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Irony Anew, with Occcasional Reference to Byron and Browning Author(s): Claudette Kemper Reviewed work(s): Source: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 7, No. 4, Nineteenth Century (Autumn, 1967), pp. 705-719 Published by: Rice University Stable URL: . Accessed: 31/08/2012 22:03
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Irony Anew, with OcccasionalReference to Byron and Browning



critical attention paid the history of irony and its rhetoric in the relatively recent past, irony the schema, attitude, or world view continues to be neglected in studies of literature in English.1 Even the work done on irony in the drama, by concentrating on the phenomenal aspects of irony, often obscures irony as a philosophical attitude, As a case in point, Sophocles is cited as a master ironist, since he uses ironic rhetoric and ironic situations. These manifestations of irony in his work "render" him an ironist along with the totally dissimilar ironist Euripides. Thus, definition of irony through rhetoric and situation pairs two playwrights whose attitudes, subject matter, and work are decidedly unalike. The mechanics of the ways by which irony operates seem to obscure the fact that irony operates through and is not to be confused with or defined by its rhetorical manifestations. More astonishing than the judgment rendering Sophocles and Euripides equally ironists is the pairing of Jesus and Socrates as so-called "pedantic" ironists. In pedantic irony, a person "in the know" controls the known and manipulates the unknown, as opposed to cosmic irony in which the gods or blind natural law are in control and man is not. In pedantic irony, man, not fate or its equivalent, stages the show. Socrates, as deity of the argument and as pedantic ironist, controls the flow of knowledge and introduces the flaws in knowledge at his will. And his argument has a delicate and curious effect on the participants; the argument is highly intelligent, but too intelligent for certainties; convincing, but too mercurial for exhortations; furthermore, Socrates unravels his argument as he weaves it, as when he remarks that
It is impractical to attempt a complete bibliography of irony here, Except, however, for Rudolph Jancke's Das Wesen der Ironie: Eine Strukturanalyse, (Leipzig, 1929) and Max Pulver's Romantische Ironie und Romnantische Komodie, (St. Gallen, 1912), the works I found especially useful appear in the footnotes.




he knows only one thing-that he knows nothing. The effects of this statement elude simple rhetorical analysis. Jesus is a deity of argument also. His argument is often delicate, mercurial, indirect, and baffling. But to dispose of the difference between Jesus and Socrates for the sake of the comparison is once again to equate the ironist and the man who uses the rhetoric of irony. It is to confuse the letter of irony with the spirit. Commitment is the intent of Jesus; independent, restless inquiry the intent of Socrates. The word "irony" may not only be applied to a singular way of viewing life but may also be applied to a work of art embodying the ironic attitude. This essay proposes to argue that, as a creative satirist produces work of a specific genre, "satire," so the creative ironist produces work in a specific and distinct genre, "irony," different from satire in attitude, subject matter, and structure. The rhetoric of irony does not define irony as attitude. Irony as litotes or understatement, irony as "meaning contrary to that expressed"-two tropes expressing ironic perceptions through formal verbal patterns-bear the name of irony because they are masked and indirect. Hence understatement, praise by blame, or blame by praise, or other devices for saying what one does not mean or for saying more than one means are called "irony," whereas, in actuality, they may be ironic only by virtue of their indirection, their mask, not necessarily by virtue of a fathering ironic schema. Irony as schema or attitude shares the need for indirection and the habit of disguise with the ironic tropes. But defining the attitude requires more than recognizing it as being indirect. All forms of irony must be defined not from a built-in incongruity such as a meaning opposite to that expressed, or from other forms of indirection, but from the awareness of incongruity, from the awareness and recognition of the mask on things. This awareness expanded to cover all things by a bemused and skeptical mind shapes the attitude. The perception of the known in conjunction with the perception of the flaws in the known reveal an endless epistemological fix. Seen not intermittently but habitually, it forms the "culture of the spirit" in an ironist.2
'This is what Kierkegaard calls irony. See Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. David F. Swenson (Princeton, 1941), p. 450.




