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contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78

Richard Rorty and the Ironic Plenitude
of Literature
Kacper Bartczak

Department of American Literature, University of Lodz, Poland

When considered in relation to remarks in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rortian
irony becomes a target of criticisms that see it as marred by the conflict between skeptical distance and commitment. But such critique ignores the fact that Rortian irony
belongs to a broader literary intuition. In this article I trace Rorty’s concept of irony to
the structural properties of a specific group of literary texts. These texts bring together
diverse materials the affinity between which is precisely what is at stake in the interpretive game these texts put in motion: the formal, cognitive, and aesthetic coherence
of these texts is a potentiality to be realized by readers. I treat the interpretive activity
these texts depend on as equivalent to the practices by which inhabitants of democracies reexamine and recompose the materials of their networks of beliefs. Since such
practices require a combination of ironic distance to the examined materials with a
commitment to the interpretive process itself, they validate a Rortian model of irony.

Rorty – irony – interpretation – novel – poetry

1 Introduction
Among the most common charges made against Rorty’s idea of irony is the accusation of it being cynicism in disguise. Here is an example of such a critique:
The ironist will be rather like the woman without faith among religious
believers – she may go through the motions, mouth the same slogans,
© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2015 | doi 10.1163/18758185-01201004



observe the same ritual, but these cannot really unite her with the true
Let us contrast this representative critique with a testimony by an ironist. Here
is Milan Kundera commenting on the intricacies of his political and atheist
I was raised an atheist and that suited me until the day when, in the darkest years of Communism, I saw Christians being bullied. On the instant,
the provocative, zestful atheism of my early youth vanished like some
juvenile brainlessness. I understood my believing friends and, carried
away by solidarity and by emotion, I sometimes went along with them to
mass. Still, I never arrived at the conviction that a God existed as a being
that directs our destinies…. I was sitting in church with the strange and
happy sensation that my nonbelief and their belief were oddly close.2
This memory is part of a prolonged commentary on the relations between literature, history, philosophy, and the intricacies through which one’s debt to
these fields makes up one’s biography. Seemingly paradoxical, Kundera’s position will be more readily accessible to those who understand the changing
roles the Catholic Church played in Eastern European societies under the rule
of the communist regimes and after their collapse. How this complex position
was enabled by literary experience becomes apparent when we recall that
Kundera’s atheist narrator’s joining the rituals of religious believers was a result
of a complex interpretive activity. Kundera’s stance on a particular juncture of
history, politics, and biography – a stance that is both ironic and non-cynical –
is inseparable from his life of a writer and avid reader of literature.
So is Rorty’s concept of irony. Richard Rorty’s works provide scattered
remarks on widely understood literary experience. In his irregular discussions
of selected literary works and occasional debates with literary critics and theoreticians, Rorty has provided a series of intuitions on how literature may be
conducive to the causes of democracy and the project of self-creation. Included
in his thinking about the links between literature, self-making, autonomy, and
the condition of democracy is Rorty’s unique treatment of the concept of irony.
With its related portrait of the liberal-ironist, it is perhaps the most contested
1 John Horton, “Irony and Commitment: Irreducible Dualism,” in Richard Rorty: Critical
Dialogues, ed. Matthew Festenstein and Simon Thompson (Cambridge, uk: Polity, 2001),
pp. 26–27.
2 Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts (New York: Harper, 1995), p. 9.

contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78

Here. But these tensions are a result of a too narrow treatment of the term.Richard Rorty and The Ironic Plenitude Of Literature 61 and debated among his proposals. Generally. Rorty seems to have found this experience mainly in some novels.” in Richard Rorty. contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 . The literary texts I have in mind are such relational systems. as these attitudes are brought together with other attitudes in an unexpected relational system. has seen in it a rather distorted and misguided copy of Hume’s radical skepticism. I believe this is a mistake. We obtain a more comprehensive view of how Rorty’s irony might work as a real life option. Most of the critiques point to the contradictions attendant on the portrayal of the ironist’s life. particularly the novel. or aesthetic grounds. The text is an artificial environment that might reveal unexpected sides of attitudes we thought of as fully known. when we discuss it in relation to a specific kind of literary experience. but also conducive to the causes of democracies. “Rorty on Knowledge and Truth. In so doing these literary forms complement and develop Rorty’s intuitions on how irony might work for the sake of democratic communities. And yet. 2 The Critics of Rortian Irony Rorty’s concept of irony has caused considerable unrest among his commen­ tators. In this article I shall defend Rorty’s concept of irony as a way of life that is not only feasible. Michael Williams. both novels and poems. pp. for example. I will show how some literary creations. 2003). presenting it as if it were a purely philosophical. 61–80. Hiley (Cambridge. cognitive. Charles Guignon and David R. I will show a variety of irony – an evolved version of Rortian irony – to be a constitutive feature of such a class of literary texts. sociological. I will try to show how it is also an integral part of some American poems. or political concept and ignoring its literary provenance. The experience I have in mind is of interacting with complex literary texts that presuppose an ongoing interpretive activity as an integral element of their structure. Here.3 Other critics dismiss Rorty’s 3 Michael Williams. the project of Rortian irony is mistrusted as unfeasible. sustain themselves as hypothetically coherent wholes by installing self-interpretive activities in which irony becomes a form of commitment. ed. Irony has an unavoidable literary genealogy and Rorty’s ironism has two main roots: his unique approach to the classical pragmatist tradition and his intuitions on literature. the text as a formal passage is a way of accounting for how such stances might be readable when found in close vicinity of one another. the literary text is a hypothesis of relations between stances that might not be readily compatible on ethical. uk: Cambridge University Press.

