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a chapter excerpt from


David Colosi


the poetics of contradiction


continued from previous section


Tolstoy criticizes Adam Müller’s theory of aesthetics and beauty, which he paraphrases as, “A world in which all contradictions are harmonized is the highest beauty.” [Ibid, 22] Although Tolstoy recognizes this as the “new art”, he didn’t know how seriously this would be taken in the years to come.  The fixity of his convictions makes him unaware of his own contradictions.  The modernists will actively take this unawareness as a flaw and fix their attention on contradictions.  Although a multitude of explanations could account for this attention to contradiction, it seems as though the Hegelian and Marxist dialectic, Saussurian semiology, Freudian psychoanalysis, and the theory of relativity played a crucial role in reshaping both theories of Modern poetics and the definition of art.

I will highlight the birth of the poetics of contradiction in two examples: Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s poetics and Umberto Eco’s analysis of James Joyce’s poetics.  Both Bakhtin and Eco use Dostoyevsky and Joyce as a means to develop their own theories of poetics and contradiction.  Bakhtin’s dialogic and Eco’s “open work” reach a similar destination by walking different paths, just as Dostoyevsky and Joyce walk different paths to reach a similar poetics.

Eco characterizes Ulysses as the “monologue of a schizophrenic” [Eco, AC, 34], while Bakhtin characterizes Dostoyevsky novels as polyphonic dialogues.  Wayne C. Booth notes the difference in his introduction to Bakhtin’s book.  He points out how Bakhtin sees that in Dostoyevsky,

“...the author will have “disappeared” from the work in a manner far different from what was meant by James Joyce when he described that poseur backstage, like God impassively viewing his handiwork and presenting his drama with pretended indifference, “silently paring his fingernails.” Techniques will be viewed as performing their highest service by preserving the autonomy of the novel’s characters...All are treated not as objects serving the author’s plans, but as subjects, ends in themselves, defying any temptation the author may have to fit them into his superior plans.” [Bakhtin, xxiii]

Bakhtin recognizes in Dostoyevsky that not only do the characters maintain autonomy but the author, too, speaks only as another voice not privileged above his characters.  Yet, while Joyce’s author may still maintain the seat of the Creator or God it does so from a detached and unconcerned (deist) position, “paring his fingernails.”  Eco also characterizes Ulysses as an “epic of the un-significant.”[Eco, AC, 58] He points out:

“The traditional novel must disregard, for example, the fact that the protagonist blew his nose, unless the act means something from the point of view of the necessity of the plot.  The act which does not “mean” is an insignificant and therefore a “stupid” one.  With Joyce, we have the full acceptance of all the stupid acts of daily life as narrative material.”[Ibid, 39]

Ulysses offers...the indiscriminate use of all the events, the renouncing of choice, the leveling of the insignificant fact next to the fact that counts.  No fact is more or less significant than another fact; they all become weightless for they all have the same importance.” [Ibid, 40]

The Author, creator, in Joyce too is not privileged above his characters because he and his point of view, like them and theirs, are insignificant.  This contrasts with Tolstoy, where, if the hero encounters a passerby on the street, the reader can be sure that the encounter is significant.  Tolstoy’s morality and ideology guide the significance of these encounters, and he maintains the authoritative position.  Tolstoy’s hands are busy operating marionette strings while Joyce’s are working the nail clipper.

The difference between Joyce and Dostoyevsky is that while Joyce explores various points of view in the form of a schizophrenic monologue, the points of view are not contradictions or oppositions, in the strictest sense.  They are instead the staging of internal and external perspectives occurring in a psychological simultaneity.  They just happen to contradict because when everything is represented the like and the unlike must coexist.  Dostoyevsky’s dialogues, on the other hand, are motivated by opposition.  The dialogues stage characters with opposing points of view against one another to hash out the debates — his contradictions are significant.

From an authoritative perspective, Dostoyevsky’s debates are motivated by representing social, religious, political, and psychological issues as content; while Joyce’s monologues are motivated by representing an internal disorder which represents a social, religious, political, psychological reality as content.  Dostoyevsky stages contradictions to get at the issues, while Joyce stages contradictions to get at contradictions.  The ironic difference is that Dostoyevsky’s position, as Author, cannot be determined among the voices — they speak of many things;7 while Joyce’s position, as Author, can be determined — he speaks of one thing, contradiction.  Yet, like Dostoyevsky’s authorial voice, Joyce’s also disappears because it is insignificant within the disorder of everything.  While Dostoyevsky’s and Joyce’s claim for contradiction allows for the disappearance of their authority, by contrast, Tolstoy’s claim for authority is cancelled out by the contradictions.

