Sunday, September 09, 2007

Irony, or the shelter of a lie

With his customary pluck, Ed Champion combats the disdain attached to irony as a literary device: It "may be a helpful tool to the contrarian thought process, but it is apparently the stuff of tots. Basic human skepticism and healthy chicanery are now beneath the current elite." He goes on to criticise various critics for dismissing those big American novels which make us all so unhappy (especially if one hasn't read them).
The critical establishment has no desire to give itself a swift kick in the ass, much less exhibit the kind of playfulness and inclusive expertise that makes for good criticism. If the critical establishment cannot effect these qualities, then it deserves to die a lumbering and painful death. This monster has only itself to blame for ignoring so many passionate qualities.
Of course, the predicted death will not happen because rigor mortis already constitutes the majority of establishment reviewing practise. (By the way, I plead guilty to not having read what Ed calls Ozick's "criminally underread" essay, so if anyone's got a copy they can forward, please do).

Still, I think scepticism over irony is not entirely ill-placed. A useful definition of irony as a device and irony as an affliction is provided in Joakim Garff's biography of Kierkegaard. Garff doubts the latter form of irony - "an arrow of pain ... lodged in my heart" - that Kierkegaard claims to have had since his earliest childhood is the same irony as performed in his books.
A child may be satisfied with employing a bit of irony, with pretending, with crawling into the shelter of a lie, with using language in a manner different from what other people think. In this case one says something other than what one means, or one means something other than what one has said. This is irony. And it is good to have it at the ready when other people abandon us, which of course they do. Sooner or later. (Translated by Bruce H. Kirmmse)
Later in his life, Garff says that through his study of the German Romantics, Kierkegaard "inhaled irony's urbane ether" and "during the calamitous course of his engagement [to Regine Olsen] he developed [it] into a sort of desperate perfection", as demonstrated in a journal entry of 1848 alluding to the engagement:
A wishing, hoping, searching individual can never be ironical. Irony (as constitutive of an entire existence) consists of the exact opposite, of situating one's pain at the precise point where others situate their desire. The inability to possess one's beloved is never irony. But the ability to possess her all too easily, so that she begs and pleads to become one's own - and then to be able to unable to possess her. That is irony.
Garff continues (I won't use the word "glosses" as I dislike it as much as "normative" and "trope"):
Irony is thus something more and something different than a spirited turn of phrase for the delight of one's dinner partner. Irony is (also) an intellectual distance from others, from the world, and from oneself, a prerequisite for being able to die away. And as such, irony is an extremely sophisticated but also a very risky maneuver that can place the ironist in a life-threatening condition.
Those large American novels are, almost by virtue of their size and ambition, "wishing, hoping, searching". Certainly all three are prominent in the passion they generate in readers and potential readers - why else would they care? And they don't "die away" either. So how are they ironic? Perhaps the ability to write such novels is itself not ironic. There are so many! But their inability to become what we want them to be - despite or because of the attentions of critics - maybe that is.


  1. It's not clear how one determines that a magazine article is "underread", let alone "criminally" so. In any event, I wouldn't worry too much about the Ozick piece. I didn't think it had much of value in it.

  2. Well at least we can be sure it isn't one of her lectures on Israel.



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