The perception of the known in conjunction with the perception of the flaws in the known must be the basis for any definition of irony. And the ironic attitude does not arise from awareness of a specific problem of knowledge, but from the awareness that all knowledge is problematic. The audience of a Sophoclean play, while appreciating the play's underlying dramatic irony, even while recognizing, for instance, that Oedipus's blindness is related to a flaw in his faculties of understanding, does not enter into the ironic perception of the uncertainty in all knowledge. Nor indeed is Sophocles as playwright ironic in attitude, but in a single, clear and powerful perception of irony as a cosmic force humbling individual intelligence. Yet the ironic attitude is a broad, continuous apprehension of the problems in epistemology generally. The subject matter of an ironic work of art is epistemology, not religion, education, or ethics.Y Satire contains so much ironic rhetoric that ironic works of art are regularly crowded into satire's home. Irony, foxy, elusive, masked, and super-civilized, is forced to the board alongside the warrior satire. That deft gentleman, the narrator of Byron's Don Juan, finds himself bedded down on satire's nailed mattress. Or the narrator of Browning's Fiftne at the Fair, while criticism's hymns waft over a loud-speaker, beholds with a closed expression Browning's apotheosis in full armor. Nor do their hosts, who are respectable critics, think of furnishing a sprightly and sophisticated seraglio for their evasive and ill at ease guests.
3This awareness is characteristic of Euripides as ironist. Byron's Don Juan could serve as an example of the subject matter of irony in English literature. Byron concludes the last canto of Don Juan with
"I leave the thing a problem, like all things . . ." (xiii).

There is a common-place book argument, Which glibly glides from every tongue; When any dare a new light to present, 'If you are wrong, then everybody's rights'! Suppose the converse of this precedent So often urged, so loudly and so long; 'If you are wrong, then everybody's right'! Was ever anybody yet so quite? (XVII-v) But probably Byron's strongest statement of man's epistemological fix comes in the first stanza of Canto XIV in Don Juan: If from great nature's or our own abyss Of thought we could but snatch a certainty, Perhaps mankind might find the path they missBut then 't would spoil much good philosophy. One system eats another up. ...




The Satirist and the Ironist First Difference: Freedom versus Conviction The outstanding mark of the ironic mind is its divided view. Socrates was able to "encompass the most diverse contradictions without faltering."4 An ironist allows issues to ripen to their full complexity. He cultivates the conflicts that he perceives, for the ironic man does not solve but savors complications. "The ironic perception," Andrew Wright points
out, "is . . . one of contradictions in human experience-not

merely of closable gaps."5 The ironist witnesses the incompatible elements that make up life; he juxtaposes them without arbitrating, and, since he enjoys the incongruous and the contradictory, he is not frustrated or angered by them. Rather, contradictions form for the ironist the endlessly elastic elements of a game played not with addiction but in freedom. Moreover, neither a savior nor a savant, the ironist misleads his audience as a matter of course, not because of the ironic contradictions, nor even because of his innate wiliness, his foxiness, but merely because he has nothing to prove. Quite the contrary. The ironist plays with those very epistemological possibilities that eat away "proof." Kierkegaard describes him: One moment (the Eiron) becomes with serious mien a Roman patrician, enrobed in his bordered toga as he sits with imposing Roman seriousness on a sella curuUs: the next he switches to the humble aspect of a contrite pilgrim; anon he sits with crossed legs like a Turkish pasha in his harem; soon he sweeps forth light and free as a bird, as a zither-player in love.6 For instance, Browning's Bishop Blougram "apologizes" pro vita sua with contradictory and juggled arguments, until Browning with a wild stroke across the zither concludes his poem, "For Blougram, he believed, say, half he spoke" (1. 980). And so Browning sweeps away like a bird, without stating which half that Bishop Blougram spoke Bishop Blougram
N.C., 1961), p. 17; hereafter cited as Knox. 5Andrew H. Wright, Jane Austen's Novels (New York, 1953) p. 27; hereafter cited as Wright. 'Soren Kierkegaard, Ueber den Begriff der Ironie, mit Standigen Rilcksicht auf Sokrates (Munich and Berlin, 1929), p. 237; hereafter cited as Kierkegaard, Ueber den Begriff.
4Norman Knox, The Word Irony and Its Context 1500-1755 (Durham,




