On the Relationship of Irony to Abstract Expression
I have mentioned previously that one of the difficulties of 20th century art is that it, more than other style periods, has depended on irony as a primary synthesizing force in the formation of its internal abstract relationships. The following piece was written some time ago, but I find that it has some relevance to the subject at hand; and although its presentation here may be perceived as a sidestep away from the subject of genius, it nevertheless has a bearing on the choices made a resonance achieved in much 20th century music.
Irony: if something appears to be a certain way, but new information, external to the context of the immediate situation, is introduced which reinterprets the situation to mean something else, it is said to be ironical; a man miraculously escapes from a den of ravenous lions, exultantly grasping life from the very jaws of death, then in his triumph slips on a banana peel and splits his head open--irony. The dictionary refers many times to the idea of "incongruity" to make clear the meaning of "irony." All forms of humor depend, to a greater or lesser degree, on this element of incongruity--the sudden reversal of a the meaning of a word, a situation, even a feeling. This reversal of meaning generates psychological tension, which we expel with laughter. Laughter feels good in the same way a sneeze feels good, or a sexual climax feels good--tension built up then released, feels good. It is the alternate generation and release of psychological tensions that is the stock-in-trade of art.
The questions this article proposes to ponder are these:
1.) Does the presence of incongruity in an expression signal any kind of meaning of a higher nature?
2.) To what extent does the spiritual mind participate in the lower material plane of dualistic opposition and contradiction?
3.) What effect does the abstract energy of super-physical reality have on the mundane universe of human existence?
Of some relevance is the idea put forth by Julian Jaynes in his The Birth of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind: Jaynes' ingenious conclusion is that consciousness is, part and parcel, a by-product of the mental reality created by the use of language. Already, in terms of our present discussion of irony, it can be seen that the "incongruity" between the "thing" that language represents, and the linguistic signifiers that generate mental images of that "thing" in the mind, seriously calls into question the very validity of consciousness at all. Jaynes provides much food for thought in the detailed defense of his theory, but a fundamental flaw may be seen in his insistence that consciousness is merely a product of the functioning brain; to a spiritually-minded person, it is an a priori principle that the brain is merely a physical organ, capable only of processing material input, whereas the "Mind" is something that resides on a higher plane of the infinite continuum of cosmic existence. Therefore, consciousness, on one level, may indeed be a vestige of verbal manipulations performed by a clever physical organ, but our sense of self, which, since Aristotle, has been thought of as the state of mind which separates human consciousness from the animals, may originate from a place not only higher than but also externally separate from the brain. The reality of higher mind is not fixed in the tension between opposing dual polarities, it is not vitiated by the artificiality of representational expressions, but, rather, is a dynamic, animating force which manifests as a personal presence; it is an eye into the infinite, capable of a breadth of vision far beyond the brain's paltry powers of perception.
The great composer Herbert Brun laments the inability of language to live in the present moment in his poem Futility:
For it is believable
that you do not yet believe
in hearing the sound of events
as they call on you
to create the suitable language
that will let you say to yourself
that which is said to you
just once and never again
for the first and last time
There is no second time
since a language gained
is a language lost
In Brun's aesthetic lexicon he consistently distinguishes between "statements' and "arguments"; a "statement" is an expression which exists in anomalous singularity, while an "argument" depends for its meaning, at least partially, on its pedigree: the idea that expressions must come from somewhere, and that this general (or specific) somewhere roots the expression in the past to the precise degree that it bears a resemblance to anything that has been expressed before. Brun clings to the possibility that a completely new expression is possible, even though, in his poem, he admits defeat in this regard by virtue of the inability of language to live anywhere but in a single moment.
I have always disagreed with the proposition that "arguments" have less expressive validity than "statements" for two reasons:
1.) It can be seen from the strong implication of Futility that the creation of a "statement" without a pedigree is virtually, if not completely, impossible, given the dualistic character of language; and, more importantly, that
2.) it is the relational interplay of various degrees of an expression's history that drives it into the realm of abstraction.
By abstraction, I mean a reality of mind, (we might say a spiritual state of mind) disconnected from the material referents of the expression. Art is always echoing the material plane by virtue of imitation: this sounds like thunder, this represents buzzing bees, etc.; but, when two material referents are placed in opposition to each other, a third meaning emerges. The relationship between the two becomes an expressive entity in its own right, with a meaning, nay, a resonance that transcends the material origin of either of the two referents.