Eco’s interest in Joyce stems from an affinity they share in having both evolved from Catholic, Thomist, interests to a disordered vision of life.  Eco locates Joyce at the node where the Middle Ages and the avant-garde meet (Eco, in turn, occupies the node where the Middle Ages and the Post-Modern meet).  Chaosmos is Eco’s word for this node: the point at which the model of the universe shifts from the ordered cosmos of the Middle Ages to the chaos born from the theory of relativity.  It is Joyce’s and Eco’s letting go of Christianity that allows them to enter the Modern world.  It is Tolstoy’s firm grasp on it that keeps him outside the door.

Eco ends his study on Joyce with a classic Ecoian witticism:  “The only faith that the aesthetics and metaphysics of the Chaosmos leaves us is the faith in Contradiction.”[Ibid, 87] To have faith in contradiction would deny the essence of faith and become contradictory itself.  Tolstoy keeps his faith in the content and form of Christianity and fails to recognize, or carefully overlooks, the contradictions that appear in his work.  Instead of celebrating a faith in contradiction, Tolstoy demonstrates the contradictions of faith.


So far I have been using the terms contradiction and opposition loosely to represent Tolstoy’s, Dostoyevsky’s, Bakhtin’s, Joyce’s and Eco’s activities.  But the argument requires a clearer distinction.  Contradiction comes from one source, while opposition occurs between two or more.  A contradiction would require that one person (or like-minded group) say one thing in one moment and say the opposite in the next.  This also allows for two or more people to contradict each other, but contradiction only applies if they begin from the same source or point of view.  Opposition, on the other hand, requires the presentation by two or more sources.  Opposing positions can occur simultaneously, while a contradiction must occur consecutively.  Contradiction either represents a conscious denial of what one previously said or an unconscious cancellation of what one said.  An opposition is the setting of A against B in order to make a comparison.

Following my examples, what I have described in Tolstoy would be contradictions; in Joyce, also, contradictions because they occur successively from one source (even though a “schizophrenic” one).  Tolstoy’s case, though, would be an example of unconscious contradiction, while Joyce’s is conscious.  Yet Eco also characterizes Finnegans Wake as the “Big Bang of oppositions”.  This could be the case if Joyce consciously pairs off different sensibilities.  Eco’s work also uses contradiction because one thing is rejected by another not in order to demonstrate opposites fighting for power and truth but to demonstrate the cancellation of the authority of the other.  This is how the frame is built to allow for multiple interpretations.

What occurs in Dostoyevsky, at least according to Bakhtin’s analysis, are oppositions since the voices come from different subjectivities and are pitted against each other simultaneously.  Because Bakhtin frames the author and the hero as more voices in the mix, the possibility for contradiction is reduced since one sensibility doesn’t dominate.  Contradiction in Dostoyevsky would have to occur in one character, while opposition can occur among them all.  In Bakhtin’s writing we find a more difficult problem.  While his content is about oppositions, polyvocality, and dialogue, his form is monovocal.  He doesn’t seek to contradict himself but instead uses a straightforward, academic form which doesn’t draw on the oppositional style it speaks about.  This is a contradiction in Bakhtin.

In Joyce, we see a related phenomenon.  Joyce writes books “...whose form will be the principal and most explicit of its messages.” [Ibid, 36] His form becomes his content.  Eco’s analysis focuses on a contradiction that stems from this program.  Although Eco demonstrated how Joyce makes his way into the Modern world by abandoning Catholicism, he also recognizes that “Joyce abandons the faith but not the religious obsession.” [Ibid, 3] The obsession manifests itself in the sense of order he maintains.  Therefore the contradiction, or paradox, as Eco describes it, “ a structural one: in order to make disorder detectable, the author must give a shape to confusion and destruction.  The problem of Ulysses is to find the form of disorder.” [Ibid, 44] Finnegans Wake demonstrates the same paradox.

While Bakhtin’s form contradicts his content, Joyce’s content (which is his form) contradicts his content.  In both cases, though, these contradictions enhance the program because they occur within a poetics of contradiction.  Tolstoy’s contradictions, which occur outside of a poetics of contradiction and outside of Tolstoy’s awareness, damage his monovocal stance on authority.

The Hegelian and subsequent Marxist dialectic play a crucial role in modernist poetics and art.  The dialectic is the framework which attempts to order the chaotic modernist condition and which made a poetics of contradictions possible in the first place.  At the same time, Marxism choose a side in a battle of its own between the social role of art and art-for-art’s-sake.  This dualism continues into our time.  Yet another dualism also grows out of the Modern period and continues in our time, that between two ordering systems:  the medieval model of an ordered cosmos and the dialectical model that manages a disordered chaos.  The Marxist dialectic itself will be threatened by the third alternative.


In the Russian context, after Tolstoy and before Bakhtin, the Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky recognized the dialectic and this modern predicament.

