04 August 2015

Some Thoughts on Irony

I have been thinking a great deal about Jane Austen. Well, more specifically I have been considering her novels, all six of which I read during this past Spring semester. William Deresiewicz claims that people either love or hate Austen. Mark Twain is one of the latter. “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone” (19). I am intrigued: why does he choose to read her again? But I think I am one of the former, and I am considering that what I love about reading Austen is that she immerses me in irony that I have long considered my lifeline to the world. Perhaps what I identify with is not the life of the characters, lives with which I cannot honestly identify, but with the dawning awareness of each of them that irony—an ironic stance--might serve them best. The heroines and heroes accept their stance in uncertainty. Claire Colebrook, in her book Irony says, “Irony must recognize that we can never overcome singular viewpoints and achieve a God-like point of view; we are always subject to a cosmic joke. For any idea we have of ourselves or our world will be part of a process of creation and destruction that we can neither delimit nor control.” Or as Isaiah Berlin says in his essay, “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” “We cannot legislate for the unknown consequences of consequences of consequences” Berlin says that every solution to a situation creates a new situation that presents a new set of issues to be considered but this time in an environment and in conditions significantly altered. Freud suggested a similar idea in “Analysis: Terminable and Interminable,” when he acknowledged that the resolution of one emotional issue makes possible the appearance of still another.
            So it seems to me with all of literature. The changed circumstances of our lives results in an altered reading of any book. I think this is one of the ideas in Italo Calvino’s if on a winter’s night a traveler. “I too, feel the need to reread the books I have already read . . . but at every rereading I seem to be reading a new book, for the first time. Is it I who keep changing and seeing new things of which I was not previously aware? Or is reading a construction that assumes form, assembling a great number of variables, and therefore something that cannot be repeated twice according to the same pattern.” Anna Karenina, which I am presently rereading, is a different text than that which I read twenty years ago. I know different things and have different sympathies as a result of the changed circumstances of my life. Furthermore, no text can express our intentions completely and directly and without contradiction¾and therefore, a text only gestures toward—makes available—its incompleteness. Every text is ironic, then, even the ones that remain spoken—and to learn to recognize that irony offers a perspective on the world that seems to me important and therefore, valuable. Maybe that is why I am so drawn to Ishmael’s Bulkington: he knows life exists in the quest for what will never be known. Maybe this is what draws me to Dylan, and repeatedly to an early composition, “Bob Dylan’s Dream.” There he sings, “I wish, I wish in vain/ That we could live simply in that room once again./ Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat/I’d give it all gladly/If our lives could be like that.”  The key word there is ‘simply,’ but the irony here is complex: our lives can never be like that.
            Developing a capacity for irony is to develop the capacity to make happen an experience of irony in one’s self and in another. Irony inheres in an acceptance of doubt, but in that acceptance exists possibility. And that is what I think I might have meant when I once said to my daughter’s that my legacy to them would be a sense of irony. Because it seems to me that the openness that irony enables makes possible a world that though unstable might also be more authentic. For me the world contains no truth—there is no reality behind the language I use—no object other than the words I use to describe it. Irony suggests that for everything that is said more yet exists. And, therefore, I need never feel stuck anywhere or anytime. The ironist accepts that there is always more: the Rabbis say I need not complete the task, but neither am I permitted to abandon it.
            What is the point? I’m not sure I know. But the ironist is always growing; and is always in process. The ironist never stops learning even though everything that is learned she knows is only partial. Schlegel has suggested that irony can also be considered the simultaneous presence of two meanings between which it is impossible to decide. In such a situation, all possibility is open and infinite. To be an ironist is to enjoy life to its fullest because whatever fullest means is unachievable. And so the ironist keeps on keeping on. I mean, finally, it’s life and life only.


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