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Richard Rorty and the Ironic Plenitude


of Literature
Kacper Bartczak

Department of American Literature, University of Lodz, Poland


kacper@uni.lodz.pl

Abstract
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 Rortys 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.

Keywords
Rorty irony interpretation novel poetry

1 Introduction
Among the most common charges made against Rortys 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,
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observe the same ritual, but these cannot really unite her with the true
believers.1
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
identity:
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 ones debt to
these fields makes up ones biography. Seemingly paradoxical, Kunderas 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
Kunderas atheist narrators joining the rituals of religious believers was a result
of a complex interpretive activity. Kunderas 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 Rortys concept of irony. Richard Rortys 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 Rortys 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. 2627.
2 Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts (New York: Harper, 1995), p. 9.

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and debated among his proposals. Generally, the project of Rortian irony is mistrusted as unfeasible. Most of the critiques point to the contradictions attendant on the portrayal of the ironists life. But these tensions are a result of a too
narrow treatment of the term, presenting it as if it were a purely philosophical,
sociological, or political concept and ignoring its literary provenance.
I believe this is a mistake. Irony has an unavoidable literary genealogy and
Rortys ironism has two main roots: his unique approach to the classical pragmatist tradition and his intuitions on literature, particularly the novel. In this
article I shall defend Rortys concept of irony as a way of life that is not only
feasible, but also conducive to the causes of democracies. We obtain a more
comprehensive view of how Rortys irony might work as a real life option,
when we discuss it in relation to a specific kind of literary experience. 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, the literary text is a hypothesis of relations between stances
that might not be readily compatible on ethical, cognitive, or aesthetic grounds.
And yet, 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
text is an artificial environment that might reveal unexpected sides of attitudes
we thought of as fully known, as these attitudes are brought together with
other attitudes in an unexpected relational system. The literary texts I have in
mind are such relational systems.
Rorty seems to have found this experience mainly in some novels. Here,
I will try to show how it is also an integral part of some American poems. 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. I will show how some literary creations, both novels and poems, sustain themselves as hypothetically coherent
wholes by installing self-interpretive activities in which irony becomes a form of
commitment. In so doing these literary forms complement and develop Rortys
intuitions on how irony might work for the sake of democratic communities.
2

The Critics of Rortian Irony

Rortys concept of irony has caused considerable unrest among his commen
tators. Michael Williams, for example, has seen in it a rather distorted and
misguided copy of Humes radical skepticism.3 Other critics dismiss Rortys
3 Michael Williams, Rorty on Knowledge and Truth, in Richard Rorty, ed. Charles Guignon
and David R. Hiley (Cambridge, uk: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 6180.

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general anti-foundationalism and the contingency he traces in shaping


the individuals moral character.4 Whatever their stance on Rortys theory
of redescribability, a vast majority of critics see the ironists capability for
commitment to any cause in general, and to the cause of liberal democracy
in particular, as extremely problematic. For John Horton, for instance, authentic moral or political character does not grow on the loose soils of Rortys
customary anti-foundationalism. Rortys world, ruled by the ever present
possibility of redescription, is not the right environment for the developmentof 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. This view requires those commitments to be something other than the contingent products of a combination of choice or
circumstance.5
Coming at Rortys ironism from different angles, Williams and Horton agree
on the basic flaw of this model which they find in Rortys attempt to keep the
private self-creation separate from the ironist self-creators ability to commit to
public and political matters. Echoing multiple other critiques, Williams and
Horton see the division as murky and hard to maintain. Pointing to the necessarily public character of literary creations, Horton claims that the private is
simply hard to identify.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 philosophers private study,
Williams denies the Rortian ironist-cum-skeptic the ability to commit to liberal hope: What keeps the skeptical irony securely private? Why doesnt such
skepticism lead to cynicism, to a lack of commitment? Why doesnt private
irony undermine liberal hope?7 In similar vein, 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.8 Hortons critique points to the
same danger as Williamss: Indeed cynicism must be the abiding temptation
for the ironist.9 Both critics see irony as a corrosive substance that seeps
through all divides, turning the ironist inevitably into a cynic.
4 Jean Bethke Elshtain, Dont Be Cruel: Reflections on Rortyian Liberalism, in Richard Rorty,
ed. Charles Guignon and David R. Hiley (Cambridge, uk: Cambridge University Press, 2003),
p. 150.
5 Horton, Irony and Commitment, p. 27.
6 Ibid., 24.
7 Williams, Rorty on Knowledge and Truth, p. 75.
8 Horton, Irony and Commitment, p. 26.
9 Ibid., 27.

