David L. Miller

This is the text of the presentation given at the Psychology at the Threshold Conference at the University of California in Santa Barbara sponsored by Pacifica Graduate Institute on 4 September 2000. [1]   Footnotes may be accessed by clicking on the footnote number in square brackets.  In order to return to the text, use the "back" command on your browser.  Some of the text is gappy and is not syntactical.  This is because it was used as notes for the oral presentation.  A tape of the presentation may be obtained from Sounds True Recordings at 1-800-333-9185.  The tape number is PAX-48. A print version of this lecture, without the visual images and the section on Paul Klee, is in Psychology at the Threshold, eds. D. P. Slattery & L. Corbett (Carpinteria: Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2002), 112-127.

1. A Culture of Irony? Something is taking its course!

In Samuel Beckett’s play, Endgame, Hamm says to Clov: "This is not much fun. But that’s always the way at the end of the day, isn’t it, Clov." "Always," says Clov, and Hamm says: "It’s the end of the day like any other day, isn’t it, Clov?" "Looks like it," says Clov. And then Hamm says in anguish: "What’s happening, what’s happening?" To which Clov responds: "Something is taking its course." [2]

Indeed, something is taking its course, in our culture, in our time. The "something" seems to be irony.

When this William Hamilton cartoon appeared in New Yorker magazine last December, it was surely a comment, ironic in itself, on a furor over irony in the culture, a cultural war which was already well underway. (The people say to the shoe salesman:  "Haven't you got anything a little more, like, ironic?")  I first noticed this cultural condition a few years ago. What I noticed was an increasing conflict creeping into the culture concerning irony. It was something that intuitively made me sense that our collective psychology—as this conference’s theme asserts— is indeed on a threshold. Let me give a few examples from what some people call the "real" world. These will likely prompt you to think of many other instances.

In all of this, there is apparently some sense that the culture is suffering from what Will Kaufman, in a fine book on the topic, calls "irony fatigue."  [3] But there is also some sense that there is a humorless literalism, a moralistic ideologism, to be feared in the loss of an ironic sensibility.

Time magazine seems to have lost its ironic sensibility when it named Jeff Bezos person of the year last year. Bezos, the CEO of Amazon.com, is rewarded with fame for founding a company on the strategy of intending to lose money for an extended period of time. He builds a market position by pursuing a full-scale go for broke strategy from the start of losing hundreds of millions of dollars on a business in which no one knows if anything is to be made.

This is almost as ironic as Tom Lehrer’s comment: "Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace." And my most favorite example from today’s "real" world—though this is probably the result of a typographical error: There was within the past year an ad for a Center of Holistic Dentistry in Los Angeles that advertises that its air is "ironically purified."

Take this list as an ironic litany, a testimony that something is taking its course, as absurd as the theater of Beckett, but in this case life is imitating art. The irony of modernity and postmodernity began with Darwin arguing for a biological ordering based on random selection; Marx arguing for a political justice and communal stability based on revolution; Nietzsche supposing that there is a metaphysical grounding in the death of God; and Freud and Jung arguing that the logic of the self’s life is based on what is unconscious, i.e., on what is unknown and unknowable. An ironic world, in which the backlash is equally ironic.
But what is this thing called irony? [4]

2. Ironies: The Arrow and its Historical Trajectories

Well, it’s not one thing; it’s a lot of things, many things, like ships and shoes and sealing wax and cabbages and kings … and its beginnning is usually attributed, probably wrongly, to Socrates, who was ironic because he was a Silenos … ugly on the outside, beautiful on the inside …. Actually, empty on the inside … like the sileni figurae (16ff)  [5] Pico della Mirandola … Thus, if you look at the outside, you will see a beast; if you look within, you will recognize the divine (21) … above all it was deemed ironic for Socrates to be called, by the Delphic oracle, the wisest of all persons because he said that he knew nothing … for this Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics will contrast the eiron, giving Socrates as example, with its opposite, the aladzon. The latter, the boaster, says more than she or he knows; the former, the ironist, at the other extreme says less.

