Controlled Irony

I finished Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony yesterday.  While the majority of the text worked through Socrates thoroughgoing negativity the final section looked at “Irony After Fichte.”  This was essentially a commentary on Romanticism.  I think I missed something in this section.  While Kierkegaard was not entirely critical of this expression he also did not view this movement as either reflecting or going beyond Socrates.  In browsing over what I underlined I saw what might be a paradigmatic statement at the start of the section;

It was in Kant, to call to mind only what is generally known, that modern speculative thought, feeling itself mature and come of age, became tired of the guardianship in which it had lived hitherto under dogmatism and, like the prodigal son, went to its father and demanded that he divide and share the inheritance with it.  The outcome of this division of the inheritance is well known, and also that speculation did not have to go abroad in order to squander its resources, because there was no wealth to be found.  The more the I in criticism became absorbed in contemplation of the I, the leaner and leaner the I became, until it ended with becoming a ghost. (272)

Turning then to Fichte he talks about how he “infinitized the I in I-I. . . . But this infinity of thought in Fichte is, like all Fichte’s infinity, negative infinity, an infinity in there is no finitude, an infinity without any content” (273).  I don’t entirely understand why K. becomes more critical of this ongoing need of irony to ‘free itself’ (he was hardly critical of Socrates in this regard).  The criticism comes, it seems, on the shift towards making everything myth as a disingenuous mode of irony (contra Socrates); a sort of unfair play by irony to keep its thinking free.  This [Romantic] ironist ‘poetically composes’ but is not ‘poetically composed’.  This would require a limiting within actuality.  There is no content for the Romantic and transitions are nothing.  “At times he is a god, at times a grain of sand” (284).  So while Romanticism offered a cool breeze its tragedy is that “what it seizes upon is not actuality” (304).

So at the end of his 35o page dissertation he offers a brief 5 page conclusion, “Irony as a Controlled Element, the Truth of Irony.”  Here he treads carefully along the contentious line relating the life of the poet to the poetic work.  K. agrees that the poet’s life is no concern of ours.  “But in the present undertaking it should not be out of place to point out the misrelation that can often exist in this respect” (325).  I am still not quite sure what that sentence means.  As an example he points to Goethe.  “The reason Goethe’s poet-existence was so great was that he was able to make his poet-life congruous with actuality.  But that in turn takes irony, but, please note, controlled irony” (325).  K. accuses the Romantic of being incongruous with his work.  The point here seems to be that poetry is nothing if it does affect lives . . . and should it not affect the poet above all!  K. continues making the intriguing statement “what doubt is to science, irony is to personal life” (326).

As I am re-reading this short conclusion I am realizing that it is much more suggestive than I first realized.  I think I will end it here for now and spend a little more time working directly through his conclusion.

I am also almost finished the 100 pages of notes Kierkegaard took on the lecture series he attended by Schelling.  It is a supplement added to the Princeton series . . . I kinda of wish it wasn’t.  I doubt I will post anything on it.


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