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Behind these critiques lies a basic discrepancy concerning the understanding of the term. Rortys critics treat irony as a strongly incapacitating form of
skepticism. If commitment to any cause needs the fuel of belief, irony is precisely the thing that causes the fuel to evaporate. 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. If irony is radical skepticism,
the area of the private self-creation will be vitally touched too. After all, as
Williams reminds us, private self-creation is also a project, 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, passive reflection but a place for
active deliberation, for comparing and evaluating different kinds of lives.10
I think that Williams is correct self-creation requires an active stance
toward the world, a stance found in Emerson, James, and Dewey. If Rortys 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, morality, and self-creation. Thus, my intention to discuss Rortys
irony in the context of a specific class of literary texts stems from the conviction that these texts following Rortys accurate intuitions base their very
being as stable literary objects on a complex activity of turning irony into a
form of commitment. Rortys notion of irony cannot be discussed through a
limited recourse to a closed set of fragments in Contingency, Irony, and
Solidarity, in which his critics see the ironist as an almost neurotic figure, too
preoccupied with the worry concerning her very identity.11 By pointing to
some formal continuities between the literary works on which Rorty comments, and other works which enhance the formal features in question, we will
see how all these works, when treated as hypothetical interpretive wholes, display complex self-reflexive commitment to their own interpretive action of
looking for their shape. 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.
I am claiming that certain texts especially a class of poems might be treated
as artificial person-like entities. They hold together as separate from other such
entities, 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. Such a system equal to the value of the text as an artistic
object is an accounting, however paradoxical or surprising, for a coexistence
of potentially remote stances implied by the language that the poem absorbs.
10
11

Williams, Rorty on Knowledge and Truth, p. 74.


Horton, Irony and Commitment, p. 20.

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The irony I am going to talk about is what allows us to treat these poems as
individual pieces, without recourse to the idea of aesthetic or cognitive coherence as closure.
Thus, these poems imitate the complex ways in which individuals, members
of contemporary waning democracies, are faced with a necessity of daily coming to terms with highly divergent, not readily congruent, reports of the external world. The cognitively and aesthetically diverse materials that these poems
process are equivalent to the multifarious world descriptions that individuals
must sort out. The writing/reading process of such poems sheds light on the
individuals commitment to such sorting out. While this commitment is indispensable to these individuals mental hygiene, it also goes hand in hand with
the ironic distance toward the processed materials. Ultimately, then, I will also
try to suggest in what way this sort of paradoxical ironic commitment might be
supportive of the causes of a democracy.
3

Irony, Self-creation, and Commitment within the Literary Culture

Rortys thinking about irony is inseparable from his concept of autonomy


found through literature as writer or reader. In Contingency, Irony, and
Solidarity literature is the activity that allows the self to reach for the defining
good of ironic self-creation: the construction of ones own vocabulary which
will successfully redescribe the vocabularies and contingencies which were
responsible for ones socialization. The figure that epitomizes this ability
is Proust.12
In later texts, especially in a piece called Redemption from Egotism, Rorty
is consistent with his earlier understanding of the novel, which he shares with
Milan Kundera. While philosophy tried to produce accurate descriptions of
the world, 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 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. For Kundera, 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, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge, uk: Cambridge University
Press, 1989), pp. 98107.

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a world he could no longer recognize. In the absence of the Supreme


Judge, the world suddenly appeared in its fearsome ambiguity.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, or the Truth, or the Nature of Things, is on their side.14
If the novel instigates free exploratory movement between multiple perspectives, this idea is not far from pragmatisms founding metaphor offered by
James in his corridor theory, likening pragmatism to a corridor that provides
passage among rooms whose residents hold contradictory views.15 To be a
pragmatist, on this view, is to stay faithful to the passage not get locked in any
of the rooms. It is a rich passage whose only limitation is in the question of
where to stop weaving the description (of a character, an event, etc.), as William
James sibling, Henry, realized better than his brother and went on to redefine
the modern novel.16
But immersion in plurality is conducted in non-skeptical moods. Jamess
vision of plurality in A Pluralistic Universe is compatible with his earlier idea of
the will to believe, in which belief is a form of commitment to active co-creation of the world. Rorty subscribes to this position. Participation in the literary culture, whether as writer or reader, is a form of commitment to the process
in which the self will be changed. The readers self is a text to be meshed with
the text of a literary work in the hope of both of them receiving new meanings.
Reading is an encounter which has made a difference to the [readers] conception of who she is.17
Autonomy is the result of this process. It is the ability to keep the idea
of integrity in play when making ones way among the plurality of perspectives. 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, and to have chosen among these alternatives thereby in some
13
14
15
16

