The Importance of Being Ironic, Part Two

6.26.06 | | 15 comments

This is the second part of a two part series on irony.  The first part may be found here.  Irony is by nature a boundless subject, and while the temptation to go on and on about it is compelling (for a ironophile like myself), this will do for the blogging moment.  References for Part One and Part Two can be found at the end of this post. 

When we find ourselves to be irony’s dupes, we experience the sudden revelation the joke thrusts upon us: we are caught in the act, or the rug is pulled out from under us, or there is a box in a box in a box, all attractively wrapped but containing at the center nothing, or the center might not be in the middle of things. Somehow we made the wrong choice or invested wholly in an incomplete idea. Thus we gain the pleasure of experiencing subsequent, perhaps inevitable rewards for our wrongheadness.

Some thinkers assert that irony surrounds us eternally and no one is immune to its effects. D. C. Muecke quotes Kierkegaard: ” … as philosophers claim that no true philosophy is possible without doubt, so by the same token one may claim that no authentic human life is possible without irony (11 ).” To demonstrate, Muecke delves into German philosopher Friedrich Schlegel’s complicated ironic world, saying that ” … for Schegel the basic metaphysical ironic situation of man is that he is a finite being striving to comprehend an infinite hence incomprehensible reality (12 ).” Muecke paraphrases Schlegel:

Nature is not a being but a becoming, an ‘intensely
teeming chaos’, a dilectic process of continual creation
and decreation. Man, as but one of these created, soon
to be decreated, forms must acknowledge that he can
acquire no permanent intellectual or experiential leverage
over the whole. He is none the less driven, or, as we might
now say, ‘programmed’ to grasp the world, to reduce it to
order and coherence, but any expression of his understanding
will inevitably be limited, not only because he himself is finite
but also because thought and language are inherently
systematic and ‘finitive,’ while nature is inherently elusive
and Protean (13).

To anyone favoring a concept of the eternal nature of man, Schlegel’s assertions may come off as distastefully cynical.  Setting aside for the moment his ideas of mankind’s nature and languages as being inherently finite, I would like to focus on the larger concern of irony’s powerful grip upon mankind’s experience of “reality.” Schlegel himself points out that irony as he imagines it is not a hopeless, inescapable, eternal trick that God plays on mankind. As part of Nature, mankind is right out there with the rest of Nature as it pushes its own boundaries. 

Specifically, Schlegel perceives the artist as thriving in this ironic universe, keeping, as he or she does, to the ever-shifting frontier of his/her growing consciousness:

Just as personified Nature might be said to play with or
ironize its created forms, seeming to promise each of them
an absoluteness and stability of being only to relativize and
destabalize them in the unending flux of creation and
decreation, so man, too, or more specifically the artist, himself
being part of nature, has both a creative and decreative energy,
both an unreflecting, enthusiastic inventiveness and a self-
conscious, ironic restlessness that cannot be satisfied with the
finiteness of achievement but must endlessly transcend even
what his imagination and inspiration has created (14).

This cycle of artistic creativity where the artist sets fire to his or her previous construct of the world calls to mind the legend of the phoenix, a creature possessing and possessed by extraordinary beauty, both of aspect and voice. A phoenix nests in a pyre which upon some signal it alone perceives it sets afire.  The creature is consumed in the conflagration. After three days a phoenix identical to the one that died arises from the ashes and the cycle begins again.

The phoenix myth is very old and several variations upon its theme occur the world over. Usually, the creature reborn from the ashes is identical to the original, but in Schlegel’s world view, the phoenix rising may bear resemblance to its predecessor but will not be identical. As an evolving form, its appearance and nature must in some way improve upon its previous incarnation. In fact, in Schlegel’s view of the nature of the artist, the artist that does not continuously decreate his/her worldview then emerge from the ashes with a new vision of his/her being-in-the-world has lost both his/her nature and value.

The artist at ease with the eternal creation and decreation of experience may not find ironic destructions as terrifying as some, yet they will be always for him/her very serious undertakings.  Muecke explains Schlegel’s view of the artist further:

Artistic creation … has two contrary but complementary
phases. In the expansive phase the artist is naive,
enthusiastic, inspired, imaginate; but this thoughtless ardour
is blind and [thus] untrue. In the contractive phase he is
reflective, conscious, critical, ironic; but irony without ardour
is dull and affected. Both phases are therefore necessary if the
artist is to be urbanely enthusiastic and imaginatively critical.
The artist who can bring off this difficult balancing act, this
‘wonderfully perennial alternation of enthusiasm and irony’
produces a work that includes within itself its own coming into
being … This creative surpassing of creativity is Romantic
Irony; it raises art to a higher power because it sees for art a
mode of production that is in the highest sense artificial,
because fully conscious and arbitrary, and in the highest sense
natural, because nature is similarly a dynamic process eternally
creating and eternally going through its own creation (15).

