Not-So-Beautiful Souls

The Many Deaths of Irony, Part III

I left off in Part II talking about Leah Finnegan’s 2018 piece in the Outline and Kierkegaard’s concept of irony, but I want to take a quick look at another ‘90s magazine feature on irony that I missed in the earlier installments. This one is from The New Republic in 1993 and it’s called “Limbaugh, Letterman and Bill Clinton: The Politics of Irony.” The writer, Alex Ross, begins it with a provocative epigram from Thomas Mann—“The intellectual human being must choose between irony and radicalism; a third choice is not decently possible.” The focus, like Wallace’s essay from the same year and Kaplan and Stevenson’s Esquire feature from 1991, is television, specifically talk show hosts.

Very quickly now: Ross argues that Letterman and Limbaugh represent the overwhelming power of irony and detachment in culture, while the Democrats and Bill Clinton are too earnest to deal with this fact:

The Clinton people, who ought to be young enough to know the territory by heart, show no grasp of irony at all. Al Gore put in a valiant appearance on Letterman's show, of which both he and Clinton seem to be fans; but the idea is to be a commanding host, not a well-behaved guest. Clinton himself--fathomlessly earnest and deaf to the nuances of Limbaugh's and Letterman's posturing--is at sea in a culture drenched in detachment. His frozen smile gives him the look of a sidekick handing out prizes.

Placing no distance between himself and his image, prizing an unmediated communication with the voters, Clinton buys into the liberal illusion that there is a third choice, beyond radicalism and irony--a choice of reasonableness, decency, meaning. 

This is a remarkable historical document,—I almost want to say “artifact.” How strange to consider a time when Bill Clinton was considered exemplar of too-much-sincerity and not a master dissemble and wicked seducer. This should perhaps make us pause when we rush to ascribe a certain aesthetic mode to a given politician: there may often be more—or less—there. I happen to be writing about this era and just finished a chapter on talk shows, and to me Clinton seemed to have a very intuitive grasp of how to behave on them. During the primary campaign in 1992, he deftly handled an appearance on Don Imus’s show that could’ve gone very badly by being pretty charming and self-ironic.

Still, there is something to this analysis that holds today and it’s the characterization of liberalism. If conservatism and apathy ruled radio and late night, liberalism ruled daytime TV talk, not necessarily in overt politics but in sensibility. Oprah, Geraldo, and Donahue all performed the kind of earnestness that Ross is talking about here. They all dealt empathetically, “decently,” tried to understand. If the sneer was the characteristic expression of talk radio, the bemused, lifted eyebrow that of the ironical late night host, the concerned, furrowed brow was that of daytime talk. Even Jerry Springer, who had the most nakedly exploitative show of them all, ended every show with an earnest moral lecture. There is a sort of irony in the abrupt move from the total shit-show to Jerry’s concerned lesson, and the Springer show was enjoyed particularly by detached ironists, but it allowed someone to feel like they were watching something with more of a message than pure filth. This was sincerity as ideology in the same way cynicism can be. These hosts were “sincere” and perhaps even sentimental, to recall Lorentzen’s essay. Of course, this was its own sort of sham, but it was this mode that Clinton could move easily in: think “I feel your pain.” American liberalism attempts to be sincere in this; its sincerity can be false and hypocritical and for that alone it is often hated.


One remark from Ross can lead us back into the discussion of philosophical irony and Kierkegaard: “The politics of ego become inseparable from the culture of irony.” In her piece, Finnegan recommends Kierkegaard’s 1841 On The Concept of Irony With Continual Reference to Socrates, which happens to be Kierkegaard’s dissertation. It is probably one of the most interesting and brilliant dissertations ever submitted . The Concept of Irony was written in the context of an ongoing, very serious intellectual debate over the aesthetic and moral validity of irony, much like the ones we still have. Very roughly, there were two camps: the early German Romantic poets had almost deified irony as the principle of genius and the font of all creative energy, but Hegel, in his lectures on aesthetics, which he delivered just about exactly 200 hundred years ago, condemned this “Romantic Irony” as frivolous, empty, and philosophically bankrupt—a defective form of self-consciousness.

Let’s look quickly at the Romantic celebration of the power of irony. Here is an aphorism from Friedrich Wilhelm Schlegel’s 1797 Critical Fragments, where he is trying to set down the aesthetic principles of burgeoning romanticism:

Rhetorical irony, proper to polemics, and so to political and public life, is only a sort of faint echo of the “sublime urbanity” of the true irony that’s accomplished in poetry. Only poetry can be totally pervaded by irony: “the mood that surveys everything and rises infinitely above all limitations, even above its own art, virtue, or genius.” This “transcendental buffoonery” does not take anything too seriously. But this mode is also a “divine breath” that connects us to a “sublime,” “transcendental” dimension: the early Romantics made considerably higher claims for irony than anyone would openly make today. Schlegel admits there is a certain elitist aspect to this, but only apparently: “To a person who hasn’t got [irony], it will remain a riddle even after it is openly confessed. It is meant to deceive no one except those who consider it a deception and who either take pleasure in the delightful roguery of making fools of the whole world or else become angry when they get an inkling that they might themselves be included.” The squares identify themselves by their negative attitude to irony.

