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.
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.
15. Ibid, pp. 24-25.