8 Horton. contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 . for instance. 75. Echoing multiple other critiques. 27. “Irony and Commitment. ed. This view requires those commitments to be something other than the contingent products of a combination of choice or circumstance.6 Indicating how the Rortian ironist has no recourse to the commonsensical Humean insulation of everyday practicality from the purely philosophical rumination conducted in the philosopher’s private study. 9 Ibid. 2003). “Irony and Commitment. Charles Guignon and David R.” in Richard Rorty. Horton complains: “It is quite unclear how the ironist can keep her detachment for private values and really commit herself to liberal values in public.” p.62 Bartczak general anti-foundationalism and the contingency he traces in shaping the individual’s moral character. to a lack of commitment? Why doesn’t private irony undermine liberal hope?”7 In similar vein. For John Horton. Williams and Horton agree on the basic flaw of this model which they find in Rorty’s attempt to keep the private self-creation separate from the ironist self-creator’s ability to commit to public and political matters. is not the right environment for the development of genuine commitments in morality and politics: “we retain… a sense of moral and political commitment which rests on a very different picture of our relation to the world. 5 Horton.”5 Coming at Rorty’s ironism from different angles. 26. 7 Williams. 6 Ibid. “Rorty on Knowledge and Truth. authentic moral or political character does not grow on the loose soils of Rorty’s customary anti-foundationalism. a vast majority of critics see the ironist’s capability for commitment to any cause in general. as extremely problematic. ruled by the ever present possibility of redescription. p.” p. and to the cause of liberal democracy in particular.”9 Both critics see irony as a corrosive substance that seeps through all divides. 24. uk: Cambridge University Press. Rorty’s world. Hiley (Cambridge. Williams and Horton see the division as murky and hard to maintain. turning the ironist inevitably into a cynic. 27.”8 Horton’s critique points to the same danger as Williams’s: “Indeed cynicism must be the abiding temptation for the ironist. 150.” p. 4 Jean Bethke Elshtain. Horton claims that the private is simply hard to identify. Williams denies the Rortian ironist-cum-skeptic the ability to commit to liberal hope: “What keeps the skeptical irony securely private? Why doesn’t such skepticism lead to cynicism. Pointing to the necessarily public character of literary creations.. “Don’t Be Cruel: Reflections on Rortyian Liberalism..4 Whatever their stance on Rorty’s theory of redescribability.

Michael Williams takes this criticism to its very perceptive and logical end and points out that it is not only the public engagements of the ironist that suffer. the area of the private self-creation will be vitally touched too. Irony. contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 . If irony is radical skepticism.Richard Rorty and The Ironic Plenitude Of Literature 63 Behind these critiques lies a basic discrepancy concerning the understanding of the term. while participating in excessive linguistic environments. These poems absorb diverse linguistic material but are able to hold it together in a system of aesthetic exchange. They hold together as separate from other such entities. a stance found in Emerson. a hope oriented stance that requires the backing of belief and commitment: “the study [of the self-creator] is no longer a place for glum. as Williams reminds us. irony is precisely the thing that causes the fuel to evaporate. We will see how these texts are equivalent to a complex type of personhood in which irony is a form of commitment to its balance. and other works which enhance the formal features in question. we will see how all these works.” p. my intention to discuss Rorty’s irony in the context of a specific class of literary texts stems from the conviction that these texts – following Rorty’s accurate intuitions – base their very being as stable literary objects on a complex activity of turning irony into a form of commitment. Such a system – equal to the value of the text as an artistic object – is an accounting.” p. After all. “Irony and Commitment. 20. Horton. “Rorty on Knowledge and Truth. for comparing and evaluating different kinds of lives. for a coexistence of potentially remote stances implied by the language that the poem absorbs. and Dewey. in which his critics see the ironist as an almost neurotic figure. however paradoxical or surprising. 10 11 Williams. Rorty’s critics treat irony as a strongly incapacitating form of skepticism. James. 74. when treated as hypothetical interpretive wholes. If commitment to any cause needs the fuel of belief. display complex self-reflexive commitment to their own interpretive action of looking for their shape. If Rorty’s philosophy of self-creation and social hope is to be credited with any efficacy at all. we would need to show how what he calls “irony” is different from incapacitating skepticism. a detachment that would be equally destructive in the fields of politics. Rorty’s notion of irony cannot be discussed through a limited recourse to a closed set of fragments in Contingency. passive reflection… but a place for active deliberation.”10 I think that Williams is correct – self-creation requires an active stance toward the world. and Solidarity. too preoccupied with the “worry” concerning her very identity. and self-creation. morality. private self-creation is also a project.11 By pointing to some formal continuities between the literary works on which Rorty comments. I am claiming that certain texts – especially a class of poems – might be treated as artificial person-like entities. Thus.