In the introduction to his Lectures on Fine Art, Hegel pours hot scorn on this attitude, which he calls “infinite absolute negativity:”

….this virtuosity of an ironical artistic life apprehends itself as a divine creative genius for which anything and everything is only an unsubstantial creature, to which the creator, knowing himself to be disengaged and free from everything, is not bound, because he is just as able to destroy it as to create it. In that case, he who has reached this standpoint of divine genius looks down from his high rank on all other men, for they are pronounced dull and limited, inasmuch as law, morals, etc., still count for them as fixed, essential, and obligatory. So then the individual, who lives in this way as an artist, does give himself relations to others: he lives with friends, mistresses, etc. ; but, by his being a genius, this relation to his own specific reality, his particular actions, as well as to what is absolute and universal, is at the same time null; his attitude to it all is ironical.

These three points comprise the general meaning of the divine irony of genius, as this concentration of the ego into itself, for which all bonds are snapped and which can live only in the bliss of self-enjoyment. This irony was invented by Friedrich von Schlegel, and many others have babbled about it or are now babbling about it again.

Evidently Hegel was not amused at this attitude of total nullification of all substantial content. He clearly believed Romantic Irony, which he elsewhere calls “a celebrated hobgoblin with aristocratic pretensions,” was an empty form of ego-worship. It’s only fair to point out that Hegel’s views of irony and the comic are not always so negative. In several other places, like in his famous treatment of Diderot’s dialogue Rameau’s Nephew in the Phenomenology of Spirit, he seems to think irony is the sign of self-consciousness overcoming the mere givenness and conventionality of the prevailing culture. The problem for Hegel was not irony perhaps, but irony in so far as it was a self-consciously adopted form of life and thereby a kind of pose.

Kierkegaard in his Concept of Irony is responding to these two positions and, although he accepts Hegel’s definition as “infinite absolute negativity,” seems to come down pretty clearly in the pro-irony camp. He takes cognizance of the same potential for vanity and insubstantiality in the ironic life as Hegel, but concludes the work with a strong recommendation of irony as a path to spiritual health, but only if it is properly “mastered” or “controlled.” Irony, which can raise itself above every positive and determinate content the world gives us, is very close to subjectivity itself:

In our age there has been much talk about the importance of doubt for science and scholarship, but what doubt is to science, irony is to personal life. Just as scientists maintain that there is no true science without doubt, so it may be maintained with the same right that no genuinely human life is possible without irony. As soon as irony is controlled, it makes a movement opposite to that in which uncontrolled irony declares its life. Irony limits, finitizes, and circumscribes and thereby yields truth, actuality, content; it disciplines and punishes and thereby yields balance and consistency. Irony is a disciplinarian feared only by those who do not know thereby what could be called the absolute beginning of personal life; he lacks what momentarily is indispensable for personal life; he lacks the bath of regeneration and rejuvenation, irony’s baptism of purification that rescues the soul from having its life in finitude even though it is living energetically and robustly in it. He does not know the refreshment and strengthening that come with undressing when the air gets too hot and heavy and diving into the sea of irony, not in order to stay there, of course, but in order to come out healthy, happy, and buoyant and to dress again.

Without these occasional rejuvenating baths in irony, we do not have individuality, a fully “personal life;” we merely accept what’s given to us by our culture and historical situation and we do not distance or detach ourselves from it. So far as I can tell, Kierkegaard is not very clear in this work about how to properly master or control irony so that it’s beneficial, healthy—elsewhere he calls it a “surgeon”—but this is just the beginning of a vast authorship, where irony is a stage on the path to a religious life. That may not sound appealing to secular, modern readers, but I think Kierkegaard’s idea of “the religious,” in the way it wrings the absolute out of extreme subjectivity, does actually appeal to modern people.

