July 25, 2009


Irony Without Irony: Chaucer's Knight — the non-ironic version (James Bowman, June 30, 2009, The American Spectator)

When my oldest son was a Boy Scout in England 20 years ago, I once watched his troop play a game in which the boys formed a circle around a troop leader holding a soccer ball. The leader proceeded to throw the ball to the boys at random, saying as he did so either "head" or "catch." If he said "head," the boy was supposed to catch it; if he said "catch," the boy was supposed to head it. Anyone who slipped up and caught the ball when instructed to catch it or head the ball when instructed to head it, was out and had to leave the circle. Eventually, only one scout was left standing. That boy, as I have often had occasion to think since, must have been one of nature’s ironists. He and the others had certainly had an education in the central principle of all ironic — and, for that matter, non-ironic — discourse, namely that meaning depends on context. A boy who’d said that he would just love to play such a game could have meant either that he’d love to play it or that he’d absolutely hate it, and all but the most literal-minded would have been able to tell which it was on hearing the words spoken in their context.

The ability to read that context, to pick up the cues indicating irony or its absence, depends on a certain degree of social skill and experience in complex social interactions. Irony, that is, belongs to the world of face-to-face communication, even when we encounter it in a book or a movie. If we are able to recognize the irony in fictional contexts it is because we have previously experienced it, or something like it, in real ones. Maybe that’s why, as we have begun to spend more and more of our time interacting with each other remotely and electronically, rather than face-to-face, it seems that our irony-reading skills have tended to atrophy, or else to go haywire, producing, on the one hand, a leaden literalism or, on the other, the sort of paranoia which supposes that everything must mean something other than what it says. [...]

Of all the silly things to be against, irony must be among the silliest. It is like being against algebra. Irony is simply a rationalization of the way the world — in this case the rhetorical world — works, and has always worked. But people could sympathize with the sort of social insecurity that must have lain behind Mr Purdy’s attachment to puritanical plain-speaking, and, with the help of The New York Times, the book made enough of a splash that that gentleman, now a law professor at Duke University, has lately written another, even sillier book. It is called A Tolerable Anarchy and is a tract on behalf of liberal utopianism. I see it as a sort of sequel, which must have grown out of the earlier book’s implied preference for humanity in the abstract rather than all its confusing imperfections.

Two decades before his denunciation of irony and a few years before my son was inducted into the scouts, Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, a champion ironist who was also a part-time medievalist, wrote a book called Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary, which purported to show that the man described in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales as a parfit gentil knight was in fact a brutal and cold-blood killer with nothing chivalric about him. In fact, Mr Jones was pretty sure that there was nothing chivalric about medieval chivalry itself. The arguments over his detailed evidence for this shocking proposition have gone on for nearly three decades without anyone’s thinking to ask what would have been the point of Chaucer’s encoding the truth about his knight so successfully that it took some six centuries for a TV comedian to decode it?

Given our Creation myth, it is impossible for the faithful in the West not to be ironists. After all, God hands us a Creation in which everything is very good and we proceed to screw it up utterly. indeed, we're such a disappointment to Him that He ends up drowning most of us at one point and is ultimately only reconciled to us when we kill Him instead. As religions go, it's the only one that's too absurd not to be true.

But, not surprisingly, processing the central ironic truths about Creation turns out to be vital to organizing a decent society. Only a culture which accepts the imperfectability of Man and human institutions and organizes itself around these facts has any shot at happiness. Of course, modernity is pretty much defined by the Rationalist rejection of these truths and the pursuit, instead, of perfected societies, with predictably disastrous results.

Now, not only does the failure of the secularist's utopian thinking leave them miserable, and corpses stacked like cordwood, but it compounds the irony. After all, most of us have never turned away from the truth, so we've known all along where their misbegotten beliefs are leading them. In effect, while their experiments are too often mass murderous to be enjoyable, it is as if they were conducting them to amuse us. Their rejection of truth and insistence on acting upon falsehood is essentially funny. Not that they can be expected to appreciate the joke.

