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Contradiction: Irony's Best Friend

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One interesting thing about cosmically ironic literature would be the subtle, yet satisfying, use of contradiction. Contradiction, in its most basic definition, is something that has aspects that are illogical or inconsistent with each other. Contradiction can be found in the majority of all ironic literature, especially in A Man Said to the Universe by Steven Crane. The use of paradoxical contradiction in this particular poem creates the irony found therein.
A Man Said to the Universe

A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

There can be three different takes on this poem: anti-religion, anti-atheism, and anti-self-importance. All of these takes can be argued for and against at the same time by looking at each one individually and then simultaneously.

Firstly, A Man Said to the Universe can be argued against religion. By swapping out certain nouns for others, we can make this poem appear as if an atheist is speaking to a deity. If an atheist calls out to a god to proclaim his identity, he is also looking for an explanation of a god. In this instance, the god did reply. The reply can be used to either prove the atheist’s views on religion either wrong or right at the same time. To prove the atheist wrong, all the god has to do is reply to the atheist, which he did. The reply proves that a god is there to hear and acknowledge the man. To prove the atheist right, all the god had to do is choose to ignore the man, which the god did. In his reply, the god said that he was not obligated to acknowledge the fact that the atheist existed. The man could walk away satisfied, seeing that the god did not acknowledge him. If a man does not feel acknowledged by a god, then it is easy to conclude that such a god does not exist. Thus, the contradiction is inferred. Those five lines of poetry both support and oppose atheism at the same time.

Now, to look at anti-religion, we would replace nouns in the poem with others, we can see this poem as a religious man speaking to his god. If a religious man calls out to his god and proclaims his identity, he is simply looking for his god’s nod and acknowledgement. In this instance, the god replied, as he probably as often done, giving the man assurance in religion. The reply can be used to either prove the religious man’s beliefs either wrong or right at the same time. To prove the man wrong, all the god has to do is refuse to acknowledge the man, which he did. The reply blankly stated that he did not have need to acknowledge the man. After that reply, the man could walk away; dismayed with lost faith in religion, all because the he heard the god saying he did not need to acknowledge him, even though he existed. If a man does not feel acknowledged by a god, then it is easy to conclude that such a god does not exist. But, to prove the religious man right, all the god had to do is acknowledge him, which the god did do, evident by his reply. The man could walk away satisfied, seeing that the god did exist. Thus the contradiction is inferred. Those five lines of poetry both support and oppose religion at the same time.

Lastly, looking at anti-self-importance, we can look at the poem exactly how it is, without swapping nouns for others. We see that in the poem, a man is calling out to the universe, proclaiming his existence and self-importance. It is as if the man is calling out, “Look at me! I exist! I am important!” To prove this man wrong, all the universe would have to do is say, “Yes, but I am not obligated to acknowledge you in the least bit, therefore, you are not important.” That is exactly what the universe said in his reply. But, to prove the man right, all the universe would have to do is acknowledge the man, proving his importance and existence. That is exactly what the universe did. The simple fact that the universe replied denotes the possibility that the man exists and is important enough for the universe to reply to. Thus the contradiction is inferred. Those five lines of poetry both support and oppose the idea of self-importance at the same time.

Obviously, then, contradiction is everywhere in this poem. You can see it in the way the poem approves and disapproves the ideas of religion and self-importance concurrently. This contradiction, then, has everything to do with cosmic irony. All three men went to their universe or deity in search of life’s greatest questions and answers. All three could have turned away either satisfied or dissatisfied in their search. The contradiction proves the irony. It is ironic that every person ever to question existence of themselves or anything greater than themselves will always get the answer they are looking for. If the atheist goes to a god to prove atheism, he will hear the god’s choice not to acknowledge him. If the atheist goes to the god to prove otherwise, he will hear the god’s reply and believe in him. If the religious man goes to the god to prove his beliefs, he will hear the god’s acknowledgement and be happy. If he does to prove otherwise, he’ll hear the god’s choice not to acknowledge him. If a man goes to the universe to feel important, the reply will make him feel so. If he goes to prove his unimportance, he’ll feel that way by the god’s choice not to acknowledge him. The contradiction and cosmic irony is everywhere. The irony is that none of the answers are actually found in the universe’s or god’s reply. The answers are found in the people that question. The people, therefore, are contradicting themselves. They go out searching for answers when they already have the answer chosen inside themselves. They contradict their very reason for their search. The contradiction and irony is created in the man who is seeking his answer, not only in the reply of the universe.



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