The writing/reading process of such poems sheds light on the individuals’ commitment to such sorting out. the novel enters the stage at the twilight of the Middle Ages: As God slowly departed from the seat whence he had directed the universe and its order of values… Don Quixote set forth from his house into 12 Richard Rorty. 3 Irony. and Solidarity (Cambridge. Contingency. these poems imitate the complex ways in which individuals. I will also try to suggest in what way this sort of paradoxical ironic commitment might be supportive of the causes of a democracy. then. are faced with a necessity of daily coming to terms with highly divergent. and Commitment within the Literary Culture Rorty’s thinking about irony is inseparable from his concept of autonomy found through literature – as writer or reader. In Contingency. it also goes hand in hand with the ironic distance toward the processed materials. 98–107. uk: Cambridge University Press. especially in a piece called “Redemption from Egotism. The figure that epitomizes this ability is Proust. and Solidarity literature is the activity that allows the self to reach for the defining good of ironic self-creation: the construction of one’s own vocabulary which will successfully redescribe the vocabularies and contingencies which were responsible for one’s socialization. Irony. While this commitment is indispensable to these individuals’ mental hygiene. not readily congruent.64 Bartczak The irony I am going to talk about is what allows us to treat these poems as individual pieces.12 In later texts. without recourse to the idea of aesthetic or cognitive coherence as closure. which he shares with Milan Kundera. the novel makes us more at home in the pluralistic world by giving us a dynamic environment where values and descriptions keep competing against one another. The cognitively and aesthetically diverse materials that these poems process are equivalent to the multifarious world descriptions that individuals must sort out.” Rorty is consistent with his earlier understanding of the novel. 1989). Irony. members of contemporary waning democracies. Self-creation. Thus. While philosophy tried to produce accurate descriptions of the world. pp. The key gain of the novel lies in portraying this competition as an interpretive activity that proceeds without recourse to any general key words that would govern the play without being part of it. contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 . Ultimately. reports of the external world. For Kundera.

whether as writer or reader.  In “Philosophy as a Transitional Genre” Rorty states: “It is essential to have glimpsed one or more alternatives to the purposes that most people take for granted. this idea is not far from pragmatism’s founding metaphor offered by James in his “corridor theory.Richard Rorty and The Ironic Plenitude Of Literature 65 a world he could no longer recognize. 1999). or the Truth. realized better than his brother and went on to redefine the modern novel. is a form of commitment to the process in which the self will be changed. and Dickens. Richard Rorty. William James. is on their side. The Poetics of Transition: Emerson. Participation in the literary culture. “The Pragmatist’s Progress: Umberto Eco on Interpretation. In the absence of the Supreme Judge. Kundera.” in which belief is a form of commitment to active co-creation of the world.”17 Autonomy is the result of this process. p. 1999). 9–10.” in Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin Books. 6. The reader’s self is a text to be meshed with the text of a literary work in the hope of both of them receiving new meanings. uk: Cambridge up. For a full discussion of the connections between William’s pragmatism and Henry’s theory of the novel. The Art of the Novel (New York: Harper. as William James’ sibling. p. in Writings 1902–1910 (New York: Library of America. It is a rich passage whose only limitation is in the question of where to stop weaving the description (of a character. volume 2 (Cambridge.15 To be a pragmatist. It is the ability to keep the idea of integrity in play when making one’s way among the plurality of perspectives.” likening pragmatism to a corridor that provides passage among rooms whose residents hold contradictory views. etc.16 But immersion in plurality is conducted in non-skeptical moods. Pragmatism. is to stay faithful to the passage – not get locked in any of the rooms. see Jonathan Levine. 1991). Pragmatism and American Literary Modernism (Durham: Duke up. “Heidegger.” in Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers. p.13 For Rorty this means that the novel is “roughly synonymous with ‘the democratic utopia’ – with an imaginary future society in which nobody dreams of thinking that God. on this view. 1987). Rorty subscribes to this position. contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 . 75.”14 If the novel instigates free exploratory movement between multiple perspectives. 510. James’s vision of plurality in A Pluralistic Universe is compatible with his earlier idea of the “will to believe. 145. Reading is “an encounter… which has made a difference to the [reader’s] conception of who she is. Richard Rorty. the world suddenly appeared in its fearsome ambiguity. 1993). or the Nature of Things. and to have chosen among these alternatives – thereby in some 13 14 15 16 17 Milan Kundera. pp. an event. Henry.). p.