17

Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (New York: Harper, 1993), p. 6.
Richard Rorty, Heidegger, Kundera, and Dickens, in Essays on Heidegger and Others:
Philosophical Papers, volume 2 (Cambridge, uk: Cambridge up, 1991), p. 75.
William James, Pragmatism, in Writings 19021910 (New York: Library of America, 1987),
p. 510.
For a full discussion of the connections between Williams pragmatism and Henrys
theory of the novel, see Jonathan Levine, The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism
and American Literary Modernism (Durham: Duke up, 1999), pp. 910.
Richard Rorty, The Pragmatists Progress: Umberto Eco on Interpretation, in Philosophy
and Social Hope (London: Penguin Books, 1999), p. 145.

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measure creating oneself.18 Basically, autonomy has a lot to do with the literary problem of spotting coherence of the tale where there seems to be none. 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,
many of the people we have known, many parts of our own life-stories,
and many of the books we have previously read.19
Such recontextualization is itself a form of commitment, because one cannot
develop a skill without being committed to the possible results of its uses in
social contexts; here, the result is meaningful interaction with various, perhaps
remote, self- or world-descriptions without losing a sense of ones own stable
passage in their midst. We can now see what Rortys irony most definitely is
not it is not, for example, Paul de Mans absolute irony. In his modification
of the Romantic irony of Friedrich Schlegel, de Man treats literature as language brought to a hyper-active state of self-commentary in which all achieved
understanding is immediately dispersed. De Mans absolute irony is a vertiginous falling away from the world, based on a division of language into two
spheres: the empirical engagements of language and their postulated continuous transcendence. At each stage the self needs to get a distance from the languages in which it has seen itself exist: The ironic, twofold self that the writer
or philosopher constitutes by his language come[s] into being only at the
expense of his empirical self, falling into the knowledge of his mystification.20 Consequently, far from being a return to the world, the irony of
irony stat[es] the continued impossibility of reconciling the world of fiction
with the actual world.21
Rortys autonomy is different. It is not obtained, as in de Man, through
freedom from descriptions, but through novel distributions of descriptions, all
of them remaining empirical i.e. usable, none of them being a mystification, there being no other chance for authenticity than through language. This
18
19
20
21

Richard Rorty, Philosophy as a Transitional Genre, in Philosophy as Cultural Politics:


Philosophical Papers, Volume 4 (Cambridge, uk: Cambridge up, 2007), p. 90.
Richard Rorty, Redemption from Egotism, in The Rorty Reader, ed. Christopher J. Voparil
and Richard J. Bernstein (Oxford, uk.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), pp. 391.
Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 214.
Ibid., 218.

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autonomy is a commitment to a future shape of the selfs coherence, a coherence to be. For Rorty reading as re-contextualization of the self is generative of
selves-as-plots. 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. It is the hope for rounded completion and self-recognition, and is more like a longing for shapeliness than
like the ambition of transcendence.22
4

The Ironic Plenitude of the Novel: Rorty on Proust, Nabokov,


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. The world is plural
but it seems to hang together, just as some novels seem to remain wholes while
consisting of constellations of disparate elements. Some novels seem to be
especially intent on taunting the reader with the question of their coherence.
What exactly is the principle that keeps Remembrance of Things Past one literary work? According to Rorty, 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: Prousts novel is
a network of small, interanimating contingencies.23 It is a text which places
itself within the horizontally non-hierarchical order of events, their strung up
character, and speaks from inside their contingent, accidental sequences.
And yet, the novel as an imitation of our own worlds 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.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, a
creation of the text that remains as open as the play of contingencies that the
novel consists of.25 This author lives with and in the text, and is not an external
22 Rorty, Redemption from Egotism, p. 405.
23 Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 100.
24 Ibid., p. 102.
25 The idea of the author as a hypothetical subjectivity posited by the text conceived of as
anaction has been developed by Alexander Nehamas. See Alexander Nehamas, Writer,
Text, Work, Author, in Literature and the Question of Philosophy, ed. Anthony Cascardi
(Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987), pp. 26791.

