"When accused of contradiction, just laugh.
You’ve not really made any gaffe.
At the opposite pole of whole truth
It’s your mind has arrived, foresooth."
The epigrammatic poem has a long, influential, and variegated history. Even a smaller collection of quotations will
include Homer, Bhagavadgita, Laotse, Augustine…. These early one-liners are often re-formulated, translated, transformed down
through the ages, and a larger collection may trace the basic idea through many centuries, cultures, and authors. The late Gaucho
poet Mário Quintana wrote a significant number of epigrammatic one-liners, many included in his collections of poetry, and
many of which can be stimulatingly compared to finds from distant cultures. (We note in passing that
The Penguin International Thesaurus of
Quotations"1 contains one-liners from, among many other sources, the Ashanti, Congolese, Malay, and
none from Brazil although, as will be demonstrated here, suitable material is not lacking.) As an adjunct for interested readers,
related epigrams from other times and places follow some of Quintana’s.
Only the clouds are eternal.
(As únicas coisas eternas são as
Eternity is in love with the productions of time. (William Blake)
Reversion to destiny is called eternity. (Laotse)
Indifference is the most refined form of politeness.
(A indiferença é a mais refinada forma da
Politeness, n. The most acceptable form of hypocrisy. (Ambrose Bierce)
There can be no defense like elaborate courtesy. (E.V. Lucas)
Courtesy is the politic witchery of great personages. (Baltasar Gracián)
We should go through life as if skipping school, not as if going to school.
(A gente deve atravessar a vida como quem está gazeando a escola e não como quem vai para a
The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction. (William Blake)
If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where do you expect to find it? (traditional Zen saying)
The reader will notice some contradiction in most of the quotations hereon, and is invited to examine the degree to
which this element stimulates a greater or lesser satisfaction with the text: why is such contradiction so interesting, what is its
appeal to mind and feeling, where does it affect and effect? It must be that deep inside ourselves there is that very element,
waiting to be called up to consciousness by an appropriate set of concepts, of symbols.
The soul is this thing that keeps asking us if the soul exists.
(A alma é essa coisa que nos pergunta se a alma
…time makes man find himself in his heart. (Bhagavadgita, 4)
Learn what you are and be such. (Pindar)
Go to your bosom; knock there, and ask your heart what doth it know. (Shakespeare)
Insofar as one is conceived of contradictory beings, and born into a contradictory world, one is by nature a
contradictory being, since de nihilo nihil.
But then again, maybe something can come from nothing. Maybe the soul really is what
keeps asking if it itself exists, and does not exist until wondered about, something like faith and fidelity.
…no evidence can be adduced for it which does not presuppose
The epigrammatic quality, the frequent satirical twist, may inspire a concentrated poetic moment, almost immediately
available to the memory and therefore, like the pin-point, with greater power of penetration than the broader, longer existent.
There opens, as it were, a "free space" between the reading and the meaning, in which the reader may simply wonder,
wordlessly, at what the Romans called penetralia
mentis: what is that which touches us about contradiction and satire? Like a
painting, a single line can be apprehended all at once; unlike the more temporal forms of art, no distraction or interruption need
intervene between the beginning and the end of its experience. If Poe is correct, and true poems must produce a unity of effect,
and therefore be read at one sitting, it might follow that the shortest poems are the truest ones, especially where
contradiction carries much of the text.
A lie is a truth which forgot to happen.
(A mentira é uma verdade que esqueceu de
Everything possible to be believ’d is an image of truth. (William Blake)
A lie always needs a truth for a handle to it. (Henry Ward Beecher)
That lies should be necessary to life is part and parcel of the terrible and questionable character of existence. (Nietzsche)
What’s all this about interpreting poems? A poem is already an interpretation.
(Mas para que interpretarem um poema? Um poema já é uma
To a poet, silence is an acceptable response, even a flattering one. (Colette)
A poem points to nothing but itself. (E.M. Forster)
That these contradictory poetic statements have so much appeal to the intellect hints at a close association of the
two. One needs suppose that poetic contradiction is a form of truth, just as life itself is, with its own deep contradictions.
Now a contradiction is a form of dialogue between two opposing truths, and truth is said by some to be by nature a dialogue,
rather than a fact. "Contradiction is the very element of human existence. Man has no `nature’no simple or homogeneous
being. He is a strange mixture of being and nonbeing."
3 Contradiction as truth, a dialogue between being and non-being: by
being a part of the dialogue, non-being becomes a part of Being. Quintana touches on this theme is his
Espelho Mágico (1945):
When accused of contradiction, just laugh.
You’ve not really made any gaffe.
At the opposite pole of whole truth
It’s your mind has arrived, foresooth.
Se te contradisseste e acusam-te…sorri.
Pois nada houve, em realidade.
Teu pensamento é que chegou, por si,
Ao outro pólo da Verdade.
What is the sound of one hand clapping? (traditional Zen
The metaphysical essence of contradiction is unavailable to any representation, whatever the art: it is to be
conceived as intuition, thought, feeling, but not by sense. The poem points to but does not arrive at, the goal, which is human
apprehension of human Being at a deeper level of intellectual pleasure, the mystery to be found right in our midst.
