Tuesday, September 20, 2011

“There was a time when only wise books were read”—Czeslaw Milosz

By Brian George

(This is my second comment to archetypal astrologer and social critic Jessica Murray on her “MotherSky” post “Beyond Irony.”)

“The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.”—Czeslaw Milosz

Hi Jessica,

You wrote, “It’s remarkable, by contrast, how un-ironic writers from earlier epochs were. Many of the Victorian thinkers, even the sober, philosophical ones, come across now as eye-rollingly naïve. A good example is Charles Dickens, who condemned the injustices of his time in prose that strikes our modern tastes as unbearably sentimental. But there is one thing about his un-ironic tone, with its unabashed outrage, its florid idealism (he had an Aquarius Sun and a Sagittarius Moon conjunct Neptune, for heaven’s sake) that you can’t argue with: it passes the test of time. Irony is less able to make this claim.”

As you can probably tell, my intention was not to disagree with you, but rather to call attention to a different type of irony. Hemingway said that it was essential for a writer to possess a “built-in bullshit detector.” A sense of irony is one of the signs that this detector is functioning properly. To me, a sense of irony is a particular instance of an ability to see the world from a multitude of angles—an ability which can also manifest in the form of visionary intuition, as the lightning flash that transforms sense into nonsense and nonsense into sense. My wife associates the birth of her sense of irony with her first psychedelic experience.

Here are a couple of context-subverting comments attributed to Diogenes that you might find amusing:

1) “After being banished from Sinope, Diogenes said, ‘The Sinopeans have condemned me to banishment; I condemn them to stay at home!'"

2) “When asked how he would like to be buried, Diogenes replied 'face downwards.' When asked why, he explained that the Macedonians were rising in power so rapidly that the world would shortly be turned upside down and he would then be the right way up.”

When I was at Mass College of Art, I had a philosophy teacher from Hungary called Jasminka Udoviki. She was an excellent teacher, but, perhaps because English was not her native language, or due to her passion for social justice, she seemed to have no sense of irony whatsoever. During one semester, she refused to grade any of my essays, claiming that they were too “poetic,” and that the language was too far outside the bounds of normal philosophical discourse. Unlike Nietzsche or Cioran, I suppose. Luckily, I still ended up with an A minus in the course.

In retrospect, I can see that the problem was less one of metaphor than of irony. She would tend to take almost all of my ironic statements at face value. This meant that she would often think that I meant the exact opposite of what I actually meant; any subsequent arguments would then make no sense at all

(Illustrations: James Ensor, The Intrigue, 1911/ Roman theatre masks)

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