Indeed, the denunciation of irony is part and parcel of the phenomenon that all humor is conservative. And it's hilarious.

Forgiveness and Irony: What makes the West strong (Roger Scruton, Winter 2009, City Journal)

What is needed is not to reject citizenship as the foundation of social order but to provide it with a heart. And in seeking that heart, we should turn away from the apologetic multiculturalism that has had such a ruinous effect on Western self-confidence and return to the gifts that we have received from our Judeo-Christian tradition.

The first of these gifts is forgiveness. By living in a spirit of forgiveness, we not only uphold the core value of citizenship but also find the path to social membership that we need. Happiness does not come from the pursuit of pleasure, nor is it guaranteed by freedom. It comes from sacrifice: that is the great message that all the memorable works of our culture convey. The message has been lost in the noise of repudiation, but we can hear it once again if we devote our energies to retrieving it. And in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the primary act of sacrifice is forgiveness. The one who forgives sacrifices resentment and thereby renounces something that had been dear to his heart.

The Koran invokes at every point the mercy, compassion, and justice of God. But the God of the Koran is not a lenient God. In His Koranic manifestation, God forgives sparingly and with obvious reluctance. He is manifestly not amused by human folly and weakness—nor, indeed, is He amused by anything. The Koran, unlike the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, is a joke-free zone.

This brings us to another of our civilization’s gifts to us: irony. There is already a developing streak of irony in the Hebrew Bible, one that the Talmud amplifies. But a new kind of irony dominates Christ’s judgments and parables, which look on the spectacle of human folly and wryly show us how to live with it. A telling example is Christ’s verdict in the case of the woman taken in adultery: “Let he who is without fault cast the first stone.” In other words: “Come off it; haven’t you wanted to do what she did, and already done it in your hearts?” Some have suggested that this story is a later insertion—one of many that the early Christians culled from the store of inherited wisdom attributed to the Redeemer after his death. Even if that is true, however, it merely confirms the view that the Christian religion has made irony central to its message. It was a troubled, post-Enlightenment Christian, Søren Kierkegaard, who pointed to irony as the virtue that united Socrates and Christ.

The late Richard Rorty saw irony as a state of mind intimately connected with the postmodern worldview—a withdrawal from judgment that nevertheless aims at a kind of consensus, a shared agreement not to judge. The ironic temperament, however, is better understood as a virtue—a disposition aimed at a kind of practical fulfillment and moral success. Venturing a definition of this virtue, I would describe it as a habit of acknowledging the otherness of everything, including oneself. However convinced you are of the rightness of your actions and the truth of your views, look on them as the actions and the views of someone else and rephrase them accordingly. So defined, irony is quite distinct from sarcasm: it is a mode of acceptance rather than a mode of rejection. It also points both ways: through irony, I learn to accept both the other on whom I turn my gaze, and also myself, the one who is gazing. Pace Rorty, irony is not free from judgment: it simply recognizes that the one who judges is also judged, and judged by himself.

The West’s democratic inheritance stems, I would argue, from the habit of forgiveness. To forgive the other is to grant him, in your heart, the freedom to be. It is therefore to acknowledge the individual as sovereign over his life and free to do both right and wrong. A society that makes permanent room for forgiveness therefore tends automatically in a democratic direction, since it is a society in which the voice of the other is heard in all decisions that affect him. Irony—the recognition and acceptance of otherness—amplifies this democratic tendency and also helps thwart the mediocrity and conformity that are the downsides of a democratic culture.

Forgiveness and irony lie at the heart of our civilization. They are what we have to be most proud of, and our principal means to disarm our enemies. They underlie our conception of citizenship as founded in consent. And they are expressed in our conception of law as a means to resolve conflicts by discovering the just solution to them. It is not often realized that this conception of law has little in common with Muslim sharia, which is regarded as a system of commands issued by God and not capable of, or in need of, further justification.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 25, 2009 8:44 AM
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