Sunday, September 18, 2011

On the Darkness Behind the Mask of the Many-Faced Muse of Irony

By Brian George

I have long been an admirer of the work of Jessica Murray, author of the terrific book “Soul-Sick Nation; An Astrologer’s View of America,” and host of the blog “MotherSky.” Jessica is a practitioner of what she calls “Archetypal Astrology.” What most impresses me is that she is able to move fluently back and forth between a macrocosmic perspective—which I sometimes see as that of a disincarnate soul, at the tail end of its involvement in a time cycle, i.e., that of a Gnostic "Aeon"—and a cutting edge awareness of key social, political, and cultural issues of the day. Over the next week or so, I will be posting a number of comments that I wrote for the forum on her essay “Beyond Irony.”

Hi Jessica,

You wrote, It must say something about our society that the use of irony has become so all-pervasive. Why do we rely on it so much in writing? Why do we frame so much of what we say with finger quotes? It strikes me that irony is essentially a self-protective mechanism, disguised as a stylish gesture. It works by holding its cards close to the vest. When we’re being ironic, we allude to our point instead of throwing all of our weight behind it. We make a show of holding back our sincerity. Irony makes no claims to opening the heart, in either the speaker or the listener.”

I have often had similar thoughts about a certain type of irony. If deployed as an all-purpose attitude toward the world, the subversive force of irony can quickly become boring. As the saying goes, “To a hammer everything looks like a nail.” Too much hyper-self-awareness is—ironically—not that different from unconsciousness. True insight is attentive to its object, whereas the judgment of the ironist is on everything and nothing, and all judgments must inevitably confirm his/her sense of superiority.

Well, that settles that! As the agents of the City Beyond Time, we should no doubt strive to be 100% sincere.

As a poet, however, I also have a somewhat different way of looking at the issue, for, without irony, there would be no modern poetry. Not every type of irony reflects the disengagement of the slacker. In fact, irony can be one of the primary weapons that allows a poet to take on an empire, and that empowers him to move freely against overwhelming odds. It is the pin that pops the metaphysical balloon, the slingshot that takes down Goliath.

For example: I am truly in awe of some of the poetry that was written in Eastern Europe after World War II—when, for some period of time, literature itself was thought to be impossible. These writers--among them Milosz, Celan, and Herbert—give form to my intuitions as to how spiritual vision can be tempered by and integrated with a weight of historical knowledge. To all of these writers, irony was one of the primary weapons in their arsenal. To use it well was a matter of life or death.

Here is the beginning of Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “Caligula Speaks”:

Caligula Speaks

Among all the citizens of Rome
I loved only one
Incitatus—a horse

when he entered the Senate
the unstainable toga of his coat
gleamed in the midst
of purple-lined assassins

Incitatus possessed many merits
he never made speeches
had a stoic temperament
I think at night in the stable he read the philosophers

I loved him so much that one day I decided to crucify him
but his noble anatomy made it impossible

he accepted the honor of consulship with indifference
exercised authority in the best manner
that is not at all

he would not be persuaded toward a lasting liason
with my second wife Caesonia
thus unfortunately the lineage of centaur ceasars
was not engendered

that is why Rome fell

These writers often seem to be saying: Civilization does not automatically progress. True change does not come through politics. No technological solution can be expected to appear on the horizon.

There is often a very visceral sense of the reality of evil, of bureaucratic corruption, and of the power of the lie. At the same time, there is no easy recourse to stern moralistic finger wagging. Something altogether more mysterious is often going on—the veil between the worlds has ripped, and a wave of supernatural force has begun to transfigure common objects.

Irony here performs a function similar to that of metaphor—it is a method of linking seemingly discontinuous meanings, and of jumping between one level of reality and the next. Unlike the slacker version, this use of irony is expansive rather than contractive. It is a tool for liberation. Reading the best of Eastern European writers from this period, it is difficult for me not to view myself and my contemporaries as naive, and I look to them for clues as to how I might be possible to “begin beyond the end.”

And, finally, here is Herbert’s “The Envoy of Mr Cogito”—a very non-ironic statement by an otherwise highly ironic writer. In it, the author gives us direct access into the world view and sense of purpose that underlie his use of irony.

The Envoy of Mr Cogito
Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

let you sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards—they will win
they will go to your funeral with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown's face in the mirror
repeat: I was called—weren't there better ones than I

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak
light on a wall the splendor of the sky
they don't need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you

be vigilant—when the light on the mountains gives the sign—arise and go
as long as blood turns in the breast your dark star

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap

go because only in this way you will be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go

(Translations by John and Bogdana Carpenter/ Illustration: Roman Comedy and Tragedy masks)

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