“The third Gymnasium published an illegal magazine The Surge.  I felt piqued.  Others wrote, but could I?  Began to scribble.  Result was terribly revolutionary and just as terribly appalling.  Can’t recall a single line.  Wrote second poem.  Result was lyrical.  Did not regard such practice compatible with my “Socialist sense of dignity”, so stopped altogether.” [Mayakovsky, 80]

“Just right,” in this episode reminiscent of Goldilocks, must be the oeuvre of writing that Mayakovsky went on to write.  The dissatisfaction with the ‘too political’ on the one hand, and the ‘too lyrical’ on the other, characterizes the new dualism.

The Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky makes a mirror observation.

“At the moment, there are two alternatives.  To retreat, dig in, earn a living outside literature and write at home for oneself.  The other alternative is to have a go at describing life, to conscientiously seek out the new society and the correct world view.  There is no third alternative.  Yet that is precisely the one that must be chosen.  An artist should avoid beaten paths.  The third alternative is to work in newspapers and journals every day, to be unsparing of yourself and caring about the work, to change, to crossbreed with material, change some more, crossbreed with material, process it some more - and then there will be literature.” [Shklovsky, 51]

First Shklovsky recognizes the dialectic between, on the one hand, retreating or going into self-imposed exile outside of literature but still writing; and, on the other, actively working in and for society in pursuit of correction.  The first is like Mayakovsky’s ‘lyrical,’ or art-for-art’s sake, while the second is politically and socially engaged art.  But Shklovsky is, at least a little, clearer about the third alternative.  When he says there is no third alternative but that it should be chosen, he at once contradicts himself and breaks with the dialectical structure.  Between the thesis and the anti-thesis his synthesis turns up empty, and instead of coming up with a third alternative of substance, he sees the alternative as remaining in the emptiness, the gap, between art-for-art’s-sake and socially and politically engaged art.  This gap is everything but empty.

Once he decides on the third alternative, he clarifies how one can operate within this gap.  The artist first must remain in one’s time and space (writing for newspapers and journals, not for oneself, or exiled in academia or a foreign country); and, second, must always correct oneself by breaking with any fixed notions.  The choice is to never choose a beaten path, never to choose a fixed answer, for the sole reason that it is fixed.  The answers are not what is being reacted against, the fixity is.

In this sense we can hear Shklovsky recalling Dostoyevsky’s underground man (and, for us, Edward Said) who suggests that “ might even desire something opposed to one’s own advantage, and positively must do so.” [Dostoyevsky, 18-9] Shklovsky must positively do so in order to avoid beaten paths.  And one way he seems to do this is in relation to freedom.  “Everyone talks about freedom in art nowadays,” he says in The Third Factory

“Art fears successors.  It craves destruction.” […] “I want freedom.  But if I get it, I’ll go look for unfreedom at the hands of a woman or publisher.  But just as a boxer requires elbow room for his punch, so a writer requires the illusion of choice.  He regards that illusion as rather powerful material.” [Shklovsky, 49] 

Although one might think that freedom would best serve the artist’s advantage, the choice of unfreedom serves the artist’s work, too.  Art fears successors, it craves destruction; it seeks that which we don’t know and don’t want.  This awareness demonstrates that Shklovsky operates within a poetics of contradiction.  When the notion of freedom in art seems beyond dispute, he promotes unfreedom in art as a means to open up something new and previously unknown.  And he does this more through his form than through his content, the latter of which is often difficult to decipher because of his poetics of contradiction and because his content is his form.

In regards to freedom, he introduces a comparison to Tolstoy.  Shklovsky cites a letter that Tolstoy wrote to Leonid Andreev that is as didactic and like a sermon as What is Art? in which Tolstoy concludes, “The significance of each verbal work lies only in the fact that it is not openly didactic, like a sermon, but that it opens to people something new and previously unknown to them, something essentially contrary to what the general public considers beyond dispute.” [Ibid, 50] Shklovsky’s commentary includes this:

“Here the discussion seems to be about freedom.  But, in fact, what is being discussed here is not freedom, but the law of contradiction.  The Decadents contended with their material.  Tolstoy chose other material.  His whole ideology, his Tolstoyanism, his artistic structure were aimed at creating contradictions to the way the time thought….Without Tolstoyanism, Tolstoy could never have worked in this vein.”[Shklovsky, 51]

What is being discussed is not freedom, but the law of contradiction.  The law of contradiction is demonstrated by the relationship between Tolstoy’s ideology and his artistic structure and form.  Tolstoy’s Tolstoyanism is his thorough contradiction of himself – unlike the Decadents, Tolstoy chose other material to contend with and failed to contend with his own.  And his failure to contend with his own contradictions was made possible only by his ideological attempt to contradict the way his time thought.  In the case of What is Art? Tolstoy tried to present a contrary position to that which many in his time thought was beyond dispute, the value of modernization.  But his position of openness and freedom was instead a plea to stick to the old guard to not step into the openness or freedom that the “new” offered.  It is here that without Tolstoyanism, Tolstoy could not have worked in this vein.