”21 Rorty’s “autonomy” is different. Bernstein (Oxford. At each stage the self needs to get a distance from the languages in which it has seen itself exist: “The ironic. This 18 19 20 21 Richard Rorty. pp. perhaps remote. many parts of our own life-stories. de Man treats literature as language brought to a hyper-active state of self-commentary in which all achieved understanding is immediately dispersed. 1983). “Redemption from Egotism.: Wiley-Blackwell. contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 .” in The Rorty Reader. Richard Rorty.” in Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers.” In his modification of the Romantic irony of Friedrich Schlegel. here. Voparil and Richard J. for example.66 Bartczak measure creating oneself. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. the result is meaningful interaction with various. Paul de Man. 218. through freedom from descriptions. 391. In “Redemption from Egotism” authenticity becomes synonymous with a skill of coherently accommodating new stimuli and data: all writing that is not merely a matter of conveying information offers… a context in which to put many propositions we have previously believed. usable.. p.19 Such recontextualization is itself a form of commitment. Paul de Man’s “absolute irony. autonomy has a lot to do with the literary problem of spotting coherence of the tale where there seems to be none. Volume 4 (Cambridge. ed. twofold self that the writer or philosopher constitutes by his language… come[s] into being only at the expense of his empirical self. none of them being a “mystification. and many of the books we have previously read. Ibid. falling… into the knowledge of his mystification. “far from being a return to the world. uk. 214. because one cannot develop a skill without being committed to the possible results of its uses in social contexts.”20 Consequently. De Man’s “absolute irony” is a vertiginous falling away from the world. the… ‘irony of irony’… stat[es] the continued impossibility of reconciling the world of fiction with the actual world. 90. 2007). many of the people we have known.” there being no other chance for authenticity than through language. self. “Philosophy as a Transitional Genre. 2010). uk: Cambridge up. It is not obtained. We can now see what Rorty’s irony most definitely is not – it is not.”18 Basically. p.or world-descriptions without losing a sense of one’s own stable passage in their midst. but through novel distributions of descriptions. all of them remaining “empirical” – i. as in de Man.e. Christopher J. based on a division of language into two spheres: the empirical engagements of language and their postulated continuous transcendence.

Anthony Cascardi (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. ed. and Solidarity. 102. Press.25 This author lives with and in the text. interanimating contingencies. 24 Ibid. “Writer. Author. and is more like a longing for shapeliness than like the ambition of transcendence. just as some novels seem to remain wholes while consisting of constellations of disparate elements. a coherence to be. For Rorty reading as re-contextualization of the self is generative of selves-as-plots. and is not an external 22 Rorty. 23 Rorty. See Alexander Nehamas. Contingency. “Redemption from Egotism.Richard Rorty and The Ironic Plenitude Of Literature 67 autonomy is a commitment to a future shape of the self’s coherence. their strung up character. p.” in Literature and the Question of Philosophy.” p. And yet. The world is plural – but it seems to hang together. accidental sequences. 405. Text.”24 Again – what is the degree to which such a self is a coherent being? The author that Rorty speaks about is a textual hypothesis. and Orwell One way in which the novels that Rorty found interesting participate in our world is by addressing the issue of the unity of this world. pp.. Some novels seem to be especially intent on taunting the reader with the question of their coherence. 267–91. the novel as an imitation of our own world’s lack of pattern does lead to the creation of a self: “He had written a book and thus created a self – the author of that book. a creation of the text that remains as open as the play of contingencies that the novel consists of. the novel achieves unity by ignoring the question of a unifying pattern and affirming the trust of the narrator in achieving construction through immersion in the free flow of contingencies: “Proust’s novel is a network of small. Reading involves: the hope that [the reader] will be able someday to see her life… as a work of art – that she will someday be able to look back and bring everything together into some sort of pattern…. p. It is the hope for rounded completion and self-recognition. 1987). and speaks from inside their contingent. What exactly is the principle that keeps Remembrance of Things Past one literary work? According to Rorty. 25 The idea of the author as a hypothetical subjectivity posited by the text conceived of as an action has been developed by Alexander Nehamas.”23 It is a text which places itself within the horizontally non-hierarchical order of events.22 4 The Ironic Plenitude of the Novel: Rorty on Proust. contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 . Irony. 100. Work. Nabokov.

The unity of the author created by the text of this novel is a dynamic ironic unity: “contingencies… make a different sense every time redescription occurs. p.”26 The novel proposes a coherent unity.28 However. Pale Fire emerges as a process with such parasitical commerce inherent in it. Irony. This action. contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 . In his reading of the novel. 103. vii–xix. the issue of cruelty is related to the problem of the novel’s unity.29 Thus. It consists of a mock academic preface. is created by the “text” of this self’s ongoing process of reinterpretation. if not entirely disconnected. Salmagundi 111 (Summer 1996): pp. the unity of a self. Alexander Nehamas has pointed out that cruelty is a more pervasive structural ingredient of the novel than Rorty would like to admit. the unity of Pale Fire depends on the reader’s capability of seeing that the texts by Kinbote and Shade participate in a larger whole – a proper reading of Pale Fire 26 Rorty. but it is a unity as a hypothesis. 27–58. 28 Richard Rorty. 1962). 29 Alexander Nehamas.. “commentary” on the poem by the author of the preface. He managed to debunk authority without setting himself up as authority. pp. and Solidarity. nested in the changing contexts of real life. 27 Ibid. in turn. a long narrative poem in a slightly archaic form of the heroic couplet entitled “Pale Fire. pp.”27 Similarly. It is always in question – always recuperated by new interpretive acts. The question of the identity and unity of the novel as work is a more pronounced problem in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. the same acts that the self of a finite human being must perform in order to revise its own coherence. Rorty thinks of the novel as a response to the challenge of the shifts in situational parameters and contexts which confront our selves with the ever renewed question of our identity. Rorty concentrates mostly on the degree to which the relation between Kinbote and Shade is based on Kinbote’s insensitivity and cruelty toward Shade. Contingency.68 Bartczak “authority” on it: “it enabled him to shrug off the whole idea of affiliation with a superior power…. introduction to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (London: Everman’s Library. another character in Pale Fire – an émigré scholar Charles Kinbote. 100–01.” authored by a John Shade who is a character in the novel Pale Fire. Pale Fire exists as a thick play of interpretive commerce between texts whose mutual relations are not obvious and need to be established. The relation between those three texts and their fictitious authors is an elusive puzzle. Here the novel proclaims a wide disparity of its materials. and a madly digressive. will require our awareness of how the related texts feed off of one another in gestures of mutual appropriations. “What Should We Expect From Reading?”.