Though some--I among them--believed Socrates to be telling the truth when he said that he knew nothing (God knows, I know how he felt!), it is nonetheless likely, at least in part, that because of Socrates, "irony" came to mean simulatio, dissembling, deceiving (Aristotle, Theophrastus) (45) In Cicero and Quintillian … dissimulatio and inversio or illusio (49) ... aliud dicitur, aliud significatur (56) … with this view, the problem of arrogance, imagined detachment and the putative superiority of the ironist enters the picture … irony had become a rhetorical trope (70), and, in this, it is the opposite of the ethical humility of Socrates emptiness, nothingness, and un-knowing. This inversion of irony is, of course, itself a historical irony.

Another turn came with Romantic Irony … Solger, Schlegel, Hegel, and Kierkegaard for whom irony is "infinite negativity" or "absolute negativity" in Hegel … here negativity is not a negative thing, but is more like the dénégation of Freud and the French critical theorists … irony is now not only not a vice … for Schlegel, without irony there is no art because art, as Hegel put it in the Aesthetic Lectures, is a transformation of empirical appearance into reality, i.e., it is a lifting up or a drawing out and off (Aufhebung) by cancelling ego's personalistic image of what seems to be. … irony is the image of art, reflected (upon) … It is not surprising that Schlegel would write that "philosophy is the proper home of irony" (110), since philosophy is the realm of reflective thinking.

A further mid-course correction in irony’s historical trajectory came with the notion of dramatic irony. The dramatic irony of modernism (Pirandello’s theater is a good example) first deprived the characters on the stage, and then the audience too, of the meaning of what was really going on in the plot. This strategy became the threshold leading from Romantic irony to the poetic irony of the New Critics (Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, William Wimsatt and later Northrop Frye and historiographer Hayden White). Irony became a trope, a figure, a metaphor, which like wit, humor, and other tropologies and tropics then was historicized and acculturated.

There have been others mapping the twists and turns of irony since New Criticism: Wayne Booth, for whom stable irony, intended by the artist represents critical intelligence; Paul DeMan, for whom irony is allegory, and it is the figure that is about itself; Mikhail Bakhtin says irony is heteroglossia, the double-voiced word, polyglossia; Georg Lukács says it results from self-knowledge and the self-cancellation of subjectivity (die Selbstaufhebung der Subjektivität) (186). This is what I would call the self-transformation of ego's perspectives dialectically. This happens just at that moment when one sees the irony of irony … but now I am moving too fast and am getting ahead of myself.

So let me slow things down by adding three explanatory voices to the historical two millennia trajectory leading from the death of Socrates to the death of God, if not to the death of irony.

The first voice is that of my teacher, Stanley Romaine Hopper, who was also the teacher of some others of us here: Christine Downing, William Doty, Daniel Noel, … While we were at Drew University in the sixties, Hopper was worrying the problem of irony long before the culture wars I have alluded to at the beginning. He had already observed—in The Crisis of Faith, written at the end of the Second World War, and in Spiritual Problems of Contemporary Literature, written in the early fifties—that the literature of the period had as its central modality that of irony, and that this was affecting the people’s spirituality and its psychology. But it was while we were still at Drew, in 1962, that Hopper wrote an important essay for Cross Currents entitled, "Irony—the Pathos of the Middle." The argument was straightforward. Modern novel, drama, and poetry are thoroughgoingly ironic. Hopper was thinking about Eugene O’Neil, Albert Camus, Arthur Miller, Bertholt Brecht, Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, and so on. But Hopper observed that there is an irony about the irony of this work. Irony, he argued, is a transitional form. It cannot be maintained. It is ironic enough, after the moonlight and roses poetry of Romanticism, for T. S. Eliot to speak, in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," about the evening sky as "a patient [who] lay aetherized upon the table." But when Eliot announces that "we are the hollow men," the trope collapses. Who is this "we"? If "we" are the hollow men, then this saying must be hollow, too. This is the irony of trying to sustain irony (ask Socrates). It is what Linda Hutcheon has in a recent book called "irony’s edge."  [6] Irony is the mode of existence when one is on a threshold. Hopper hoped, at the end of his article, that irony might soon give way to joy. At the end of his essay, he wrote: "Surely, after so much turning in the ironies of rationalistic profaning of the mysteries, it would be an unexpected turn to topple into sense by way of comedy, to … know the new anagnorisis—the carnival of forms, the festivals of glory, the exploits of joy." [7]

