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Interpretation of “The Sweet Paradox” by Memphis (Μ3ΜΦ1Σ)

Memphis (stylised as “Μ3ΜΦ1Σ”) is a Greek rock/metal band. They are among my favourites. I like the performative aspect of their songs, while I enjoy every one of them. In this article, I want to provide a translation of “The Sweet Paradox” (Το Γλυκό Παράδοξο) from their first album and elaborate on what I think about its meaning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkgSkfNjSrY (also check their bandcamp page for all their discography: https://m3mf1s.bandcamp.com/music)

Το Γλυκό Παράδοξο

Όσα κι αν έχω κάνει
λες δεν είναι αρκετά
πες μου αν είναι λάθη
πες μου αν είναι περιττά

Ίσως καταλαβαίνεις
όταν με συναντάς
σαν κάνεις πως δεν βλέπεις
και κρυφά χαμογελάς

Όσα κι αν έχω να πω
θα 'μαι μια ζωή εδώ
να μετράω όσα ξέχασες
και ίσως να είναι γραφτό
μόνος κόντρα στον καιρό
να φυλάω όσα έχασες

Όσα κι αν έχω κρύψει
λόγια μέσα μου βαθιά
σα παιδί θα τρέχω
με τα χέρια μου ανοιχτά

Βλέπω το πρόσωπο σου
με τα μάτια μου κλειστά
πες μου αν νοιώθεις κάτι
πες μου αν είναι πια αργά

Όσα κι αν έχω να πω
θα 'μαι μια ζωή εδώ
να μετράω όσα ξέχασες
και ίσως να είναι γραφτό
μόνος κόντρα στον καιρό
να φυλάω όσα έχασες

Σαν μαύρο σύννεφο εγώ
στο γαλάζιο σου ουρανό
θα σκορπάω όσα πέταξες
Ρίχνω στα κύματα εδώ
στον απέραντο βυθό
να φυλάει όσα έχασες
The Sweet Paradox

No matter what I've done
you say is not enough
tell me if they are mistakes
tell me if they are superfluous

Maybe you understand
when you meet me
while pretending not to see me
and secretly smile

No matter what I have to say
I'll be here for a lifetime
to count everything you forgot
and maybe it is destined
for me alone against the time ["time" could be "world"]
to safeguard everything you lost

No matter what I've hidden
words deep inside me
like a child I'll be running
with my hands wide open

I see your face
with my eyes shut
tell me if you feel anything
tell me if it's already too late

No matter what I have to say
I'll be here for a lifetime
to count everything you forgot
and maybe it is destined
for me alone against the time
to safeguard everything you lost

Like a dark cloud
in your blue sky
I will be scattering everything you discarded
I throw at the waves here
at the bottomless depth
for it to safeguard everything you lost

The paradox I notice prima facie is that revealed by art as a medium of expression. We can appreciate a song even if its lyrics make no sense to us. Here I am providing a translation, though I link to a performance that is done in the Greek language. You can enjoy the latter without reference to the former. I am doing this translation to use it as the basis of a lesson in philosophy, not to add to the song’s artistic quality—I simply lack the skills for such a task.

Art presents us with a paradox. How can we like a collection of words when we don’t understand what they are saying? If an intellectual were to speak to us in ordinary terms whose concatenation made no apparent sense, we would dismiss the person as arrogant or a charlatan who tries to play tricks with us. Yet when an artist utters a sequence of common words, we may feel a deep connection to them. Why is this a paradox?

A paradox is that which runs contrary to established opinions or beliefs. As such, it is not art which is inherently paradoxical: our beliefs about it—the expectations we have—may simply lack perspective. When you say “I am surprised” that typically says a lot about you, not just that which you are reacting to. We find it paradoxical that words without apparent gestalt meaning can actually engender feelings of appreciation for them because we are indoctrinated in the view, the dogma (dogma is related to doxa, which we find in para-dox), that everything needs to be parsed through a rational filter.

Art presents a paradox to all rationalists and all who are misguided in the belief that a human can be reduced to a purely rational being. Sometimes the right answer is given by our feelings. At others by our aesthetic inclinations. And others still by our instincts or “gut feelings”. Reason is part of a wider system. It is important, though it cannot be the only one that matters, for it cannot stand in isolation. We exist as fully fledged humans, not as a decontextualised mind, or spirit, or whatnot. To focus on one aspect is to remain oblivious to their totality: the emergent reality of the interplay between all our facets. Once we accept the multi-faceted-ness of our humanity, we no longer think that the aforementioned paradox exists.

With those granted, let me tell you what I think about this song’s lyrics. The “paradox” hinted at therein is three-fold:

  1. The phenomenal contradiction of an agent who has doubts yet musters the courage to go against the grain of their time.