Viewed this way, just as Tolstoy’s “freedom” does not promote freedom, Shklovsky’s choice of unfreedom does not equal captivity.  Shklovsky’s choice of unfreedom offers him the elbow room of a boxer: it creates a space for freedom where one did not know it existed.  In this way, one can, as the Underground Man suggests, desire something opposed to one’s own advantage.  And for this reason, his choice of the third alternative does not equal his voluntary captivity in or by Stalinist Russia.

Despite the risk to his life and art, Shklovsky chose the absent third alternative:  to remain in Russia.  He criticized exiles, like Jakobson, for going with the first alternative to Europe. [Ibid, 39]  To choose the second alternative would mean to join the party.  His third alternative was to not leave Russia (or his time) and to not join the party.  The emphasis on form, in this respect, shows not a commitment to art-for-art’s-sake, but instead a commitment to avoiding social and political content because, on the one hand, it could be easily co-opted by the party, and, on the other, it could easily lead to one’s death.  In light of this, a commitment to form in this time and place should not be mistaken for a craven apolitical position.  It was political, but ultimately for which side remained in dispute.

Considering the circumstances, Shklovsky made the right choice if his goal was to persevere in the predicament.  But, as could be expected, the Marxists would later question the politics of this formal stance.  Was Shklovsky’s long life (1893-1984) a reward for his opposition to the attacks on freedom in Russia during his time or a reward for his support of them?  Did his ambiguity and contradictory style contribute to or hinder the cause of attaining a higher level of freedom?


Umberto Eco echoes the observations of Mayakovsky and Shklovsky.

“While Joyce was writing his last work in silence and exile, another great figure of contemporary literature made a different choice.  Bertholt Brecht decided that one could no longer “speak about trees” but must engage in pedagogic and revolutionary activity.” [Eco, AC, 85]

Joyce chose “to retreat, dig in, and write at home”; Brecht chose to “conscientiously seek out the new society and the correct world view.”  Joyce’s lyricism and seemingly apolitical stance opposes Brecht’s commitment to his “social sense of dignity.”

“[Brecht] knew that the trees do, in fact, matter to us and that the day may come when humanity might once again contemplate them.  But our time demands a decision and Brecht chose his own road...”[Ibid, 86].  Joyce too chose his own road when he responded to those who spoke of the war and the political events that were erupting in Europe:  “‘Don’t talk to me about politics, I’m only interested in style.’” [Ibid]

Although Eco marks this position in this way:

“From Joyce onwards, there are two separate universes of discourse.  The first is a communication about the facts of man and his concrete relations.  Here it makes sense to speak about the “content” of a story.  The second carries out, at the level of its own technical structures, a type of absolutely formal discourse.” [Ibid]

we have heard these two levels of discourse announced earlier at the turn of the century in Russia.  What is different is the break between the formalism of the Russians and the later formalism of the Americans, pronounced most strongly by Clement Greenberg through the Abstract Expressionists.  The question to formalism the Marxists posed inaugurated a new oppositional dualism:  on the one hand, formalism (as in Russian Formalism) could be interpreted as a version of social and political commitment (as I think Shklovsky’s was and as Eco’s becomes in response to Joyce)8; and on the other, formalism (as in that promoted by Greenberg) could be interpreted as a defense for art-for-art’s-sake completely severed from the political and social sphere.  Yet here, contradictions, and specifically, the poetics of contradiction, come into play once again.  The Russians Formalists (operating with the poetics of contradiction – contending with their material) recognized their position as political, but the Americans considered their formal position, art-for-arts-sake, outside of the political.  Felix Gonzalez-Torres exploited this illusion when he was asked to name the most successful political artist.  Instead of naming Carl Andre, Barbara Kruger, Leon Golub, or Hans Haacke for what they said or did, he nominated Helen Frankenthaler for what she did not say or do.9

7.0  ANTI-: A Failure of the Imagination

Despite the announcement of the Postmodern condition decades ago, we have not yet come out of this predicament between alternatives.  Since Tolstoy, Shklovsky, and Joyce, even though theorists like Jakobson and Eco (after Peirce and Saussure) have invented Semiotics to scientifically understand, elaborate, explore, and celebrate the predicament, this scientific understanding does not help us out of it.  The predicament that Brecht and Joyce faced yesterday confronts artists today.   Before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 by Muslim extremists, young Americans could use the excuse “our generation has no Vietnam,” as a justification for political disengagement.  Today this excuse no longer applies.

