Wednesday, May 06, 2009

On irony and narrative disinterest

I continue to marvel at the difference between Ron Slate’s reading of Zoë Heller’s novel The Believers and my own. To repeat, while I hold that the novel affirms belief (although not “true belief” in Eric Hoffer’s sense of clinging to a source of ultimate meaning), Slate reads the novel as ironic:

Regarding the intention of irony in The Believers, Heller wants it both ways. If, as [R. Jay] Magill says [in Chic Ironic Bitterness, cited at the beginning of the review], the heart of irony is its buried moral commitment, then the novel treats conscious despair leading to a personally acceptable (if compromised) mode of action as moral behavior. But the novel’s title puts the moral commitments of its characters on its hit list.Here indeed is the heart of the matter, and not merely in arriving at a valid interpretation of Heller’s wonderful novel. For this passage raises serious questions about the morality of the ironic mode itself.

Unless you or I are going to follow Northrop Frye into the dead end of believing that “literary structure is ironic”—literary structure as such—“because ‘what it says’ is always different in kind or degree from ’what it means,’ ” we must be prepared to distinguish irony from other modes of speech and writing. As the philosopher Berel Lang observes, irony stands out among the figures of speech in its “combination of contradiction and then subordination of what is first literally ‘affirmed.’ ”[1] Irony, in short, derives from a hierarchy of values. Or, to use the phrase that Slate quotes from Magill, it depends upon a “buried moral commitment.”

Consider the most famous example of literary irony in the language. Swift’s Modest Proposal succeeds, not only because “what it says” is different from “what it means,” but also because what it literally affirms (eating Irish children to prevent them from “being a burthen to their parents or country”) is contradicted by the horror aroused by the proposal, which suggests that all projects for dealing with society’s poor are similarly flawed. If the poor are regarded as commodities, their children might as well be consumed. Thus the sport or gambit of the proposal is subordinated to something more important to Swift—an attack upon abstract and rationalist social projects. The outcome he hoped for was an end to discussions of the poor in any such terms. (Instead, we ended up with social science.)

Swift adopted the style and methods of the social projects he sought to abuse. As George Wittkowsky pointed out in a seminal article on the pamphlet, the very title Modest Proposal was common in the contemporary literature on poverty.[2] But what about fiction that seeks to abuse the style and methods of its own characters? Do a novelist’s characters experience what is happening to them as irony? The very fact that such a question can be asked implies a God-like vantage point that is available to writers and their readers, but not to the characters within a fiction. (And if the writer is God are her readers then angels?) The characters in an ironic drama are torn asunder between appearance and reality, which exposes their appearances—their literal affirmations—as delusions. Writer and reader, however, as Lang observes, remain undivided. They are, in Kierkegaard’s words, “free and above it [irony].”[3] For not only is irony distinguished by the subordination of appearance to reality, but also by a commitment to that subordination, a true belief in reality’s necessary superiority. The ironist has a stake in the outcome; she wants her side to win; her irony represents her interests.

From this angle, an ironic novel is a demonstration of personal smugness. And worse. It is the creation of human beings to serve as commodities in the pursuit of a vested interest. It is little different from a lobbyist’s testimony before a congressional panel.

But what if, instead, a novelist were not dedicated to ideological victory? What if she gave up any stake in their outcomes and permitted her characters to fashion or discover their own moral commitments? What if she had learned, perhaps from her own inclination to irony, that a moral commitment is buried in everyone’s backyard? What if she became fascinated by the different ways in which men and women, under the pressure of a crisis, go about unearthing their commitments? And like her, in good faith? What if she were to break, once and for all, with the Jamesian “centre of consciousness,” which serves to dissemble the author’s favor—what if she were to dispense with the ancient heresy of “point of view” altogether—and to conceive the novelist’s role as offering articulate speech to men and women who are not she? Would she call this a method of narrative disinterest? Would she write something like The Believers?

[1] Berel Lang, “The Limits of Irony,” New Literary History 27 (Summer 1996): 571–88. Emphasis in the original.

[2] See George Wittkowsky, “Swift’s Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet,” Journal of the History of Ideas (January 1943): 75–104.

[3] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 253. Quoted in Lang.


Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

What would you call this particular level of narrative disinterest? Third person transcendent?

Zoë Heller must be SOME writer. Even Austen's characters were pawns advancing her larger platform, their complete, earnest investment in their delusions proving the validity of her ironic tone.

BUT, I haven't read The Believers, and so can't speak of Heller's intentions - though I look forward to the experience.

D. G. Myers said...

My new canon: Francine Prose and Zoë Heller.