From Simplicity through Contradiction to Paradox

by Modaser Shah

The title is from a paper by the prodigious and acclaimed Indian analyst Salman Akhtar writing in a psychoanalytic journal. I imagine him to be a hidden Sufi or at least steeped in Sufi wisdom and literature. His three-step process in evolution of psychic reality includes: 1) Simplicity: experiencing disparate psychic states without awareness of their inherent contradictions, 2) Contradiction: acknowledging and mending the factors responsible for logical incompatibilities, and 3) Paradox: developing a capacity for feeling and accepting the coincidence of multiple feelings at different levels of abstraction.

Thus, Akhtar’s paradox is an acceptance, i.e., an effort to avoid forcing reality into a conceptual cage. And with that one comes back full circle to a kind of simplicity—a simplicity into which complexity and contradiction are now woven seamlessly.

The above, too, is the teaching of the Sufis, as is manifest in many of the anecdotes of Mullah Nasruddin that we have alluded to in previous articles, and that is also seen in the trope of some Sufi-inspired hakayaat (old tales) of Persian and Urdu literature in which a prototypic, nameless fakir (an ascetic sage) when faced with or asked about a rather ordinary situation alternately weeps and laughs, indicating his realization of contradictions hidden within the matter, contradictions that were not readily evident to us. The hope is that the reader will pass to the stage of what Akhtar calls paradox, where there is acceptance of coincidence of multiple feelings and multiple solutions.

Let us then alternately cry and laugh.

Start with simplicity. Add a pinch of Nasruddin and see contradictions crop up all over the place. Compare the child’s world with that of a grown up, or Aristotle’s logic with the dialectical logic of Hegel, or Newtonian physics with quantum physics, or modern with postmodern thought, or Sufism with Sharia, or behaviorist psychology with the psychology of complex mental states. Contradiction and confusion are hard to live with, but they may be entirely arbitrary. For example the separation between a child and a grown-up may be artificial.

What we learn from Nasruddin is that the essential is not always to be found in what is considered the norm or the convention, be it conventional language, conventional morality, conventional ideology, conventional economy, conventional political system, conventional liberalism, or conventional conservatism. And we can go on, but recalling the story of Mullah’s walk, it may be best to stop.

Life with the Mullah as a guide shows us that the essential contains the inessential and the trivial. The trivial hides within it the essential. Capitalism has socialism in it and vice versa; religion, irreligion; atheism, theism. As a spokesperson of the Sufis, Nasruddin in some of his anecdotes hints that a question may itself be the answer, a position similar to Zen that tells us that all questioning is a way of avoiding the real answer, which is really known already.

Getting back to Akhtar’s cycle of simplicity, contradiction, and paradox leading back to a complex simplicity, we see that it requires effort, an expenditure of energy. The first law of thermodynamics as stated by Michio Kaku is validated: you can’t get something for nothing. But the higher simplicity obtained after going through contradiction and paradox releases more energy than it consumes. This defies the second law of thermodynamics a la Michio Kaku: you can’t even break even. So, here you travel from the realm of physics to that of metaphysics, a new existence opens up.

And, for the sake of completion, the third law of thermodynamics, as stated by Kaku is: you can’t get out of the game. That, indeed, may be ever true.

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