Artists today are faced with the same alternatives.  For one to think that we have lived beyond this gap — that we were born after it — because forty years of Postmodern theory has out-thought it would require a complete exile from one’s time and place.  It would also suggest that Everyman is accessible and that the educational playing field was level.  On the one hand, to feel that we can talk only about trees while wars in Iraq continue and while Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida continue to plan attacks around the world; or, on the other, to think that our subversive political efforts, once they’ve gained power, will not become worse than those we ousted, are both fallacies.  Both positions are grounded in a nostalgia we got lulled into while watching MTV in the ‘80s.  To escape into either of these dreams would perpetuate the pursuit of entertainment, to seek only what we know and want, leaving what we don’t know and don’t want behind as someone else’s responsibility.  But when the military targets are infidels, apostates, and heretics (we are all atheists in the eyes of one religion or another), then innocent victims can no longer be said to exist.  Politics in light of this, especially in America, must cease to be considered someone else’s job, and religion, too, must be criticized more openly.  Art again is in a Goldimarx predicament.

After winning the 1997 Booker Prize for her novel The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy chose the alternative Brecht chose:  to — at least temporarily — put aside her talk of trees in order to address the political climate after 9/11.  “For reasons I don’t fully understand,” she said in Come September, “fiction dances out of me.  Nonfiction is wrenched out by the aching, broken world I wake up in every morning.” [Roy, 1] As the world breaks more severely and the aching becomes stronger, the dancing tends to fade.

Yet Roy’s choice also resembles Shklovsky’s third alternative, and in particular his choice of unfreedom over freedom.  At the same time, it foresees a space beyond the simple dialectical oppositions and into the more complicated issues of being a global citizen.

“Recently, those who have criticized the actions of the US government (myself included) have been called, “anti-American.”[…] “What does the term “anti- American” mean?  Does it mean you’re anti-jazz?  Or that you’re opposed to free speech?  That you don’t delight in Toni Morrison or John Updike?  That you have a quarrel with giant Sequoias?  Does it mean you don’t admire the hundreds of thousands of American citizens who marched against nuclear weapons, or the thousands of war resisters who forced their government to withdraw from Vietnam?  Does it mean you hate all Americans?”[...] “To call someone “anti-American,” indeed, to be anti-American, (or for that matter anti-Indian, or anti-Timbuktuan) is not just racist, it’s a failure of the imagination.  An inability to see the world in terms other than those that the establishment has set out for you:  If you’re not a Bushie you’re a Taliban.  If you don’t love us, you hate us.  If you’re not Good you’re Evil.  If you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists.” [Ibid, 2]

To suggest that one is either with “US” or against “US” demonstrates the failure to see that the grounds of identity and place are not as clearly founded as the ordered world of our past had once framed them to be.  The dialectics of the past have been surpassed by the model of the rhizome and the matrix which places one in any given time at a node of multiple crossing axes (race, gender, class, nation, religion, age, size, shape, height...).  To choose between alternative A and alternative B, or to satisfy oneself fully on “just right” between them, is no longer possible.  To expect others to do so, as Roy poetically notes, is a failure of the imagination.

Just as Shklovsky claimed a position for unfreedom in the spirit of creating a new space for freedom, so, too, does Roy create a new space for being Anti-.  Jacques Derrida, through Martin Heidegger, expressed a similar sentiment with regards to humanism.

“‘...the sole implication is that the highest determinations of the essence of man in humanism still do not realize the proper dignity of man...’  To that extent the thinking in Being and Time is against humanism.  But this opposition does not mean that such thinking aligns itself against the humane and advocates the inhuman, that it promotes the inhumane and deprecates the dignity of man.  Humanism is opposed because it does not set the humanitas of man high enough.”[Derrida, 130]

To be anti-humanism as a human; to be anti-American as an American; to be anti-freedom as a free citizen is not to claim a position against these things.  Even though it seemingly expresses a desire for something opposed to one’s own advantage, we positively must do this.  In this way we will actively ‘avoid beaten paths’ and ultimately set the bar of our own possibilities higher.  To take an apparent anti-position, while it can be used to close down discussions, to fix definitions, and to ostracize ones enemies, can, on the other hand, be a gesture of showing the deepest respect for that which one opposes in order to make it better.


Morality based on religious belief was for Tolstoy the armor and intellectual weaponry he used to barricade the border that separated the pre-modern world from the modern world.  There is no mistaking the source of his content and form when he said that unchristian or “bad art” should be banished, rejected, despised, and destroyed because – in agreement with all Church Christian and Muhammadan teachers of mankind – it is one of the cruelest evils oppressing our mankind.  Compared to the history of the crusades, the Inquisition, the witch hunts, the religious wars taking place throughout our world today and the unfortunate murder of those persons on September 11th, art, and even “bad” art, is no where near being one of the cruelest evils oppressing mankind.  On the contrary, religion, through its demonstration of violence and ignorance, has proven century after century and country after country to be a far better candidate.