Schlegel’s notion of the artist’s destabalizing and self-destructive period of reimagination may seem threatening and undesireable, something one ought to avoid.  Actually, it may be unavoidable. This cycle of decreation may occur in more forms than we have names for and may be in some cases so routine that we would be surprised if someone pointed out their destructive qualitites. For instance, as mentioned, we have the flicker, the trade of metaphor, as Aristotle said, “the best thing by far for poets.” There is the long corridor of the symbol, whose entrance contains simultaneously its exit. Many linguistic and rhetorical forms engage in boundary crossing. Indeed, most rhetorical figures paint in their creative energies miniature portraits of the struggles of reimagination.

With language, the struggle to “get across” begins in infancy and becomes so routine we don’t think of language acquisition as the act of boundary crossing that it is, or because we don’t think of boundary crossing in this case as destructive, we do not give language acquisition the reverence due to it. As a result, often language is not fluently acquired, even one’s native tongue.  It is perhaps this lack of fluency that creates a perception of language as being finite and systematic and thus ultimately inadequate in rendering experience, as Muecke says Schlegel’s asserts it is.  At any rate, fluency in one’s native tongue stimulates vitality in one’s perception of and engagement with experience and in one’s community’s perception of and engagement in experience. However, any idea we may have of “capturing” an experience wholly perhaps ought to be given up. Ironic tension being what it is, some aspects of our experiences will always escape us, at least till we find language to help us get across to them.  

Many aspects of Schlegel’s concept of irony erase themselves like a well-marked forest trail that suddenly breaks out onto unmarked rock.  One could literally wander off in any direction.  As Schlegel says in one of his aphorisms, “Irony is a clear consciousness of an eternal agility, or the infinitely abundant chaos.”  Goethe said, “If you wish to advance into the infinite, just follow the finite in all directions.”  End to end, these two ideas sum up irony’s challenge to the artist: engaging irony makes for quite the unbalancing act, but if you keep going and don’t look down, look back, or leap to conclusions about what’s ahead you’ll do well for yourself and for your audience.

 Footnotes

     1.  Wayne Booth, A Rhetoric of Irony  (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pres, 1974), p. ix.

     2.  D. C. Muecke, Irony and the Ironic (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), pp. 14-18.

     3.  Ibid, p. 15.

     4.  Ibid, pp. 14-16.

     5.  Ibid. p. 16.

     6.  Booth, op cit.

     7.  Muecke, pp. 8-13.

     8.  Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature (Indianapolis: Odyssey Press, 3rd. ed., 1976), p. 314

     9.  David Richter, “The reader as Ironic Victim,” Novel (Fall 1980, no. 14) pp. 135-151.

     10. Ibid, p. 143.

     11. Muecke, op. cit., p. 4.

     12. Ibid, p. 23.

     13. Ibid, pp. 23-24.

     14. Ibid.

     15. Ibid, pp. 24-25. 

 

 

 

15 comments: “The Importance of Being Ironic, Part Two

  1. William Morris

    Fascinating, Patricia.

    And I think this is why Kafka’s work is so good. And so funny.

  2. Stephen Carter

    Thank you, Patricia. It’s nice being on the receiving end of such a fine mind. Muecke’s expansive and contractive phases ring true to my own experience. I’ve followed Stephen King’s advice to put a first draft away for at least six weeks (usually longer for me) before going back and revising. I think Leslie Norris said he put his poems in drawers around the house. When he came across them again, if they were still alive, he worked on them some more.

    Same idea.

    Because I always come up with something I think is just great (mirroring the enthusiastic phase) and want everybody in the world to read it. But after I’ve let it ferment, I am always grateful that I’ve kept it to myself. It’s always stuffed with ego and usually pretty banal. The only thing to do is to wait.

    Then gradually, experiences accrete that start talking to that original writing. Like you said, they poke and prod it, giving it new interpretations and laughing at it, etc. I guess that’s the contractive phase.

    Every once in two or three blue moons, there are moments when the essay sitting in a dusty corner of my hard drive will suddenly ignite under the influence of a recent or recalled experience. Immediately I can see the metaphors pop out, their relationships glowing like neon lights. Kind of like in the movie Hunting for Bobby Fisher where a character says he can see the possible movements in a chess game as bright strands, his downfall is that he prefers to move the pieces aesthetically rather than strategically.