break its resistance to change.” is in some way already present in the “real” world of Orwell’s readers. Rorty’s 30 31 32 Rorty. p. although generically called “fiction. Such positioning of the novel fascinates Rorty about Orwell’s 1984.”31 Pragmatically speaking it is these kinds of skills that are responsible for our sense of what is “true” or “real. and twenty-second readings of Pale Fire. the readers will co-create the novel Pale Fire. If the sense of the real is synonymous with the present day state of the complicated balances attendant on the play of descriptions and redescriptions. that will increase the readers’ skill of moving about the meanders of pluralistic realities: “[Nabokov] was interested in making [his readers] people who could do things and feel things they had not been able to do or feel before.”30 It is these complex negotiations between various sides of their own selves. Ibid. contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 . Pale Fire “dents” reality because it penetrates into its readers’ sense of what kind of interpretive connections are possible. are not simply oppositional. The principal tool the novel uses in so restructuring our senses of reality is its own structural play by which the novel hypothesizes its own unity. They are dialectical. Rorty is aware of this structural play active in the text: “The relations between Kinbote and Shade. p. second.Richard Rorty and The Ironic Plenitude Of Literature 69 will make these texts dependent on one another for their full meaning. as dialectical as the relations between our first. as between their counterparts in each of us. The novel works as a reminder that the divides between our reality and even the grimmest of the scenarios of its future evolution are permeable. viii. and will perhaps start sensing their own incompleteness. introduction to Pale Fire. It is this richly ironic activity that makes the novel occupy a peculiar spot as a checkpoint on the border between realities. and the selves of others. Should they do so. Ibid.. The irony is that the characters are unaware of such complimentariness.32 Here Rorty speaks of the vexed formal and structural relations between the text of an imaginative novel and the so called “reality” outside it. xvii. The real world does not enjoy the comfort of an inbuilt resistance to a “fictitious” world that could be permanently ruled by personalities such as that of O’Brien.” Rorty maintains that novels such as Pale Fire change our definitions of reality: they put “the real” under pressure. they “dent” the real. But the completions become available to the readers on the condition that they are willing to engage in the redescription of the characters. Rorty reads 1984 as a scenario. which. then the novel and reality are coextensive worlds made of the same sort of material: both consist of networks of beliefs under description and redescription.

Such ironic plenitudes are the proper environment of some literary texts. 1984 straddles the outer rim of the post-wwii reality as a warning. while the volatility of the process – the possibility of redescription – is ironic. I have called this feature ironic plenitude. Here is Rorty’s central intuition about literature: an equivocal play of descriptions found in some literary texts – the play which dictates the conditions of these works’ functioning as aesthetic objects – is qualitatively similar to the play of descriptions responsible for the coherence of the fabric of their readers’ reality. and Solidarity. Ironic plenitude is by no means limited to the literary works discussed by Rorty. Rather than clamoring for the objectivity of the truth as the major good denied its citizens by a totalitarian regime. according to Rorty. sometimes concerning the more “personal” or “private” regions of our belief networks. an activity of the play of scenarios for the idea that some scenarios will be privileged by their allegedly more accurate ties to “reality. Irony. contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 . A great example of a 33 Rorty. 171–174.70 Bartczak reading of the character of O’Brien is dictated by his non-foundational treatment of truth: there is no deep level of reality the correct representation of which could permanently prevent the dominance of the O’Briens of our own world. Because this task consists in seeing the coherence of our own world as dependent on our ongoing interpretive care of the values that are central to it – the nature of this task is not much different from the one we perform when establishing the conditions for the coherence of ironic texts by Proust and Nabokov. All of these novels are evanescent works. 1984 substitutes. thereby also defining the contours of our own aesthetic and moral selves.”33 This reading makes the novel into an ironic device. That Orwell’s fiction reverberated with readers – as it still does. What we do not know for sure is how close or how far the scenarios of this horrifying “fictitious” world are from our world. pp. Contingency. Rorty’s reading of 1984 points to the novel as an evanescent catalyst of shifts between opposite political world descriptions. and as we try to establish the parameters of their coherence. humans participate in interpretive networks. The shapes these networks might temporarily achieve are plentiful. for that matter – is proof that the germs of the horrifying fiction live in our present. Both as private personalities and as members of political systems. they draw us into rich interpretive games. on other occasions concerning the more “public” nodes of those networks. providing glimpses of paths that would be catastrophic from the point of view of most of Orwell’s readers. What is ironic is that the place and space that the world of 1984 occupies in relation to what we call reality is posed to us as an interpretive task.