Hopper was actually worrying the arrogance of irony, the arrogance of saying that we are the hollow men, that God is dead, that the self is decentered, that history is at an end, that there is infinite deferral of closure on referential meanings. But Hopper’s worry may have been misplaced. Kenneth Burke—a well-known literary critic, friend of Hopper’s, and a sometime professor with Hopper at Drew—had argued the opposite in his book Grammar of Motives. Burke’s voice is the second that I want to invoke.

His view was dramatistic. We are all in a drama with many characters, Burke imagined. If one isolates any one character—an agent in drama or a single advocate in a dialogue—the whole drama is seen in terms of that one’s position only. This may seem absolutist, but it is in fact, when viewed from the perspective of the whole drama, relativistic. The fundamentalist and the ideologue are the relativists. In relativism there is no irony. Irony arises when one tries, by interaction of all of the voices in the drama or the dialectic, to produce movement. It is ironic because it requires that all sub-certainties (the individual relative positions) be considered as neither true nor false, but as contributory to the drama. True irony, then, is not arrogant; it is humble, Socratically, because it senses no superiority in one position over the others in the whole drama and because it is based in a sense of fundamental kinship with the enemy, since every protagonist needs an antagonist in order to play out his or her drama. Irony thus saves us from fundamentalisms, literalisms, and ideologies—i.e., it is the modality or trope that refuses to take a relativism as an absolute. [8]

It turns out that Hopper and Burke were not so much opposed as it may seem, since Hopper’s main point is that irony is a transitional form and Burke’s main point is that the total action is a drama or a dialectic. This point about movement and the transitional quality of irony was similarly to be argued by the German literary critic, Beda Allemann, whose early book, Ironie und Dichtung, may still be his most important work. It is Allemann’s voice that I want to invoke thirdly.

Allemann had been invited to a conference on hermeneutics at Drew University in 1966, and, on the basis of that visit [9], he was invited to Syracuse University in the Autumn of 1970 to a colloquium on the hermeneutical relevance of the work of his teacher, Martin Heidegger. Allemann decided to talk more about the subject of his book. His title was, "Irony and the Unspoken," and it focussed on one sentence of Heideggers: Nie ist das Gesprochene und in keiner Sprache das Gesagte. "Never and in no speaking is that which is spoken that which is said." This is fundamental to Heidegger’s modernist project, and it is, indeed, ironic. That is, it is ironic that language says something other than what we speakers think that we might be saying. Language has an intentionality of its own. [10]

In his talk Alleman pointed out that "irony is a non-literal (uneigentlich) manner of speaking" (1).  [11]  "Irony is a phenomenon of transition and approximation which can realize itself only in a fluctuating and delicate equilibrium. Irony is a tighrope balancing act. On one end of the scale we have the serious straightforwardness of the literal statement which is identical with what is meant, on the other end we have undisguised mockery and scorn and cynicism and sarcasm. Literary irony lies in the middle." (8)

Allemann’s example is Marc Antony's line from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "Brutus is an honorable man." The first time that it is said, it seems straightforward and literal. The second time it is said, it has become ironic. But after many repetitions, it is straightforward again, but now straightforwardly cynical, scorning, and mocking. First it is not irony, then it is irony, then after many repetitions it is mockery or sarcasm.

