Soren Kierkegaard’s interest in irony is well-known. His book The Concept of Irony addresses irony and, throughout his work, one can find many passing references to it. Moreover, Kierkegaard’s concept of irony has been written on by many different scholars. I am not a Kierkegaard scholar, nor do I aspire to be one; nonetheless, as a schlemiel theorist, I am very interested in his work on irony. To be sure, anyone who takes an interest in philosophy and comedy can benefit from a study of Kierkegaard’s “ironic” project. In addition, I would suggest that anyone interested in Kafka’s work and its relation to irony should also look into Kierkegaard as Kafka read much of Kierkegaard’s work. There are many instances where their ideas of faith, truth, and irony resonate.
I am particularly interested in the two opening sections of Kierkegaard’s book Either/Or which alternate with each other in a musical way. These sections also give us an acute sense of how important the dialectic between melancholy and laughter was for Kierkegaard.
In The Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard notes that “as philosophy begins with doubt, so also that life which may be called worthy of man begins with irony.” In this passage, Kierkegaard is suggesting that both philosophy and the “life…which may be called worthy of man” both begin with a crisis that is spurred by wonder. Irony and doubt are at the beginning of the crisis. But, as Aristotle notes, the goal of philosophy is to leave the state of perplexity and ignorance that initiate the philosopher’s quest for knowledge.
The point, for Aristotle, is to end the crisis. Wonder, and the doubt that ensues, makes one unhappy and is certainly not the optimal state of man.
Irony, however, may not be the same. Would Kierkegaard see irony as an obstacle to wisdom? Or is irony an end in itself? Wouldn’t irony preserve this crisis?
However, Gilles Deleuze argues in his book Masochism that irony may not simply be the beginning of philosophy; it may also be the end. Deleuze argues that irony, in contrast to what he calls humor, looks to affirm a principle by way of negation. Deleuze reads the ironies of Socrates (and even Marquis de Sade) in this manner. Humor, in contrast, affirms contingency and relation. Deleuze sees such humor in the masterpiece of Masochism: Venus in Furs.
I would like to suggest that Kierkegaard sees irony as clarifying a fundamental crisis. It doesn’t affirm a principle so much as an alteration between possibilities and states. We see this in the two opening sections of Either/Or which interest me. What we find in these sections is a catastrophe. And instead of simply looking into what the catastrophe is, we will also look into how it is. This “how” will lead us to a more sophisticated understanding of Kierkegaard’s choice to affirm laughter above all else.
The word “catastrophe” has its roots in the word strephein which, in Greek, signifies a movement or turn from one chorus to another. In music and in poetry, a strophe indicates a movement from one verse (or segment) to another. The word Kata, in Greek, is prepositional. It indicates movement and location: along, according to, toward, or against. Taken together, a catastrophe could be read as a movement of one chorus or verse turning toward, along, against another.
Taken literally, a catastrophe suggests several movements: the movement of a verse in a collision course with another verse, a parallel course, a magnetic course, or…a “rotational” course.
To be sure, Kierkegaard suggests this in the first section of Either/Or which is entitled “The Rotation Method.” He starts the section with a citation from Aristophanes’ comedy Plutus. The passage, which takes place between two characters named Karion and Chremylos, rotates around many things that one gets “too much” of; they include: love, bread, music, honor, courage, ambition, etc. The point is not the what one rotates around; that’s arbitrary. It’s the how of rotation that concerns Kierkegaard. He’s interested in the rhythm, so to speak, of the catastrophe.
But what sets the rhythm off?
Kierkegaard, like Baudelaire, sees the biggest problem of all, which causes all of this rotation, to be excessive Boredom. I have written on this topic with regard to Baudelaire’s prose piece “A Heroic Death.” There, I point out how, for the main character (the Prince) Boredom is his greatest enemy and spurs him to do the most unethical things to ward against its power. In that prose piece, the fool, unfortunately, becomes his target. And, in some way, the death of the fool (who performs for the Prince) has much to do with the drive to kill Boredom. But, as I point out there, the real issue is the Prince’s jealousy of the fool-slash-artist who is able to entrance an audience and rob him of his power. For Baudealire, there is a war between art and entertainment and art and political power; his parable speaks to this conflict.
Like Baudelaire, Kierkegaard is aware of the tension between Boredom and art. Boredom seeks out entertainment and distraction; art, however, offers a scathing critique of such distraction. Kierkegaard offers his critique of Boredom as that which spurs endless rotation. And he slights it for all of our evils:
“What wonder, then, that the world goes from bad to worse, and that its evils increase more and more, as boredom increases, and boredom is the root of all evil” (A Kierkegaard Anthology ed. Robert Bretall, 22).
To illustrate this, Kierkegaard goes through history, starting with the Bible, and argues how nearly every major evil was caused, in some fashion, by boredom. Kierkegaard states as his universal proposition that “all men are bores” and launches into an interesting rant on boredom which tries to fit in as many particulars as possible within this category:
It may as well indicate a man who bores others as one who bores himself. Those who bore others are the mob, the crowd, the infinite multitude of men in general. Those who bore themselves are the elect, the aristocracy; and it is a curious fact that those who do not bore themselves usually bore others, while those who bore themselves entertain others (24).
So, where does Kierkegaard place himself in this spectrum or does he try to extricate himself, like Baudelaire, from the world of Boredom?