Dick’s nightmarish divagation on a precarious parallel coexistence of historically alternative and mutually-exclusive worlds – The Man In the High Castle (1962). here I am going to briefly present one poem by Stevens. However. However. At the heart of this novel works a volatile principle of potentiality. and it makes the novel into a transition device between politically opposite worlds. The poem in question is a rather notorious piece entitled “Description Without Place” from a volume called Transport to Summer. coming from his later phase. for the rest of this essay. shapeless and ironically indeterminate as regards its own meaning. I have mentioned Dick to suggest that Rorty’s intuitions on the novel test well against novels that go beyond the modernist masterpieces that he most usually focused on. and critics have various ideas on how Stevens manages to resolve this tension. while the characters learn that it is their commitment to specific actions that might activate and perhaps modulate the working of this principle. 5 Ironic Plenitude in American Poetry: Wallace Stevens and Rae Armantrout If some novels contain ironic plenitude which catalyzes their capacity to shuttle between various belief-systems or world-descriptions. and thus are this world. there are some poems which are condensed instances of this formal property.Richard Rorty and The Ironic Plenitude Of Literature 71 novel which amplifies this very feature is Philip K. like Helen Vendler. instead of summarizing this debate. Stevens’s formula for entering this epistemological problem was to think of poetry as situated between two realms he called “reality” and “imagination. Stevens spent his entire creative life attempting to do in poetry what Rorty did in his philosophical books: to show that uses of language do not represent the world but disclose it.” It sometimes seems that they pull the poem in opposite directions. Such poems present themselves as imaginative linguistic devices responsible for the weaving of the description itself. which proposes his version of poetic realism: a realism beyond the idea of representation. thought of it as an excessive and ultimately arid exercise in theorizing the power of poetic description. Some prominent Stevens critics. I am going to switch genres and concentrate on how these processes inform the work of two American poets. Vendler calls the contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 . But if there is one poet whose work impressed Rorty in a more lasting way. it would be Wallace Stevens. Rorty’s relation to poetry is much less theorized than his understanding of the novel.

Imagination. It is not The thing described. stem from this poetic radiation. These verses point to the basic function of all poems: they connect the physicality of language (the human-produced sound) into what we call thought. 1969). measured form. 227. which Sevens first calls “seemings. all of our descriptions of it. It is these connections which coalesce into our reports of the world: they are “seemings” as the only reality. Stevens conducts a meditation on the power of imaginative arrangements of words which sometimes result in world-changing ideas.: Harvard up. We are pushed to work by the rays of sun or moon. At the base of reality there is the flow of the lines of poetry which mould matter (the sonic layer of language) into sense and thought. Here is a fragment of section VI of the poem: Description is revelation. The poem is a revelation of the poetic nature of reality and rather than on particulars it concentrates on the underlying mechanism of producing descriptions and its capacity to keep doing so. is a kind of radiation or emission itself. for Stevens.72 Bartczak poem “an ode to the Adjective. More explicit than the experience of sun 34 35 Helen Vendler. … A text we should be born that we might read. Mass. nor false facsimile. Ibid. a response to the radiation of the sun. so to speak. For Stevens all our perceptions of the world. The poetic medium is early on metaphorized as “the green queen” which stands for the freshness of imagination as it responds to the physical stimuli of the world. On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems (Cambridge..”34 In it. and the monotony of the poem of which Vendler complains could be seen as the poem’s tuning in to its own frequency: the oncoming waves of its repetitive verses and tonality. The meditation proceeds in a calm. which Vendler will ultimately find to break down under the unbearable convolution of its theoretical tautologies. the action of his poem thus becoming a description of descriptions. contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 . 218. the basic one of which is the light of the sun. repetitive. and what is switched on in us is our own greenness: the fecundity of imagination.” only to realize in the course of the poem that these “seemings” are the only reality. Clearly. p.35 Stevens’s proposition is radical: in the midst of our understanding of historical places and moments works an activity of linking words into descriptions. the ability in question is poetic.