So, Allemann argued, there is the "not-yet-ironic" and the "no-longer-ironic" (9) In between, there is irony. So, "irony equals the transparent discrepancy between the literal statement and what is actually meant." (16) But, as Allemann said, the "discrepancy" is an "ironic field of tension or Spielraum, a "space with some play in it," and this space of tension has an antithetical structure." (17) One might say: it is dialectical. The Spielraum is a "glass cage" in which the writer is a "tightrope dancer." Glass because transparency is essential. Seeing-through. Cage because the writer is imprisoned within the rules of the ironic game.

"The irony of a text is not fully understood unless the reader becomes aware of the discrepancy between what is literally said and what is concealed behind it (unless it is transparent and seen through, as James Hillman also put it in his Terry lectures). To use Heidegger's distinction once more: "that which is said becomes perceptible through that which is spoken, but it is not identical with what is spoken." (20) Discrepancy is always present. Always. Call it a latent meaning behind the manifest (Freud), shadow or unconscious signification (Jung). Irony points to a structure of fundamental ambiguity or to a coincidentia oppositorum. Depth psychology is at bottom ironic.

Hopper hoped that irony would tumble finally into comedy or joy; Allemann, like Peter Sloterdijk, is worried that it may go over the edge into cynicism or sarcasm. Perhaps these both are possibilities, shadows of irony. But whether one or the other, or a Burkean humble dialectic of both, the historical trajectory of irony reveals that irony is itself apparently a trajectory.

3. The Art of Irony: Paul Klee

The nature of irony’s trajectory as trajectory, I think, may be seen more plainly by a reflection on the figure of the arrow in the drawing and painting of the artist Paul Klee. Klee may be able to help us to grasp the implications of a culture of irony. Klee’s work may also have the effect of showing a radical and problematic irony lurking in the explanations of Hopper, Burke and Allemann on irony.

In 1924, already teaching at the Bauhaus in Germany, Klee wrote a pedagogical sketchbook to help in the instruction of his student artists. [12]  This is the first page from that notebook.

"Pedagogical Sketchbook," I.1 … putting pen to paper, he told the students to begin at that point, with a point, and then to note that the point becomes mobile … suddenly is a line, and the line goes for a walk, without goal, for its sake, not ours … but it soon is complex and not simple

"Pedagogical Sketchbook," I.2-4 … in the next lesson, as the line goes for a walk, there are hindrances when there are points or fixations, and soon the line finds itself to be a plane, and then it becomes passive as well as active … arrows develop, as the line moves it has intentionality

"Pedagogical Sketchbook," 3.26 … twenty-some lessons later, the arrows plummet toward the earth, or from air into water … things happen

"Pedagogical Sketchbook," 3.33 … and a few experiences further, the arrows spins on itself, like a top, or ...

"Pedagogical Sketchbook," 3.38 … takes on real intentionality. "The father of the arrow is thought; it is the thought: how do I expand my reach? Over the river? Over the lake? Over a mountain? The only tragedy is ego’s life, which limits the feathered, ruddered, directed arrow, the winged arrow, aiming at fulfillment and goal, tiring without having reached the mark that is nonetheless reached in the thought of the arrow."

"Pedagogical Sketchbook," 3.40 … so there is the formation of the black arrow (not unlike the sol niger, the "black sun," of Jung’s alchemy and Kristeva’s Lacanianism and Stan Marlan’s deconstruction of white). In Klee, the given white is "much too much seen and, therefore, tiresome, and is noticed by the eye with little sensation; but the contrasting peculiarity of sudden action (black) sharpens the vividness of vision toward the climax or the termination of this action."

Watch Klee’s line go on a walk, making drawings that he named after the fact of arrow doing it’s thing …

"Children Out of Doors" (1908) … Klee was born in Switzerland four years after Jung, in 1879, so he was twenty-nine when he did this drawing. Two years later, he did …

"Clearing in the Forest" (1910) … then …

"Fleeing Policeman" (1913) … and then …

"Migratory Bird" (1925) … Klee had gone to teach at the Bauhaus in Weimar four years earlier sketchbook … this from the same year …

"Afraid on the Beach" (1925) … and this from seven years later (he is now 46 years old)

"Revolt in the Plains" (1932) … the year before Klee had to leave the Bauhaus because of the political unrest in Germany and because he had been attacked by Nazis as a Jew and a foreigner … he returned to Berne shortly before Christmas … the pain was to become physical as well as political and social … five years later …

"Alas! Oh, Alas!" (1937) … Klee once said: "I paint … so that I may not cry." This is also the year that the German government mounted the show called "Degenerate Art" in Munich in which seventeen, of the hundred and two paintings Klee had had taken, were included.

