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Jack Smith

The irony and the ecstasy of wending one's way through the possible paradoxes of the cosmos

June 11, 1986|JACK SMITH

In writing the other day about the oxymoron and the paradox, I did not claim to be an expert on either.

Readers have alleged that I was wrong on some points, which makes me right.

According to the definition I used, a paradox is "a seeming contradiction; whatever sounds impossible yet is in fact possible." For example: "Less is more."

An oxymoron, as I defined it, is a very brief paradox, one usually expressed in two words, such as "honest thief."

Vance Geier, who suggested that I write about paradoxes in the first place, writes: "Something bothers me. What distinguishes a seeming contradiction (paradox) from a true one?"

Why, easy: What only seems not so is only seemingly so.

As an example of what he means, Geier cites our use of terrorist tactics to combat terrorism.

"That involves our government in true contradiction, not paradox," he says,"for the legitimate ends are compromised, or negated, by the illegitimate means."

In the first place, "We had to use terrorism to combat it" wasn't one of my examples, but since Geier has thrown it in, I agree that it is not a paradox at all; it is merely a description of tactics, like "Fight fire with fire." It is an equation of political expediency that only seems to be a paradox.

The Rev. Richard L. LaShure, minister of St. Luke's Methodist Church, defines oxymoron as "an imaginary entity whose description contains a paradox."

As his favorite examples, he gives: "jumbo shrimp," and "nuclear safety."

Several others have nominated "jumbo shrimp," but I'm not sure it's an oxymoron. "Jumbo," through the hyperbole of advertising, has merely come to mean large in comparison with the smaller size. Thus, we have not only jumbo shrimp, but also jumbo olives, both of which, in comparison to tomatoes or elephants, are rather small.

Jack Kneass of Huntington Beach belabors me for quoting the famous dictum of Epimenides, the Cretan philosopher--"All Cretans are liars"--as a paradox.

Kneass says "All Cretans are liars" is a self-evident truth. He argues: "It does not mean that all Cretans lie all the time, which would have been a paradox, as would be, 'When Cretans speak in public they always lie.' "

But why does a paradox have to be logical, or meet the test of experience? and why can't we assume, for the sake of argument, that Cretans never tell the truth?

"You are usually so precise," Kneass adds, "that I am hurt at this lack of intellectual refinement."

The lack of intellectual refinement noted by Kneass is nothing compared to that implied by Charles G. Gant of Santa Ana, whose letter is too scholarly for me to paraphrase.

He begins with a pertinent quote from "The Pirates of Penzance," by W. S. Gilbert:

How quaint the way of paradox--

At common sense she gaily mocks

(Robert Louis of Santa Barbara recalls that these lines describe the plight of poor Frederick, the apprentice pirate, who is to be freed on his 21st birthday; but it turns out he was born on Feb. 29, leap year, so when he turns 21, he has had only five birthdays. "A most ingenious paradox!")

Gant argues that Epimenides was not a Cretan at all, but a Doric Greek, a conqueror of the Cretans. "If so, his famous paradox may be no more than a straightforward statement of fact."

Fact? Is Gant, too, saying that no Cretan ever lied?

Gant maintains that a paradox is not a paradox when the seeming contradiction can be resolved. "When it cannot be explained, it is a true paradox, what the medieval philosophers called an insolubilium .

He adds: "If all this seems too recondite, why not try a more literary endeavor? Explore the difference between paradox . . . and the following: irony, peripeteria, antinomy, and dialectic."

Antinomy? Isn't that a kind of metal? (Peripeteria is the kind of cafeteria you eat at when you're on the road.)

Almost as erudite as Gant is A. Wayne Colver of the School of Humanities, Cal State Fresno. Colver also questions the Epimenides paradox on the grounds that it would be "a departure from ordinary usage" to interpret "all Cretans are liars" as meaning that every Cretan always lied.

"But if there were a Cretan about whom we knew he never spoke the truth, then his assertion that 'all Cretans are liars' would be false if true and true if false, and we would have a real paradox on our hands. . . ."

I don't mind saying that I don't follow that.

Colver also recalls another famous paradox--if indeed it is one: "A company barber was instructed by his captain to shave all members of the company who didn't shave themselves. Should he or should he not shave himself?"

Well, I'd say it depends on whether he shaves himself.

Colver also recalls a question that his wife says he asked years ago in his sleep: "Does it matter to the egg how big the frying pan is?"

"I'm not sure what it means," Colver says now, "and I don't think it qualifies as either a paradox or an oxymoron; perhaps it's merely gibberish."

He calls the question "Colver's query," and has come to think of it as being "possibly gnomic, embodying a profound and universal truth about the world we live in."

My favorite question is "Which came first--the chicken or the egg?"

Let the biologists figure that one out.

I think it's not only gnomic, but it may be the key to all the mysteries of the cosmos.

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