Friday, May 1, 2009

Oxymoron in Action

Even St. Augustine seizes an oxymoron to illustrate the doctrine of original sin: Felix culpa (“Oh, most fortunate fall”). And when Nicholas of Cusa challenged the rigidity of Scholasticism, he summarized it as learned ignorance, which is also the title of his book, De docta ignorantia . Obviously, this is a masterful use of the oxymoron.

From this discussion we can see that the precise insertion of the oxymoron can shake up the reader (in particular the skeptic, cynic, or irreverent) and as the philosopher Immanuel Kant said, ‘awaken him from his dogmatic slumbers.’ And incidentally, Kant himself in his Critique of Judgment used antinomies—another name for oxymoron—to convey his sense of beauty as ‘purposeful without purpose,’ and ‘a finality without end.’

When Don Quijote returns to his village to die free from his delusion, we learn that he only exchanged one insanity for another; that of becoming a virtuous, amorous shepherd. His friends, “approved his [new] madness as sensible” (Cervantes 932).

The erudite Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges delighted in the use of the oxymoron, and his essays and stories are all speckled with numerous examples. Here’s one:
Beatriz was tall, fragile, very slightly stooped; in her walk, there was (if I may be pardoned the oxymoron) something of a graceful clumsiness … (Borges, The Aleph 275).

Ishmael, the narrator of Moby Dick, explores the horror of whiteness by means of the oxymoron: Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning … (Melville )

As you can see, master writers use this rhetorical figure to great advantage. Remember Henry James’ admonition: the only obligation the writer has is not to be boring. So, use it—to startle, to astonish, and to make the reader think along with you.

Senada Selmani, model

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