4. Burlesque v. Irony

I. A. Richards: The Principles of Literary Criticism

In Richards' usage, as in the discourse of New Critical modernism generally, irony is disassociated from a rhetorical tradition of hyperbole, ridicule and rebuttal to become a trope of ambiguity, indeterminacy, and knowing, tragic indecision.[46] Richards invokes Swift, but Richards' irony is thoroughly contemplative, at most opening the text and its represented reality into a realm of ambiguity where perfect reflection mirrors reflection, thereby adopting half, but only half, of Swift's famous statement on satire:

Satyr is a sort of Glass, wherein Beholders do generally discover every body's Face but their Own; which is the chief Reason for that kind of Reception it meets in the World, and that so very few are offended with it.[47]

If Swift's first definitional clause has been quoted more often than his appended corollary, it is with good cause. While Richards approves Swift's "really universal satire," the sense of irony he identifies with "value" is the imperturbability Swift regrets that satire cannot budge. For Richards values irony only to the extent that it allows for the "higher" recovery of an "equilibrium of opposed impulses."[48] Swift by contrast turns satiric irony viciously and unambiguously against the polished glass of his high art, his brutal "Irish life" poems shattering the unbroken face of "A Modest Proposal." Swift's ironies subject art to the worldly here and now of common sense. New Critical irony finds in art the world-weary sophistication of knowledge.[49]

In Modernist usage, irony takes the measure of a figure, proposition or situation, negates its value, and embraces that negation within a compound "ironic" figure. Mesure, proportion, is retained.[50] Such an understanding of irony is central to I. A. Richards' theory of value:

[Unstable poems] will not bear an ironical contemplation. [....] Irony in this sense consists in the bringing in of the opposite, the complementary impulses; that is why poetry which is exposed to it is not of the highest order, and why irony itself is so constantly a characteristic of poetry which is.[51]

In Richards' hands irony does more than bring in the "opposite": it restricts the semantic and emotive range of thesis and antithesis, construing each such that their opposition may become "complementary." New Critical irony finds its text in those elements, and only those elements, that may be "close read" as antithetical identities contributing to the stability, the unity, of the "work of art." If a work contains elements that cannot be assimilated to the whole in this fashion, it is "exposed" to a different kind of irony--the disdain and ridicule Richards otherwise rejects. He calls his book a "machine to think with."[52] His sense of "irony" is both a tool for forming the text proper, and a tool for forming a canon of proper texts. Richards makes his case for poetry, but his principles are sufficiently general that they have proved equally effective means of "reading" the novel. The rhetorical, history-making power of Richards' ironic contemplation follows from the way in which this "machine," once set in motion, functions over time: there will always be texts whose ironies remain to be "worked out." Thus Richards does not so much create a canon in one stroke as specify the "mechanism" whereby the New Critical canon may be subjected to revision without being reformed. He sets in place a powerful agenda for aesthetic debate: binding how we read, Richards limits what we will find no matter what we read.

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