What does Salvador Dalí have in common with Shakespeare? Both of them created masterpieces based around the bittersweet poetry of the oxymoron…

In this column, we explore the wonders of Europe – artistic masterpieces and jewels of cultural heritage. These are the treasures which fill us with a sense of Europe’s complex past – how beliefs and identities have intertwined to create the continent and the nations whose borders are often so hard to define. This time, Ziemowit Jóźwik takes us into the dizzying contradictions of the oxymoron.

“O brawling love! O loving hate!”: Romeo and Juliet | Image: Romeo and Juliet, by Ford Madox Brown (PD)

O brawling love! O loving hate!

O anything of nothing first create!

O heavy lightness, serious vanity!

Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!

Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!

Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!

This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

Can love be hate, lightness heavy or a fire cold? It seems impossible. However, we all understand or even feel what Shakespeare (or Romeo actually) wanted to say. Despite the contradictions and paradoxes we all see the meaning even though such wordings are initially totally deprived of sense or logic. All the everyday language and jargon we use is dictated by rules, logic and customs. The more impersonal and clear the message, the better we can express it. Nevertheless, there’s a point where our thoroughly conventional languages end, where logic fails and meanings remain blurred. This place beyond is the arcane realm of the oxymoron.

Concordia discors

The word oxymoron comes from ancient Greek. The venerable Britannica explains it as “a word or group of words that is self-contradicting, as in bittersweet or plastic glass. Oxymorons are similar to such other devices as paradox and antithesis and are often used in poetry and other literature”. Nevertheless, isn’t it a contradiction in itself to try to define an oxymoron through the “eyes and lenses” of science? That’s what Horace, one of the greatest poets of ancient Rome, would call insaniens sapientia, that is – mad wisdom.

Horace himself coined the notion of concordia discors, discordant harmony. He claimed that despite some antithetic pressure between certain words’ meanings, sometimes some “deeper semantic reason” occurs and flourishes with new senses. That’s the Greek oxus moros, literally: sharp dull, foolish wisdom or silly cleverness. And I would like to take a “sweet risk” (Horace’s dulce periculum), and claim that oxymorons are our European translinguistic, pre-logical idioms. Whether it’s Shakespeare’s Elisabethan “brawling love” and “loving hate” or the Greek poet Sappho’s representation of love as the “bittersweet creature against which nothing can be done,” the meaning is mysteriously obvious.

Fire is frozen, splendour darkens

An oxymoron releases some intuitive, perhaps ontological meaning of a phrase. The meaning is no longer the slave of a wording convention or logical schemes. It surpasses our casual categories of contradiction, cohesion and our simple binary oppositions. At the same time oxymorons reveal a mystery and a meaning – unobvious obviousness.

Many Baroque paintings combine images of life and earthly wealth with reminders of mortality. | Image: The Knight’s Dream, by Antonion Pereda (PD)

And quite surprisingly the meaning freed by oxymorons is no longer confined to languages. You will probably not comprehend the semantic subtleties of the Polish idiomatic phrase “to dress like a guardian for Corpus Christi day” without acknowledging some contexts of Polish society, history or religiosity. Nevertheless, you will intuitively grasp the meaning behind the words of the arch-Polish carol: “God is born, great powers tremble, Lord of Heaven lies forsaken. Fire is frozen, splendour darkens, feeble nature God has taken”.

What is really striking is the way in which oxymorons are able to breathe life into an obvious, and yet illogical meaning, ignoring existing conventions. Its pervasive while also illogical obviousness and clarity convey an impression that actually these meanings are somehow inherent to our languages. Just take a look at 15th century Spanish poet Rodrigo Cota de Maguaque’s words, that “love is blind look, dark light, sad glory and dead living.” A classic example of a logical error called a contradiction in terms. Initially, it may seem that there’s no sense in these words. And there is none, actually. But there’s a meaning. A meaning that we all can understand immediately, avoiding the disturbance of formulas but perceiving the essence.

Unconventional reality

Oxymorons aren’t only expressed in words: they have inspired many European artists in different fields throughout the ages. In baroque painting across the whole of Europe, we find many portraits of wealthy men who follow “earthly pursuits”, accompanied by reminders of mortality such as as skulls – isn’t there something oxymoronic about that?

Salvador Dalí, master of the surrealist oxymoron, with his pet ocelot | Image: Roger Higgins (PD)

But the masters of oxymoronic visual art were the surrealists of the early 20th century. Fighting against “the reign of logic” in times when “absolute rationalism [was] still in vogue,” the surrealists wanted to revisit “the superior reality of previously neglected associations and dreams, in the disinterested play of thoughts,” as the poet André Breton said in his definition of surrealism. A good example of that might be the legendary “Persistence of memory” by Salvador Dalí, with the famous melting pocket watches. Not only does he refute the opposition of “softness” and “hardness” but also questions assumptions about time’s determinism and infallibility. In the picture we observe a mastery of dissonance. Watches, time and other conventions of “the reign of logic” are just fading items.

In varietate concordia

Can a political creation be oxymoronic? Well, the unity of Europe definitely lacks obviousness but it also remains quite clear or even tangible at the same time. Of course, it’s not at the same level as the surrealists’ pictures or the ability of writers to provide a wealth of meaning despite the conventions of our perceptions. Nevertheless, the ideas still seem to be similar. Maybe uniting Europe is a political oxymoron?

To Krzysztof Szczerski, this is actually the best description of the current political processes on the continent. The Polish academic and politician sees Europe’s power in its seeming weaknesses. He perceives its institutional shape as self-contradictory and policies as paradoxes. Europe is diverse and unified, cohesive and competitive, old and in its infancy.

Maybe uniting Europe is a political oxymoron?

Therefore, Szczerski suggests that Europe as “an alternative oxymoronic construction” needs oxymoronic strategies to outlast the current turbulences. Those strategies should not not constrained by the old clichés and oppositions. Therefore a “cohesive” 2014-20 EU multiannual financial framework should not be understood as contrary to “an innovative” budget but rather as an implementation of innovation through “cohesive investments.” According to Szczerski it’s also pointless to consider some superstate/federalist scenarios, since no state in history was able to endure such a complex crisis as we currently have in the EU (a crisis of currency, leadership, borders, strategy). Hence the EU should rather find its strength in its oxymoronic structure than follow nation-state-like, inefficient methods.

Incomprehensible comprehensibility

Extremes meet in oxymorons. We understand them or rather grasp their meaning through misunderstanding. They express the inexpressible and reveal the unrevealable. They seem to tell us about the limits of our linguistic expression, which confines ontology within logic, meaning within words, values within conventions and feelings within phrases. However, on the other hand they also enable us to free ourselves from dull conventionality and approach some obvious mysteries at the same time.

Eventually, it was Albert Einstein himself who was to say that “the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” Then, is it – or not?

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