A Case for Irony, by Jonathan Lear (Harvard University Press, 2011), $19.95/£14.95
If we say someone is being ironic we usually mean that their words signify the opposite of what they literally mean, as when Mark Anthony describes Brutus and Cassius as “honourable men.” To describe a situation as ironic suggests some incongruity between expectations and reality, as when a man makes himself sick worrying about his health. When Jonathan Lear speaks of “irony”, he means something else.
The springboard for Lear’s reflections is Kierkegaard, who (on Lear’s reading) posed the ironic question: “In all of Christendom, is there a Christian?” One might assume that Kierkegaard is simply asking if, among all the self-professed Christians, there are any who live up to Christian ideals. But Lear argues that the question goes deeper than this and leads to another concept of irony, one he finds in Kierkegaard’s writings and Plato’s dialogues.
What Lear means by “irony” is not the gap between what one is and what one claims (or aspires) to be. Rather, he means the calling into question of the whole shebang, the entire framework of assumptions, aspirations, and ideals that go with a specific social identity (e.g. Christian, mother, student, doctor). He gives the example of a teacher. Most teachers presumably ask themselves sometimes if they are as good as they could be, or even if what they’re doing is really worthwhile. But they only experience irony in Lear’s sense if their doubts are more radical: “When irony hits its mark the person who is its target has an uncanny experience that the demands of an ideal, value, or identity to which he takes himself to be already committed dramatically transcend the received social understandings.”
Those who experience this disruption of their familiar categories lose their sense of what it means to be a teacher, a student, or whatever it is they identify themselves as being. Lear claims that having a capacity for this sort of experience is essential to being a human being. That is not to say that everyone actually has such experiences, but if they were central to a person’s life, and the capacity for them were cultivated, that person could achieve an “ironic existence”. He regards Kierkegaard and Socrates as paradigm cases of this kind of life.
Having articulated what he means by the experience of irony, Lear goes on to link our capacity for it to the notion of psychic unity and, in particular, what we can learn from psychoanalysis about the sources of psychic unity. The link lies in the notion of disruption. The experience of irony disrupts a person’s sense of who she is. Philosophers since Plato have regarded non-rational parts of the self – e.g. the body, the appetites, the emotions – as disruptive, but Lear rejects this view, arguing that the “lower” parts of the self, which include the unconscious, can play a part in giving a person a sense of unity and identity. He illustrates this idea using examples taken from his practice as a psychoanalyst. And he claims psychoanalysis, through which the unconscious is made conscious and given verbal expression, requires a capacity for irony since it involves a profound questioning of one’s practical identity and the surrounding notions (e.g. woman, parent, love, virtue) that one normally takes for granted. (Inexperienced readers may find the sections about psychoanalysis tough going.)
The first two chapters of the book, just sketched, are the Tanner lectures that Lear gave at Harvard University. The remaining eight chapters consist of commentaries by four scholars – Christine Korsgaard, Richard Moran, Cora Diamond, and Robert Paul – along with Lear’s responses to their comments. Topics covered include forms of self-knowledge, social identities that may not be vulnerable to ironic questioning, and the distinction between the experiencing self and the observing self. The topics include interpretations of Plato’s Symposium and Gorgias, Tolstoy’s autobiographical writings, Wittgenstein on exclamations and utterances, Freud’s account of transference.
Lear’s treatment of irony is undoubtedly subtle and sophisticated, but to be perfectly candid, much of it seems excessively subtle and sophisticated, as well as prolix, repetitive, and unnecessarily abstruse. Lear describes what he calls irony in many ways. It is “an outbreak of pretence-transcending aspiring”; an experience of “erotic uncanniness”; a “peculiar form of committed reflection”, a “moment of excruciating self-conscious awareness.” He says that ironic existence is “a form of truthfulness” and “a form of self-knowledge.” And he suggests that a life without irony (in his sense) is deficient in some vital way. Yet in the end I remained unconvinced that the radically disruptive experience he calls “irony” is either common or important. If we want to live better lives, we ask questions like: What are my values and ideals? Am I living up to them? And are they sound? This is common or garden critical reflection. It’s not easy. And it’s enough.