believed; he leaves his audience to its own devices and to its own "proofs." Yet the audience for the ironic work of art, even a critical and scholarly audience, is accustomed to look for evidence, for information, for knowledge. It will try to resolve the contradictory (as one critic finds the "give-away" passages in Browning's poems). It will try to settle the irony. It will try to fix the ironist, steal away his freedom, and commit him. Even in the comic a certain solemnity of intention is assumed by the audience on the part of the author; art is significant; it has value and meaning; entertaining it may be, but it must be instructive: Insincerity or indirection has always been dangerous. And irony, although not dishonest, is insincere, indirect, masked, detached. Irony therefore has always faced a double danger: its indirectness in dealing with its subject matter, for it is by no means clear that irony is "exposing" the flaws in knowledge; and its audience's sincerity. As far as ironic rhetoric is concerned, most experienced readers understand the manner of the insincerity involved. They know better than to believe in the face value of what is said. Yet even ironical tropes are not dishonest. The writer who uses the ironic trope of blame by praise is using an insincere statement as his mode of expression, but by no manner of means does he mean his reader to be misled. He intends to be read as blaming by praise, not as praising by praise. When a man exclaims "Good God!" it is a very rare hearer indeed who will miss the irony and accept the expression as an invocation to a beneficent and orderly deity. A purely ironic work of art is not dishonest, either, although it may appear at times to be patently insincere, since the ironist scrupulously distinguishes between sincerity and truth. Yet he may know that few of his readers will make the same distinction. Readers will almost invariably confuse honesty with truth, whereas to be honest is simply to report what you know of the truth. But the ironist is more honest than this. He reports what he knows, but he knows that he does not know the truth. Therefore, whatever the ironist reports is a "lie," simply because it is not all the truth, nor yet all the truth the ironist knows, far less all the truth there is. The ironist always sees this flaw in knowledge; and it frees him from conviction. All knowledge is always ironic to him ("And after all, what is a lie? 'T is but/ The truth in mas-



querade; .. ." [Don Juan, XI, xxxvii]) The ironic perception precludes for the ironist truth, or judgment, or "pure" fact, or "reality," or action, or a philosophy in the ordinary sense of the system. Irony issues from stark honesty and a nimble, but remote and dry, highly civilized mind. Such a mind does not pause over the structure of perfection, for it finds no perfection, no total truth, no ultimate standard. In fact, the ironic mind enjoys perpetual motion. Irony, Kierkegaard says, is like "the argument between a Catholic and a Protestant in which both are converted."7 So in the ironic perception something is always seen happening, but nothing ever changes. Paradoxically enough, ironically enough, the ironic mind is always active, a seeking mind, but, because it reaches no conclusion, it is also a static mind. It sees all the sides to the issue, but it sees them always. It sees all the evidence. And all the evidence obviates innocence, obviates a judgment; exhibit "A" for the state and exhibit "A" for the defense dissolve each other's value and significance. Thus the ironic mind is paralyzed by its own freedom; it is immobilized by the very mutability it

A definition of irony possibly jestingly made in 1620 validly defines a characteristic trait both of the ironist and so of the ironic attitude. "By his Needle he understand Ironia,/ That
7Kierkegaard, Ueber den Begriff, p. 46. 'Byron's narrator in Don Juan, himself an ironic mask, poses this stalemate. See Canto IX, xvi: 'To be or not to be?'-Ere I decide, I should be glad to know that which is being; 'Tis true we speculate both far and wide, And deem, because we see, we are all-seeing, I'll enlist on neither side, For my part, Until I see both sides for once agreeing.... Browning's Sordello, although not himself an eiron, is set in an ironic poem, and Browning has him state the problem no less unequivocally; see the sixth book of Sordello: 'What Is, then? Since 'One object, viewed diversely, may evince 'Beauty and ugliness-this way attract, 'That way repel,-why gloze upon the fact? 'Why must a single of the sides be right? 'What bids choose this and leave the opposite?' Or perhaps the following from Easter Day is even more provocative: You'll find sufficient, as I say, To satisfy you either way: You wanted to believe (11.195-197).




