Poetics and the Curse of Irony

Hayden White, Metahistory (1973)
Douglas Robinson, The Translator's Turn (1992)

(in http://vunex.blogspot.com/2006/12/poetics-and-curse-of-irony.html)
by Conrad H. Roth

The similarity between these two books is not immediately evident—the one a critique of nineteenth-century historiography, the other a translator's manifesto. Both, however, have their roots in the tradition of American literary criticism represented by Kenneth Burke and Northrop Frye—brilliant outsiders who have remained hugely influential without becoming part of the mainstream, a position analogous to that of, say, de Chirico in modern art. White and Robinson, like Burke and Frye, aspire to philosophical system: they create grand structures into which they fit their analyses. And like Burke and Frye, White and Robinson see language—tropes, plots, speech-acts—as the basis of their systems. They are therefore sceptical about language, interrogating it, suspicious of its tactics and subtleties. They are, in another word, ironists, which is to say they are members of that vast crowd of postmoderns avant la lettre.

In The Rhetoric of Religion (1961), Burke describes religion as the arbitrary canonization of a single principle, a rhetoric confused for a metaphysics. For Burke, religion is ultimately poetic, and so just as a poem can have a guiding metaphor, so can a faith; he calls this guiding metaphor a 'master-trope' or 'god-term'. Frye, in his late and lesser-known The Critical Path (1968), compares Marxism and Christianity as examples of 'myths of concerns', patterns of rhetorical language designed only to convince:

The real enemies of such movements are not those who oppose but those who are indifferent: the opposite of faith is not doubt, but the inability to see what all the fuss is about.

Both Burke and Frye deny to religion what they deny to literature—that which structuralists call 'positive truth', the notion that a claim has any validity beyond the confines of its own contextual system. There is only a circular 'relative truth', created by sophisticated structures of linguistic tropes. These tropes go back to Aristotle—metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, irony. They are, in essence, ideals of the relations possibly existing between two objects: metaphor is the relation by similarity, metonymy the relation by contiguity, synecdoche the relation of part to whole, and irony the relation by inversion. (Individuals will quibble about the exact definitions.) And by this extreme analysis, complex ideologies and patterns of thought are reduced to their conceptual atoms. Without objective validity (as real atoms have), these units form not a science but what both Burke and Frye, following Aristotle again, call a poetics, a structure of contingent associations, a vocabulary of parts and aesthetic networks.


Burke and Frye, then, turned religion and literary criticism into poetics; in the same manner, White turns historiography into a poetics—'I have attempted to establish the ineluctably poetic nature of the historical work'—and Robinson does the same for translation studies. White will use the four poetic tropes to classify modes of writing history, and Robinson will use them to classify methods of translating.

The debts are explicit—White makes copious reference to Frye, and Robinson to Burke. In his masterpiece, Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Frye recycled and developed Aristotle's fourfold classification of drama as epic (romance), tragedy, comedy and satire, and found these archetypes in the entire run of Western literature, from Homer to Joyce. White, likewise, recycles Frye's expanded categories to classify historiographical writing of the 19th century—Michelet writes romance, Ranke writes comedy, Tocqueville tragedy, and Burckhardt satire. These words have become loosed from their conventional meanings, but not completely—satire, for instance, is revealed not as the moralistic surrision of Pope and Swift, but as the monstrous absurdity of Jarry and Beckett, and is shown to deny all comprehension of man's struggle among his own and with the natural world. Burckhardt, with his aestheticism and his distrust of objective historical accuracy, becomes a sort of gloomy fantasist, painting the Quattrocento as he would have dreamt it, as a moment of perfect light and liberty, between the ecclesiastical repression of the Middle Ages and the political conformism of modern times. Satire, in its turn, corresponds to the trope of Irony, which subverts the connection between a word and its referent.

There's a lot more to White's system—he adds more fourfolds, such as (radical, anarchist, liberal, conservative) and (mechanist, organicist, contextualist, formist)—and much of it is convincing. At times, however, the patterning wears a little thin. Frankly, it is difficult for me to keep in mind the image of Burckhardt as a nihilist jester, abandoning the narrative plots of Michelet and Ranke for an impressionist pointillisme of his subject. The abstract here comes too forcefully before the particular.

But irony is what interests White the most. It would not be too great an exaggeration to say that he perceives irony to be his bugbear, his nemesis. Such a perception is the hallmark of the postmodern condition. White diagnoses twentieth-century historiography as a largely unsuccessful attempt to escape the grip of irony—a mood which distrusts the grand narratives of historicism, preferring the simple and mythical, the direct and fragmentary—and which leads to a stifling scepticism towards intellectual endeavour. Yet White fully admits the irony of his own work:

It may not go unnoticed that this book is itself cast in an Ironic mode. But the Irony which informs it is a conscious one, and it therefore represents a turning of the Ironic consciousness against Irony itself.

Unfortunately, Irony is a stronger foe than White credits, and indeed a stronger combatant than White himself. Umberto Eco, in a rare moment of lucidity, put the postmodern condition, the condition of irony, like this:

A man who loves a very sophisticated woman knows that he cannot say to her, "I love you madly," because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say this, "As Barbara Cartland would put it, 'I love you madly'." At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence.

I find something unpalatably, uproariously true in these words. And so they come irrefragably to mind when I discover White caught—unintentionally—in the same state, writing about two key metaphors in the work of Benedetto Croce:

I shall forgo the temptation to interpret them in a Freudian manner as phallus and womb, not because Croce condemned every effort at psychoanalytical historiography, calling it "valet's history" and deriding its practitioners as pseudo scholars seeking a cheap interpretation without the work required by true historical comprehension; but because, in accordance with this prejudice, Croce refused to reveal enough about his private life to permit muster of the kind of detailed evidence that alone can render a psychoanalytical interpretation convincing.