I want to look briefly at a secular use of Kierkegaardian irony, by an actual clinician, the psychoanalyst and philosopher Jonathan Lear, who delivered a “A Case for Irony” when he was invited to give the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Harvard in 2011. Lear believes that irony can detach us from the pretenses of our various social roles, not in order to make us take them less seriously, but to recommit to them with a reinvigorated seriousness, a new perspective that is more than just going through the motions:

It is often assumed that irony is a form of detachment. From the per- spective of those who are embedded in the social pretense—who just don’t get what is going on with me—it may well appear that irony is a form of detachment, a lack of commitment or seriousness. For, after all, it is a peculiar form of detachment from the social pretense. And, as we shall see, it may be the occasion for a peculiar form of re-attachment…[In irony,] am struck by teaching—by an intimation of its goodness, its fundamental significance—and am filled with longing to grasp what it is and incorporate it into my life. I can no longer simply live with the available social understandings of teaching; if I am to return to them it must be in a different way. Thus the initial intuition is that there must to be something more to teaching than what is available in social pretense. Irony is thus an outbreak (or initiation) of pretense-transcending aspiring. The experience of ironic un- canniness is the form that pretense-transcending aspiring takes. Because there is embodied in this experience an itch for direction—an experience of uncanny, enigmatic longing—it is appropriate to conceive the experience of irony as an experience of erotic uncanniness.

For Lear, quoting Kierkegaard, without a certain degree of this irony “there is no genuinely human life possible,” just the automatic adoption of our social roles. Irony is where mere pretense, which governs most of our life, is kicked up to actual aspiration: we, in effect, get more serious about ourselves and our lives. Then Lear shifts into his psychoanalyst’s chair and goes into a whole thing about how irony helps us identify unconscious fantasies and identities we didn’t know we had. This all sounds good on one level, but something about these lectures—which I’ve read a few times to try to understand—really bugs me. Dr. Lear’s procedure seems to me to be a very high-brow version of self-help: “Irony can help you become the person you want to be!” This is perhaps what happens when such things fall into American hands. I think there is something very oleaginous going on here that is unlike the refreshing, brisk “sea of irony” Kierkegaard talks about: an aspect of cant or sentimentality about the self here that seems to me deeply un-ironic. I think self-irony, properly used, would “prune the wild shoots” of the self as Kierkegaard wrote, not constantly discover, cultivate, and take seriously new pretensions. That would seem to me close to the bad sort of Romantic Irony of ego-fascination that Hegel so vituperated against.

To conclude, I want to return to Hegel’s critique of Romantic Irony for a moment, because I think it begins to describe the sense of impasse or stuckness or futility of life that is sometimes called “postmodern” but which I think Hegel shows is actually just modern. Hegel describes what will happen to the ego of negative, romantic irony once it applies irony to everything, even himself:

The next form of this negativity of irony is, on the one hand, the vanity of everything factual, moral, and of intrinsic worth, the nullity of everything objective and absolutely valid. If the ego remains at this standpoint, everything appears to it as null and vain, except its own subjectivity which therefore becomes hollow and empty and itself mere vanity.' But, on the other hand, the ego may, contrariwise, fail to find satisfaction in this self-enjoyment and instead become inadequate to itself, so that it now feels a craving for the solid and the substantial, for specific and essential interests. Out of this comes misfortune, and the contradiction that, on the one hand, the subject does want to penetrate into truth and longs for objectivity, but, on the other hand, cannot renounce his isolation and withdrawal into himself or tear himself free from this unsatisfied abstract inwardness.

The ego yearns for some content behind itself, but also knows ironically that everything is in some sense empty and vain, is not worth it. This leads to a type of “yearning” or desire, but an ever-frustrated one, because the ego can never get over itself: “The dissatisfaction of this quiescence and impotence—which may not do or touch anything for fear of losing its inner harmony and which, even if pure in itself, is still unreal and empty despite its desire for reality and what is absolute—is the source of yearning and a morbid beautiful soul.” This inner harmony is sustained by the ego’s own notional superiority to any specific content that would come from committing itself to a goal or activity in the world. The feeling of longing, “is only the empty vain subject's sense of nullity, and he lacks the strength to escape from this vanity and fill himself with a content of substance.” We can imagine Hegel's response to the feeling of postmodern ennui basically being “just get over yourself.”

This derisive term of Hegel’s— “the beautiful soul”—is not limited to the amoral ironist, but rather results from a form of subjectivity Hegel calls “Conscience,” which comes after the “Moral Worldview” in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Both of these are associated with modernity: “the moral worldview” is the product of Kant’s philosophy, and “Conscience” section is pretty clearly a description of the Romantic period that followed. Basically the problem is that in modernity—after The Enlightenment—our social roles and moral identity can no longer simply come from the culture and society we live in; they have to be ratified, endorsed, and even constructed by our autonomous, rational, emotional self. Under Kantian morality this done through the performance of an abstract duty, a maxim of conduct, but the Romantics, trying to give this dry formula actual content, extend moral reflection to deeply-felt convictions, rather than just abstract moral principles. This requires the Romantic agent to consult their conscience, their inner lives, for their true beliefs.

