March 10, 2008


Emptying Ourselves of What We Think We Know (Anthony Esolen, 03/10/08, excerpted from Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature)

Until fairly recently, most writers on irony have defined it as speech that means something other than (or opposite to) what is literally said. The problem with this definition is that it is at once too narrow, too broad, and beside the point. Liars mean other than what they say, but the lie is not in itself ironic; and you may, with irony, mean exactly what you say, but in a way that your audience (or perhaps a putative audience, more foolish than those who are actually listening to you) will not understand. The definition is beside the point, since moments of dramatic irony, or what some have called “irony of event,” may not involve speech at all, but only strange turns of fate.

Contemporary literary theorists have attempted to distill the essence of irony, that which underlies both the winking assertions of ignorance made by Socrates, and concatenations of events that seem (but only seem) to suggest design, or that demolish any sense of design. Irony, they assert, is a universal solvent: no theology or epistemology can contain it. It dissolves—it “deconstructs”—every assertion of absolute truth.

The trouble with this view of irony now prevalent in the academy is that it enshrines one sort of ironic statement or event and ignores the rest. Worse, the kind of irony it enshrines is destructive, and the first thing it destroys is irony. If there is no objective truth—if irony must undermine and destabilize—then, once we have noticed the fact, there is no more point for irony, just as it makes no sense for the skeptic to embark on a quest for knowledge, when there is no knowledge to be had. How, after all, does one then proceed, by irony, to undermine the “truth” that every truth can be undermined? If all speech is inherently slippery, why trouble oneself with the subtleties of irony? Why pour oil on a sheet of ice?

But in fact, irony commonly is used to exalt rather than undermine. It can stun us with wonder and raise our eyes to behold a truth we had missed. All kinds of unsuspected truths, particularly those combined in paradoxes, await our attention, but we are too dulled by habit to notice. Then irony—verbal or dramatic—awakes us. Consider:

1. A bystander watches as a professor, holding forth to his suffering companion on the epistemological subtleties of irony, steps dangerously near a banana peel.

2. In King Lear, Gloucester tries to refuse the help of his son Edgar, whom he cannot see and does not know: “I have no way and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled when I saw.” (4.1. 18–19)

3. In II Henry IV (and apparently in real life, too) the usurper King Henry, who had wanted to atone for his sin by fighting in the Crusades, removes to die in a room called “Jerusalem,” noting that it had been foretold to him that he would die in Jerusalem. (4.5. 236–40)

4. St. Paul sings a hymn of Christ’s Atonement:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:5–11)

5. In Molière’s comedy Tartuffe, the jealous husband Orgon squirms under the table where his wife Elmire has put him, listening as his protégé Tartuffe, the one man he is amazingly not suspicious of, attempts to seduce her. (4.5)

What do the cases have in common? The first verges upon slapstick; the second involves a lesson learned in an unusual way; the third hinges upon a play on words; the fourth is a theological reversal of expectations; the fifth is a piece of staged ignorance. Each involves a problem of knowing. The irony lies in a stark clash between what a character thinks he knows and what he really knows. This clash is staged to let the reader or the audience in on the secret. We are, then, not merely watching ignorance, but ignorance unaware of itself and about to learn better, or at least about to teach by way of its own incorrigibility. The irony reveals, with a kind of electric shock, order where randomness was expected, or complexity and subtlety where simplicity was expected.

Each case involves a staged clash of incompatible levels of knowledge:

1. The professor thinks he knows a lot about the subtlest things, but misses the humble and material banana at his feet. The bystander probably knows a great deal less about irony, but he does see the hazard and, if he possesses either a profound moral sensibility or none at all, will stand back to enjoy the tumble. The apparent intellectual hierarchy belies a richer order: the great intellect is not so wise. He “deserves” to slip, falling victim to the very thing, irony, about which he declaims so proudly. Had he known less about it, he might have looked to the sidewalk in time.

2. Only after Gloucester loses his eyes does he “see” how rashly and unjustly he has treated his son Edgar. The irony, a reversal of expectations accompanied by a deepening knowledge, is richly theological as well. For there is an order at work, bringing about Gloucester’s sight through blindness, and his reconciliation with his son through suffering. The man before him is that wronged son, whom he has seen in disguise and taken for one Tom-a-Bedlam, the “poor, bare, forked animal” that “unaccommodated man” is (King Lear, 3.4. 105–6). Now it is the wronged Gloucester reduced to misery who requires assistance from Mad Tom. Gloucester does not yet understand what his “way” is, why he has been blinded and what he must suffer still. He says he has no way, yet his meeting with Edgar shows that a way has been designed for him nonetheless. He will walk towards a final, terrible resignation to his punishment and reconciliation with his son. And Edgar will be his eyes—his spiritual guide—along this way.

3. We “know” that Henry might have died in any room or might have died falling from a horse on a holiday hunt. He had hoped to die in the Holy Land, and when he learns the name of the room, he finally sees the design and resigns himself to its justice. For us, that death feels right—better than if he had died a-crusading, better than if he had been hanged at the Tower of London. The usurper should not be granted a martyr’s death; better that he should be disappointed by his hope to expiate the crime. The place of his death reveals a more subtle order than either he or we had expected.

4. The chasm between human expectations and divine will has never been sung more powerfully. The prophet cries, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord” (Isa., 55:8), but here Saint Paul fleshes out that cry with specifics that seem impossible to hold simultaneously. If Christ is equal with God, why should he, or how can he, empty himself, making himself of no reputation? How can God become obedient to God, obedient unto the shameful death on a cross? How can submission exalt? For Christ is not exalted despite his humility, but in it and through it. For the believer, then, Paul’s hymn reveals complexities in the notions of equality and hierarchy: because Christ was the Son of God, he set aside that equality, and in his obedience he is set above all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. He is equal to the Father because he obeys.

5. This brilliant stage business shows dramatic irony at its purest. Of this double-plot no one, not even the audience, can see everything. Elmire knows she is chaste, but as she leads Tartuffe on, to prove to her husband under the table what a fool he has been to trust the charlatan, she must worry lest her trick backfire and Tartuffe ravish her before Orgon manages to get out from under there. For she cannot see him, and cannot be sure that he will come to his senses even when he hears Tartuffe making love to her. Meanwhile Orgon can only fry in imagination: he hears but cannot see the couple, and must restrain his wrath and jealousy long enough to let Tartuffe hang himself for certain. The audience, too, can see Tartuffe and Elmire, and so they know what Orgon must learn; but they cannot see Orgon, and must guess, from his awkward and frantic movements under the table, what must be going through his mind. Finally, there is Tartuffe, master trickster, steeped in ignorance, believing himself so clever yet missing so obvious a trick—for I do not think Orgon can remain as still as a churchmouse!

It is, then, not the unexpectedness of a thing that produces irony—a violin flung at a man’s head is unexpected, but not ironic—nor is it ignorance that produces irony—after all, if he saw the violin he would duck. Irony arises, rather, from the ignorance of unseen or unexpected order (or, as it may happen, disorder), from the failure to note subtleties, or from seeing subtleties that are not there, especially when the ignorance and the failure are highlighted before observers in a better position to see the truth. That is the sort of thing we feel as ironic. A violin flung at a man’s head is not ironic. A man missing a sharp as he tries to hum the Kreutzer sonata is not ironic. The same man botching Beethoven as the violin sails his way—now that is ironic.

It is delicious that where the intellectuals insist that irony stands in opposition to universal truth it instead relies upon ignorance of the natural order of things.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 10, 2008 12:41 PM
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