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Concerning Folk Paradoxes
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Concerning Folk Paradoxes

There is a diference between mere inconsistency and paradox. Inconsistent ideas generally disappear from circulation as soon as their fatal defects are revealed, and if they are to pass muster even for a while their faults must be somewhat hidden. An absurd term or self-contradictory proposition that continues to function in serious, systematic thought, although its logical scandal is patent, is paradoxical. The inconsistent ideas involved in it conflict with each other because they are actually distorted. Properly formulated they would not be mutually contradictory. They are misconceived, and consequently their union is misconceived, but it is motivated by a sound sense of their importance and logical connection. The word "paradox" bespeaks this peculiar status; both contradictory elements are "doctrinal", i.e. they are really accepted and the conjunction of them is admitted, even though it is not understood.

Wherever the "rich mud of vague conceptions" that is the spawning ground of human reason yields a genuine paradox, such as "fictional truth" or "self-representing systems" or "impersonal feelings", we are faced with a direct philosophical challenge. Paradox is a symptom of misconception; and coherent, systematic conception, i.e. the process of making sense out of experience, is philosophy. Therefore a paradoxical idea is not one to be discarded, but to be resolved. Where both elements of an obvious antinomy maintain their semblance of truth, their pragmatic virtue, and both can claim to originate in certain accepted premises, the cause of their conflict probably lies in those very premises themselves. It is original sin. The premises, in their turn, are often tacit presuppositions, so that the real challenge to the philosopher is to expose and analyze and correct them. If he succeeds, a new scheme of the dominant ideas will be found implicit, without the paradoxical concepts of the old perspective (Langer 1959, 15-16).

The paradox is perhaps the strangest stylistic feature of our culture. It is an unbearable exaggerater, a gravedigger for sound old convictions, it teases and irritates right-thinking brains, it picks a quarrel with the reader by turning things on their heads and claiming that only thus are they the right way up. 'If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple' - this and dozens more of Jesus's paradoxes cause unending trouble for serious-minded pastors who find themselves having to explain to children both large and small that it is not necessary for the Christian to hate his children, cut off his right hand, sell his apartment, leave his father's body to be buried by 'the dead', forgive his enemies 70 x 7 times, neglect to provide for the future, exchange his well-paid position of trust for the role of 'servant of all', etc, etc.

'There is not enough religiosity in the world even to destroy religions,' quipped Friedrich Nietzsche, whom Egon Friedell paradoxically calls the last great church father (Friedell 1933, 504). At its heart, this paradox, too, exploits its semantic liminality: a narrow, sharp wedge is pushed between 'religiosity' and 'religions', questions their apparently obvious unity - the power of traditional, conventional religious institutions rests, according to Nietzsche, on the lack of religiosity (the spiritual quality common to, for example, Jesus and Nietzsche), not its ubiquity. The thesis is para doxa, a confounding of expectations, in which half is truth.

The central role of paradox in western culture perhaps derives from the model of the New Testament. Credo quia absurdum, said the church father Tertullianus. Not decently and reasonably: 'I believe even though it is absurd', but defiantly and paradoxically: 'I believe because it is absurd'. Adolf von Harnack's aphorism follows in the true Christian stylistic tradition: 'Only that which we long for is our own. That which we own we have already lost.' The outgrowth of the Sermon on the Mount, however, is observable more in non-ecclesiastical than ecclesiastical slogans: for example, 'la propriÈtÈ c'est le vol'[1], teidän lakinne ja oikeutenne - niitähän minun piti ampua (your law and your justice - it was them I set out to shoot)[2]. It was for good reason that the English press baron Northcliffe forbade the cultivation of the paradox in his newspapers: the majority of humanity cannot tolerate the truth, according to the advice of Oscar Wilde, being made to dance on the tight-rope. But this serious mode of amusement holds a strange fascination for many. I believe that the mental stimulation provoked by a daring paradox is kin to the spark of joy that one experiences following a virtuoso's brief visit to the extremes of his dangerous, illicit, norm-breaking skill. Kaarlo Marjanen writes:

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 7:1998 & Issue 8:1998, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Like proverbs in general, folk paradoxes most often grow in bunches. Thus alongside the first-mentioned Romano-Finnish proverb is a cluster of laconisms cast in the same mould:

Maksettu heritetty haava (A wound threatened is a wound avenged).
Unohdettu maksettu velka (A loan forgotten is a loan repaid).
Ansaittu anottu lahja (A gift promised is a gift given).
Ansaittu anottu ruoka, syöty leikattu pala (Food begged is food earned, a piece cut is a piece eaten).