Such a person, who we must all know to some degree, we’d probably think of as quite sincere. But this appeal to “conscience” can dissolve the norms of society according to individual whim in much the same way irony does. In fact, the way Hegel describes conscience makes it sound an awful lot like irony, which recall he called “infinite absolute negativity: “Conscience cognizes no content as absolute for it because conscience is the absolute negativity of everything determinate.” Hegel then begins to comment, a little ironically, on the spirit of conscience, and it sounds a lot like what he said about the pretensions of the Romantic Ironist:

Therefore, conscience, in the majesty of its sublimity rising above determinate law and every content of duty, puts any content it likes into its knowing and willing. Conscience is the moral genius who knows the inner voice of his immediate knowing to be the divine voice, and as he is in this knowing, he just as immediately knows existence, he is the divine creative power who has the vitality of life within its concept. He equally conducts a worship service within himself, for his action is the intuiting of his own divinity.

This kind of “beautiful soul” might be a Romantic poet that eventually wastes way in the vain search for their innermost subjective core. But Hegel, in the Philosophy of Right, also imagines a kind of community of mutual admiration that could be formed by these “beautiful souls”:

We can recognize in these early Romantic communities of “beautiful souls” the seeds of hippie communes, cults of self-realization, all sorts of moral and artistic avant-gardes and even looser communities of moral self-assertion and self-actualization. Let’s imagine for a moment that this sort of behavior is a defining characteristic of moral life in a modern society. I want to propose a lot of what we see as moral or political activity today is actually the attestation of conscience. Hegel says that “conscience” has to declare itself through language, “has to give voice to its conviction,” in order to become something objective. Thus it opens itself up to judgment by others. And this “beautiful soul” is also judgmental: it finds hypocrisy everywhere, except, of course, itself. The beautiful soul requires recognition from a community of like-minded souls. In a similar way, the ironist also need some community of recognition and some other community of mis-recognition: somebody else needs to get it—and still others need to not get it even if “getting” it is just agreeing that the other sort of “beautiful souls” are just so many silly, deluded moral narcissists. Such communities always require an out-group: the beautiful of moral purity defines itself against the “impure” surrounding society, and so does the ironist.

To return for a moment to Wallace’s polemic against irony, we can see what he proposes, a group of anti-rebels, of very sincere group of people who would affirm “values” is just as stuck here in the dialectic of the beautiful soul as his ironists. It doesn’t really work and that’s probably why he never actually followed his own formula.

As it turns out, Hegel doesn’t think the ironist and the conscientious beautiful soul are exactly identical. The ironist still has an extra bit of self-consciousness that can allow them out of the deadlock of the beautiful soul, which is the realization that they are kind of doing the same thing as the conscientious person. Hegel imagines a moment of confession, which is also an accusation; the ironist says in effect, “we’re not so different you and I,” like the old movie villain cliché. Two things can happen after this confession: the beautiful soul sticks to her guns and is thereby no longer is a beautiful soul, but a “hard-hearted” moralist. The other possibility is the beautiful soul recognizes themselves in the ironist’s confession/indictment and she sees her own moral purity as not absolute, but contingent, historical, and limited. The two souls reconcile and see the truth of each others standpoint: you need a little bit of both commitment and irony. As Pinkard puts it in his commentary:

Since everything in the Phenomenology supposed a fundamental identity of mind and society, this has to be a process that can be imagined as taking place within an individual just as much as being enacted in the surrounding culture. One might easily imagine that the subjectivity that emerges from this has at its disposal the kind of healthy and beneficial use of irony that Kierkegaard thinks is also possible. Hegel, in a much different way than Kierkegaard, imagines what he calls “Religion,” albeit a kind of secularized and modern one, as the next dialectical step.

This all sounds nice, but why doesn’t it just happen? Why do we seem to continually agonize about the correct measure of irony about ourselves and our society instead of already having a kind of a shared common sense about it? I don’t really have a satisfactory answer to this, but I think there is something appealing and seductive to us modern people about radicalism, whether it’s the radicalism of moral purity or an aesthetic radicalism of total ironic detachment. For many, only these stances seem to confer authenticity in a way that being a sort of middle-ground, a synthesis between extremes, does not. Kierkegaard even writes that properly-controlled irony helps us “to balance the accounts,” suggesting the most bourgeois activity imaginable. But this combination of the mundane and the spiritual, the idea that our precious inner lives could have something so prosaic as account books to be balanced, suggests another aesthetic mode that both Kierkegaard and Hegel put above mere irony: humor. If irony can connect us to the infinite, the capacity of our ego to always rise above and laugh at society and mere convention, humor re-connects us to the finite, the smallness and vulnerability of our own plans and pretensions. Irony laughs at the others, but humor can laugh itself—not with the cruel sneer of the ironist, but with a tolerance and kindness untainted by sentimentality.