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authority on it: it enabled him to shrug off the whole idea of affiliation with
a superior power. He managed to debunk authority without setting himself
up as authority.26
The novel proposes a coherent unity, but it is a unity as a hypothesis. It is
always in question always recuperated by new interpretive acts, 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. 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.27 Similarly, the unity of a self,
nested in the changing contexts of real life, is created by the text of this selfs
ongoing process of reinterpretation.
The question of the identity and unity of the novel as work is a more pronounced problem in Nabokovs Pale Fire. Here the novel proclaims a wide disparity of its materials. It consists of a mock academic preface, a long narrative
poem in a slightly archaic form of the heroic couplet entitled Pale Fire,
authored by a John Shade who is a character in the novel Pale Fire, and a madly
digressive, if not entirely disconnected, commentary on the poem by the
author of the preface, another character in Pale Fire an migr scholar Charles
Kinbote. The relation between those three texts and their fictitious authors is
an elusive puzzle. In his reading of the novel, Rorty concentrates mostly on the
degree to which the relation between Kinbote and Shade is based on Kinbotes
insensitivity and cruelty toward Shade.28 However, the issue of cruelty is
related to the problem of the novels unity. Alexander Nehamas has pointed
out that cruelty is a more pervasive structural ingredient of the novel than
Rorty would like to admit. Pale Fire exists as a thick play of interpretive commerce between texts whose mutual relations are not obvious and need to be
established. This action, in turn, will require our awareness of how the related
texts feed off of one another in gestures of mutual appropriations. Pale Fire
emerges as a process with such parasitical commerce inherent in it.29 Thus, the
unity of Pale Fire depends on the readers capability of seeing that the texts by
Kinbote and Shade participate in a larger whole a proper reading of Pale Fire
26 Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 103.
27 Ibid., pp. 10001.
28 Richard Rorty, introduction to Vladimir Nabokovs Pale Fire (London: Evermans Library,
1962), pp. viixix.
29 Alexander Nehamas, What Should We Expect From Reading?, Salmagundi 111 (Summer
1996): pp. 2758.

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will make these texts dependent on one another for their full meaning. The
irony is that the characters are unaware of such complimentariness. But the
completions become available to the readers on the condition that they are
willing to engage in the redescription of the characters. Should they do so, the
readers will co-create the novel Pale Fire, and will perhaps start sensing their
own incompleteness.
Rorty is aware of this structural play active in the text: The relations
between Kinbote and Shade, as between their counterparts in each of us, are
not simply oppositional. They are dialectical, as dialectical as the relations
between our first, second, and twenty-second readings of Pale Fire.30 It is
these complex negotiations between various sides of their own selves, and the
selves of others, 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.31 Pragmatically speaking it is these kinds of skills that are responsible
for our sense of what is true or real.
Rorty maintains that novels such as Pale Fire change our definitions of reality: they put the real under pressure, they dent the real, break its resistance
to change.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.
Pale Fire dents reality because it penetrates into its readers sense of what
kind of interpretive connections are possible. 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. It is this richly ironic activity that makes the
novel occupy a peculiar spot as a checkpoint on the border between realities.
Such positioning of the novel fascinates Rorty about Orwells 1984.
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,
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. Rorty reads 1984 as a scenario, which, although generically called fiction,
is in some way already present in the real world of Orwells readers. 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 OBrien. 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. Rortys
30
31
32

Rorty, introduction to Pale Fire, p. xvii.


Ibid.
Ibid., p. viii.

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reading of the character of OBrien 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 OBriens of our own
world. Rather than clamoring for the objectivity of the truth as the major good
denied its citizens by a totalitarian regime, 1984 substitutes, according to Rorty,
an activity of the play of scenarios for the idea that some scenarios will be
privileged by their allegedly more accurate ties to reality.33
This reading makes the novel into an ironic device. 1984 straddles the outer
rim of the post-wwii reality as a warning, providing glimpses of paths that
would be catastrophic from the point of view of most of Orwells readers. What
we do not know for sure is how close or how far the scenarios of this horrifying
fictitious world are from our world. That Orwells fiction reverberated with
readers as it still does, for that matter is proof that the germs of the horrifying fiction live in our present. 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. 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, thereby also defining the contours of our own aesthetic
and moral selves. All of these novels are evanescent works, and as we try to
establish the parameters of their coherence, they draw us into rich interpretive
games, sometimes concerning the more personal or private regions of our
belief networks, on other occasions concerning the more public nodes of
those networks. Both as private personalities and as members of political systems, humans participate in interpretive networks. The shapes these networks
might temporarily achieve are plentiful, while the volatility of the process
the possibility of redescription is ironic. Such ironic plenitudes are the proper
environment of some literary texts.
Here is Rortys 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. I have called this feature ironic plenitude.
Ironic plenitude is by no means limited to the literary works discussed by
Rorty. Rortys reading of 1984 points to the novel as an evanescent catalyst
of shifts between opposite political world descriptions. A great example of a
33 Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, pp. 171174.