Stevens says in the next section: it is a world of words to the end of it. Imagination and what we say of the future must: Be alive with its own seemings. The poem – a thing made of words – is the plentiful source out of which the world obtains its shape. In which nothing solid is its solid self. These stones are not imagined to impart color on other objects. and the “rubies reddening” in the final line is the case in point.37 The key statement of this ode to description is saved for the final couplet and concerns the issue of commitment. “Description Without Place. But being so. 1997).36 The world obtains its fullest meaning.Richard Rorty and The Ironic Plenitude Of Literature 73 And moon. seeming to be Like rubies reddened by rubies reddening. a poetic heir of Emerson. in the poetic action of which the poem is an instance. It is the poem that is the only source of reality so it must also contain its own willingness to go on weaving the fabric of it.38 As Helen Vendler points out. they increase their redness on their own. Ibid. As such. Book of a concept only possible In description. 301. Worlds come from the ability of language to form descriptions. is revealed to us. The poem presents itself as the mechanism of describability itself. For Stevens. the sustenance must be the action itself. it is immensely ironic. the book of reconciliation. “Description Without Place” is a harbinger of Rorty’s irony as the awareness of re-describability. the peculiarity of Stevens’s use of some verbs in the poem is that their more expected transitive grammatical aspect is replaced by the intransitive one. p. The poetic action of linking sounds into thoughts and concepts runs on a special kind of sustenance. contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 . canon central in itself.. The thesis of the plentifullest John. it is also pure commitment. Ibid. the ultimate source of descriptions. its circularity and tautological character. the doing.” in Collected Poetry and Prose (New York: Library of America. Sitting on the threshold of future 36 37 38 Wallace Stevens. p. 302.

but they redefine the idea of the poem’s coherence to move away from Stevens’s trope of power as circularity. Such notion of unity became the object of criticism in more recent American poetry. Stevens’s solution to the problem of replacing representation with poetic description takes amply from the Romantic Emersonian concept of unity as power. These ironic poems do not give up commitment to their textual being. with no non-circular justification. entitled “Integer”: 1. her poems absorb external and intentionally unoriginal linguistic utterances. She is a poet of deep suspicion toward all descriptions. It kills the look-alike. engage them in systems of rich sonic and conceptual echoes. Of course. which frequently leads to exposing current ideologies as threadbare fallacies. Armantrout has worked out a formula of the poem as a montage of more or less accidental. A lot of contemporary American poets increase the sense of the poem as a redescribable textual creation. as aesthetic objects. One what? One grasp? No hands. contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 . Metaphor is ritual sacrifice. showing how they become co-opted ideological clichés. her poems cannot afford to renounce the poetic power of striking up connections between materials. yet tauntingly related linguistic fragments. No collection of stars. Something dark pervades it. Given to the aesthetics of recycling and assemblage. the poem makes them dependent on its self-reflexive reinforcement: like “rubies reddened by rubies reddening” the poem finds conviction in producing new descriptions in its circularity. and in this Stevens clearly prefigures Rorty’s post-religious intuition according to which the literary work is a specific combination of irony with commitment. In Stevens’s poetry. 2. One of the most fruitful recent examples of the tension between the avoidance of conceptual or formal closure and the functioning of the poem as a hypothetically coherent textual being is found in the poetry of Rae Armantrout.74 Bartczak descriptions. And yet. that replaces traditional religious faith. Here is a poem from Armantrout’s volume Versed. such conviction is belief as commitment to one’s own action.

” in Versed (Middletown. pp. For Armantrout. 3. “Dark” meaning nor reflecting. representative of Armantrout’s recent poetics. These temporary credits will no longer be reflected in your next billing period. is rejected as a tool that kills otherness by absorption of extraneous entities through imposing identity on them. is worked through in the first fragment and revealed as vacuous. in which it is the same device with the reversed vector: it is now responsible for keeping elements healthily apart.” a mathematical concept of wholeness. the vacuity resembling a black whole. “Integer. Finally the last fragment returns to the idea of “darkness” signaled early on in the first fragment. while redefining the idea of oneness. A healthy cell exhibits contact inhibition. While Stevens lectured on the power of the poetic language to radiate through matter and synthesize it into meaning. The next fragment is an intrusion of recycled material: it is the language found on telephone or utilities bills. metaphor. such as the whole of the traditional selfobsessed lyrical subjectivity. Unity is doubted and exposed as preposterous. 2010).: Wesleyan up. reworked idea of metaphor.. contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 . The “integer. But the very next lines propose a different. Conn. This oneness is shot through with contradictions and tensions. metaphor is homeopathy. a classical poetic device of synthesizing materials. The second fragment deregulates our understanding of metaphor. the idea of a coherently closed whole. even ominous. 93–94. Armantrout practices this very 39 Rae Armantrout.39 This is a poem of dark irony. 4.Richard Rorty and The Ironic Plenitude Of Literature 75 No. not amenable to suggestion. simply implodes under its tautological circularity. Thus the rest of the poem will perform a very complex task: it will try to function as one literary object. First.

