Monday, August 6, 2018

Oxymorons and the Verities

As you know, an oxymoron is a rhetorical device involving the juxtaposition of contradictory terms, such as “jumbo shrimp,” “act natural” or “deafening silence.” There is often humor in an oxymoron. For example, the word “sophomore” contains an oxymoron within itself as it combines the Greek words “sophos” and “moros,” meaning “wise fool.” I have taught a lot of sophomores in my day and they were not necessarily in their second year of study. And, interestingly, the word oxymoron itself is an oxymoron as it combines the Greek words meaning “keenly stupid,” two truly contradictory terms.

Most of us enjoy the ironic humor provided by oxymorons such as “honest politician,” but they can be chilling and disturbing, too. For example, is there anything honorable in the oxymoron “honor killing”? Also, is there anything merciful about “mercy killing”? All the words denoting universal Truth can be and are sometimes twisted by our human tendency to have things our way.

In his 1949 Nobel Prize speech, the great Southern writer, William Faulkner, gave a list of the old verities or truths of the human heart for the benefit of future writers. He tells them they are doomed to mediocrity if they do not write about these things: love, honor, pity, pride, compassion and sacrifice. We know that history, both literary and otherwise, is replete with examples of genuine love of the kind Faulkner specified, such as Romeo and Juliet, Dr. Zhivago and Lara, George H. W. and Barbara Bush and Billy and Ruth Graham. Of course, there are other kinds of admirable love as well, such as the love of friendship, love of neighbor and the more abstract love of mankind. But this same universal truth of love that motivates such good relationships can be perverted into cultism or even merely prurient indulgence.

The second word on Faulkner’s list, honor, can be perverted as well. In its name, we have read of merciless acts in wartime, not to mention the hideous murdering of one’s own child in the name of religion. Even pity can be the condescending kind that denotes feelings of superiority over those pitied. And, who has not witnessed the destructive nature of self-congratulatory pride?

As to Faulkner’s old verity or universal truth listed as compassion, it can and often is feigned. People will give money or lip service to avoid rubbing shoulders with those in need. Often the real need is for a personal touch, a word of encouragement, a hand up. A checkbook is easier to handle and requires no personal interaction.

But how does the last old truth on the list, that of sacrifice, get perverted? Moliere’s Tartuffe is perhaps literature’s greatest example of the perversion of the virtue of sacrifice. This ultimate hypocrite, who poses as a pious priest, pretends to give his last pennies to the poor, thus depriving himself of a living. He does so to find favor with a family whose home and possessions he plots to steal. The man is a walking oxymoron.

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