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Writers Talk About Writing

Alternating Antonyms: The Power of Opposites

Michael Lydon, a well-known writer on popular music since the 1960s, has for many years also been writing about writing. Lydon's essays, written with a colloquial clarity, shed fresh light on familiar and not so familiar aspects of the writing art. Here Lydon looks at how writers from Shakespeare to Tolstoy have understood the power of bringing opposites together.

Bringing words of opposite meaning close together is one of writing's most ancient devices, called oxymoron when the opposites abutas they do in "oxymoron": its Greek roots, oxys/moros, mean "sharp/dull"; and antithesis when close in balanced phrases like Catullus's "Odi et amo—I hate and I love." Opposites occur in the literature of every age, and any sophomore (wise fool) should be able to spot their linked unlikes in the any text's black and white.

Our sophomore may have had oxymoron first pointed out in Romeo's famous speech on "loving hate"—

O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!

Sometimes Shakespeare's opposites leap off the page: "Lawn as white as driven snow, Cyprus black as e'er was crow"; sometimes they are quiet hints: Lady Macbeth paints raven-black pictures as she awaits Duncan's arrival at Dunsinane:

Come, thick night, and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it make,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark...

—yet her "keen" and "peep" are sparks of light that, like Rembrandt's dabs of gold, make darkness visible.

Shakespeare often describes mild Venus in terms of violent Mars; his lovebirds peck as often as they coo. Richard and Lady Anne duel in Richard III, their crossed foils dipped in vitriol:

Anne: He is in heaven where thou shalt never come.
Richard: Let him thank me that holp send him thither;
For he was fitter for that place than earth.
Anne: And thou unfit for any place, but hell.
Richard: Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it.
Anne: Some dungeon.
Richard:  Your bedchamber.

So confident is Shakespeare that his audience will grasp Othello's black-white opposition, that he lets Iago reverse it in malicious word play:

Iago: If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit,
The one's for use, the other useth it.
Desdemona: Well praised! How if she be black and witty?
Iago: If she be black, and thereto have a wit,
She'll find a white that shall her blackness fit.

Shakespeare, of course, is not the only writer to use opposites. Charles Dickens' "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" opening to A Tale of Two Cities comes immediately to mind as do the verses from Ecclesiastes that inspired Dickens:

A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance...

Tolstoy named one novel War and Peace and opened Anna Karenina with "Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are unhappy each in their own way." We can find opposites in pop songs ("First you say you do, and then you don't"), and in poems ("Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice"). Why do Shakespeare and other fine writers use opposites?  What effect do they have on the reader?

Opposites give our brains a twist. More happens when we take in—

COLD FIRE

—than when we take in:

HOT FIRE

"Hot fire" tells me something I already know, and aside from accepting the words as true, admittedly a complex event, nothing happens. "Cold fire" adds to the plain fact-to-word event. If "Fire is hot," mustn't "Fire is cold" be untrue? As brash Brabantio commentsafter listening to the diplomatic Duke of Venice:

These sentences, to sugar or to gall,
Being strong on both sides, are equivocal.

Equivocal—that is oxymoron's essence: equal voices say opposite words. Like a child hearing "Yes and no" from a parent, we feel doubt when we hear oxymoron. Which voice will we believe?  Two words tug us in two directions; how will we resolve the tension? When we take in opposites, we can feel our minds taking in the experience. Puns, jokes, and many word games create the same double entendre, double hearing. Pictures that may be seen two ways, like the famous "Is it a cup or is it two faces?"—

—create an equivalent visual effect. Readers like opposite's mind-boggling effect just as kids like spinning to make themselves dizzy. Through untrue on its face, "Cold fire" poses a riddle we may puzzle over forever.

Opposites make writing memorable. We most often remember not the words we read but their gist; only when writers give a turn of phrase particular emphasis—like the stunning opening lines of Richard III:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York.

—do we remember writing word for word. Opposites like "To be or not to be" impress their checkerboard patterns more deeply into our memories than do mundane sentences that bear along an advancing narrative.

Opposites accurately convey important truths of life. Opposite words—"sunrise, sunset," "what goes up must come down," "sweet and sour sauce"— bond because the experiences they describe bond in life. What writer, what human can ignore day and night, happy and sad, feast and famine, life and death? We may never see deeper into life than this bond of opposing forces, the yin and yang of Chinese thought, its spinning light and dark mandala:

Writers use opposites, in sum, for their brain-twisting effect, their memorability, and their truth. Writing that flows with opposites will, it follows, stimulate us with crisscross tensions, pose riddles that stick in our minds, and power itself on life's own dynamo. Is not that Shakespeare fairly described, his universe in a nutshell?

The inmost heart of Shakespeare's genius is how well he renders the depth of life on a flat surface. Through the pages of many books we may enter wonderlands as marvelous as Alice's, but all too often the word worlds remain paper thin, and, finding no depths to dive into, we must content ourselves with splashing in the shallows. Shakespeare's words open seven seas that we may explore as goggle-eyed as Captain Nemo in his submarine.

How does Shakespeare create such volume in two-dimensions? In part by using opposites to push the reader back from words to life, by weaving two equal and opposing strands of truth and letting us puzzle between them. Opposites like "cold fire" and "loving hate," convey, not inert facts like "fire is hot," but living tensions, contradiction that reminds us of life's contradictions. We can resolve the opposites of "To be or not to be" only by living long enough to sigh, "Ah, that is indeed the question!"
Shakespeare trusted in opposites to make his writing immortal. In Sonnet 65, as often elsewhere, he confronts the artist's dilemma—how to make quick life stand still?

O, how shall summer's honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?

No way exists, Shakespeare writes,

...unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.


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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday February 17th 2010, 1:41 AM
Comment by: Robert W.
Clearly quite subtle.
Wednesday February 17th 2010, 2:46 PM
Comment by: Terry O. (Winnipeg Canada)
A wide-ranging and thought-provoking essay. It's worth noting that each pair of opposites is opposite in its own way.
There are of course a myriad of instances. One of the best is Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell": "Without opposites is no progression."
Thursday February 18th 2010, 4:06 PM
Comment by: Perry O. (La Mesa, CA)
Holy crap, there's a lot to learn.
Friday February 19th 2010, 3:52 PM
Comment by: Lisa C. (Brattleboro, VT)
Nice piece with some fine examples. You meant Catullus not Ovid, though, with odi et amo.

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Saturday February 20th 2010, 11:46 AM
Comment by: Ray W. (Edmond, OK)
A edifying post on the use of opposites complete with explicit examples to pellucidify their meaning in contrast.
Monday February 22nd 2010, 6:22 AM
Comment by: MLou (Arlington, MA)
Your essay gave my brain a twist and a peep into how much more there is to learn about good writing. Thank you. MLou
Monday February 22nd 2010, 2:27 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thank you all for your comments, in particular Lisa C for pointing out my boo-boo confusing Catullus and Ovid. My favorite is Ray W's with the new word, "pellucidify" Cool!! I guess the opposite of that is "obscuritify"??!!

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