Monday, May 01, 2006

May 1: Paradox Day

Today is the anniversary of the 1961 publication of the Joseph Heller novel Catch-22. In the novel the anti-hero Captain Yossarian serves in the United States Air Force on a Mediterranean island near Italy during World War II. In order to survive the war, Yossarian attempts to avoid flying on the dangerous bombing missions. His efforts are thwarted, however, by the paradoxical rule called Catch-22, explained in the following excerpt from the novel:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

According to Twentieth Century Words, the expression catch-22 to refer to "a supposed law or regulation containing provisions which are mutually frustrating" began to gain widespread use in the 1970s after the release of a film version of the novel in 1970 (1). The fact that the title of a novel took on a life of its own and developed a generic meaning in the language is a unique occurrence. For example, even a person who has never heard of Yossarian or Heller’s novel might be aware of the expression. After a job interview, for example, a frustrated teenager might return home and tell his mother: "They won’t hire me unless I have experience, but how can I get experience if no one will hire me? I’m caught in a catch-22."

A catch-22, then, is a 'damed if you do, damed if you don't' type of situation. It's a no-win situation; a chicken and egg problem that traps you in a double bind of circular logic wrapping around a conundrum. In other words, it's a kind of paradox.

A paradox is a statement that seems to contradict itself, yet is true. In a paradox, truth and falsehood collide and synthesize into wisdom. Great quotes, great poetry, and great speeches of all kinds are full of paradox. The etymology of paradox is Greek paradoxon meaning conflicting with expectation. For an excellent anthology of paradoxes, get the book Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History's Greatest Wordsmiths. In this book Dr. Mardy Grothe has collected over one thousand examples of paradoxical quotes, including the following one from Joseph Heller: When I grow up I want to be a little boy.

Today’s Challenge: True Lies
The paradoxical quotes below are from classic literary authors. See if you can guess the author of each quote:

1. Parting is such sweet sorrow.

2. I must be cruel only to be kind.

3. Even amongst men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.

4. Several excuses are always less convincing than one.

5. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.

6. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

7. I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot.

8. The best place to hide anything is in plain view.

9. He is an honorable, obstinate, truthful, high-spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly reasonable man.

10. The handsome gifts that fate and nature lend us most often are the very ones that end us.

Quote of the Day: If you want to be true to life, start lying about it. -- John Fowles

1. William Shakespeare 2. William Shakespeare 3. Joseph Heller 4. Aldous Huxley 5. Ken Kesey 6. George Orwell 7. J. D. Salinger 8. Edgar Allen Poe 9. Charles Dickens 10. John Fowles

1- Ayto, John. Twentieth Century Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
2-Grothe, Mardy. Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History's Greatest Wordsmiths. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

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