Sam Shepard writes that the middle of the contradiction is the place to be. What exactly does that mean? The most interesting people I know are all walking contradictions – fearless and bold in some areas, shy and retiring in others; lighting up a room in one moment and crying in the corner in the next. You probably know a few yourself, anytime you’ve bemoaned of an acquaintance in an exasperated voice, “how can someone who is so X be such a Y?” There’s a scene in Full Metal Jacket when Private Joker is dressed down for writing “Born to Kill” on his helmet and wearing a peace symbol on his lapel, which he claims to be a statement about the duality of man – “the Jungian thing, sir.” That relentless duality is one of the most fascinating elements of humanity – that we are all, each one of us, the singular best and worst of what we are capable of being. If one will entertain a further pop culture metaphor, we are all Jedi and all Sith, even if we’re trying hard only to be one or the other. Where the Shepard quote applies, at least to my way of thinking, is in pinpointing that line between the two selves, and embracing it.
Contradiction and hypocrisy can be mistaken for one another. Yet where hypocrisy – the judgemental application of standards to others that one exempts from oneself – is a despicable trait, contradiction is so very human. We are individuals, but live in societies. We want independence, yet desire love. We hunger for fame, yet cherish privacy. We need responsibility, yet value liberty. We want to show strength, yet need to be vulnerable. So much of us is rife with contradictions, and defined by a struggle between polar extremes – joy and sadness, darkness and light. In the crafting of story, a temptation is to forge characters as archetypes – to give them a single defining characteristic and then play only that note as the narrative unfolds, particularly if that narrative is tilted heavily towards plot. Luke is the farmboy craving adventure, Han is the seen-it-all space jockey, Ben is the wise old mentor. What makes for more compelling characters – and a richer story – is finding those contradictions and walking them as Shepard suggests, as if along the edge of a razor blade, danger be damned. That edge is where the best of drama is found: the evolving relationships with others as defined by the relationship within oneself. The journey of deepest meaning is the one taken inside the soul, and the contradictions are the bends in the road. A character flawed and full of contradictions is easier to empathize with and care about – for he is the embodiment of the duality of both the one and the many. The representative. The everyman. He is you.
In this place, I have come to terms with one of my major and enduring contradictions and one that I suspect is common to many writers: the drive to share my words despite fear of their reception – the terror of being judged whether for good or for ill. In film school I remember learning about early Soviet cinema and the development of the theory of montage, the concept that thesis plus antithesis equals synthesis, or, more basically, an idea contrasted against its opposite brings forth a third, new idea. In film editing, the image of a man’s face followed by a cut to a shot of a bowl of soup creates the impression of hunger – a related idea perhaps, but still a new thesis standing apart from its component elements. Sam Shepard has it bang on when he says to look to the contradictions – that’s where we are, it’s the stuff of who we are. Each characteristic. For there are always two truths to each facet of a man, and the clarity of self is found somewhere in between them.