"X-let" (1938) … this is three years into the scleroderma that would take his life in 1940, at age 61, … it is a disease that causes profound suffering by drying the mucous membranes and finally the heart.

"In Itself" (1938)

"Burden" (1939) … you can see that a line can be very expressive, if you will let it be, if you will let it go on a walk.

"Come Away" (1939) … soon after this drawing, Klee entered a clinic near Locarno in Southern Switzerland, where he would die. On his tombstone was engraved a line from his journal: "I can live as happily with the dead as with the unborn."  That this line on a walk is actually an arrow become clear in ...

"Arrow Approaching Target" (1921) … keep your eye on that arrow

"Scene from Hoffman Like Tale" (1921) … Actually, along the way, while Klee’s arrowy line was taking its course, it discovered color. Until now I have left out the color.

"City of Towers" (1916) … buildings as architectural arrows

"Tragedy" (1932) … political arrow, or is it sexual and erotic tragedy?

"Who Kills Whom" (1931)

"The Comforts of the Orient" … here the arrow is subtle and light …

"In Copula" … here mysterious

"Evening of Divorce" … and here heavy ...

"Ad Parnassum" (1932) … where a whole mythic mountain is arrow. Yes, a mountain can be an arrow. Actually, anything can be an arrow if its intentionality is sensed. And, in this case, it is myth, too. There are other mythic references in Klee’s titles, indicating that he thought that the arrows/eros of aesthetically understood life is not egoic or personalistic, but more archetypal. For example …

"Diana" (1931)

"Adam and Eve" (1921) … and he called this one

"Barbarians’ Venus" (1921) … here is a

"Portrait of Gaia" (1939) … just as he is himself quite literally about to return to mother Earth, and finally …

"Demonry" (1939) … but to see how complex Klee’s line on a walk can become, here is

"Artic Thaw" (1920)

"Pear Distillation" (1921) … and of course the archetypal magic of …

"Fish Magic" (1925) … and that more tragic mystery of …

"The Burdened One" (1929) … and, lest I have given the impression of gravity in the final illness, here is …

"Dancing Girl" (1940) … a dancing girl when one is dying in pain. Irony enough!

Klee managed to capture what Roland Barthes was talking about when he wrote: "God displays a subtle and judicious irony in creating certain products that are enigmatic in quality, like the melon, made for the innocent mystification of banquets…. I do not mean to say [says Barthes] that God created the melon solely for the sake of jest, but it is part of that fruit’s many uses. Irony is never overlooked in the calculations of nature…. The melon has as one of its properties that of ironic harmony."  [13] And if the melon, what of the knees of the ostrich or the size of the seed of the avacado. And if the melon and the ostrich and the avacado, what of the human psyche. All of it: God’s ironic imagination!

But there is more to the irony of Paul Klee’s work. The irony is not only that it is not the artist who draws, but the line draws; the artist does not paint, but the painting paints. But there as an additional matter that you may have already been noticing: namely, the titles of the paintings. Klee named the art after the fact of the painting finishing itself. The names double the irony, so that an irony of the irony is revealed. Let me give some quick examples of ironic titles …

"Warrior with Steel Look" (1939)

"The Way to the Citadel" (1937) … almost Kafke’s castle (Klee was born four years before Kafka) … note that the arrow points no-where ...

"Lying as Snow" (1931)

"Feather Plant" (1919) … a feather plant!? Remember Heideggers line: "Never is that which is spoken that which gets said."