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novel which amplifies this very feature is Philip K. Dicks nightmarish divagation on a precarious parallel coexistence of historically alternative and mutually-exclusive worlds The Man In the High Castle (1962). At the heart of this
novel works a volatile principle of potentiality, shapeless and ironically indeterminate as regards its own meaning, and it makes the novel into a transition
device between politically opposite worlds, while the characters learn that it is
their commitment to specific actions that might activate and perhaps modulate the working of this principle.
I have mentioned Dick to suggest that Rortys intuitions on the novel test
well against novels that go beyond the modernist masterpieces that he most
usually focused on. However, for the rest of this essay, I am going to switch
genres and concentrate on how these processes inform the work of two
American poets.
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, there are some
poems which are condensed instances of this formal property. Such poems
present themselves as imaginative linguistic devices responsible for the weaving of the description itself.
Rortys relation to poetry is much less theorized than his understanding of
the novel. But if there is one poet whose work impressed Rorty in a more lasting way, it would be Wallace Stevens. 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, and
thus are this world. Stevenss formula for entering this epistemological problem was to think of poetry as situated between two realms he called reality
and imagination. It sometimes seems that they pull the poem in opposite
directions, and critics have various ideas on how Stevens manages to resolve
this tension. However, instead of summarizing this debate, here I am going
to briefly present one poem by Stevens, coming from his later phase,
which proposes his version of poetic realism: a realism beyond the idea of
representation.
The poem in question is a rather notorious piece entitled Description
Without Place from a volume called Transport to Summer. Some prominent
Stevens critics, like Helen Vendler, thought of it as an excessive and ultimately
arid exercise in theorizing the power of poetic description. Vendler calls the
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poem an ode to the Adjective.34 In it, Stevens conducts a meditation on


the power of imaginative arrangements of words which sometimes result in
world-changing ideas. The meditation proceeds in a calm, repetitive, measured form, which Vendler will ultimately find to break down under the
unbearable convolution of its theoretical tautologies.35
Stevenss proposition is radical: in the midst of our understanding of historical places and moments works an activity of linking words into descriptions, which Sevens first calls seemings, only to realize in the course of the
poem that these seemings are the only reality. Clearly, the ability in question is poetic. 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. 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, the basic
one of which is the light of the sun. We are pushed to work by the rays of sun
or moon, so to speak, and what is switched on in us is our own greenness: the
fecundity of imagination. Imagination, for Stevens, is a kind of radiation or
emission itself, a response to the radiation of the sun, and the monotony of
the poem of which Vendler complains could be seen as the poems tuning in
to its own frequency: the oncoming waves of its repetitive verses and tonality.
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. It
is these connections which coalesce into our reports of the world: they are
seemings as the only reality. 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. For Stevens all our perceptions of the world, all of our descriptions of it, stem from this poetic radiation, the action of his poem thus
becoming a description of descriptions. Here is a fragment of section VI of
the poem:
Description is revelation. It is not
The thing described, nor false facsimile.

A text we should be born that we might read.


More explicit than the experience of sun

34
35

Helen Vendler, On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens Longer Poems (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard up, 1969), p. 218.
Ibid., 227.

