Comedy, Nihilism, and Hope: Paul deMan and Walter Benjamin’s Differing Approaches to Irony (Take 1)


(“Still Life With Skulls” by Max Beckmann painted in 1945)

Irony has its targets.  More often than not, irony looks to simply do damage to its target so as to throw it into question.  Sarcasm, however, looks to do more than damage.  As  the most extreme form of irony, sarcasm looks to destroy its target.  In the midst of such destruction, one traverses the limit of nihilism and madness.

Paul deMan, in his essay “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” would call this the “irony of irony.”

The irony of irony is that it doesn’t give the joke teller or the one who laughs a sense of superiority and self-consciousness.  Rather, the “irony of irony” destroys its target and itself.

As we pointed out in yesterday’s blog entry, deMan misread Baudelaire’s essay on laughter so as to argue that the “irony of irony” is the secret of Baudelaire’s essay.  The implication of this claim is that Baudelaire, basically, was a nihilist.  The irony of irony destroys everything.

However, deMan notes that, for some artists and thinkers, language (or a “form of himself that is mad but doesn’t know itself”) may remain in tact (in the aftermath of ironic destruction):

Absolute irony is a consciousness of madness, itself the end of all consciousness, a reflection on madness from the inside of madness itself.  But this reflection is made possible only by the double structure of ironic language: the ironist invents a form of himself that is “mad” but that does not know its own madness…This might be construed to mean that irony, as “folie lucide” which allows language to prevail even in extreme stages of self-alienation, could be a kind of therapy, a cure of madness by means of the spoken or written word. (216)

He attributes this “therapeutic” view to Jean Starobinski and radically disagrees with it.  DeMan sees no hope in language and he sees no way possible of reconciling “the world of fiction” with the “real world” let alone the self with itself, nature, or others.  For deMan, where one finds irony there one will find infinite fragmentation.  (And for deMan, irony is everywhere.)  The irony of irony only escalates a nihilistic process that, for deMan, seems inevitable.

But Starobinksi is not alone.  DeMan tells us that Schlegel and Kierkegaard were also “unhappy” and sought for a way out or the “irony of irony.”  DeMan tells us that Schlegel, in response to his discovery of the irony of ironies, asked the “rhetorical” question: “What gods will be able to rescue us from these ironies?”  DeMan reads this rhetorical question to mean only one thing: for both Schlegel and Kierkegaard faith was the only answer to their problem with irony; that is, their problem with language:

“For the later Friedrich Schlegel, as for Kierkegaard, the solution could only be a leap out of language into faith”(223).

At this point, deMan cites Baudelaire’s claim, which we noted in an earlier post, that the wise do not laugh and find laughter to be inferior.  This, for deMan, can mean only one thing, which for him is impossible: no one can live an existence free of irony or free of language.  Even the faithful are bound to language and cannot, therefore, escape irony.

But, more importantly, for deMan the only thing left over in the wake of the “irony of irony” is nihilism.  One can turn neither to God nor to language for hope.

For deMan, the “unhappy consciousness” is one that realizes that there is only impotent rage and anger at the world, existence, self-hood, and, most importantly for deMan (as a thinker and writer), language.  All of them are intrinsically ironic.   There is, as Jean-Paul Sartre might say, no exit.

Walter Benjamin thinks otherwise.  His reading of Baudelaire proposes that gestures and figures of language can give us hope.  But Benjamin suggests that we look for hope in the midst of the crisis which characterizes the unhappy consciousness – that is, out of the anger, rage, and violence (out of the Spleen) that Baudelaire’s poetry and prose exudes.

The irony of it all is that this kind of language is not simply something that one can cling to; rather, it is destructive.  It evinces a kind of “heroic melancholy” which holds the fragment as the basis for all thought and hope.

What interests me most, in this reflection, is the relationship of Benjamin’s faith in fragments to Benjamin’s image of himself as a schlemiel.  How was this ironic self-image redemptive?  How could the image of himself as a schlemiel (as a man-child) provide hope and help him to narrowly escape the nihilism that deMan sees around every corner of language and fiction?

To better understand this, I will devote the next few blogs to looking into Benjamin’s readings of Baudelaire and Heroic Melancholy.  I will also be looking at some of Baudealire’s prose pieces which look at the figures of the child and the fool as ironic self-images and, I would argue, redemptive figures.

DeMan’s readings of Benjamin and Baudelaire suggests that they both were trapped by nihilism; I would like to argue that they traversed the limits of nihilism.  More importantly, Benjamin did this by way of a reflection on himself (and Kafka) as a man-child and this, for Schlemiel-in-Theory, is worthy of our undivided attention.

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