"Dance you Monster to my Soft Song" (1922)

"A Face also of the Body" (1939)

"Idol for House Cats" (1924)

"Viaducts Break Rank"

"Twiterring Machine"

"Ceramic/Exotic/Religious" (1921) … in these titlings after the fact of the painting, the images of the art are thought and reflected, and the irony is compounded to a thoughtful irony of Klee’s imaginal irony … As Charles Boer has recently written: "Reflection is obligatory. You can only savor the wine if you think about it." [14] This is seen, too, in works just before Klee’s death …

"Is Stepping Down" (1939)

"Gloomy Voyage" (1940)

"Death and Fire" (1940)

"Embrace" (1939) … Klee’s work is on the threshold, on the threshold of a dialectical irony, his act and art are that of a high wire artist …

"Equilibrist" (1923) … is the name of this painting, and the name of this one is …

"In the Current, Six Thresholds" (1929) … the arrows/eros of his ironic art have as their intention intentionality itself, which is precisely the name of this work two years before the artist died:

"Intention" (1938). Like irony, which we have heard is a transitional form, from the not yet ironic to the no longer ironic, the eros, the desire, the wish, the passion of Klee’s work is its arrows. Even those paintings that have no literal arrow in them seem to be arrows. They seem intentional, but ironically so. Saying not only the image that is showing, but something other. They are all arrows.

Indeed, what if it’s all arrow, as Klee’s art seems to be. Does this mean that it would then be all irony. No not-yet-ironic literalism; and no no-longer-ironic cynicism or joy, neither nihilistic ending nor happy one. What if it is all transition? All threshold? This is indeed close to the point articulated by a not insignificant movement in recent thought. I am thinking of the discussion of intentionality by Continental philosophical phenomenology, a discussion in which our American friends, Edward Casey and Robert Romanyshyn, have been important participants.

4. Irony's Arrows/Eros

For phenomenologists—such as Franz Brentano, Edmund Husserl, Roman Ingarden, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty--intentionality is the ordering principle for the experience of imagining and thinking. Intentionality is the self-transcending movement of mind where the object is always intentionally nonexistent, that is, some object of imagination or thought is intended and yet it does not exist phenomenologically or perceptually. (38) It is realized in the intentionality of the thought or image.

Intentionality, on this view, is a universal feature of every mental phenomenon. (39) In imaginative experience, and--as Hegel and Heidegger point out--in thinking, "each [act and object] calls for the other within a continuous intentional arc (as in this painting) … This arc, as Edward Casey has noted, [15]  is a shuttling, an oscillating, like a badminton birdie, or like Klee’s arrow (40), and this arcing of objects and subjects forms a phenomological and psychological network or web. (60). The arrow goes both ways at once, like a sort of macro version of quantum superposition, in which a particle can be here and there at the same time, and can move to and fro simulaneously.

The arrow of intentionality, like the logic of quantum physics, takes us beyond … it is beyond us … thinking, imagining … that's why one shoots an arrow … that is why one thinks (not to find what one always already knows), that is why one imagines (not to see pictures that one recognizes) … not to see any pictures at all, not to think any thoughts at all … but to see, to think no-thing … the nothingness of everything. This is like Zen and the art of archery! No bow, no target … only arrowing.

Wolfgang Giegerich begins his book, The Soul’s Logical Life, with a story that expresses the radicalness of this phenomenological insight about intentionality. "There is an Old Icelandic saga about a young man who was a stay-at-home. His mother could not stand this and tried to rouse him with biting remarks [likely ironic!]. Finally she was successful. The young man got up from behind the stove where he had been sitting and, taking his spear, left the house. Outside, he threw his spear as far as he could and then ran up to the place where it had landed in order to retrieve it. At this new point, he again threw the spear as far ahead as possible and then followed it, and so on. In this way, with these literal 'projections' that he then had to catch up with, he made a way for himself from the comfort of home into the outside world."  [16] Remember Zeno’s arrow. It never arrived. It—like the pink bunny—is still going.

