope with confusion’. We say that things are trí na chéile, that they are muddled and mixed-up. And for some, especially those of a black and white outlook, contradiction and ambiguity are indeed confusing and represent a confused state of mind. Yet in its quite literal translation, trí na chéile means ‘through its other’, implying that understanding, and a way-forward, come from a through-otherness.
          Seamus Heaney has written about this idea of through-otherness in the context of identity and conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. He spoke of ‘the need to get to a place of through-otherness’ in which community divisions are healed by common actions and shared identities. There is need for the one (side) to see itself through the lens of the other; it may be a confusing and convoluted process, but it is necessary and rewarding. Arguably, much of the success of the Belfast Agreement of 1998 reflects this process. According to the journalist Paul Gillespie the agreement is ‘based on the mutual recognition of separate and divided communities and their commitment to equality… where separate identities must be equally recognised before they can become more fluid.’ Crucially, in the agreement, both the British and Irish governments concur that the citizens of Northern Ireland can be ‘British or Irish or both’.
          This idea of dual citizenship is echoed by Richard Kearney, the Irish philosopher and public intellectual. He has written about the era of the Celtic Tiger and Ireland’s then decisive transition from a regional to an internationalised economy, and from an insular to a global culture. Kearney sees this globalising process as retrieving, in a postmodern guise, an ancient understanding of voyaging that goes back to the peregrinations of scholarly Irish monks during the eighth to the twelfth centuries. These monks brought, indeed exported, their learning, religious values, writing and silver and gold craftmanship throughout Europe. Kearney contends that today’s Irish global managers and entrepreneurs ‘hail from a generation of Irish citizens who claim a dual belonging to Ireland and to the world… [who] are “hibernicising” the world and globalising Ireland’ (Kearney, 2008). He concludes: ‘It is not, of course, an either-or. [It’s both-and.] The Irish mind is both artistic and scientific… it is perhaps salutary to redress the balance and sing from two hymn sheets at once. As James Joyce rightly knew, the Irish are at their best when they have “two thinks at a time”.’
          Notions like ‘two thinks at a time’, through-otherness, through its other, seeing one through the lens of the other, are all ways of embracing contradiction and its attendant ambiguity. Such a mindset allows us to resolve much apparent contradiction. In like vein, the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, argues that a simplistic either-or approach permeates too many aspects of western thought, making different, and more progressive, ways of organising or understanding the world difficult to conceive. One of Derrida’s fundamental strands of thought is that every phenomenon has its opposite, its Other, inherently stamped into it. How do we explain day without reference to night?
          I came across an interesting contradiction recently in reading a review of a book entitled ‘Stories We Tell Ourselves: Making Meaning in a Meaningless Universe’. The author, Richard Holloway, once a leading liberal bishop in the Scottish Episcopal Church, identifies human suffering as ‘the greatest problem that confronts the religious consciousness’. He argues that someone of deep faith in a personal God cannot avoid the question: What kind of God would let children to die of hunger, be tortured, be recruited as boy soldiers, or be orphaned by a deadly virus? (Many of us remember the actor Stephen Fry’s similar argument, even outburst, along these lines in Gay Byrne’s programme The Meaning of Life in 2015.)
          Yet the Buddha argues that suffering is at the core of human existence and how we navigate that suffering is the path to a dignified way of life. To suffer or not to suffer? Is there an irreconcilable contradiction here? Maybe not. If a Benevolent Creator were to erase all suffering from this world and ensure an omnipresent happiness, what would happen to the wonderful story of humankind with its trials and tribulations, its struggles and achievements?
          Richard Holloway himself, the former bishop, resolves the contradiction by following Jesus and his teachings, while assuming God does not exist. ‘I am a Christian without God’, he says, and contends further in his book that ‘One of the things I am trying to suggest is that contradictory stories can honestly be told about the world’.
          Making meaning, searching for spiritual insight, finding a religious faith, are each a fraught and challenging endeavour. Accepting the likelihood, and challenge, of contradictory thinking and argument can help. Making meaningful connections between apparent opposites can be profoundly satisfying. To struggle with some ideas that have long appeared inherently conflicting and oppositional, and to then find that these ideas are in many regards deeply interwoven and interpenetrated is an occurrence of intense insight – a genuine Eureka moment. Seamus Heaney’s notion of through-otherness is revealed with startling clarity.
          So then, I can feel both Irish and European, and there is no contradiction? Of course there isn’t. I can hold progressive views on some topics and conservative views on others. Of course you can. I can attend a Catholic Mass on Saturday evening and come to Sunday Service at a Unitarian Church. Of course, there is no contradiction, only thoughtful inclusion.
          Such acceptation of contradiction is thus relevant in our daily lives, and how we live with our neighbours, and within a wider society. Consider replacing a black and white, either-or, certitude with a more nuanced both-and approach that includes some characteristic Unitarian doubt. Accepting contradiction brings, at the least, good manners to human and civil discourse. We do not have to shout down, or dumb down, or ‘cancel’ our apparent opponents. More optimistically, we may find shared spaces of respect and friendship, of inclusion and possibility, that seemed previously untenable. Consider that we all ‘contain multitudes’ in however a lowly way.
          If Walt Whitman contained multitudes, so also does another great American, and world, poet Bob Dylan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ Celebrating his 80th birthday in May of this year, Dylan is, like Whitman, a protean personality in tune with the evolving angst of his era, a man of many parts, beliefs, complexities, denials, and contradictions. Content to reinvent himself on many occasions, he told Newsweek in 1997 ‘I think one thing today and I think another thing tomorrow. I change during the course of a day.’ In truth, Bob Dylan has been the curator of his own multitudes.
          He acknowledges this in a poem-song in his most recent album released in 2020. Entitled ‘I contain multitudes’, in homage to Walt Whitman, it is a sprawling, meditative, reflection-on-life song that offers, among many others, the following verse:

Pink petal-pushers, red blue jeans
All the pretty maids, and all the old queens
All the old queens from all my past lives
I carry four pistols and two large knives
I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods
I contain multitudes

To conclude my address, and to celebrate the magnificent legacy of this man of contradictions, I quote the two closing lines from his iconic 1960’s anthem, with its lyrics of anxious questioning and quiet ambiguity.

‘The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind’

Aidan O’Driscoll                     July 2021
Dublin Unitarian Church