The Ironic Imperative

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The Ironic Imperative

Post by Lúthien » Sat Dec 31, 2016 2:47 pm

Somehow I came across the name of a literary critic named Harold Bloom the other day, and read a bit about him.
It was in fact about him critiquing the Harry Potter book series, though it seems he feels roughly the same about any work of fantasy.

Mr. Bloom is somewhat controversial. He still is held in high regard by parts of the cultural establishment and seems to have appointed himself to the task of Gate-keeper of the Canon of Western Literature.

Several others consider him a patronising gasbag or worse (e.g. Naomi Wolf). Anyone of such stature will have their detractors (justly or not) and it's easy enough to dismiss opinions of controversial figures like him. But wanted to figure out what it is in fantasy that irks him so much, because I'm fairly sure that that's the same thing that keeps people from taking their own imagination seriously. Or, in other words, what keeps them bound to the 'flatlands' (prisoners of he Archons).

(Limiting myself to Tolkien for now, I suppose that pretty much the same arguments apply to other fantasy)
I still have to find some actual writings by Mr. Bloom where he talks about Tolkien's work, until now I could only find some allusions and references. From there rises the image that the first thing that Mr. Bloom seems to dislike there is that he finds Tolkien's writing simply bad. He thinks it's archaic, supposedly considering it to be a deplorable and cheap stylistic trick.

But the reference that I read suggests that he main reason that Mr. Bloom dislikes Tolkien is that Tolkien doesn't play by the literary rules. For one thing, he's never ironic.

Never ironic.

That's interesting.
In the past few years I've been thinking whether it might be the ubiquitous irony that puts me off in so many (pop)cultural expressions. And ubiquitous it is, in any case for anything that's not too low-brow or naive.

So what exactly is irony? Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage says (in slight editing):

Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that, hearing, will not understand the point; and another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more and of the outsiders' incomprehension.

Yeah, here we go again.
The in-crowd, exchanging smirks and meaningful glances while they enunciate ironic tidbits meant to communicate their togetherness and intellectual superiority :no2:

Of course there's more to irony than that. I know that. Irony has been employed by philosophers as far back as Plato. It's also been critiqued by many, such as Kierkegaard, mainly for its inability to achieve anything positive: irony may be a useful tool for criticism, but you cannot do much else with it.

What I mean is irony as it has become an all-pervasive and (I think) rather disruptive phenomenon. Since the 1980's at least, the mandatory ironic position has made it all but impossible to be earnest about anything, at least if you don't want to be sniggered to death by the cultural avant-garde.

I'm of course not the first to note that. the problematic role of irony has been thoroughly criticised by David Foster Wallace and others.
Still, I think that this has been an exclusively academic debate. I wasn't aware of it before I actively searched for it, and irony is still the defining characteristic of all highbrow culture - actually, even most contemporary low-brow pop culture and advertising is dripping with irony.

I think this is a problem. The ironic imperative prevents formulating anything positively constructive because irony only allows criticism and no creativity.

What do you all think?


Sources: The Problem of Total Irony in the Writing of David Foster Wallace, thesis by Frederik Gerding, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
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Re: The Ironic Imperative

Post by Taurandir » Sat Dec 31, 2016 4:28 pm

I'm a big fan of Harold Bloom, so I'm a bit biased here. I'll note to start that he's openly identifies himself as a gnostic. I was reading his writings long before I knew this. I thought that was just cool when I found out. I consider him one of the most intelligent people I've ever read. It's like he has the entire canon of Western literature at his fingertips. He taught himself multiple languages at a young age in order to read various works of literature in the original tongue. I definitely don't think he sees himself as the guardian of the Western Canon, but his premise is that there is a Western Canon and that it is being eroded by politically correct attitudes. He feels that universities feel that they must give equal representation to writers of all races, genders, etc. regardless of quality. It becomes politically incorrect to say that Shakespeare is a better writer than some obscure 20th century Nigerian writer. He also has some interesting theories about the Pentateuch being written by a woman as a work of entertainment fiction, and how Shakespeare caused a massive shift in the human mind, in effect creating the modern human consciousness.