The grammatically similar verb-forms give the noun two attributes whose juxtaposition combines unexpectedness with common sense: beginning is indeed often so decisive and difficult a phase that 'a job begun' can be described as 'done'; the promise of a gift is so binding an action that a promised gift can be considered as certain as if it has already been given; and so on.

A more viable form of Finnish paradox is that which lies behind the following examples:

Paha on olla palkollisna, paha palkan maksajana (It is bad to be a wage-earner, bad to be the payer of wages).
Paha seppä palkatonna, paha suuren palkun kanssa (It is bad to be a smith unwaged, bad too waged).
Paha on olla parratonna, paha pitkän parran kanssa (It is bad to be beardless, bad to wear a long beard).
Vaiva vaaralla asua, vaiva vaaran liepehellä (It is hard to live on the mountain, hard to live on its slopes).
Vaiva on olla valkeatta, vaiva valkean varassa (It is hard to live without fire, hard to tend a fire).
Kihki lapsi kirkkoon, kihki kirkosta kotiin (Eager the child going to church, eager the child coming home from church).
Hyvä mieli miehelle mennä, hyvä mieheltä kotia (It's pleasure to get married, pleasure to come back).
Työtä hengen tullessa, työtä hengen lähtiessä (It is work when you are born, it is work when you die).
Väki väärää tekee, väki väärän oikaisee (The folk do wrong, the folk put wrongs right).
Taka tekee taitavaksi, taka taitamattomaksi (Reserves teach skills, reserves take skills away).
Tattari taloksi tekee, tattari talottomaksi (Buckwheat earns a man a house, buckwheat makes him homeless).
Työstä tuntee taitomiehen, työstä taitamattomankin (You can tell a good craftsman by his work, and a bad one).
Merestä nälkä tullee, mereen nälkä menee (The sea brings hunger, the sea takes hunger away).
Idän päivä ensimmäinen, idän päivä viimeinenkin (The sun rises in the east, even on the last day).
Ahven kudun alkaa, ahven kudun lopettaa (The perch begins spawning, the perch ends spawning).
Matti pihdin nostaa, Matti pihdin kaataa (Matti lifts the splint, Matti drops the splint).

The proverbs are made up of two stereotypically opposed phrases. Sometimes they are only apparently in antithesis: thus in the last example the first Matti refers to the so-called mukulamatti, the autumn St Matthew's day, celebrated on 21 September, while the second means talvimatti, 24 February, between which times splints were burnt indoors - this is a pun rather than a paradox. Generally these proverbs are content to state the two sides of a question. The intellectual knot remains rather loose: the paradox is really nothing more than a little stylistic manoeuvre, the quasi-polemic culmination of two opposing points of view from which can easily spring a synthetic realisation of the whole, a golden-mean compromise, a view of life that smiles sympathetically upon both opposing directions.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 7:1998 & Issue 8:1998, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.
Parempi yksi näkijä kuin kuusi kuulijaa (One witness is better than six hearers ).

The paradoxical statement, 'one is more than six' serves only as a stylistic emphasis to the real thesis of the proverb: the testimony of an eye-witness is worth more than that of someone who has only heard. Rarer is the simpe comparative formula, 'a little is better than none', 'better found than stolen' used in a paradoxical way:

Parempi kuolla kuin kitua (kerjätä) (It is better to be dead than wretched [beg]).
Parempi leipä kuin kulta (Bread is better than gold).
Parempi vieras kuin vähän sukua (A stranger is better than a distant relative).

A completely separate type is the paradox Parempi paha valeena kuin totena (Evil is better as a lie than truth).

A paradoxically sharp emphasis of value can also take the following form: Rikka raha rauhan suhteen (Money is useless compared with peace), Roska raha onnen rinnalla (Money is rubbish compared with happiness), Rapaa on raha jumalanviljan suhteen (Money is mud compared with corn).

