By Giles Fraser, Friday 24 August 2012 14.29 EDT
When I was younger I worked for a while on a hospital psychiatric ward as an orderly. I distinctly remember this lovely former headmistress who was gripped by the unusual fear that her body was hollow and full of urine. She would sleep sitting up because she believed that if she lay flat the urine would flow up into her throat and she would drown. Any inclination towards the horizontal and she would begin to cough and splutter.
One afternoon, much taken with youthful confidence, I decided to reason her out of her bizarre belief system. She was clearly a clever woman, knowledgable about the world, and could complete the Times crossword in under an hour. So I sat beside her bed and tried to explain why these fears couldn’t possibly be true. I got absolutely nowhere. Every question had a reasoned response. Her whole world-view seemed entirely consistent. There was no way of breaking it down. It was rigid and impenetrable. And therein lay her madness.
In a celebrated essay on Russian literature, Isaiah Berlin famously borrowed a quotation from the Greek poet Archilochus to distinguish two very different sorts of thinkers: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The fox, like Berlin himself, can commit to a plurality of values, even when they are incommensurable.
The hedgehog wants to subsume all reality under a single idea or principle. Speaking for myself, I fear hedgehogs, whatever the brand of reality they want to sign up to. Yet hedgehogs, and certainly clever ones, are well defended by their consistency. By contrast, foxes are in the awkward and vulnerable position of contradicting themselves. I love the church. I hate the church. I believe in God. I don’t believe in God. I do it all the time. And I am totally unrepentant. It seems to me that one of the marks of sanity is that one can live with contradiction.
Arguing with people about religion, as I often do, especially with fundamentalists of either the pro- or anti- camp, can feel a lot like arguing with the headmistress. It’s a battle of world-views each of which reckons its truth is to be revealed in its internal coherence. Much effort is thus placed on avoiding contradiction. And arguments all seem to be about reaching that “ah hah” moment when an opponent has discovered a contradiction in the other person’s position. Well, so what? Only the mad never contradict themselves.
This week I have been reading Dostoyevsky again. And one of the most exciting things about his writing is the way he manages to portray A and not A at the same time. The Brothers Karamazov contains a devastating critique of faith and an astonishing defence of it.
Perhaps it is the privilege of the novelist not to have to abide by the law of non-contradiction. For the commitment of the novelist is to recognise the world as a bigger place. And this requires the articulation of many different, divergent, contradictory voices. It is a consequence of having an entirely non-defensive attitude towards the world. Herein lies a very different approach to truth: that it begins with absolute truthfulness.
The reason most of us don’t take this path is that we are fearful. We huddle together for ideological warmth, preferring the safety of party-mindedness to exposure to the chill winds of contradiction. This is especially true of politicians and newspaper columnists. Yet thinking is always crippled by false certainty. Dostoyevsky shows us that stupid is the price we pay for wisdom.