It's true he detests Tolkien and most (but not all) fantasy and science fiction. I had never heard it was based on Tokien's lack of irony, but believed it was because there was a certain two-dimensionality to Tokien's characters. When reading something like Shakespeare or Moby Dick or some other book from the Canon the characters attain a depth of reality that begins to pierce the veil of reality in some way. You begin to get the impression that some of the characters are "real" in some way. They could exist outside the confines of the story. Hamlet is real. His dilemma is palpable. Whereas with Tokien you never really get inside the character's head to the point where they achieve that level of reality. He considers Tolkien some kind of throwback to an older style of literature, more like a Norse adventure saga. The characters have their motivations and move through the story, but never make that hyper-leap into "reality" that makes them relevant to the Western Canon. He doesn't feel like Tolkien is advancing human consciousness via literature. Tolkien is not participating in the tradition of Western literature.

I would say that Tolkien is doing something different than the what is happening in the Western Canon as Bloom sees it. Bloom sees literature as a spiritual pursuit, and I agree with him, but sometimes I read just for fun. Sometimes I get something out of a book that others don't. Interestingly, Bloom detests Edgar Allen Poe but admits that Poe is part of the Canon simply based on the impact Poe has had on literature. I am absolutely sure that the same thing will happen with the works of Tolkien. It's already happening.

As for irony, I suppose it's main purpose is entertainment. It does contain within it the idea of exclusivity. We know and they don't. In that sense it hearkens back to the ancient gnostics with their secret knowledge. They could read the bible in church and give a wink to their fellow gnostics because they knew what it really meant and the others didn't. It hurts to hear but some people do know what is really going on and most others don't. Those who know will be able to make the inside joke to the like-minded. I suppose wherever you stand though, there's some circle you are being excluded from. I do think irony can turn into cynicism, which truly has no value (or not much anyway). Irony as a literary device for entertainment purposes is here to stay though.

Just don't be dissin' my man, Bloom.
-Raúl

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Re: The Ironic Imperative

Post by Übermensch » Sat Dec 31, 2016 8:02 pm

Along the same lines that Skookum pointed out, I think this may be an example of type prejudice. Our society in general has not learned to appreciate others' preferred method of being conscious (i.e. introverted intuitive, extroverted sensate, extroverted feeling, introverted thinking, etc.). Like Jung, Tolkien appeals to a certain mode of being conscious much different from the mainstream, for example introverts are often discriminated against by type prejudice. I, myself, being an introverted intuitive am alienated to a greater extent than most others in society, partly because my type is a somewhat rarified mode of being conscious. In the mode of our preferred consciousness, our personas and egos can seem very irritating to others, especially to those whose preferred method of consciousness is diametrically opposed to our own. I suspect this may be the case with Bloom and Tolkien. I believe more so than other types, introverted intuitives are drawn to Jung and writers like Tolkien, because we can intuitively sense that they understand us at the deepest levels of consciousness and we can easily relate to them in that way. So even if, as Bloom says, Tolkien's characters may not reach a certain depth and complexity consistent with mainstream literature, this in no way means that Tolkien's writing style in the mode of his preferred consciousness cannot touch us at deeper levels of consciousness than some other mainstream writers. In fact, in my mind, I am not so concerned about the nuances and complexities of the characters within a story, that's not what makes it real for me. To some extent, I feel that draws me out of the story more than anything, but extroverts may perceive a shallowness to the story due to lack of character development. If a writer is good at activating your imagination at a deep enough level, then character development is somewhat less important, at least in my mind. So psychological types and type prejudice may be something to take into account here. I know that it often plays a role in critics of Jung's work, so it may be a factor in regards to critics of Tolkien's work as well. S)

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Re: The Ironic Imperative

Post by Meneldur Olvarion » Sat Dec 31, 2016 9:18 pm

I think Übermensch really nailed it here with his posited negative reaction to different cognitive styles, especially by those in the majority group. It's certainly been the case with me all my life.

But as to irony itself, I agree with Luthien, but will go a step further: for someone like myself who has a large vocabulary and a sizeable data-set of both experiential and acquired knowledge, but who doesn't have anything close to the storytelling ability of either Tolkien or Shakespeare (et al), the purpose of language is to communicate ideas, nothing more and nothing less. So, when I encounter irony, it seems wastefully and willfully inefficient, and thus stupid, to me -- which tends to end in my considering people who use it extensively to also be 'stupid'.

