Paradox: A statement that seems self-contradictory or nonsensical on the surface but that, upon closer examination, may express an underlying truth. A rhetorical figure, paradox provokes the reader or audience to see something in a new way. A paradox formed by the juxtaposition of two opposite or apparently contradictory words is an oxymoron.

The New Critics used the term paradox more broadly to refer to unexpected deviations from ordinary discourse. Cleanth Brooks, for instance, maintained in his essay “The Language of Poetry” (1942) that “paradox is the language appropriate and inevitable to poetry.”

EXAMPLES: The zen koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

Speaking of the immense losses his forces sustained in defeating the Romans at Asculum (279 B.C.), Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, is reported to have said, “One more such victory and we are lost.” By contrast, an unidentified U.S. major in Vietnam, questioned by reporter Peter Arnett about the use of heavy artillery against the provincial capital of Bến Tre, claimed, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it” (Feb. 7, 1968).

The metaphysical poets made frequent use of paradox; for instance, the speaker of John Donne’s poem “Lovers’ Infiniteness” (1633) tells his beloved:

Thou canst not every day give me thy heart;

If thou canst give it, then thou never gavest it… .

Death is often the subject of paradoxical statements. For instance, in Piers Anthony’s fantasy novel On a Pale Horse (1983), the seller of the Deathstone claims it “advises the wearer of the proximity of termination, by darkening. The speed and intensity of the change notifies you of the potential circumstance of your demise — in plenty of time for you to avoid it.” In Don DeLillo’s postmodernist novel Zero K (2016), the first-person narrator observes, “At some point in the future, death will become unacceptable even as the life of the planet becomes more fragile,” and another character comments, “What’s the point of living if we don’t die at the end of it?”