    So I sit down and string everything together, tying it together as tightly as I can. I hate flab, as the poor souls who ask me for a critique on their writing will tell you.

    Then I send it to an editor, who inevitably saves me from humiliation, one way or another.
    Same idea.

    Because I always come up with something I think is just great (mirroring the enthusiastic phase) and want everybody in the world to read it. But after I’ve let it ferment, I am always grateful that I’ve kept it to myself. It’s always stuffed with ego and usually pretty banal. The only thing to do is to wait.

    Then gradually, experiences accrete that start talking to that original writing. Like you said, they poke and prod it, giving it new interpretations and laughing at it, etc. I guess that’s the contractive phase.

    Every once in two or three blue moons, there are moments when the essay sitting in a dusty corner of my hard drive will suddenly ignite under the influence of a recent or recalled experience. Immediately I can see the metaphors pop out, their relationships glowing like neon lights. Kind of like in the movie Hunting for Bobby Fisher where a character says he can see the possible movements in a chess game as bright strands, his downfall is that he prefers to move the pieces aestetically rather than strategically.

    So I sit down and string everything together, tying it together as tightly as I can. I hate flab, as the poor souls who ask me for a critique on their writing will tell you.

    Then I send it to an editor, who inevitably saves me from humiliation one way or another.

  3. Mark Butler

    I would say irony is critical to a proper understanding of history and scripture, as long as one allows for the eventual triumph of good over evil and the nature of present events as aspects of that conflict and process.

    Some LDS theologies have a same old, same old tone that is rather foreign to Christianity – if God’s dominions are not expanding, and if the power of the adversary isn’t real and rather serious I think we miss a major theme of the scriptures and of history.

  4. Patricia Karamesines Post author

    Stephen,

    Interesting to see you apply Schlegel’s heady stuff about the artist’s geist to individual acts of writing. But there it is of course, in the cycle–or perhaps spiral–of writing and revision.

    But the editor as ironic mediator, interceding, saving you from humiliation! That just might blow my theories about irony right out of the water.

    Sounds like you’ve taken some creative writing classes. Mind if I ask from whom? Sounds like Leslie Norris would appear somewhere on the list.

  5. Patricia Karamesines Post author

    Mark,you said:

    ” … if God’s dominions are not expanding, and if the power of the adversary isn’t real and rather serious I think we miss a major theme of the scriptures and of history.”

    When it comes to scriptural applications of irony, we have many stories, two of which I cited in Part One, that depict the tension between what certain characters think they know but don’t and how the truth breaks through (usually in some jaw-dropping fashion). But we also have Paul’s “glass darkly” speech in I Cor. 9-13, which I interpret to be about the ironic tension that exists between what we know now and what we might come to know. While the qualities of Christ-like behavior are enumerated there’s no direct reference to the great battle between good and evil. But! This nifty little ironic gem is set into a passage about charity — love –which I find telling. Love, of course, is one of the scripture’s major themes. If you ask Christ, it is THE major theme.

    I’m rather history challenged, but I’m very interested in how you see the eventual triumph of good over evil as being a major theme of history. My rhetoric meter says this statement is powered by paradox (something that hasn’t happened yet as a major theme of the study of things that have happened). Piques my interest, paradox.

  6. Stephen Carter

    Patricia,

    All the creative writing classes I’ve taken have been either at UVSC (from Laura Hamblin) or up here in Alaska (Frank Soos and Leonard Kamerling, I’m pretty sure you haven’t heard of either). But most of my training is self-inflicted. I’ve spent a goodly amount of time reading the heck out of writing theory.

    I did spend some time being Eugene England’s assistant at UVSC. That was a real jump start, I’ll tell you.

  7. s

    I just wanted to say that I enjoyed this! As a literary critic who spends way too much time reading feminist and various other strands of poststructuralist theory, I haven’t done too much reading on irony lately. So thanks!

  8. Mark Butler

    Patricia K., As far as history is concerned, I admit one has to look at it in a spiritual context to see any sort of moral victory in progress, and not all people do – I think the more conventional opinion is to see the Second Coming as a deus ex machina, with timing for dramatic effect, rather than an event the Lord is subtly making proper preparations for. Third Nephi chapters 20 and 21 teach a rather different doctrine than we are used to hearing. Same with Isaiah. I like the paradox and its resolution quite a lot.

    Now the classic New Testament work on the victory of good over evil is the Apocalypse of John. The classic Old Testament work is the Prophecy of Isaiah. There are many other references in the Old Testament, and quite a few in the New Testament as well. 1 Nephi 14 and Ether 13 are also worth mentioning.