Hey, I have an "inner thug" which tends to take over in such situations. ;)

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Re: The Ironic Imperative

Post by Taurandir » Sat Dec 31, 2016 9:29 pm

Well said Übermensch. Bloom may not "get" Tolkien, or he may be judging Tolkien by standards that Tolkien in fact does not meet. I think Tolkien himself would have admitted this. But Tolkien is touching people (including myself) in a different way than the Western literary tradition that Bloom is a professional critic of. It's obvious Tolkien is tapping into something deep in the world's psyche. I don't think Bloom gets this, and perhaps he may someday be forced to admit it. I have read his opinion on certain other authors where he admits he doesn't understand their value, but enough people whose opinion he esteems do appreciate the authors' works, that he is forced to conclude that there is something worthwhile there that he doesn't understand. That, in my opinion, is a prime indication of an intellectually honest person.
-Raúl

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Re: The Ironic Imperative

Post by Taurandir » Sat Dec 31, 2016 9:32 pm

Dave wrote: So, when I encounter irony, it seems wastefully and willfully inefficient, and thus stupid, to me
I think I see irony more as a situation that exists outside in the world and that an author points out. The author isn't "making" the irony.
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Re: The Ironic Imperative

Post by Taurandir » Sat Dec 31, 2016 10:18 pm

Possibly we have a problem of definition here also. Are we talking about irony, sarcasm, or cynicism?

The fact that the light from the Two Trees, which is fundamentally good, became the catalyst for untold evil in Arda is ironic.

It seems like irony is very closely related to tragedy in a way; or it's a certain world-weary way of viewing tragedy.
-Raúl

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Re: The Ironic Imperative

Post by Meneldur Olvarion » Sat Dec 31, 2016 10:30 pm

Taurandir wrote:I think I see irony more as a situation that exists outside in the world and that an author points out. The author isn't "making" the irony.
Hmm, that's' quite possible: I fully admit I don't 'get' irony. Actually, I don't get it in a deeper sense of why something ironic is noteworthy. Let's take the oft-repeated ironic meme of "Dr Adkins promoted a meat-only/fat-rich diet and died of a heart attack -- isn't that ironic!"† To me, it is just an instance of death without any deeper intrinsic meaning. OTOH, I do admit that I am a rather strange one:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suQTesmwNVI
The supernatural is the hidden web that unites the universe. Only Orga believe what
cannot be seen or measured. It is that oddness that separates our species.


Actually, I think he died of a fall onto icy steps as I remember the news article, but truth doesn't seem to matter to meme generation.

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Re: The Ironic Imperative

Post by Taurandir » Sun Jan 01, 2017 2:37 am

Merriam-Webster defines irony as:

1: a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other’s false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning —called also Socratic irony

2: a) the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning
b) a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony
c) an ironic expression or utterance

3: a) : incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result; an event or result marked by such incongruity
b) incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play —called also dramatic irony, tragic irony
I guess Lúthien is thinking of the second definition, whereas I am thinking of the third. In the sense that irony is mean-spirited, it is of course a bad thing.
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Re: The Ironic Imperative

Post by Lúthien » Sun Jan 01, 2017 5:21 am

Wow, great answers. Lots of stuff to ponder. I love it, thanks!

Will reply if I have digested that.
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Re: The Ironic Imperative

Post by Lúthien » Sun Jan 01, 2017 2:01 pm

Taurandir wrote: As for irony, I suppose it's main purpose is entertainment. It does contain within it the idea of exclusivity. We know and they don't. In that sense it hearkens back to the ancient gnostics with their secret knowledge. They could read the bible in church and give a wink to their fellow gnostics because they knew what it really meant and the others didn't. It hurts to hear but some people do know what is really going on and most others don't. Those who know will be able to make the inside joke to the like-minded. I suppose wherever you stand though, there's some circle you are being excluded from. I do think irony can turn into cynicism, which truly has no value (or not much anyway). Irony as a literary device for entertainment purposes is here to stay though.
As I understand it, the meaning of the word "irony" is best captured by the second of your three definitions above.
But there's more to it than that. I think that mainstream culture as a whole has become ironic. It has adopted irony as its defining characteristic. This position enables someone to be critical towards everything, but it forbids sincerity.
It distrusts sincerity as at least naive, and possibly susceptible to fanaticism of some sort.