with one eye lookes two wayes at once."9 The ironic man looks at least two ways at once. This trope translated into a world view suggests that the ironist sometimes means the opposite of what he says; but it suggests more than this. It suggests that the ironist can mean what he says and mean its opposite, as when Heine remarked "God will forgive me: that is His trade," or when Byron's narrator placidly remarks of Dona Julia, "She pray'd the Virgin Mary for her grace,/ As being the best judge of a lady's case." And the ironist can sometimes mean neither what he says nor its opposite. (In any event, the word "mean" if it signifies "intend" is misleading. The ironic game is not to mean. The ironist does not "mean to say"; he un-does and re-does the meaning in what he says.) The contrasting perspectives in the ironic trope, eyeing and measuring the duplicities in existence, also measure the hovering ambivalence in the chameleon

The ironist is marked above all by that unusual temperament of mind that prefers an eternal dialectic to a temporary truth. His argument does not uncover the evidence, but the perpetual shiftiness of the evidence. Since irony is unemotional, it does not demand commitment; rather it remands commitment. The satirist, on the contrary, possesses not a free but a dedicated mind. The satirist loves and hates. "For what impels him to write is not less the hatred of wrong and injustice than a love of the right and just."10 His emotions tie him to his subject; his argument demands a conversion, although the satirist need not expect one. The satirist is not a free and essentially private man, shirking public duty, endlessly unavailable, totally unprophetic, but a public man, a public speaker, a politician, even a policeman. Second Difference: The Use of the Mask Irony and satire both operate through masks or poses. Yet the masks serve as disguises in neither. But in satire the masks are stable; in irony, the masks are constantly changing, although they are never removed. For the ironist as character, his actuality is in the masks. He does not lurk behind them with a message for the world, nor yet, as it may initially
9Knox, p. 31. '"Humbert Wolfe, Notes on English Verse Satire (London, 1929), p. 7.




appear, to protect himself from the world. He uses the masks not for shelter but for investigative play. The man "behind" the masks is no-one, nothing: he is "neutral and unformed in

When in an ironic work of art the narrator is obviously a mask, the unwary reader may decide that the poet himself is speaking through the mask of the narrator. Consequently the mask as far as the reader is concerned is unriddled, for the mask is equated with the ironist. The whole tremendous range of otherness separating the ironist from even an ironic narrator is-incredibly and yet easily-lost. Yet the whole range of irony lies between them. Such a mistake offers an ironic poet such as Browning an opportunity to mislead his readers into confusing the poet with the narrator. Realizing that the confusion would occur, Browning seems to have taken deliberate advantage of the gullibility of an unwary audience to increase the range of his irony.'2 The ironist may in fact mock his audience and himself through the mask of a narrator. Yet as an ironist may be mocking himself from behind the mask of his narrator, so the narrator or speaker in an ironic work of art may be mocking not only the ironic author indirectly but himself as narrator as well. Beyond the ironist's perception of a situation can lie his ironic perception of "himself" ironically perceiving the situation.13 Masks in irony serve to disorient the audience, and not to instruct it. The ironic mask avoids being fixed by the onlooker, and it does not fix itself. It fades and reforms. But clarity and stability are the aims of the satiric mask. Satire often appears as grotesque exaggerations; distortion makes masks out of the characters. But these masks orient satire's audience; they fix the point the satirist is making by making his point graphic. The purpose, the appearance, and the function of the masks in satire are totally dissimilar to the masks in irony.

"Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), p. 173; hereafter cited as Frye, Anatomy. "Browning mocks himself through his narrator in The Ring and the Book, books I and XII. The narrator who boasts of absolute proof on one page, on the next shuffles uneasily through pages of proof this way, proof that way, yet the situation parallels Browning's own discovery of The Yellow Book. 'Haakon Chevalier, The Ironic Temper (New York, 1932), p. 47.





Third Difference: The Morality of Satire; The Amorality of Irony Satire is constructed on a "hidden" premise, a covert ideal state generally unexpressed in the satire itself. While satire overtly observes man operating in the world of experience, covertly the emphasis falls on the ideal. Behind satire lies the hope for an amended world. In satire, deviations from the ideal are exaggerated and exercise an implicit moral discipline. What the satirist finds objectionable in man is worsened. The human face becomes grotesque. Man's misdoings swell while his virtues shrink. Satire "thrives on moral extremes."14 "True satire implies the condemnation of
a society by reference to an ideal; . . . The satirist is engaged

