Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

from Walt Whitman – Song of Myself on Rap Genius


These are probably the best-known lines in the poem, and despite the fact that they are annoyingly over-quoted by just about every freshman who’s ever been enamored of them, and just about everyone who ever actually contradicted themselves, and certainly every hypocrite who sought refuge from and rationalization for his hypocrisy — they are some of the most resplendent lines in all of poetry.

When Katy Perry sings of the juxtaposition of primordial opposites,

“You’re hot then you’re cold,
You’re yes then you’re no,
you’re in then you’re out,
you’re up then you’re down,
you’re black then you’re white,
you’re wrong then you’re right,”

she may as well be singing about any human being, fickle as it is our prerogative to be. For we are, all of us, containers of multitudes: we all seem to contain different people, depending on our moods, dark or light, hero or villain. And we can comfortably contain these ideas within ourselves: we are large.

In the 2004 presidential election race, John Kerry, the Democratic candidate who would lose to George W. Bush, found a particularly damaging Republican technique to be the accusation that he was a “flip-flopper,” that is, that he said one thing, then changed his mind. Conventional American wisdom, so fond of sticktoitiveness and so loathe to sit on fences, frowns on flip-flopping. And yet we forget that Whitman’s wisdom is also American convention: that we are vast and capable of making up our minds and then changing them if need be, or even (God forbid) of holding two ideas in dynamic tension in the mind at the same time.

As Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

This line may allude impishly to the Biblical Mark 5:9, wherein Jesus encounters a man possessed by numerous demons.

And He asked him, “What is thy name?” And he answered, saying, “My name is Legion: for we are many.”

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