Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

Richard Rorty and the Ironic Plenitude of Literature

Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

Richard Rorty and the Ironic Plenitude of Literature

Article excerpt

1 Introduction

Among the most common charges made against Rorty's idea of irony is the accusation of it being cynicism in disguise. Here is an example of such a critique:

The ironist will be rather like the woman without faith among religious believers - she may go through the motions, mouth the same slogans, observe the same ritual, but these cannot really unite her with the true believers.1

Let us contrast this representative critique with a testimony by an ironist. Here is Milan Kundera commenting on the intricacies of his political and atheist identity:

I was raised an atheist and that suited me until the day when, in the darkest years of Communism, I saw Christians being bullied. On the instant, the provocative, zestful atheism of my early youth vanished like some juvenile brainlessness. I understood my believing friends and, carried away by solidarity and by emotion, I sometimes went along with them to mass. Still, I never arrived at the conviction that a God existed as a being that directs our destinies.... I was sitting in church with the strange and happy sensation that my nonbelief and their belief were oddly close.2

This memory is part of a prolonged commentary on the relations between literature, history, philosophy, and the intricacies through which one's debt to these fields makes up one's biography. Seemingly paradoxical, Kundera's position will be more readily accessible to those who understand the changing roles the Catholic Church played in Eastern European societies under the rule of the communist regimes and after their collapse. How this complex position was enabled by literary experience becomes apparent when we recall that Kundera's atheist narrator's joining the rituals of religious believers was a result of a complex interpretive activity. Kundera's stance on a particular juncture of history, politics, and biography - a stance that is both ironic and non-cynical - is inseparable from his life of a writer and avid reader of literature.

So is Rorty's concept of irony. Richard Rorty's works provide scattered remarks on widely understood literary experience. In his irregular discussions of selected literary works and occasional debates with literary critics and theoreticians, Rorty has provided a series of intuitions on how literature may be conducive to the causes of democracy and the project of self-creation. Included in his thinking about the links between literature, self-making, autonomy, and the condition of democracy is Rorty's unique treatment of the concept of irony. With its related portrait of the liberal-ironist, it is perhaps the most contested and debated among his proposals. Generally, the project of Rortian irony is mistrusted as unfeasible. Most of the critiques point to the contradictions attendant on the portrayal of the ironist's life. But these tensions are a result of a too narrow treatment of the term, presenting it as if it were a purely philosophical, sociological, or political concept and ignoring its literary provenance.

I believe this is a mistake. Irony has an unavoidable literary genealogy and Rorty's ironism has two main roots: his unique approach to the classical pragmatist tradition and his intuitions on literature, particularly the novel. In this article I shall defend Rorty's concept of irony as a way of life that is not only feasible, but also conducive to the causes of democracies. We obtain a more comprehensive view of how Rorty's irony might work as a real life option, when we discuss it in relation to a specific kind of literary experience. The experience I have in mind is of interacting with complex literary texts that presuppose an ongoing interpretive activity as an integral element of their structure. Here, the literary text is a hypothesis of relations between stances that might not be readily compatible on ethical, cognitive, or aesthetic grounds. And yet, the text as a formal passage is a way of accounting for how such stances might be readable when found in close vicinity of one another. …

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