Caledonian Antisyzygy

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The term Caledonian Antisyzygy refers to the "idea of dueling polarities within one entity",[1] thought of as typical for the Scottish psyche and literature. It was first coined by G. Gregory Smith in his 1919 book Scottish Literature: Character and Influence[2] in which he wrote:

"the literature [of Scotland] is the literature of a small country... it runs a shorter course than others... in this shortness and cohesion the most favourable conditions seem to be offered for a making of a general estimate. But on the other hand, we find at closer scanning that the cohesion at least in formal expression and in choice of material is only apparent, that the literature is remarkably varied, and that it becomes, under the stress of foreign influence, almost a zigzag of contradictions. The antithesis need not, however, disconcert us. Perhaps in the very combination of opposites - what either of the two Thomases, of Norwich and Cromarty, might have been willing to call 'the Caledonian antisyzygy' - we have a reflection of the contrasts which the Scot shows at every turn, in his political and ecclesiastical history, in his polemical restlessness, in his adaptability, which is another way of saying that he has made allowance for new conditions, in his practical judgement, which is the admission that two sides of the matter have been considered. If therefore, Scottish history and life are, as an old northern writer said of something else, 'varied with a clean contrair spirit,' we need not be surprised to find that in his literature the Scot presents two aspects which appear contradictory. Oxymoron was ever the bravest figure, and we must not forget that disorderly order is order after all."

The poet Hugh MacDiarmid elaborated on the concept in his essay, The Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Gaelic Idea, published in two parts in The Modern Scot 1931-2. The notion is most frequently cited in reference to the seemingly morally contradictory quality of the works of Robert Louis Stevenson (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and James Hogg (The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner), but is also applied to contrasts between the Highlands and the Lowlands, Protestantism and Catholicism and others.[3]

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