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And moon, the book of reconciliation,


Book of a concept only possible
In description, canon central in itself,
The thesis of the plentifullest John.36
The world obtains its fullest meaning, is revealed to us, in the poetic action of
which the poem is an instance. The poem a thing made of words is the
plentiful source out of which the world obtains its shape. Worlds come from
the ability of language to form descriptions. Stevens says in the next section:
it is a world of words to the end of it,
In which nothing solid is its solid self.37
The key statement of this ode to description is saved for the final couplet and
concerns the issue of commitment. The poetic action of linking sounds into
thoughts and concepts runs on a special kind of sustenance. For Stevens, a
poetic heir of Emerson, the sustenance must be the action itself, the doing, its
circularity and tautological character. Imagination and what we say of the
future must:
Be alive with its own seemings, seeming to be
Like rubies reddened by rubies reddening.38
As Helen Vendler points out, the peculiarity of Stevenss use of some verbs in
the poem is that their more expected transitive grammatical aspect is replaced
by the intransitive one, and the rubies reddening in the final line is the case
in point. These stones are not imagined to impart color on other objects; they
increase their redness on their own. 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.
Description Without Place is a harbinger of Rortys irony as the awareness
of re-describability. The poem presents itself as the mechanism of describability itself, the ultimate source of descriptions. As such, it is immensely ironic.
But being so, it is also pure commitment. Sitting on the threshold of future
36
37
38

Wallace Stevens, Description Without Place, in Collected Poetry and Prose (New York:
Library of America, 1997), p. 301.
Ibid.
Ibid., p. 302.

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descriptions, 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. In Stevenss poetry, such conviction is belief as commitment to ones own action, with no non-circular justification, that replaces traditional religious faith, and in this Stevens clearly
prefigures Rortys post-religious intuition according to which the literary work
is a specific combination of irony with commitment.
Of course, Stevenss solution to the problem of replacing representation
with poetic description takes amply from the Romantic Emersonian concept of
unity as power. Such notion of unity became the object of criticism in more
recent American poetry. A lot of contemporary American poets increase the
sense of the poem as a redescribable textual creation. These ironic poems do
not give up commitment to their textual being, but they redefine the idea of the
poems coherence to move away from Stevenss trope of power as circularity.
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.
Armantrout has worked out a formula of the poem as a montage of more or
less accidental, yet tauntingly related linguistic fragments. Given to the aesthetics of recycling and assemblage, her poems absorb external and intentionally unoriginal linguistic utterances, engage them in systems of rich sonic and
conceptual echoes, which frequently leads to exposing current ideologies as
threadbare fallacies. She is a poet of deep suspicion toward all descriptions,
showing how they become co-opted ideological clichs. And yet, as aesthetic
objects, her poems cannot afford to renounce the poetic power of striking up
connections between materials. Here is a poem from Armantrouts volume
Versed, entitled Integer:
1.
One what?
One grasp?
No hands.
No collection
of stars. Something dark
pervades it.
2.
Metaphor
is ritual sacrifice.
It kills the look-alike.
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No,
metaphor is homeopathy.
A healthy cell
exhibits contact inhibition.
3.
These temporary credits
will no longer be reflected
in your next billing period.
4.
Dark meaning
nor reflecting,
not amenable
to suggestion.39
This is a poem of dark irony, representative of Armantrouts recent poetics.
Unity is doubted and exposed as preposterous, even ominous. The integer, a
mathematical concept of wholeness, is worked through in the first fragment
and revealed as vacuous, the vacuity resembling a black whole. For Armantrout,
the idea of a coherently closed whole, such as the whole of the traditional selfobsessed lyrical subjectivity, 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, while redefining the idea of oneness. This oneness is
shot through with contradictions and tensions.
The second fragment deregulates our understanding of metaphor. First,
metaphor, a classical poetic device of synthesizing materials, is rejected as a
tool that kills otherness by absorption of extraneous entities through imposing
identity on them. But the very next lines propose a different, reworked idea of
metaphor, in which it is the same device with the reversed vector: it is now
responsible for keeping elements healthily apart. The next fragment is an
intrusion of recycled material: it is the language found on telephone or utilities
bills. Finally the last fragment returns to the idea of darkness signaled early
on in the first fragment.
While Stevens lectured on the power of the poetic language to radiate
through matter and synthesize it into meaning, Armantrout practices this very
39

Rae Armantrout, Integer, in Versed (Middletown, Conn.,: Wesleyan up, 2010), pp. 9394.