    The last part of Revelations is so beautiful I almost want to quote it in full. These four verses will suffice:

    “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
    And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
    And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelations 21:1-4)

    And as far as irony is concerned, how about this:

    “Behold, I will hasten my work in its time.”
    (D&C 88:73)

    ” For thus saith the Lord, I will cut my work short in righteousness, for the days come that I will send forth judgment unto victory.”
    (D&C 52:11)

    “What I have said unto you must needs be, that all men may be left without excuse; That wise men and rulers may hear and know that which they have never considered;
    That I may proceed to bring to pass my act, my strange act, and perform my work, my strange work, that men may discern between the righteous and the wicked, saith your God.”
    (D&C 101:93-95)

  9. Patricia Karamesines Post author

    Mark, let me see if I’m getting your points. Scripture has unquestionable historical qualities but history must be placed into a spiritual context in order for one to get the whole picture, the actual impetus behind world events. That spiritual context is shaped by the eventual triumph of good over evil. Once that occurs and the New Jerusalem is established upon Earth, history will come to a fullness of times, so to speak.

    I’m not sure I’ve gotten what you’re saying, but at this point I see some interesting implications of your (possible) ideas:

    1) When good triumphs over evil, irony will more or less disappear. This is because a) ironic tension occurs as an artifact of the war between good and evil and b) ironic tension exists between God’s acts and intentions now and the fulfillment of these acts and intentions in the future.

    2)The scholarly discipline we call history actually lives in the future but doesn’t know it because the eventual triumph of good over evil colors all historical events and gives them their true meaning and many historians haven’t realized this yet.

    3) T.S. Eliot is right, at least for a few lines: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps contained in time future … ” (Four Quartets).

    I had never before thought of history as living in the future. What a cool idea!

  10. Stephen Carter

    That’s actually one of the things that turns me off about religon: the idea that the whole conflict is already decided. Jesus is going to win. Thus, the end of irony, as Patricia pointed out.

    I’d prefer to think that history goes somewhat the way Hegel thought it does. Theses and antitheses come into contact, but instead of one obliterating the other, they form a synthesis, which meets an antithesis, and so on. Plenty of room for irony, hooray!

  11. Mark Butler

    Faith is definitely living in the future, but acting in the present – “speaking of things to come as though they had already come”.

    However, I think it is important to maintain the radical contingency of the future. I do not see how those who believe the future is already captured in film, instead of on the drawing board, get up in the morning. Fatalism is the end of faith in my book.

    I agree with Stephen C. – the future is not *decided* it is planned for. Nephi’s statement about the relationship between God’s knowledge and power is very sophisticated – “But the Lord knoweth all things from the beginning; wherefore, he prepareth a way to accomplish all his works among the children of men; for behold, he hath all power unto the fulfilling of all his words. And thus it is. Amen.” (1 Ne 9:6)

    In short Chesterton is right – all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men (including God) to do nothing.

    Also, I do not believe it is possible to eradicate evil permanently – that would require eliminating free will. I am not inclined to believe that there is anything that can be done to one’s character to absolutely guarantee the “perseverance of the Saints”, even in heaven. The falling away at the end of the millennium is a good practical example.

    There is a basic question here about the pre-mortal life, i.e. who tempted Lucifer. I echo James and say Lucifer was tempted of his *own* lusts. We may bridle our passions, but I do not thing we can ever eliminate the *potential* for lust. Call that the tragic vision – that divinity requires diligence, forever.

    I don’t think the scholarly discipline lives in the future at present, but perhaps it should, because the future, though inchoate, gives the ultimate semantics to the events of the past. I would not go so far as to say the past actually changes, only that our appreciation of it does.

    The great irony of course is that often God allows, sometimes even inflicts horrible things upon us, and yet the nature of his power is that through the process of time, he makes all things work together for his name’s glory. He makes lemonade out of lemons, joy out of morning, beauty for ashes, and praise for heaviness – quite a talent that.

  12. Patricia Karamesines Post author

    As much as I enjoy irony in its higher forms I’m willing to concede that it may well be a self-conscious approach to experiencing life that ultimately isn’t enough. Kierkergaard suggested a freedom that exists beyond irony, something his “knight of faith” is or does:

    “… for the hero of faith was not so much an ironist or a humorist, but something far higher. Much is said in our age about irony and humor, especially by people who have never been capable of engaging in the practice of these arts, but who nevertheless know how to explain everything. I am not entirely unacquainted with these passions … I know therefore that these two passions are essentially different from the passion of faith. Irony and humor reflect upon themselves, and therefore belong within the sphere of infinite resignation, their elasticity is due to the fact that the individual is incommensurable with reality.”

