by Mark Dorset
An emotional or linguistic carapace.
Philosophy is the true home of irony, which might be defined as logical
beauty: for wherever men are philosophizing in spoken or written dialogues,
and provided they are not entirely systematical, irony ought to be produced
and postulated; even the Stoics regarded urbanity as a virtue. It
is true, there is also a rhetorical irony which, if sparingly used, performs
a very excellent function, especially in polemics, but compared to the
lofty urbanity of the Socratic muse, rhetorical irony is like the splendor
of the most brilliant oratory compared to ancient high tragedy. In
this respect, poetry alone can rise to the height of philosophy, since
it is not, as oratory, based upon ironic passages. There are ancient and
modern poems which breathe, in their entirety and in every detail, the
divine breath of irony. In such poems there lives a real transcendental
buffoonery. Their interior is permeated by the mood which surveys
everything and rises infinitely above everything limited, even above the
poet's own art, virtue, and genius; and their exterior form by the histrionic
style of an ordinary good Italian buffo.
Aphorisms from the Lyceum
(1797, translated by Ernst Behler and Roman
Rainer Maria Rilke:
Irony: Do not let yourself be governed by it, especially not in uncreative
moments. In creative moments try to make use of it as one more means
of grasping life. Cleanly used, it too is clean, and one need not
be ashamed of it; and if you feel you are getting too familiar with it,
if you fear this growing intimacy with it, then turn to great and serious
objects, before which it becomes small and helpless. Seek the depth
of things: thither irony never descends—and when you come thus close to
the edge of greatness, test out at the same time whether this ironic attitude
springs from a necessity of your nature. For under the influence
of serious things either it will fall from you (if it is something fortuitous),
or else it will (if it really innately belongs to you) strengthen into
a stern instrument and take its place in the series of tools with which
you will have to shape your art.
Letters to a Young Poet
(translated by M. D. Herter; quoted by Lawrence Weschler in Mr.
Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder)
In a minute he appeared, carrying something heavy draped in a white
towel. . . . He put it carefully on the centre of the table. . . . Gravely
he removed the cloth. It was a stone head, whether of a man or woman it
was difficult to say. . . . But the power of the fragment was in the face.
It was set in a triumphant smile, a smile that would have been smug if
it had not been so full of the purest metaphysical good humor. . . . The
mouth was beautifully modeled, timelessly intelligent, and timelessly amused.
[Conchis said,] “That is the truth. Not the
hammer and sickle. Not the stars and stripes. Not the cross.
Not the sun. Not gold. Not yin and yang. But the
smile.” . . .
[I said,] “There’s something implacable in that smile.”
“Implacable?” He came behind my chair and looked
down over my head. “It is the truth. Truth is implacable.
But the nature and meaning of this truth is not.” . . .
“I wonder if it would have that smile if it knew
“Because they died, we know we still live.
Because a star explodes and a thousand worlds like ours die, we know this
world is. That is the smile: that what might not be, is.” . . .
The little head watched our watching; bland, certain,
and almost maliciously inscrutable. . . . I realized exactly what
I disliked about it. It was above all the smile of dramatic irony,
of those who have privileged information.
in John Fowles’s The Magus
Private interests or associations can lead to “ironic” reversals of
any passage. Especially in a time when critical reputations can be
gained by discovering clever new readings that no one else would ever have
thought of, temptations to reversals are for some critics hard to resist.
Any statement can easily be turned into its opposite and made more “interesting.”
Any work can be revised, turning the three little pigs into villains, the
wolf into a tragic hero.
A Rhetoric of Irony
Reservations Recommended: He
spent a whole childhood moping because he didn't have the defensive shield
of a sense of humor.
||Do you have something to add?
E-mail it to me, Mark Dorset.