[xmca] Post-Ironic Uses of Irony

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Fri Apr 25 2008 - 16:18:44 PDT

Next to "In the Beginning was the Act", one of LSV's preferred quotations from Goethe was:
  "Grey is every theory, my friend
  But ever green is the tree of life!"
  Now, if you read it in context, you realize that, this utterance is a rather savage bit of parody. The Devil is visiting Faust in his studio, and one of Faust's prospective students calls for career advice. The Devil, for no particular reason, disguises himself as Faust and goes off to meet the student. After rejecting law and theology, the student expresses a predilection for medicine.
  At this the Devil, who has grown bored discussing law and theology, mutters that he cannot resist this juicy opportunity to play the devil's advocate, and begins a salacious description of the sexual opportunities at the wandering fingertips of a gynecologist. The student practically drools with delight, and the Devil pats him on the back for his discernment, saying "Grey is every theory...."
  What is going on here? Perhaps the same rhetorical move used by Da Ponte in the almost contemporaneous opera "Don Giovanni". The Don invites a group of disguised revellers off the street into his stately home, notes their lower class origins but discerns some promising women amongst them. He then assures them that he believes in social equality with the aria "Viva la liberta!" which the entire company then proceeds to sing, ironically but also defiantly, in the faces of most of the assembled nobility of eighteenth century Europe. The audience could easily comfort themselves with the irony: the lower class revellers (but they are really the Don's own enemies in disguise) may BELIEVE that they are singing of social equality and liberty, but the Don's real meaning is merely libertinism.
  One of the reasons why it works so well is that "Don Giovanni" is itself a parody of an earlier play by the Catholic monk Tierze de Molina, which purported to answer the question of whether or not it is possible to live a sexy life ("Lord, make me pure but not just yet") and then repent at the last minute and reap the same reward as someone who had lived all his life as a monk. Molina's response was that such repentence would not happen, but to his horror, the play was a smash hit; not, of course, for the violent ending, but rather for the voluptuous prelude to it.
  In China in the 1990s, there was something of a craze for "hooligan literature" written around the same premises: the most successful of the "hooligan writers", who was given a powerful position in the Communist Party cultural apparat, was Wang Shuo, and his novels always centred on a rogue who came to a nasty end--but only after a glorious run of fun. Needless to say, not all his novels were read through to the end, or even meant to be.
  So some of the non-ironic use of irony is clearly about evading censorship. But I'm not sure ALL of it is. What makes "Grey is every theory" memorable is that it is DECONTEXTUALIZEABLE; hardly anyone even bothers to remember who said it when and why. This is because it is post-ironic: an irony on an irony.
  Of course, it's not REALLY possible for any utterance to appear without context. When Chomsky wrote:
  "Colorless green ideas...."
  the supposedly meaningless utterance automatically began to accrue contexts: journalists found for themselves an obscure reference to the military, or to Ralph Nader's 2000 bid for the presidency, etc.
  All utterances must have contexts, but that does not mean that they all have the same degree of fastness to their immediate context and to the intentions of the utterer. The ability to depopulate an utterance overpopulated with the intentions of others (Bakhtin) is greater for a post-ironic use of irony than for a conventionally ironic one. That's why LSV found this rather sordid bit of Goethe so useful. It is both polymorphous and perverse, but it's the polymorphousness which makes it multifunctional rather than merely the perversity.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Fri Apr 25 16:20 PDT 2008

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