My contention is that the aesthetic response is, and always has been, a response to this abstract reality, not to the physical reality represented by the abstract expression's lower level components. Hence, if a material expression comes encumbered with a backlog of stock associations that drag it from the present moment into the past, this action does NOT attenuate the potential of the abstract relationship, between the parts, to bring into the physical dimension the power and the living truth of higher mind. The multi-dimensional structure of human consciousness allows the self to traverse many (infinite?) levels, above and below, in a quest to affirm its cosmic identity. Thus, the ironical effect, in its resolution of opposing incongruities, may be seen as an important ingredient an an artwork's effort to penetrate the world of abstraction, and thus enter the world of spirituality.
A discussion of the Aristotelean definition of tragedy may be useful in clarifying this idea. (There is some disagreement as whether it was Aristotle or Shakespeare who defined tragedy in the following way, but, clearly, SOMEBODY did.) In a classical Greek tragedy, the hero is always of high birth, and possessed of all human virtues except one: the tragic flaw. This unfortunate flaw always wreaks the hero's ruin, and drags down numerous of his other personal associates with him. The tragic effect depends on the audience's sympathetic participation in this "fall." The experience of the tragic "fall" is very much connected to the incongruity of the personal values incorporated into the personality of the tragic hero, and degree of our cathartic response to his plight is proportional to our ability to "fall" with him.
Santayana has stated that, "Beauty is pleasure objectified." Hence, although the subject matter of tragedy is always human pain, suffering, and dissolution, our personal reaction, to the events in a good play, is, ultimately, pleasure. It is not only like a good sneeze, the expulsion of pent-up tension, it is also the feeling that the characters have drawn us out of our mundane selves into a world of rarefied spiritual truth. The truth of tragedy is not that life sucks and all is for nought; the truth of tragedy is that the tragic fall is not a downward, but an upward flight into a dimension of higher meaning. The tragic hero, suspended between the opposing attractions of ironical incongruities, is elevated to a higher level of existence; the tragic fall affirms and enhances the hero's sense of cosmic identity.
We are all familiar with the neurotic tendency to generate tragic implications out of our personal life stories. A neurotic person is, in many ways, more alive than a happy person, because pain emphasizes existence with its special brand of attention-getting. Of course the problem with this scenario is that when a play is over, we can return to our lives renewed, ready to start again to integrate our mundane lives into our spiritual ones, but if your whole life is a play, you can never escape the pain that leads to the fall, and hence never obtain the position of objectivity necessary to witness the effects of the fall and benefit from it.
Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress is a study in incongruity with its ever-tempting nostalgic indebtedness to an older, more comfortable, musical style. The music of the Rake is attended by a swirling aura of abstract relationships, as reference after reference to 18th century music is mitigated by perversions and misdirections which reinterpret, in every moment, the apparent pedigrees of its expressions. The ideas of false bass, polytonality, and stylistic permutation, are just a few of the expressive incongruities that pervade this work. Thus, the intense pleasure we derive from this complex of incongruous contradictions is directly related to the power of abstract relationships to force us out of one mind state into another.
The Quixote by Luis Borges, the story about the 20th century author who rewrites, word for word, the Cervantes novel, by BECOMING Cervantes, is an examination of how time itself draws antique expressions into the present. A word written in 1550 does not mean the same thing as the same word written in 1950. Why? Because the ever-evolving world of spirit does not allow the abstract relationships, inherent in a work of art, to stagnate like a dead thing, but always revives it Lazarus-like, in the anomalous now.
James Joyce has suggested three stages in the life of the artist: the Heroic, the Epic, and the Dramatic. In this third stage, the Dramatic, Joyce likens the work of an artist to God paring His fingernails. It is not unlike the episode in the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna enjoins Arjuna to "fight without desire." The middle path of objectivity frees the warrior (artist, human being) to act without reference to what he is acting on, or where or when he is acting. The arbitrariness of the context does not emasculate the potency of the relationship between the doer and the done; the quiet mind ignites the fires of the heart.
Indeed, the dispassionate mind state frees the self from the seductions of mundane existence, and frees it to walk the earth with lighter feet; in this higher mind state, the subject takes what he is given and molds it with his will into expressions which transcend their materials. Thus, the effect of irony is to manipulate the dualities of the physical to a point where their opposing energies explode upward into a dimension of spiritual truth; a dimension in which the self is both less and more than it was. The world may heap tragedy upon tragedy on your helpless life, but your highest self, witness to it all, will only laugh.