Irony, for the true ironist, is not merely a trope employed here and there. It is a trope that totalizes existence, that configures a particular manner of relating to the world. Like all tropes, it functions like a powerful parasite, burrowing... [more]
Irony, for the true ironist, is not merely a trope employed here and there. It is a trope that totalizes existence, that configures a particular manner of relating to the world. Like all tropes, it functions like a powerful parasite, burrowing beneath the skin of its host, metamorphosing the host's physical system.
Kierkegaard defined the ironic metamorphosis as "infinite absolute negativity." He knew that the ironist does not merely negate occasionally: negation, for the ironist, is total, both infinite and absolute. Every utterance and every identity the ironist puts forth is at the same time renounced. This is the trademark of all irony -- but what distinguishes its contemporary form?
The new irony does not necessarily differ structurally from the old. Really, it's the mood that has changed. Both the Socratic and Romantic forms of irony are confident and bold, almost bombastic in tone, fond of assertions that strike out and deal blows even as the ironist holds back. But the new irony is humble, almost mild, more uncertain of its stance, employed less as a weapon than a shield. The negations of Kierkegaard and Socrates express an active desire to mock and manipulate, to point out the absurdity of their interlocutors, while the new ironist is most cunning, and manifests the most powerful wit, self-negation. The new ironist betrays an inner need for self-deprecation.
The new irony is neither parody nor humor, for the form of infinite absolute negativity is fully maintained. But this new irony is nervous. It mocks itself more than it does the world. It insists relentlessly on the failure of every identity and every intimate relation. Don DeLillo's characters, for example, always seem to suffer toward the end: anxiety eats through their ironic shield. Or take Philip Roth: his characters are equal parts boldness and self-deprecation; their failures are already incipient within each of their ebullient attempts. And failure always leaves the ironist with nothing but his infinite abyss.
Failure is, in fact, essential to new irony. When negativity is absolute, success can only be fleetingly affirmed. The ironist puts something forth, asserts his take on the world, but this is never an affirmative stance -- it is the mockery of every stance, and a mockery of the ironist himself. There is no longer any affirmative position; nothing can be sincerely embraced or believed; and thus every endeavor is inevitably doomed. This is the supreme pathos of the new ironist: his freedom, his resignation, and his despair. It must be strictly distinguished from the humor of Cervantes' "Don Quixote," whose delirium is an incessantly triumphant success. [show less]