Certain proverb statements expressed through symbols of impossibility are related to comparative paradoxes:

Ennen kaitsee kapan kirppuja kuin yhden tyttölapsen (It is easier to shepherd a flock of fleas than a single girl-child).
Ennen seitsemän paria härkää kääntää kuin pahan ämmän pään (It is easier to turn seven pairs of oxen than the head of a bad woman).
Ennen susikin suostuu ihmiseen kuin savolainen (A wolf is more easily persuaded than a man of Savo).
Ennen viina jäätyy ennenkuin piika paleltuu (Liquor will freeze before a maid will feel the cold).
Ennen maa repee kuin huora häpee (The earth will open before a whore will repent).

These proverbs, in other words, play with the idea that even the impossible is more likely than something that is generally not considered completely impossible. On the other hand: Kun kovalle pannaan, niin koiraskin poikii (In a tight spot, even the male beast will whelp).

The symbol of impossibility is, like the pun, a multi-purpose stylistic element that can be used as a tool of paradox. The published seminar studies of Simo Konsala and Eeva Laaksonen use many examples to throw light upon the generally emphatic use of symbols of impossibility and of the pun, which is often used as an enticement to wit (Konsala 1956, Laaksonen 1958). The pun is to the fore in the following examples of proverbs verging on the paradoxical:

Kyllä härkä jäniksen tapaa - jos ei muualla niin kattilassa (The bull certainly meets the hare - in the pot, if nowhere else).
Kyllä maailma opettaa - jos ei muuta niin hiljaa kävelemään (The world certainlly teaches a lesson - to walk slowly, if nothing else).
Jotainhan sitä on köyhälläkin antamista - jos ei muuta niin kättä (Even the poor have something to lend - their hands, if nothing else).
Apu hiirestäkin on - jos ei muualle niin syömään (Even a mouse can be of some help - if nothing else, in eating).

The folk paradox is not one of the best pigeon-holes of the systematic categorisation of proverbs: there are more borderline cases, dependent on interpretation, than there are 'pure' paradoxes. Muna kanaa neuvoo (The egg is wiser than the hen) is undoubtedly a paradoxical expression, but lacks a suddenly opening intellectual knot. Isännän silmä hevosta lihottaa (The master's eye fattens the horse), Kieli maan leikkaa (The tongue cuts the ground), Lihainen kieli leikkaa luisen kaulan (The tongue breaks bones, though itself have none, T 403) and many other daring linguistic images are a kind of quasi-paradox that is used to season otherwise fairly conventional experiential truths. Only linguistic dexterity, not a revaluing of values, is offered for example by Hyvä tapa tappelussa: se lyö ken kerkiää (Good manners when fighting: hit when you can). On the other hand, the statement Flikk on jo enemä äitis muatone ko äit ite (The girl looks more like her mother than her mother herself) may be a true paradox: the mother as she is remembered from her youth and the mother as she is now differ so much from one another that half of the utterance is true. I would hold the following proverbs to be true paradoxes:

Tehden työt leviää, tekemättä soukkenee (Work spreads in the doing, thins when left undone).
Hyvä sydän huoraksi saattaa, vapaa tahto varkahaksi (A good heart makes a whore, free will a thief).
Ei kirja kiellä helvetistä, paperi pahalta tieltä (The book does not save from hell, nor paper from the slippery slope).
Ei ole huolta hävinneellä, työtä maansa myynehellä (The loser has no cares, he who has sold his land no work).
Kyllä tyhjä puolensa pitää (Emptiness stands up for itself).
The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 7:1998 & Issue 8:1998, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

A relatively small proportion of Finnish folk paradoxes obey the norms of classic Kalevala metre. It seems that many international paradoxes subside into non-paradoxes on their arrival in Finland: 'Kleider machen Leute' becomes Vaate varren kaunistavi (Clothes beautify the body), etc. Only through a general analysis of Finnish loan-proverbs would it be possible to decide the question of when, whence and in what form Finns took their earliest paradoxes, or whether they were born indigenously, without international influences. The crystallisation of an observation that strays from the path of conventional opinion into a clever manipulation of reason cannot have been the easiest of developments in the path of progress of our peasant culture.


Matti Kuusi


*Reprinted from Mind and Form in Folklore. Selected articles of Matti Kuusi. Ed. by Henni Ilomäki. Studia fennica. Folkloristica 3. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura. Helsinki 1994, pp. 131-141.

  1. P. J. Proudhon, Qu'est-ce que la propriété, 1840.

  2. A remark trom the Finnish playwright Minna Canth's play Työmiehen vaimo (The worker's wife, Canth 1885).


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