which is “Dark Matter. The Romantic sublime has morphed 40 41 Rae Armantrout. They comment on the ambiguous “grandeur” of cliff walls which. radiate a “bracing sense of insignificance. while thoroughly distrustful of the materials it ingests. and then takes us to a scene of one of America’s contemporary wars.76 Bartczak power. the poem.” Our ability to worry about the disturbance will be increased when we trace a correlation between this fragment of the poem and the apparently completely disconnected former fragment. and where will we be then? The “dark” of the poem reverberates too with the title of the cycle of poems to which it belongs.” we hear a sniper. but it also stands for the power of the poem to notice and examine various cognitive connections.” saying to a tv crew that “his work is ‘invigorating’ / because it is ‘personal. The pivotal linking word is “the wall”: it is now an American sniper who has taken on the role of the source of power. Second.”41 The poem presents an iconic American Romantic landscape. this connection casts ominous shadow over the meaning of “the next billing period” – when will this be.: Wesleyan up. formerly rested with the sublime landscape. Conn. becomes a force field in which these extraneous. We only imagine the “bracing sense of insignificance” experienced by his targets. she substitutes analytic suspension of meaning for outright synthesis. in which we hear reports of the early visitors to American national parks. “Parting Shots.’”40 There is something disturbing in the sniper’s description of his job as “invigorating” and “personal. hiding “behind the only wall in sight. Rather than a self-declared whole. 2013). Ibid. its indeterminate principle of the suspension of first meanings of words and phrases activating the interpretive play of the poem. which divinizes rocky walls as a site of power. 23.” in Just Saying (Middletown. she dismisses Stevens’s obsession with circularity. used up elements begin to reverberate with formal or conceptual echoes. First. contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 . We notice how the “dark” of the fourth fragment returns to the criticism of wholeness/oneness from the first one. although beautiful.” Incidentally. In Armantrout’s poems the connections so examined are frequently clichéd political ideologies.” “Dark matter” is not to be accessed or absorbed: it is “not amenable to / suggestion. introducing two vital modifications. the use of the word “reflecting” in the final section connects the idea of “darkness” with the fiscal language of part 3: “credits / will no longer be reflected. Next.” Like the modified metaphor – the metaphor as healthy cell from fragment two – this is the poem’s ability to stay clear of the materials it ingests: it is the dark independence of the poem. In the second fragment of a poem called “Parting shots. The darkness inside the poem is ambiguous: it signals the death of any excessively unified systems of thought. p.

6 Concluding Remarks: Democracy and its Believers I have tried to show how some literary works make redescribability their basic structural principle.Richard Rorty and The Ironic Plenitude Of Literature 77 into a problematic mixture of patriotism and professionalism which blinds Armantrout’s speaker to the terrible moral pathos of his situation. These works exercise. at least in some countries. to find a role for their institution in a pluralistic democratic reality. In so doing these works place themselves right in the midst of interpretive world-disclosing activities by which some humans – ironists – continuously redefine the parameters of their reality. If we can treat these texts as imitations of complex personhood. is a structural combination of irony and commitment. care for. and foster the ability of making sense of the world without recourse to the idea of anything in this world having a permanent cognitive or moral value. But after the system change it has been hard for the Church authorities. the religious believers will always see the Church as one and the same thing. As we recall. which I have called ironic plenitude. Kundera’s atheist narrator was able to team up with Christian believers against an oppressive regime. Such shifts occurred in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the regime. in Poland. By showing this I also hope that I have addressed the second criticism against Rorty’s ironist: why suppose that the ironist will be committed to the cause of a liberal democracy. This property of the texts. This ability rests on an interpretive skill by which the ironist evaluates an institution without recourse to any fundamentals. not a totalitarian regime? But here my argument has been indirect. and I have signaled how this feature is more intensely present in some later texts. the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe was a stronghold of human dignity and human rights. I have traced the roots of ironic plenitude in the modernist texts discussed by Rorty himself. and will thus be less prepared than the ironist for shifts of historical circumstances. while it has stayed the same for contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 . we have a clear example of non-cynical compatibility of irony and commitment. in which freedom created a new environment for the negotiation of values. For example. During the regime. the identity of the Church has changed. For the ironist. justifying its infringement on various rights of individuals stemming from general civilizational progress. the Church has seen itself as entitled to a morally hegemonic position. thus substituting a necessarily dense play of interpretation for stable and determinate meaning value. providing him with a justification which the reader will sense as being far too self-­ congratulatory and too complacent. Because they appeal to these fundamentals.

The poems are highly ironic: they are nothing but re-contextualization devices. the poems propose a non-foundational mode of being. It is easier for the ironist to produce a much needed criticism or opposition to a Church she has formerly embraced. It is precisely such ironic poetic ability to so reevaluate political descriptions that Rorty has in mind when he says that the ironist “worries” about the languages of her own tribe. contemporary pragmatism 12 (2015) 59-78 . As such.78 Bartczak the non-ironist believer. in which internal plurality and poetic power gives back to democracy by purifying its products. Armantrout’s poems intercept intrusive public discourses and reveal their frequently aggressive character. Among the two. The formal and aesthetic evolution from Stevens to poets like Armantrout marks a huge increase in the ability displayed by a democratically produced form to care for the health of democracy. An advanced democratic system is itself productive of versatile descriptions. it is clearly the ironist who can be trusted with guarding the environment of the democratic debate. While Stevens demonstrated the power of poetry to produce our descriptions of reality. Armantrout uses this very power to dismantle descriptions. absorbing languages and subjecting them to reevaluation processes. The ironist literature I have been pointing to is both a product of democracy and its critical filter. potentially balancing the excesses of which modern democracies are capable. and it is the function of poetry now not to muse on the ability of producing versions of reality – such ability being demonstrated daily by the political and economic powers – but to attend to the quality of the produced fabric. This is care through attentive criticism.

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