in measuring the monstrous aberration from the ideal. The aberration is now all on one side: the satirist does not hold
a middle point of vantage. . ."ltn And satire intends to make

man smart; it intends to draw blood; it is strong and pointed and savage.1" The ideal, an ethical standard in the covert background, provides a picketed moral reference for the satirist and for his audience. But, although the satirist may hope to cure by his satire, his driving desire is to kill by it, to destroy what is wrong. The satirist is an angry and a vengeful judge who assumes the tremendous and selfimposed burden of reform and moral mission. Whereas satire is based primarily on the absence of an ethic in the operation of the real in the satiric vision of a world ruled by practical considerations, irony is based on the absence of a firm reality. "The" nature of reality is not assumed as a datum or as a given actuality. Irony consequently cannot work with ethics. The ironic attitude is bred in a highly civilized, balanced, rational and just, self-aware mind, but a mind largely dissociated, not the mind of a moralist. The questions posed by irony are therefore not ethical and positive ones, but purely philosophic. Randolf Bourne remarks that irony "the science of comparative experience, compares things not with an established standard but with each other,
1A. E. Dyson, "The Metamorphosis of Irony," Essays and Studies, II (London, 1958), 55; hereafter cited as Dyson. 15J. Middleton Murry, The Problem of Style (Oxford, 1922), p. 65. "This point is strongly made in Robert C. Elliott's excellent book on satire, The Power of Satire (Princeton, N. J., 1960); hereafter cited as Elliott.




and the values that slowly emerge from the process, values that emerge from one's own vivid reactions, are constantly revised, corrected, and refined by that same sense of contrast."'17Irony asks how one man can know reality and the right, given all men's experience of the knowing processes. It does not ask what is the right, nor pretend to know it, except ironically. Irony is grounded in the problems that beset any inquisition into the knowing process in man. Epistemology, not ethics, provides irony with its mainspring. Irony originates in selfconscious consciousness. The successful satire ultimately encourages moral judgment.l8 Irony questions moral judgments and undermines them. Satire seeks to expose for a society the neglect of an ethical standard. Irony seeks to expose the inadequacies of any standard already operative, for, as the ironist knows, without adequate knowledge, without adequate ethics, man is deprived of adequate justice as well. The prima donna of ironists, Socrates, is said to have remarked, having been called a silly-billy, And why, when we are seeking for justice, a thing more precious than many pieces of gold, do you say that we are weakly yielding to one another and not doing our utmost to get at the truth? Nay, my good friend, we are most willing and anxious to do so, but the fact is that we cannot. And if so, you people who know all things should pity us and not be angry with

The ironic vision could not be more adequately expressed. In irony there are "no precise positives behind the right," even if a "right" can be secured from the flux of impressions open to the questing and learning mind.20 "(Irony) ceases to
be a functional technique serving a moral purpose, and becomes the embodiment of an attitude to life. ... so the readers

of Swift will have to agree that the final impact of his irony,
'Randolph S. Bourne, Youth and Life (Boston, 1913), p. 105. 1See Elliott, p. 107, "satirists have shown a compulsive desire to justify on moral grounds their ungrateful art." Satire, says David Worcester in The Art of Satire (Cambridge, Mass., 1940), pp. 8-9, "has an aim, a preconceived purpose: to instill a given set of emotions or opinions into its reader. To succeed, it must practice the art of persuasion and become proficient with the tools of that art." 9Plato's Republic, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Colonial ed., London, 1901), Book I. "Dyson, 44.