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power, introducing two vital modifications. First, she dismisses Stevenss


obsession with circularity. Second, she substitutes analytic suspension of
meaning for outright synthesis. Rather than a self-declared whole, the poem,
while thoroughly distrustful of the materials it ingests, becomes a force field in
which these extraneous, used up elements begin to reverberate with formal or
conceptual echoes. We notice how the dark of the fourth fragment returns
to the criticism of wholeness/oneness from the first one. Next, 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. Incidentally,
this connection casts ominous shadow over the meaning of the next billing
period when will this be, 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, which
is Dark Matter. Dark matter is not to be accessed or absorbed: it is not amenable to / suggestion. Like the modified metaphor the metaphor as healthy
cell from fragment two this is the poems ability to stay clear of the materials
it ingests: it is the dark independence of the poem, its indeterminate principle
of the suspension of first meanings of words and phrases activating the interpretive play of the poem. The darkness inside the poem is ambiguous: it signals
the death of any excessively unified systems of thought, but it also stands for
the power of the poem to notice and examine various cognitive connections.
In Armantrouts poems the connections so examined are frequently clichd
political ideologies. In the second fragment of a poem called Parting shots,
we hear a sniper, hiding behind the only wall in sight, saying to a tv crew that
his work is invigorating / because it is personal.40 There is something disturbing in the snipers description of his job as invigorating and personal.
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, in which we hear reports of the early visitors to
American national parks. They comment on the ambiguous grandeur of cliff
walls which, although beautiful, radiate a bracing sense of insignificance.41
The poem presents an iconic American Romantic landscape, which divinizes
rocky walls as a site of power, and then takes us to a scene of one of Americas
contemporary wars. The pivotal linking word is the wall: it is now an
American sniper who has taken on the role of the source of power, formerly
rested with the sublime landscape. We only imagine the bracing sense of
insignificance experienced by his targets. The Romantic sublime has morphed
40
41

Rae Armantrout, Parting Shots, in Just Saying (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan up, 2013),
p. 23.
Ibid.

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into a problematic mixture of patriotism and professionalism which blinds


Armantrouts speaker to the terrible moral pathos of his situation, providing
him with a justification which the reader will sense as being far too self-
congratulatory and too complacent.
6

Concluding Remarks: Democracy and its Believers

I have tried to show how some literary works make redescribability their basic
structural principle, thus substituting a necessarily dense play of interpretation for stable and determinate meaning value. 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. These works exercise, 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. This property of the texts, which I have called
ironic plenitude, is a structural combination of irony and commitment. I have
traced the roots of ironic plenitude in the modernist texts discussed by Rorty
himself, and I have signaled how this feature is more intensely present in some
later texts. If we can treat these texts as imitations of complex personhood, we
have a clear example of non-cynical compatibility of irony and commitment.
By showing this I also hope that I have addressed the second criticism
against Rortys ironist: why suppose that the ironist will be committed to the
cause of a liberal democracy, not a totalitarian regime? But here my argument
has been indirect.
As we recall, Kunderas atheist narrator was able to team up with Christian
believers against an oppressive regime. This ability rests on an interpretive skill
by which the ironist evaluates an institution without recourse to any fundamentals. Because they appeal to these fundamentals, the religious believers
will always see the Church as one and the same thing, and will thus be less
prepared than the ironist for shifts of historical circumstances. Such shifts
occurred in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the regime. During the regime,
the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe was a stronghold of human dignity and
human rights. But after the system change it has been hard for the Church
authorities, at least in some countries, to find a role for their institution in a
pluralistic democratic reality, in which freedom created a new environment for
the negotiation of values. For example, in Poland, the Church has seen itself as
entitled to a morally hegemonic position, justifying its infringement on various
rights of individuals stemming from general civilizational progress. For the
ironist, the identity of the Church has changed, while it has stayed the same for
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the non-ironist believer. Among the two, it is clearly the ironist who can be
trusted with guarding the environment of the democratic debate. It is easier
for the ironist to produce a much needed criticism or opposition to a Church
she has formerly embraced.
The ironist literature I have been pointing to is both a product of democracy
and its critical filter. 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. This is care through
attentive criticism. While Stevens demonstrated the power of poetry to produce our descriptions of reality, Armantrout uses this very power to dismantle
descriptions. An advanced democratic system is itself productive of versatile
descriptions, 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. Armantrouts poems intercept intrusive public discourses and reveal
their frequently aggressive character. The poems are highly ironic: they are
nothing but re-contextualization devices, absorbing languages and subjecting
them to reevaluation processes. As such, the poems propose a non-foundational
mode of being, in which internal plurality and poetic power gives back to
democracy by purifying its products, potentially balancing the excesses of
which modern democracies are capable. 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.

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