The quotidian is mystery gone incognito.
(O quotidiano é o incógnito do
Zen is your everyday mind. (traditional Zen saying)
Knowing the mystery of a body is maybe more important than knowing that of a soul.
(Conhecer o mistério de um corpo é talvez mais importante que conhecer o mistério de uma
Nothing can so pierce the soul as the uttermost sigh of the body. (Santayana)
If contradiction is truth, would this not imply that nature itself, and all Creation, is contradictory? And of God?
Should this hypothesis hold, would it not more reasonable to suppose many gods, as Quintana does in other parts of his work?
(And then, of course, as intellectual oneupsmanship, theologians can raise the ante, and conceive a Godhead to subsume
them all, the poets several Godheads, and so on….)
POEM FOR JULIAN THE APOSTATE
In the days of the gods
everything was simple as they
and natural and human
and they reigned over the world.
But a unique usurper god came
and made the world incomprehensible
because his kingdom was not of this world.
And even now nobody knows why he expelled
the other gods
and began reigning all alone
and made men sin
something they had never done before
because to sin in innocence is not to sin
And so men came to know the marvelous terror
and thus it was the new god brought them a new
POEMA PARA JULIANO O APÓSTATA
No tempo dos deuses tudo
Era simples como eles
E natural e humano
E eles reinavam no mundo.
Mas veio um deus usurpador e único
E tornou o mundo incompreensível
Porque o seu reino não era deste mundo.
E até hoje ninguém soube por que então ele expulsou os outros deuses
E ficou reinando sozinho
E fez todos os homens pecarem
coisa que eles jamais haviam feito antes
porque pecar com inocência não é pecar
E os homens conheceram o terror maravilhoso do pecado
e assim o novo deus lhes trouxe uma volúpia nova.
A soul without any mystery wouldn’t even be a soul…like a comprehensible god wouldn’t be God.
(Uma alma sem mistério nem seria alma…da mesma forma um deus compreensível não seria
The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. (Einstein)
Wonder is the basis of worship. (Thomas Carlyle)
The mystery pertains, at least in part, to the mechanism through which contradictions synthesize into one human
being. May the soul be the vanishing point of contradiction. "At the vanishing point of skepticism, which is also the acme of
life, intuition is absorbed in its object….Certainly the intuition of essence is oblivious of itself."
4 Certainly the contradiction, absorbed in its object, obliviates itself. One should note the element of humor at that point, the vanishing point of the epigram,
which offers one an occasion for absorption.
Despite all contradictions, a man is somehow a singleness, yet to be described as dynamic, not static, like the
movement of a solar system, constant change within a pattern, and so on, outward. The harmony, however, does not preclude the
eventual collision of a meteoroid with a Jupiter, an event which may raise doubt as to the overall harmony for some, while
provoking others, devotees of subtlety, to marvel all the more.
Don’t forget that the clouds are always improvising, but it’s the wind’s fault.
(Não esquecer que as nuvens estão improvisando sempre, mas a culpa é do
Nothing is permanent but change. (Heraclitus)
Running beer gathers no foam. (Victor Hugo)
All spiritual interests are supported by animal life. (Santayana)
Insofar as the poetic contradiction may touch the essential human one, the poem comes across as a symbolic
representation of the self, or Self, as the case may be. Then the poet writing about poetry would be the self writing about the Self.
The self and the Self _ these are the two "I’s" which so ironize one another in that wonderful line
If I were to believe everything I think, I’d go crazy.
(Se eu fosse acreditar mesmo em tudo o que penso, ficaria
All the mind’s activity is easy if it is not subjected to reality. (Marcel Proust)
Thought is not a gift to man but a laborious, precarious and volatile acquisition. (José Ortega y Gasset)
And never ask me the subject of a poem: it’s always about something else.
(E nunca me perguntes o assunto de um poema: um poema sempre fala de outra
A poet’s pleasure is to withhold a little of his meaning. (E.B. White)
Innovative artists in Brazil inevitably are harassed by that part of professional criticism which collaborates with the
country’s notoriously conservative power groups, and Quintana was no exception. He tersely expressed his opinion of the same:
Mistreating a poet is a sign of bad character.
(Maltratar os poetas é indício de mau
Men are what their mothers made them. (Emerson)
No man can be criticized but by a greater than he. Do not, then, read the reviews. (ibid)
The man that makes a character makes foes. (Edward Young)
Critics are like brushes of a nobleman’s clothes. (Francis Bacon)
With an artist no sane man quarrels, any more than with the color of a child’s eyes. (Santayana)
1 q.v.for the source of several quotations cited.
2 George Santayana, "Skepticism and Animal Faith," in
Philosophy in the Twentiety Century, (Random House, N.Y.,
1962) ed. William Barrett and Henry D. Aiken, I, p. 447
3Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man
(New York, Bantam books, 1970) p.13.
4 Santayana, op. Cit., p. 411
John Howard has published the translations of several Brazilian poets, and several poems of his own. He has an MA
in literature from California State University. You can reach him at