In the end, the comparison is ludicrous:  Tolstoy as a novelist and an intellectual is far easier to push passed than a Muslim extremist with a bomb attached to his chest bent on earning his seventy-two virgins (which may in fact turn out to be only raisons).[Harris, 263]  Religious wars waged in the art world are by far softer than those waged on public transportation.  Tolstoy’s primary weapons were words and ideas.  He didn’t arm himself with airplanes, dirty bombs, or biological and nuclear weapons.  The same cannot be said for theocracies in operation today who threaten the lives of other word-wielders like Salman Rushdie, or force Ibn Warraq to write under a pseudonym, or democratic governments that protect those same theocratic interests by locking Taslima Nasrin in her home, all because they dared to write about the contradictions of religions.  Soon these theocracies will have, if they don’t already have, full nuclear capabilities, and tomorrow’s Inquisition will be fully armed to exterminate apostates, infidels, and heretics.[Harris, 107]  The US government already possesses these weapons, and who is to say that the next administration driven by the values of the Christian right will not use them to stop Muslim insurgents: God?  Luckily, the rational minds of some members of Congress and of free citizens, and of the members of the free press can at least openly object.

Our postmodern secular culture welcomes diversity in race, gender, and religion, and we have learned a great deal about a variety of possible lifestyles.  In fact, the success of the memoir in today’s publishing market stems from this desire and openness to read about lifestyles unlike our own.  With this phenomenon sweeping the secular world, it is understandable that it would spill into the religious world.  As a result, some religions have been forced to put forth statements expressing their position on religious liberty (had their position not been in question, there would have been no need for such statements).  The Catholic Church, for example, represented in 1965 by Pope Paul VI, observed that “men of different cultures and religions are being brought together in closer relationships,” and therefore issued the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.  It stated: “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom.”  Here, too, the discussion seems to be about freedom, but, in fact, what is being discussed is the law of contradiction.  In this declaration claiming the freedom to pursue religious truth, truth comes predefined and freedom is bound to duty.

Despite the positive intentions of statements like these and the willingness to “search into the sacred tradition” and “bring forth new things that are in harmony with the old,”[PPVI: sec.1], for religious people the tolerance or acceptance of religious freedom remains in contradiction to both their faith and their scriptures.  The first few commandments10 that the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all respect deny the possibility of respecting religious freedom, and they do so as the Word of God.

“If your brother, the son of your father or of your mother, or your son or daughter, or the spouse whom you embrace, or your most intimate friends, tries to secretly seduce you, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ unknown to you or your ancestors before you, gods of the peoples surrounding you, whether near you or far away, anywhere throughout the world, you must not consent, you must not listen to him; you must show him no pity, you must not spare him or conceal his guilt.  No, you must kill him, your hand must strike the first blow in putting him to death and the hands of the rest of the people following.  You must stone him to death, since he has tried to divert you from Yahweh your God.  If you hear that in one of the towns which Yahweh your God has given you for a home, there are men, scoundrels from your own stock, who have led their fellow-citizens astray, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ hitherto unknown to you, it is your duty to look into the matter, examine it, and inquire most carefully.  If it is proved and confirmed that such a hateful thing has taken place among you, you must put the inhabitants of that town to the sword; you must lay it under the curse of destruction – the town and everything in it.  You must pile up all its loot in the public square and burn the town and all its loot, offering it all to Yahweh your God.  It is to be a ruin for all time and never rebuilt. (Deuteronomy 13:7-16)”[Harris, 18; 82]

Need we wonder why Jews and Muslims can’t make peace in the Gaza Strip; why Catholics and Protestants have been fighting in Ireland for decades; why Muslims fly planes into the buildings of a nation represented by a born-again Christian; why young men brought up in the religion of their parents strap explosives to their chests and blow up civilians while their parents celebrate their accomplishment?  The worship of a crucifix or a piece bread as the flesh of God, or the book of Muhammad as the word of God, and the denial that Jesus is the son of God are divine offenses punishable by death – so sayeth the Lord.

But the Catholic Church and the Dignitatis Humanae both argue that Jesus – like Tolstoy who wouldn’t kill anyone for worshiping false art (though he would destroy the art) – “refused to be a political messiah” and would therefore not “break the bruised reed nor extinguish the smoking flax”[PPVI, sec.11], and nor would he encourage his followers to kill those who believed in a false god.  While the Church authorities admit that he did “denounce the unbelief of some who listened to him, but He left vengeance to God in expectation of the day of judgment,”[ibid], we can also see that he left some space for ambiguity: John 15:6, “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.”  The metaphor is open to interpretation.[Harris, 83]  Richard Dawkins also points with evidence by John Hartung that the Christian motto “love thy neighbor” was originally meant to apply only to Jews (of which Jesus was one) and didn’t apply to anyone in the out-group.[Dawkins, 287-97]  While Jesus may have been more humane than his father, the Catholic Church does not denounce Deuteronomy as satanic verses, as Islamic interpreters have done with the more contradictory passages in the Koran.  The Catholic Church instead classifies them as Jewish verses to which Jesus has come to offer moral alternatives.  The scriptures are clearly not written in stone.