    The knight of faith gives up the finite to get it back; he moves from the particular into the universal, and then by virtue of the absurd, he returns to the particular and harmony with the finite. The “absurd” here can be equated with what Mormons (among others) might call “miracle.” For instance, I’ve heard hostages speak of experiencing such “miracles.” One hostage told how he had accepted that he was going to die and was at peace with the fact of his impending death. The terrorist shot him, pushed him out of the airliner, and he hit the pavement below the airplane. But the bullet had not entered his brain, merely grazed the skull, so he did not die. He spoke of getting back that which he had wholly given up by virtue of this “absurd” incident. Of course, this experience made a new man out of him.

    Muecke held that three situations exist that contain no irony: 1) when language assume the characteristics of music, and can aspire to single-mindedness; 2) when one decides to choose a non-ironic manner, choosing the life of the “radical man,” or the man of the spirit; 3) when one decides to be both ironical and radical, which Muecke explains implies a “higher” irony able to accept the eternal opposition of what he calls “life and spirit.” I myself wonder if the rhetorical nature of promise or covenant might render it totally irony-free.

    That’s more than most people want to know about irony, but I wanted to note that I think irony may well have limits to its usefulness.

    As for this: “The great irony of course is that often God allows, sometimes even inflicts horrible things upon us …”

    TMI (too much irony)! That’s TOO ironic for me! IMO the gospel’s purpose is to help us deal with the results of our decisions as they affect us and as they affect others and the decisions of others as they affect us, offering us repentance, forgiveness, redemption, and ultimately access to more creative, productive, and proactive ways of being. Some people refer to these ultimately better ways of being as “exaltation.”

  13. Mark Butler

    The scriptures are full of accounts that say the Lord uses the wicked for his own purposes:

    The LORD preserveth the strangers; he relieveth the fatherless and widow: but the way of the wicked he turneth upside down.
    (Psalms 146:9)

    Wherefore it shall come to pass, that when the Lord hath performed his whole work upon mount Zion and on Jerusalem, I will punish the fruit of the stout heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks.
    For he saith, By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom; for I am prudent: and I have removed the bounds of the people, and have robbed their treasures, and I have put down the inhabitants like a valiant man:

    And my hand hath found as a nest the riches of the people: and as one gathereth eggs that are left, have I gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved the wing, or opened the mouth, or peeped.

    Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? as if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if the staff should lift up itself, as if it were no wood.

    Therefore shall the Lord, the Lord of hosts, send among his fat ones leanness; and under his glory he shall kindle a burning like the burning of a fire. And the light of Israel shall be for a fire, and his Holy One for a flame: and it shall burn and devour his thorns and his briers in one day;

    And shall consume the glory of his forest, and of his fruitful field, both soul and body: and they shall be as when a standardbearer fainteth. And the rest of the trees of his forest shall be few, that a child may write them.

    And it shall come to pass in that day, that the remnant of Israel, and such as are escaped of the house of Jacob, shall no more again stay upon him that smote them; but shall stay upon the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth.

    The remnant shall return, even the remnant of Jacob, unto the mighty God. For though thy people Israel be as the sand of the sea, yet a remnant of them shall return: the consumption decreed shall overflow with righteousness.
    (Isaiah 10:12-22)

    Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:

    Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.

    Woe unto them that seek deep to hide their counsel from the LORD, and their works are in the dark, and they say, Who seeth us? and who knoweth us?

    Surely your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter’s clay: for shall the work say of him that made it, He made me not? or shall the thing framed say of him that framed it, He had no understanding?
    (Isaiah 29:13-16)

    And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people: and they shall say, The LORD is my God.
    (Zech 13:9)

  14. Patricia Karamesines Post author

    “The scriptures are full of accounts that say the Lord uses the wicked for his own purposes …”

    Yes indeedy they are, Mark B., especially the OT. No argument there. And what I believe about such scriptures is neither interesting nor relevant to the topic so I’ll pass on that discussion.

    You’ve said some other things, however, I find intriguing and am still mulling over. Your idea of the relationship between history and the future caused a light to switch on in my head, even though we might not see eye-to-eye on how that relationship possibly works.

    New ideas — I love ‘em. I appreciate the people who come bearing ‘em. I enjoy the discussions that spark ‘em. This blogging stuff has real potential.

  15. Mark Butler

    How about this:

    And now if Christ had not come into the world, speaking of things to come as though they had already come, there could have been no redemption.
    (Mosiah 16:6)

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