In 'forgoing' this temptation, of course, White has succumbed to it—he has no need of spelling out the Freudian interpretation, only of suggesting it. The ironic condition manifests itself as insecurity, the need to defend oneself against all possible charges of omission. This process reached its nadir in Sorrentino's fascinatingly awful novel Mulligan Stew (1979), which opens with a series of arch replies to editorial rejection letters, in this case richly deserved. In academic terms, the condition was strongly developed by writers like Frye and Burke, who removed the objective foundations of criticism, and who wrote in a polemic and defensive mode to compensate. I try to conquer this insecurity in my own writing, but not with complete success, as this very sentence attests. And so the great and terrible monster Irony consumes me, just as it consumes White—Irony cannot be turned against Irony, as the only thing that can defeat Irony is ignorance, which is impossible to achieve except by senility, lobotomy, or a nasty fall. Once you eat from the tree of knowledge, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And you shall know that you are naked, and hide yourself. There will be no going back.


Hayden White's Metahistory is designed to prove that what we consider good historiography is only one possibility of several, all equally valid. Douglas Robinson's The Translator's Turn is designed to prove that what we consider a good methodology of translation is only one possibility of several, all equally valid. His particular aim is to debunk the hegemony of 'sense-for-sense' translation, something for which I've always felt some distaste. As a reader who likes surfaces, I find sense-for-sense translation over-conservative and stifling. Robinson clearly feels some kinship not only with Burke and Frye (both of whom critique the valuation of content over style) but also with Barthes and Derrida, whose pompous projects are really no more than attempts to recover the value of the signifier over the signified, style over content, or in Derrida's terms, writing over speech. It is the latter allegiance which causes Robinson to reproduce in a later book some terrible Sokalian piffle, Derrida on 'iterability':

Because the possibility of reuse (and thus what may in some new use need to be defined as a misuse) is present in every "original" or "ordinary" context, a wedding in which the minister says "I now pronounce you husband and wife" is never simply "one" context which, subtracted in a philosophical discussion, would yield the "null context." It is always a fraction between one and zero, a fractal between binary poles, a fractured context or contextuality.

This is Robinson, lacking (like Derrida) any real command of language, at his worst. But there is fruit to be salvaged from his project. In the earlier book, he posits a series of methodologies under the rubrics of rhetorical tropes (just as White had done for historiography), which Robinson calls (following Burke) 'master tropes'. Since irony has been a theme of this post, let's look at what Robinson thinks an ironic translation is:

The ironic translator wants to succeed this way too [ie. to overcome the impossibility of translating perfectly], but not by seeking equivalence—rather, by denying its possibility.

There are a number of ironic translation stances. One says, "The SL [source language] text is too brilliant, I can't translate this, I'm not a good enough translator, maybe nobody is." A second says, "This isn't the original, this is just a translation, don't start thinking you're reading the real thing, here." A third says, "Look how bad the SL text was, I'm just rendering it faithfully, don't kill the messenger."

Here we see the same anxiety, and the same attempt to forestall criticism, as we encountered above with White, Sorrentino, and myself. Robinson mounts a stirring polemic defence of the translator's art: he is desperate to show that the translator is not inferior to the original writer, and that he should not show obeisance or humility towards the text with which he is working. In other words, Robinson advocates an ironic attitude for the translator—and his various other tropes amount to the same consciousness via a different route. It explains Robinson's more outlandish propositions, for instance, that the translator should make shit up, especially when rendering functional reports:

The meteorological translator [ie. of weather reports] who feels bored can begin to vary his or her translations, experiment with variety, staying at first within the bounds of acceptability—referring to groundhogs or bunions, livening up his or her discourse with sportswriter-type verbal creativity—then carefully pushing past those bounds, testing the water. This means risking his or her job, of course; but then, surrendering to the boredom means risking his or her sanity, and one has to set one's priorities in this sort of thing. . . it is arguably better to quit after six months of subversive delight than after six months of mind- and body-numbing boredom.

Who can fail to admire this sort of brio? Naturally, Robinson's anti-authoritarian (though irritatingly PC, as evidenced by the relentless 'or hers') aesthetic leads him to delight in Zukofsky's Catullus, an example of the 'homophonic translation' covered at Languagehat here. There's an amusing passage where he gives a literal paraphrase of 'Minister wet to lee, pour the Falernian', etc. The result is total nonsense, of course. Robinson attempts an innovative translation of Jorge Guillén's poem 'Desnudo', admitting, with a modesty false but nonetheless warranted, that 'I am no poet'. The irony is that someone full of ideas, and with a keen insight into the wretched clichés and prejudices of translation studies, should turn out to be completely incompetent at translating. Robinson is gorged on the theories of others—Burke, Derrida, Thomas Kuhn, later Grice and Austin, even the cutting-edge neuroscience that would beget Damasio's Descartes' Error in 1995—and yet he dismisses theory, or rather advocates theory as a way of transcending theory, in favour of practice. But in practice, Robinson has no feel for the English language. With Robinson, as with White, we see the triumph of the abstract over the particular, theory over practice. Their formal systems are full of valuable observations, and yet amount, for all their sophistication, to symptoms of the same ironic condition that afflicts us all.

(From: http://vunex.blogspot.com/2006/12/poetics-and-curse-of-irony.html)

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