It should come as no surprise that moderate Catholics pick and choose the parts they like from the Bible and denounce the parts they reject – as Jewish – because this is exactly what Jesus and the New Testament writers did: he and they were literary and theological critics.  He and Church leaders are acting in this capacity when they retain the stories of Adam and Eve and therefore the origin of original sin, Moses’ delivery of the Ten Commandments, as well as the prophecy of the coming of the messiah.  All of these Old Testament stories contribute in a fundamental way to Christianity.  Jesus was also acting as a literary and theological critic when he rewrote “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as “turn the other cheek,” and when he incited those without sin to cast the first stone at the adulterous woman.  And he further performed this critical role when, acting to satiate his father’s bloodlust for killing heretics, infidels, and apostates, as witnessed in Deuteronomy, he turned himself into a sacrificial lamb.  Drawing these conclusions about a compassionate representation of the God of the New Testament vs. the wrath of the God of the Old Testament, and calling Jesus a literary and theological critic contributes nothing to any truth claim that God exists or that Jesus is God.  It only contributes to the evidence that the scriptures are literary texts cobbled together at different times by different people because of the fact that they are open to interpretation.  The word of God has been polyvocal for centuries, and the evidence of the book demonstrates this. 

The Old Testament left room for a sequel in the prophecy of a messiah, and Christians exploited this.  This too is more a testament to literary theory than it is to theological truth.  Interpretation is a double-edged sword, and all religious people have demonstrated that they are adept at wielding it when it serves their advantage.  It is for this reason alone that God can always be found fighting on both sides of the same war.  Just because a few moderate Christians today are willing to overlook the darker commands coming from the word of God in favor of the pleasantries of the morally “good” metaphors, this does not mean that other religious interpreters of the same Word do not and will not draw different conclusions.  Adding a truth edict to be taken on faith alone without evidence, punishable by eternal damnation if not accepted, makes the whole idea of free inquiry into truth suspect.  Clearly the spirit of open semiosis is not shining down on us.

But there are other reasons besides the word of God – as if that weren’t enough – that the concept of the freedom of religion is a contradiction to religious faith.  And these too we can illustrate by an example of literary criticism.  While the Dignitatis Humanae, following the example of Jesus (and Tolstoy), applies its own literary and theological criticism by “searching the sacred…treasury out of which the Church continually brings forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old,”[PPVI, sec.1], an application of the poetics of contradiction can demonstrate how the claim for authority can be cancelled out by the contradictions of faith.

While Jews are not in the habit of converting people to their religion because God did the choosing, Christians, by example of the assigned role of the apostles, are famous for their evangelizing program, and the Muslim doctrine is clearly to either convert, subjugate, or kill unbelievers, and to kill, especially, apostates: according to the hadith “Whoever changes his religion, kill him.”[Harris, 115-6].  All of these religions are founded on the idea that they have the truth and that other religions do not.  Truth is one-dimensional and monovocal.  Three truths that contradict each other cannot coexist in peace.  Not only do our secular ideals of logic and reason reject this, but so too do the divinity and His books.

In the face of this, one way that religions could respect and honor religious liberty would be if all religious people were to respect the position that “cockle had been sown amid the wheat” and that “both should be allowed to grow until harvest time.”[PPVI, sec.11]  But many religious people are not willing to wait.  Muslims are required to convert unbelievers or kill apostates.  And Catholic believers are “bound”[Ibid, 1,2,3,7,9,11,14] by “obligation”[Ibid, 1,2,14], “duty”[Ibid, 1,3,7,8,9,13,14,15], “responsibility”[Ibid, 2,7,8,15], and “divine mandate”[Ibid, 3,9,12,14] not to: they are obliged to work with “all urgency and concern that the word of God be spread abroad”[Ibid, 14] and preach “the gospel to every creature,”[Ibid, 13] and they are within their rights to do this with “all confidence”, “apostolic courage” and “even the shedding of their blood.”[Ibid, 14]  Even though the Dignitatis Humanae tells them, “This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power,”[Ibid, 2] Pope Paul VI makes no such claims for the immunity of coercion from a non-human or divine power.  How then is one to respond when the voice of divine power comes through the mouthpiece of the infallible Church authority when he warns: “not a few can be found who seem inclined to use the name of freedom [the rights claimed in this document] as the pretext for refusing to submit to authority and for making light of the duty of obedience”?[Ibid, 8]  In the shadow of these obligations, it is in fact by “force of blows” that “His rule asserts its claims”[Ibid, 11] and imposes this “divine command” to “teach all nations” that Christians cannot sit and wait for God while His field turns to rot.

The road to the finish is lined with obstacles because Christians are obliged to create “an environment in which men can without hindrance be invited to the Christian faith.”[Ibid, 10].  But the persistent scaffolding of this construction project is the sole source of the hindrance on the path to truth.  For both Christianity and Islam, because God is both omnipresent and omnipotent, and therefore meddles in their lives, believers made in the image of God are obliged to meddle in the lives of others.  If they don’t, the God that is watching might redirect his punishment on them.

