4. Burlesque v. Irony

Tragedy: Equilibrium of Ironical Contemplation

In an effort to naturalize his ironic "machine" Richards roams as far afield as Miller's wildest speculations. Intent upon translating irony from a trope of Satire to a trope of Tragedy, he leaves Swift for Coleridge, whose "magical" definition of the imagination he recasts in the English public school language of a psychologist named, of all things, Dr. Head:

[...] Dr. Head has recently suggested the term vigilance, a useful addition to our symbolic machinery. In a high state of vigilance the nervous system reacts to stimuli with highly adapted, discriminating, and ordered responses[....]
The metaphor of balance or poise will bear consideration. [....] Tragedy is perhaps the most general, all-accepting, all-ordering experience known. It can take anything into its organisation, modifying it so that it finds a place. It is invulnerable; there is nothing which does not present to the tragic attitude when fully developed a fitting aspect and only a fitting aspect.
This balanced poise, stable through its power of inclusion, not through the force of its exclusions, is not peculiar to Tragedy. It is a general characteristic of all the most valuable experiences of the arts.[53]

Tragic irony's equilibrium of opposed impulses is Richards' New Critical nostrum for just about every ill. Properly followed, the Principles of Literary Criticism deliver everything from intellectual invulnerability to mental health. Apparently, successful ironic contemplation will even enable readers to better stand on one foot:

The most important general condition is mental health, a high state of 'vigilance'; the next is the frequent occurrence of such experiences [equilibrium] in the recent past. None of the effects of the arts is more transferable than this balance or equilibrium.
Hitherto we have been concerned chiefly with more or less specific effects of the experiences of the arts[....] Important though they are, we must not overlook the more general effects which any well-organised experience produces. They may in certain cases be extraordinarily widespread. Such an apparently irrelevant test as the ability to stand upon one foot without unsteadiness has recently been employed, by Mr. Burt, as an index to mental and especially emotional organization.[54]

Richards' claims for ironic contemplation are clearly excessive.[55] But modesty and understatement are not the path to aesthetic hegemony. It is a token of New Critical modernism's success that Richards is remembered and cited, as he no doubt deserves, for his contributions to linguistic and aesthetic analysis. But any historical account of formation twentieth-century aesthetics cannot simply dismiss such "excess" as mere "rhetoric." Rhetorical metaphor and hyperbole are not ornamental strangers in the analytic text: Richards' excesses form the very texture of his argument.[56] Read as the polemic it was, the Principles of Literary Criticism delivers up a cluster of images central to New Critical modernism's struggle for hegemony: Dr. Head standing in ironic contemplation, stationary, vigilant, balanced steadily upon one foot. If this composite figure appears absurd, it is because all aesthetic polemics are excessive and metaphoric, grounded in a struggle for persuasive power in the here and now, though couched in the language of quests after universal truth.

« Previous | Main | Next »