however disturbing, is more real, and therefore more worthwhile, than its continuation as simple moral satire would have been."'21 Swift was not, however, an ironist. He chose, he told Pope, to vex the world rather than to divert it, or himself. He was so close to his emotions that he was fierce. Because he was essentially an ethical man, he sought to expose the subjects he handled even when he played with them, whereas the ironist does not care whether he or his subject is understood. Satire uncovers positive, existent flaws in society through "attack"; irony "plays" with the dilemmas borne by the ambiguities of epistemology. The ironist Anatole France, for instance, once commented on the impertinence of allowing oneself to be burned for one's opinions. Swift might prefer to burn. The satirist does not face his ideal directly. He does not examine it; he does not apply it: He need not be concerned about the possibility that in application a discipline of morality can be inadequate, insensate, insane. Nor does the ironist attend to the application of a standard. But, quite unlike the satirist, he does seek out the problematic qualities of ethical evaluation. He uses genuine moral dilemmas because their difficulties entertain him. He finds the vision of a mankind not able, ultimately, to uphold the good, or even to distinguish it, a toothsome one. Still, although the world may not easily distinguish the right, a world without morality is as barbaric as a world with rigid moral codes. Irony ceaselessly circles this paradox. The paradox is consistently being met, but just as consistently remains unsolved. Its native insolubility provides the ironic work of art a central moral opacity, a certain ethical intractability, for the enigmatic quality of morality is, to the ironist, as fundamental as it is insoluble. Any critic seeking the truth of an ironic work in its moral solution will err. He may accuse a poet such as Browning of philosophical sloppiness, unable to see that Browning is neither teacher nor preacher. Or, in the critical search for positive conclusions, he may frustrate himself with his own intellectual honesty, for there are very few positive conclusions to be found in Browning. No ironist is "doctrinaire-.

. . there is judgment finally




-but never serene certainty."22 And the judgment is enigmatic. Satire draws a fixed standard from a stable ethic; irony shifts through the moral "certitudes," unsettling them. The ironist, although he believes the moral paradox is insoluble, never ceases to question, pseudo-exhort, argue, suppose, continue, albeit ironically, man's epistemological quest for morality and for reality. The fundamental impulse of irony is to score off both the arguments that have been puzzling you, both sets of sympathies in your mind, both sorts of fool who may seem a disagreeable pleasure in the ironist but he gives the same pleasure more or less secretly to his audience....23 Man in satire is flattened out, cut open, anatomized, and cruelly diagnosed. But irony insists on the full complexities of a living man with a mind in motion. Irony, knowing that man is incurable, accepts him with a wry intellectual joy because of it. Satire, to cite William Empson out of context, "appeals
fiercely and singly to the reader's judgment. .."24 But in will hear you; a plague on both their houses. .
. .


irony, although man is apparently on trial, he is not judged, because man must, by the nature of things ironically perceived, also be confused. Consequently, the judges, being men, are confused. As for the evidence in the ironic case, it is scarcely proof. Byron sets up the perfect ironic "trial" when he says, "When Bishop Berkeley said 'there was no matter,'
And proved it-'t was no matter what he said . . ." (Don

Juan, XI-i). The theme of justice exists in irony, but justice becomes ironic an element in the ironist's "play." In the ironic work of art, justice contracts St. Vitus's dance. The finger of the accuser points to a man, and both the finger and the man begin to dance. Trial scenes in which the concept of justice is not mocked but unstabilized are commonplace. Nothing could be nearer the center of irony than justice unsteadied, except perhaps epistemology emasculated. The ironist prefers, possibly because of a greater sense of justice than the satirist's, not to judge. The confusions of the trial obviate justice; as
"Andrew H. Wright, "Irony and Fiction," JAAC, Vol. 12 (September, 1953), 114. "William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (London, 1950), p. 62: hereafter cited as Empson. "Empson, p. 58.




facts accumulate, justice becomes impossible. Should there be conviction in an ironic work of art, it would expose the shockingly unjust aspects of justice, but there is no conviction, and irony does not expose itself. Rather irony cannily confutes judgment.25 The sources and the nature of knowledge bemuse the ironist, although his investigation does not carry him into scholarly earnestness. The question of Pompilia's guilt or innocence is not the relevant one. The predicaments the "proof" encounters, one way and the other, are relevant. The Fourth Difference The "Know Thyself" Theme: In Society (Satire), Through the Self (Irony) The subtleties of the learning experience are made more problematic in an ironic work of art by the personality of its hero. The ironic author, alert to the intricacies of epistemology, stresses prejudice and passion as they influence thought. Character in satire is clearly motivated by selfishness and self-interest; so characters are typed and set in a stratified society which has become as mechanical as they are, for the society is as selfish and self-preserving as the characters. The satirist relies on the stability of society as well as of ethics and the world. The success of satire obviously depends on comprehension by its audience of its intention. Satire is directed at a society as well as at the operation of individuals within a society. The audience is advised both individually and as a society that they are beholding their own reflection. Satire is a public exhibition of vice. Since satire's nature is reformative, the satirist holds up for his audience to see a distorted image, and the audience is to be "shocked into a realization that the image is his own."26 Moreover, audience and satirist are compatriots in that they understand one another. In order to "attack anything, satirist and audience
-5The judgment Brownings Pope passes on Guido in The Ring and the Book is, ironically, not based on a review by him of the evidence. Furthermore, a strong ironic possibility exists that the Pope is senile as well as fervid and ambitious. Guido dies, but Browning does not pass judgment on him. '6Dyson, p. 54. Many readers, of course, dissociate themselves from the image they see in satire, and they proceed to enjoy the satire as free and uninvolved citizens. The satirist may realize that this is the case, but he does not intend for it to be the case.




