Monday, 21 October 2013


Is ‘Military Intelligence’ an oxymoron?
Is ‘streamlined government’ an oxymoron?

No, no, despite the insistence of wits and wags none of these expressions are oxymorons.
Well then give an example of a true oxymoron.
Still as they run they look behind,
They hear a voice in every wind,
And snatch a fearful joy.

His honour rooted in dishonour stood,
And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true

foul justice

The idea is that each of those opposed terms standing singly seems to exclude the other so when they are conjoined in the one expression have a striking and arresting effect which moreover suggests a sense on a higher plane as it were. ‘Military’ and ‘Intelligence’ standing separately do not exclude each other. There is nothing about the idea of streamlining which excludes the idea of government. How about Morrissey’s Autobiography being an instant classic? This is an oxymoron as would ‘unrecognised classic’ or ‘unknown classic’might also be. When a book has the status of classic the implication is that it has been accepted as important by authoritative critics over an extended period of time. Could Morrissey’s book unread by any of the general public be regarded as a classic?

What about the (Penguin) Modern Classics series? That seems a a contradiction in terms which I think it is but it is also a true oxymoron. Some books seem to be raised into the classic status by acclamation practically immediately. There is no need to canonise them. They create the taste by which they are to be judged as Coleridge remarked (reported by Wordsworth in a letter):

These people in the senseless hurry of their idle lives do not read books, they merely snatch a glance at them that they may talk about them. And even if this were not so, never forget what I believe was observed by Coleridge, that every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great or original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.

From Wordsworth’s Preface to the Poem (1815)
And where lies the real difficulty of creating that taste by which a truly original poet is to be relished? Is it in breaking the bonds of custom, in overcoming the prejudices of false refinement, and displacing the aversions of inexperience? 


skholiast said...

My first conscious reflection on the word "classic" came from repeated reading of the back blurb on my Ballantine paperback edition of The Hobbit: "prediction is dangerous," it said, "but The Hobbit may well prove a classic." My suspicion is that this will hold. (It was published in 1937 and I fully expect it to see its centennial with no lapse in popularity).

As for "oxymoron," I recently read what claimed to be a critique of theism and atheism (it was really a critique of the cosmological argument, but it didn't seem to be able to think of the idea of God as anything but the object of the cosmological argument) which held, essentially, that the notion of a First Cause is an implicit oxymoron. The argument didn't (as I recall) use the term "oxymoron," but the notion of a First Cause was held to be essentially nonsensical and unthinkable. (The book also held that the idea of First Cause is inherently generated by our way of conceiving causality, so apparently thinking unthinkable thoughts is just an occupational hazard of thinking in general.)

ombhurbhuva said...

I think that certain books become classics after a very short time. They have a timeless new departure feel about them. In a Platonic sense eternal forms are unmistakably realised in them.

The First Cause argument is a puzzle for the materialist who sees an endless stretching back into the past on the same level. A cause that isn’t caused contradicts that conception of cause and might be called an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms. The idea of supervenient cause, in the vertical dimension, is a difficult notion requiring a metaphysical intuition that is different to the common empirical grasp of reality. It doesn’t have the inevitability of the empirical. Does the fact that some get it as a proof and others do not hole it below the waterline? Hardly when so much of philosophy breaks down into those that get a philosophic position and those that can’t see the attraction of it.