Irony on Occasion: From Schlegel and Kierkegaard to Derrida and de Man

Irony on Occasion: From Schlegel and Kierkegaard to Derrida and de Man

Irony on Occasion: From Schlegel and Kierkegaard to Derrida and de Man

Irony on Occasion: From Schlegel and Kierkegaard to Derrida and de Man

Synopsis

What is it about irony--as an object of serious philosophical reflection and a literary technique of considerable elasticity--that makes it an occasion for endless critical debate? This book responds to this question by focusing on several key moments in German Romanticism and its afterlife in twentieth-century French thought and writing. It includes chapters on Friedrich Schlegel, Sren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, Jean Paulhan, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, and Paul de Man. A coda traces the way unresolved tensions inherited from Romanticism resurface in a novelist like J. M. Coetzee.

But this book is neither a historical nor a thematic study of irony. To the degree that irony initiates a deflection of meaning, it also entails a divergence from historical and thematic models of understanding. The book therefore aims to respect irony's digressive force by allowing it to emerge from questions that sometimes have little or nothing to do with the ostensible topic of irony. For if irony is the possibility that whatever is being said does not coincide fully with whatever is being meant, then there is no guarantee that the most legitimate approach to the problem would proceed directly to those places where "irony" is named, described, or presumed to reside.

Rather than providing a history of irony, then, this book examines particular occasions of ironic disruption. It thus offers an alternative model for conceiving of historical occurrences and their potential for acquiring meaning.

Excerpt

Es ist gleich tödlich für den Geist, ein System zu haben, und keins zu
haben.

—FRIENDRICH SCHLEGEL

The peculiar status of irony within the literary and philosophical tradition is perhaps best illustrated by the vexing questions that always hover over its founder and chief exemplar, Socrates. Was Socrates a model pedagogue or a seducer and corrupter of innocent youth? Was his method of rigorous ignorance a path leading to negative knowledge or an abyssal spiraling of rhetorical tricks? Was his stubborn insistence on interpersonal questioning and dialogue a form of urbanity or the egotistical undermining of any genuinely sociopolitical form of community? Was his death sentence an unacknowledged confession of moral and intellectual bankruptcy in Greece or a necessary step in the unfolding of Western thought? These questions assume their most acute form in the epoch of German romanticism—that is, in the constellation of texts signed by Schlegel, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and several others—precisely because they will have been repeated there in a way that has left an indelible mark on our own thinking about literature, philosophy, and political history. Reading these texts will therefore always entail the difficulty of determining exactly what the question of irony is about, and how, as well as how far, such a question can be taken seriously.

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