must agree on its undesirability."27 When, however, stereotypes become individuals, when ethics become personal in action and application, when theories apply to human behavior, when the undesirable can be found in the desirable, and the desirable is seen to be the mainstay of the undesirable, the stable boundaries waver; satire cannot operate. In an unstable society, affairs become susceptible to the ironic liberties. "The less sure society is of its assumptions, the more likely satire is to take the line of irony, or the method laid down once for all in the dialogues of Plato."28 Irony, which comes as the patina on an already highly civilized way of life, may ironically be an indication of the disintegration of that same civilization. In short, irony does not stabilize a society, as satire does; it withdraws the supports it finds. The ironist's hero, not an example for a society as is the satirist's, offers a challenge to the practice of judgment. His re-creation of the world in his mind reflects the world that the ironist sees. But since this world is shapeless, tending to the chaotic, since evidence concerning the hero is fluid and his "trial" perlexing, since, "true to life," he keeps changing from one very lifelike mask to another, a conclusive evaluation of him is impossible. Caught up in the multitude of disordered tenets that his illusive society offers him and caught up in the wandering nature of the mind, the ironic hero moves unsteadily but swiftly through an unstable world, or, more accurately, he moves through transient world-schemes into which he has been set or into which he sets himself. His world is simultaneously far more "real" than the satirist's and yet it is fantasy, dream, illusion. Given his situation, the language the ironist uses is accurate-and lunatic. (In this respect, for instance, the heirs of Euripides' Agamemnon and Browning's Don Juan use ravagingly "sensible" arguments.) An audience that grasps the irony is thereby maladjusted to certainty and to society. Not only the ironic hero's world, his characterization, his flexibility, but his relationship to his audience separate him from the stiff satiric dolt. The audience of the ironist's unstable society is presented with world principles as vagrant as the ironic hero's. The hero's flexibility is so great that the
"7Northrop Frye, "The Nature of Satire," "8Frye, Anatomy, p. 82. UTQ, 14 (1944-1945), 77.



audience, if the audience seeks belief, can select for itself what it cares to believe about him, as it can about the ironic work of art. The audience is not being chastised or taught, but teased.29A great variety of information, most of it of a transitory and illusory nature, is presented to the ironic hero and to his audience. For the audience, as for the ironic hero, the only real understanding of affairs lies in regarding all information offered, and in regarding it all with a measure of skepticism. There can be no neat, serene apprehension of an ironic world, or of an ironic hero, or of an ironic author for the audience. The audience can follow the ironic hero's leaps through consciousness in search of knowledge, self-justification, morality, truth, only by sacrificing the syllogistic comforts. (The ironist "salutes" his argument with "every demonstration of respect" while "he is busied in withdrawing one by one all the supports on which it rests: and he never ceases to approach it with an air of deference, until he has completely undermined it, when he leaves it to sink under the weight of its own absurdity.")30 If the audience realizes that the argument is no argument, but a game of meaning, the audience can begin to appreciate the piquancy and vibrancy of the paradoxical ironic themes. These themes suggest the irrational nature of life, the solipsism of every man, the deceptivenesses of the mind, the quicksand of language, even while irony masks the fundamental senselessness of these very elements.

2'Note the tone of the opening lines of Sordello: Who will, may hear Sordello's story told: His story? Who believes me shall behold The man, pursue his fortunes to the end, Like me: . . . Only believe me. Ye believe? (11.1-9) Thirlwall, "On the Irony of Sophocles," Philological Museum, II ;"Conop (1833), 484.