  2. The contrast between safeguarding what one lost while throwing those items into the depths where, presumably, they are never to be retrieved from.

  3. The juxtaposition between hiding everything yet keeping it exposed to this poetic “you” figure.

I think these revolve around the theme of perfectionism. How we relate to our own condition in light of our aspirations to perform at the best of our abilities.

Perfectionism is that inner voice which keeps demanding more. No matter what we’ve done, it continues to plant doubts in our mind that our deeds are erroneous and our acts are in vain. This perfectionist side does not give instructions: “here is how it’s done”. No. Instead, it remains obscure and elusive, almost toying with us, counting the times we failed to meet its lofty standards.

To seek perfection is part of what drives us forward. We do not settle with what we have, as there is that nagging thought that we can do better. In this regard, perfectionism has a positive spin to it. Though every “ism”, every ideology, can be corrupted into its opposite when taken to an extreme. Life teaches us that the difference between remedy and poison is one of degree: a pill addresses the headache while a bottle of pills poses a lethal threat. When the ideology turns into an obsession, when it becomes a self-serving end that tolerates no compromises or deviations from its path, it is deleterious for us. Such may be a paradox unto itself: how easily the benign turns pernicious.

Perfectionism can become that ideological facade we put up to conceal our insecurities. When, for instance, the perfectionist spends an hour reviewing a brief email they composed, they are no longer seeking perfection: they are acting out of insecurity. This insecurity may be the fear of being judged by others such as whether the writing is any good and the substantive points valid.

The fear of being judged is a fear in its own right. We thus have the “fear of fear”. To be afraid is normal: our humanity, our very nature, determines as much. But the “fear of fear” is no ordinary feeling. It is an arrangement of beliefs which embed value judgements about what “ought to be”. It is framed as pressure to perform in a certain way for the public, to placate those who test our conformity with the prevailing values.

[ Read/watch: Expectations, rules, and role-playing ]

Perfectionism then, is not about how we relate to our own self. It is an act of servitude, of insisting on patterns of behaviour that are actually harmful to us in order not to be called out as a failure or misfit: as one who does not satisfy the requirements of the role bestowed upon them.

What is a misfit in terms of social expectations? It is a paradox in the literal sense of upsetting established views. Just like how a paradox is not inherently paradoxical, the misfit’s misfitness is not innate: it is a relative, intersubjective construct. When, then, the perfectionist internalises opinions of all sorts—opinions that underpin those impossible standards the perfectionist sets—they uncritically reverberate beliefs. In short, perfectionism emanates from a dogma.

One sets goals that oftentimes are not the product of careful deliberation and sincere self-reflection. The perfectionist simply echoes what they heard and follows the trend. That is not necessarily wrong. The problem is more nuanced. Sometimes what works for others does not work for a given person. If the person insists on role-playing instead of recognising the tension, they will eventually suffer the consequences.

[ Read/watch: On learning and being present as well as On selfhood. ]

As such, the perfectionist is their own worst enemy because their high targets are not consistent with their actuality. If, for whatever reason, one’s social milieu forces them to be an engineer and if, as a perfectionist, this person sets high standards in pursuit of that task, they would be miserable if engineering was not within their abilities.

Insofar as the perfectionist insists on the propriety of their goals, without ever daring to question them, they are dogmatic. What if the goal is wrong? What if we need to take a step back and make changes in our life? Why worry about what others may be thinking? These are the sort of topics one must contemplate. Does the perfectionist admit to the error of their ways? Or do they pretend, in splendid perfectionist hypocrisy, that their vaunted meticulous methods could not have produced any errors?

The perfectionist is a fool who annuls the ideal of a perfect state in any given arrangement. The ideal cannot be instantiated. It is unattainable, strictly speaking. The ideal can only serve as the guide of the realisable. The perfectionist is not willing to admit as much, as they keep comparing what they have to what they believe is the telos. Take any presence you want and judge it vis-à-vis its ideal form: it pales in comparison. If the perfectionist cannot admit to this fact, they are condemned to a lifetime of agony.

Perfectionism is a dogma. To go against it is quite literally a paradox: an opposition to established views. It is why I hold that the reference to the dark cloud is about the imperfect self who is like a smudge on an otherwise “perfect” canvas. By lifting the burdens of all those norms from my shoulders, we shall cast to the wind everything our perfectionist self gave back to us while marking it with an “F” grade. And, while we’re at it, we’ll let the sea wash away everything this perfectionist fool missed in life.

It is never too late to enjoy the sense of running contrary to beliefs imposed upon us; beliefs that we continue to reinforce. Be the paradox!