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Kierkegaard and irony

Summary of Kierkegaard's views on irony and a comparison with Wallace.

Kierkegaard on irony

Kierkegaard finds in Socrates two types of irony corresponding to two types of dialectic. The first type of irony is a stimulus to thought, corresponding to dialectic as perpetual movement. This is irony and questioning that will never let an answer be settled, but always looks askance or at a distance at an idea or institution or value, etc., as requiring further refinement or even radical questioning (the famous Socratic method). Kierkegaard’s troubling discussion of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in Fear and Trembling is an example of this kind of irony, as is the discussion between Marathe and Steeply in Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

The second type of irony is that of a ‘terminus’, in the sense of a destination, for thought, corresponding to a dialectic in which an abstract idea is made ever more concrete. A good example of this is Kierkegaard’s narrative riffs on the Abraham-Isaac-sacrifice idea, in which various slightly different versions of the story and comparable stories are discussed, to bring out different aspects of the idea as it is fleshed out in stories. The various ways in which addiction and entertainment as forms of coping are displayed in Infinite Jest is a good example from Wallace’s corpus.

Kierkegaard describes Socrates’ practice of irony as ‘infinite absolute negativity’. It is infinite because it negates anything and everything; nothing is safe from irony, anything can be immersed in the acid bath of irony. It is negativity because it negates everything. Irony’s function is to question and break down, to clear the ground again, to reveal problems. But it is also absolute in that irony negates things in virtue of ‘a higher something that still is not.’ In other words, there is a sense of movement forwards, rather than simply in circles, and there is a sense of truth or goodness, towards which we may draw near.

Kierkegaard wanted to revivify Socratic irony for his own society, troubling the certainties of Danish bourgeois Christianity and nudging people into personally wrestling with their beliefs. Kierkegaard wrote at a time of relative confidence or even certainty. Their social mores and values were taken as fully rational and justified, as basically correct. His compatriots were fully aware of the doubt and sceptical method of intellectual disciplines, which fuelled a search for secure and genuine knowledge; yet the corresponding work of searching for a genuine and more solid self, was left undone. Irony in the life of the self was the existential counterpart to doubt in the academic field.

Wallace’s writings are shot through with existential themes and images. In Infinite Jest, the metaphor of ‘bottoming out’ for an addict’s sense of wanting to get clean, is replaced with what the narrator takes to be a more accurate metaphor of leaning out over a big drop – a clear reference to Kierkegaard’s idea of ‘the dizziness of freedom.’ Similarly, Marathe’s idea that one must choose and must not flee from choice, is straight out of Sartre. And Wallace spoke in interviews of wanting to join the head and heart, to have people respond emotionally to ideas and to analyse their feelings, to embody philosophical ideas in narrative (see, e.g., his review ‘The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress’).

Wallace, in short, wanted to do the same work for his generation as Kierkegaard had for his compatriots. But there is a crucial difference between Kierkegaard’s and Wallace’s contexts. Whereas Kierkegaard writes in a time in which the third aspect of irony as infinite absolute negativity – irony in the service of something higher that does not yet exist – is widely believed to be available, Wallace writes in a society that has given up on truth. We have seen in Wallace’s ‘E Unibus Pluram’ essay that postmodern irony is cynical and nihilistic, has given up on truth, replaces cleverness for wisdom, and hides from human vulnerability and emotion. Postmodernism is, in Lyotard’s words, ‘incredulity toward metanarratives.’ For Wallace, there is no widely agreed ‘higher something’ for irony to serve. Instead, irony must help people to choose in a more thoughtful and authentic way, the truth as it best appears to them – something we have seen in ‘This is Water.’

Discussion questions

  1. Compare Kierkegaard’s sense of irony as motivator and terminus to thought, and existential qualification, to the postmodern irony Wallace diagnoses in ‘E Unibus Pluram’. Where do you see these different forms of irony at work in literature? In society? In your own life?
  2. A common criticism of existentialism is it is too individualistic. Do you feel this about the texts you have read from Wallace so far? How much of a problem is this?
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David Foster Wallace: Literature and Philosophy

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