I suppose it's simplifying things by several orders of magnitude, but I think it is understandable how we arrived at such a position, given the experience we've had dealing with several ideologies that I'm sure were all sincerely believed in by many in their time.

A healthy dose of irony and relativism is supposedly a good antidote for that. But every good thing can be taken too far (isn't that part of the dynamic of Hegelian dialectics?) and I think that certainly the case with irony and (postmodern) relativism.

Sure, a sniggering hipster won't become a hotheaded extremist anytime soon. But I fear he won't become anything else, either, apart from increasingly detached inside his context-free bubble of relativism.
Taurandir wrote:Just don't be dissin' my man, Bloom.
I wasn't yet .. I had him temporarily filed under the same "awkward" header as, say, R.G. Collingwood - an Oxford philosopher and (possible) peripheral Inkling - and that only because of Mr. Bloom's hostile attitude towards fantasy which probably doesn't portray him from his best side.

Add to that the ado that Alice Walker alluded to, though there's no way to tell whether or not any of that is true. I admit that it shouldn't influence my opinion of his ideas in any case.

Other than that, I might agree on several points with him. I agree that favouring authors based on political correctness is very wrong and a very, very stupid thing to do. If not on prose, I'll probably also agree with him on 'canon' poetry, maybe because the rift between fantasy and realism doesn't run as deep there - at leas in the time of poets like Coleridge (hoping that Coleridge IS ok with him ;) )

To be continued ....
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Re: The Ironic Imperative

Post by Lúthien » Sun Jan 01, 2017 2:18 pm

I swear I had made another post here but I must have done something while posting or previewing it - it seems to be gone beyond retrieving.

I'll guess I have to rewrite it.
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Re: The Ironic Imperative

Post by Meneldur Olvarion » Sun Jan 01, 2017 2:24 pm

Lúthien wrote:[...] But every good thing can be taken too far (isn't that part of the dynamic of Hegelian dialectics?)...
I be bowin' out o' dis discussion now, y'all be startin' to speak Farsi on me. I still be listenin', I jus' be in da shade wit' my corn-cob pipe down by da crick. ;)

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Re: The Ironic Imperative

Post by Taurandir » Sun Jan 01, 2017 3:05 pm

Lúthien wrote:Other than that, I might agree on several points with him. I agree that favouring authors based on political correctness is very wrong and a very, very stupid thing to do. If not on prose, I'll probably also agree with him on 'canon' poetry, maybe because the rift between fantasy and realism doesn't run as deep there - at leas in the time of poets like Coleridge (hoping that Coleridge IS ok with him
It used to bother me that Bloom didn't like fantasy or science fiction so much. Now I think it just must be harder to write great fantasy sci-fi. Even some of the great classics of the genre are not great writing. Besides Tolkien I can't think of any fantasy I like.

Coleridge is definately okay with him. Here's his list. http://www.interleaves.org/~rteeter/grtbloom.html Although the list was very controversial when he published it in an appendix of one of his books, he later stated he wrote it very off-hand because his publisher asked him to and he really didn't put too much thought into it.

I do think I know what you mean when you say irony has become pervasive in the culture. It makes some current movies almost unwatchable to me. Too many snide remarks one after the other. I remember walking out of "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" years ago because of this. Robin Hood was not a wisecracker in my book. We saw the new Star Wars movie though, and I have to say it was almost devoid of that kind of thing. There was a little, but it didn't go too far.

One more thing about Harold Bloom. Reading some his work, he flat out declares that some fictional characters (like Hamlet, specifically) are real. He doesn't qualify that statement. He says they are more real than many people. He thinks only some fictional characters are real. He even stated once that there should be a spiritual tradition based on Shakespeare, and he doesn't know why one hasn't developed. I guess when you have tenure you can make any crazy statement you want. I think he also sees Jesus and Jaweh as real, but in the sense they have become real as successful fictional characters. I am convinced he doesn't mean they are "like" real. He means they are real.
-Raúl

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Re: The Ironic Imperative

Post by Lúthien » Mon Jan 02, 2017 5:44 am

Well, that IS interesting.

As I said, I lost a whole post yesterday answering to the first part of your initial reply. I'm actually very excited that you know so much about him, because this touches on one of the 'abrasive' issues in culture that I keep returning to because I cannot figure out how to deal with it. But you might now offer a way out of that dilemma.
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