To remember Shklovsky: “Here the discussion seems to be about freedom.”

But the main hindrance and contradiction in the Dignitatis Humanae which prevents the document from being more than lip service to the idea of “religious liberty with immunity from coercion to all people in seeking, embracing, and adhering to the truth” is the introductory pronouncement that they possess the truth:

“The council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men.”[Ibid, 1] 

If the document had not begun this way, then ideas like the following wouldn’t sound half-bad – science and reason could have had a fighting chance:

“all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it”;


“the truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power”[ibid];


“This Vatican Council urges everyone, especially those charged with the task of educating others, to do their utmost to form men who […] will be lovers of true freedom – men in other words who will come to decisions on their own judgment and in the light of truth, govern their activities with a sense of responsibility, and strive for what is true and right, willing always to join with others in cooperative effort,”[Ibid, 8]

By defining Catholicism as the one true religion, each subsequent appearance of the word “truth” and all of its variations carries with it a very specific and subjective meaning.  Add to that the inclusion of several “however”s along the road to freedom and qualify the above ideas with clauses demanding respect and obedience to the moral order and lawful authority of the Church and the freedom to pursue truth is hijacked from take-off.  The motivation for the document seems to be instead to protect the rights of the religious such that they can continue to believe, adhere to, and spread their faith-based hopes (nothing to do with truths).  Therefore when statements are added such as, “the right of this immunity [from coercion] continues to exist even to those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth”[Ibid, 2] Catholics primarily protect themselves.  Relying on faith and dismissing the literary or scientific evidence contrary to the truth they have found amounts to not living up to their obligation.  Their God should indeed be offended by this failure of duty.

To start out by stating the truth, and to suggest that all roads lead only to it based on the “evidence” of faith, offers no foundation on which to freely seek truth.  To fill “God” in the blank of every question that has no answer is a foundation built on a wish.  If one has to prepare oneself to be open to receive Jesus into his/her heart, and be willing to accept the truth of Catholicism, does this not suggest something suspicious about the nature of that truth and the quality of the evidence behind it?  If we are to believe that “the truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power” then no preparations need be required and no scaffolding need guide it.  The free pursuit of it should do the trick.  The only truth the Dignitatis Humanae encourages Catholics to find is Catholic truth.  And this is clearly different from Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or Buddhist truth, all of which equally claim to be divine and have equally little evidence.  Encouragement to combat faith with the pursuit of truth would better honor the dignity of the human person. 

Ultimately, there is no reason to entertain the idea that any religion possesses the truth, because, to quote Christopher Hitchens, the burden of proof lies entirely with them.  Medieval beliefs in virgin births, creation myths, miracles of resurrections and transubstantiations, or the promise of seventy-two virgins for blowing oneself up no longer, and rarely have, contributed to making the world a more peaceful place.  “The fact that faith has motivated many people to do good things does not suggest that faith is itself a necessary (or even a good) motivation for goodness.”[Harris,78]  It should not be forgotten – in fact it should be underscored – that documents like the Dignitatis Humanae and the US Constitution make it possible for me to make these criticisms.  Salman Rushdie, Ibn Warraq, and Taslima Nasrin are not shown the same dignity. Celebrating diversity and understanding (as opposed to tolerance) in racial, religious, and cultural relations is necessary for education, experience, and learning.  But celebrating intolerance for the criticism or skepticism of religion and defining the truth on the grounds of faith alone breeds a philosophy of ignorance.  The “philosophy of ignorance” aptly spells out the contradiction. 

While taking a position which appears on the surface to be anti-religious and anti-‘the freedom of religion’ will seem to aim to give displeasure, to be opposed to one’s own advantage, and to be a choice for unfreedom, this position is precisely the one that must be chosen.  It is the one alternative that the evidence suggests will help us out of the wars we are currently engaged in.  In this essay, I have covered a lot of ground since Tolstoy, but how far have we come?  In the end, I hope that we can disagree with the idea shared by Tolstoy, “Plato, and all Church Christian and Muhammadan teachers of mankind:  ‘Better that there be no art than that the depraved art, or the simulation of it, which exists now should continue.’”  Instead, my suggestion is that free criticism and debate of and the openness to listen to and pursue that which we don’t know and don’t want today will ultimately produce the silly ideas that will merely entertain us tomorrow.



7This is Bakhtin’s assessment, but I would argue it is only true in the best-case scenario.  The possibility of authorial abstinence is still debatable, and it is even more so in books like The Brothers Karamazov where one could interpret the ending as filling the function of a dominant authorial role.  A similar case could be presented for Crime and Punishment.

8 See Form as Social Commitment in, Umberto Eco.  The Open Work, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

9 See Felix Gonzalez-Torres in “Etre un espion/Being a Spy,” interview with Robert Storr, Art Press 198, (January 1995), 26.

10 Religions number them differently, but they are basically: Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; Thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them.

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