Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The 'Contrarieties' of Israel: An Essay on the Cognitive Importance and the Creative Promise of Both/and

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The 'Contrarieties' of Israel: An Essay on the Cognitive Importance and the Creative Promise of Both/and

Article excerpt

Blessed art Thou, Lord God, King of the Universe, who hast varied the aspects of Thy creatures.



'There is a place', wrote William Blake, 'where contrarieties are equally true' (Milton, Plate 30/1). This place is at once a mythical place, a paradisiacal promised land of the future, which Blake (borrowing from Bunyan's The pilgrim's progress, which borrowed from Isaiah, called 'Beulah' and located within sight of the Holy City of Jerusalem (Milton, Plate 30/2); and at the same time, a place which is everywhere, everything and always: for being 'clothed with contraries' is something by which, Blake is assured, 'every substance' is characterized (Jerusalem, Plate 10/9).

A place, both mythical and ubiquitous, where contrarieties are equally true, I find a provocative notion. It is also a most pertinent one with which to approach the topic of the project and process of the human symbolic division of the world: how such division is a labour and an achievement, and also a burden; how division gives onto definition and order which are also an impoverishment; how division is ever uncertain and contingent because arbitrary, partial and contested; and hence how the achievement of division entails the wish for, and the promise of, conjunction.

I have begun with Blake's appreciation of contrarieties, and I shall add a number of other mystic-sounding, oxymoronic pronouncements from literary-cum-philosophical figures (similarly concerning 'contrarieties') below. This intertextual trawl is preceded, however, by an account of a line of thought: an anthropological orthodoxy since the time of Durkheim, whose common premiss is that a symbolic division of the world must eschew contradiction. I dissent from this Durkheimian proposition, and I find support for my view (which is also that of Blake et al.) from ethnographic accounts of contrarieties in the lives of individual contemporaries and informants: to wit. immigrants in the current-day State of Israel. Between Blake and them, I argue, between his construction of a distinctive personal mythology (symbolizing a fervid revolt against the authority of the political structures of his time), and their accounting for a singular move from an erstwhile home to the Israeli desert (representing a personal turning-away from the conventions of bourgeois society) - in short, between Blake's visionary ecstasy and their visionary migrancy - can be found a significant kinship. Moreover, this is a kinship which illuminates the complexity of the cognitive accomplishment by which human beings create division in a socio-cultural environment, and the complexity of their relationship to this accomplishment. Division is the means by which human beings become (human) and yet is also what they seek to overcome. It is this heterodox ('reflexive') view which the article intends theoretically to pursue.

To posit my thesis at the outset: if one understands an 'artistic truth' as 'that whose contradictory is also true' (Wilde 1913: 263), then, following Nietzsche, the greatest artistry is to be found in the individual cognizing and constructing of human societies and cultures. Human societies and cultures (as cognized and created by their individual members) are the sites of artistic truth par excellence: it is here, above all, that contrarieties are equally true. Any social-scientific account of the human labour of division, therefore, must include an appreciation of the inexorable relationship between symbolic order and the contradictory. For however 'mythical' the contradiction of present order might seem, it is in fact ubiquitous. Both/and is a cognitive norm; it is the cognitive reality behind, as well as the creative source of, the everyday social reality of symbolic classifications of either/or.

The conventional-anthropological

Since that pivotal work of Durkheim & Mauss (1970), there has been an anthropological orthodoxy which posits that the ubiquitous work of symbolic classifications in human society and culture is the precise, once-and-for-all division and conjunction of people and things. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.