This is the second part of a two part series on irony.Â The first part may be found here.Â Irony isÂ by nature a boundless subject, and while the temptation to go on and on about it isÂ compelling (for a ironophile like myself),Â this will do for the blogging moment.Â Â References forÂ Part OneÂ and Part TwoÂ can be found at the end of this post.Â
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 fromÂ under us, or there is a box in a box in a box, all attractively wrapped but containing at the center nothing, or the centerÂ might not beÂ in the middle of things. Somehow we made the wrong choice orÂ invested wholly in an incomplete idea. ThusÂ weÂ gain the pleasure of experiencing subsequent,Â perhaps inevitable rewardsÂ 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 ).”Â Muecke paraphrases Schlegel:
Nature is not a being but a becoming, an â€˜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.Â Setting aside for the momentÂ hisÂ ideasÂ of mankind’s nature and languages as being inherently finite,Â I would like toÂ focus on the largerÂ concern of irony’sÂ powerful grip upon mankind’s experience of “reality.”Â Schlegel himself points out that irony as heÂ imagines it is notÂ aÂ hopeless, inescapable, eternal trick that God plays on mankind. As part of Nature,Â mankind isÂ right out there with the rest of NatureÂ as it pushesÂ itsÂ ownÂ boundaries.Â
Specifically,Â SchlegelÂ perceives theÂ artist as thrivingÂ inÂ 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 previousÂ construct of the world calls to mind the legend of the phoenix, a creatureÂ possessing and possessed byÂ extraordinary beauty, both ofÂ aspect and voice. A phoenix nests in a pyre which upon some signal it alone perceives it sets afire.Â TheÂ 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, theÂ 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 notÂ be identical. As anÂ evolving form, its appearance and natureÂ must in some way improve upon itsÂ previous incarnation. In fact, in Schlegel’s view of the nature of the artist,Â the artist that does not continuously decreate his/her worldview then emerge from the ashes with a new vision of his/herÂ being-in-the-worldÂ has lost both his/her nature and value.
TheÂ artistÂ at ease with the eternal creation and decreation of experience may not findÂ ironic destructions as terrifying as some,Â yetÂ they will beÂ always for him/her very serious undertakings.Â 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’sÂ notion of the artist’s destabalizing and self-destructive period of reimagination mayÂ seem threatening and undesireable, something one ought to avoid.Â Actually,Â it may be unavoidable.Â ThisÂ cycle of decreationÂ may occur in more forms thanÂ we have names for andÂ 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.â€ There is the long corridor of the symbol, whose entrance contains simultaneously its exit. Many linguistic and rhetorical forms engage in boundary crossing. Indeed, mostÂ rhetorical figures paint in their creative energiesÂ miniature portraits of the strugglesÂ 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 donâ€™t think of boundary crossing in this case as destructive, we do not give language acquisition the reverence due to it.Â As aÂ result, oftenÂ language isÂ not fluently acquired, even one’s native tongue.Â Â It is perhaps thisÂ lack of fluencyÂ that createsÂ a perception of language as being finite and systematic and thus ultimately inadequate in rendering experience, as Muecke says Schlegel’s asserts it is.Â At any rate,Â fluency in one’sÂ native tongue stimulates vitalityÂ in oneâ€™s perception of and engagementÂ with experience and in one’sÂ community’s perception of andÂ engagement in experience.Â However, any idea we may have of “capturing” an experience wholly perhaps ought to be given up.Â 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.Â Â
Many aspects of Schlegel’s concept of irony erase themselves like a well-marked forest trail that suddenly breaks out onto unmarked rock.Â One could literally wander off in any direction.Â As Schlegel says in one of his aphorisms, “Irony is a clear consciousness of an eternal agility, orÂ the infinitely abundant chaos.”Â Goethe said, “If you wish to advance into the infinite, just follow the finite in all directions.”Â End toÂ end, these two ideas sum upÂ irony’s challenge to the artist:Â engaging irony makes forÂ quite the unbalancing act, but ifÂ you keep going and don’t look down, look back, orÂ leap to conclusions aboutÂ what’s aheadÂ you’ll do well for yourself and forÂ your audience.
Â Â Â Â 1.Â Wayne Booth, A RhetoricÂ of IronyÂ Â (Chicago: Univ. ofÂ Chicago Pres, 1974), p. ix.
Â Â Â Â 2.Â D. C. Muecke, Irony and the IronicÂ (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), pp. 14-18.
Â Â Â Â 3.Â Â Ibid, p. 15.
Â Â Â Â 4.Â Ibid, pp. 14-16.
Â Â Â Â 5.Â Ibid. p. 16.
Â Â Â Â 6.Â Booth, op cit.
Â Â Â Â Â 7.Â Muecke, pp. 8-13.
Â Â Â Â 8.Â Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature (Indianapolis: Odyssey Press, 3rd. ed., 1976), p. 314
Â Â Â Â 9.Â David Richter, “The reader as Ironic Victim,” Novel (Fall 1980, no. 14) pp. 135-151.
Â Â Â Â 10. Ibid, p. 143.
Â Â Â Â 11. Muecke, op. cit., p. 4.
Â Â Â Â 12. Ibid, p. 23.
Â Â Â Â 13. Ibid, pp. 23-24.
Â Â Â Â 14. Ibid.
Â Â Â Â 15. Ibid, pp. 24-25.Â