I had an experience of this one day in France. It was in the town of Colmar. A friend and I were looking for the convent that houses Grünewald’s famous Isenheim Altarpiece. We came to the center of the village and looked at the road signs. There was one that said, Toutes Directions, "All Directions." Beside the words was a single arrow pointing in one direction. The French have done it, I thought! By going one direction, you can go all directions at once. And it is impossible to know where one will end.

This is llike Folon’s painting of psyche on the threshold. Hertz will rental you a car with GPS technology that tells you with a little arrow on a screen how to go somewhere; but when will the technology be invented to show the way to go everywhere at once? … and no-where. Like the cursor on my computer: it is an arrow that goes every which way, but points to nothing, nothing but a reality that is always virtual.

In the past there have been many arrows, to be sure: Cupid’s, which is not the same as Eros’; Diana’s, which is not the same as Artemis’. Greek arrows are not the same as Roman ones, and all are different from Apollo’s, even though he is brother to Artemis. And none of these mythic arrows is the same as irony’s arrows, which is different today from those of yesterday. In polytheistic mythology one could go many ways, but only one at a time. In irony’s postmodern amythology, one can go all ways at once because it is all arrow ... there is no archer, there is no target ... it’s all arrow …but this is the target ... and we cannot not hit it because it hits us.

5. Conclusion: Threshold Psychology

One thing remains. One thing that I have not explained … on the title-slide that I showed at the beginning, there is a little arrow, looking like a self-reflexive boomerang in the upper right hand corner. It is not mere deccoration. It is, rather, the Un-do arrow that we all have on our computers. If you click on it now, twice, it will undo this presentation, and me with it, and you can return to whatever you were thinking and doing before it all began. You can return to thinking, with Hopper and Burke and Allemann, that irony is transition from literal to metaphoric, from realism to joy, from the not-yet-ironic to the no-longer-ironic… you can imagine that that thresholds lead somewhere. You can, in one ironic double click, forget Paul Klee, as Fascist ideology tried to do. I well know that one cannot talk about irony intentionally without risking that the talk will be taken ironically.

When I talk this way, I am actually thinking of Longfellow’s well-known poem about his writing a poem:

" I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to the earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.

I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?" [17]

Or, for that matter, a thought. Yes, this presentation too was only an arrow—well, perhaps more than one—shot into the air, another irony, another erring, and it lands, I know not where. Irony’s arrow, going many directions at once, toutes directions, arriving at no particular where, a no-thing, which was the target that it was intended to hit.

And, after all, all of this is actually not about irony at all. That is only what I have spoken; it is not what I meant to have said. This is not about arrows and irony; it is about eros and psyche. Psyche at the threshold, about psychology, the logic of the soul, as being of the nature of threshold.

All arrow. All arrows. All eros. Desire. No-thing else. It’s all, always already, threshold. Liminal. Arrows/Eros/Errors … as Jacques Derrida and Peter Eisenman (not to mention Socrates) have observed (see footnote #1).

Irony is lurking just around the corner when Freud can announce that the goal of the healing of psychological suffering is to "transform neurotic misery into ordinary human unhappiness" and when Jung can announce that when therapy is successful we will have the "painful sense of innate discord" and feel like we are "strangers" unto ourselves. Talking about the therapy of psychology in such a way reveals, as Heidegger put it, that never is what is said the same as that which is spoken. There is an unsaid in the saying always and already. Including in this presentation. Indeed, in this very sentence.

As Adam Phillips recently wrote: Freud called the self "’unconscious desire,’ partly to show us the ironic sense in which we are the unnameable authors of our own lives (authors who keep losing the plot, authors who experience themselves as being fed their lines from some odd place)." [18]

Irony is a way of not-saying, i.e., of not-I speaking … or rather, irony is a way of understanding the not-saying, of understanding the not-I speaking … it is a depth psychological trope in which, as Nietzsche and Deleuze have said, the depth is on the surface. [19]

The trip of irony’s arrow is indeed a trip. We are always already tripped. It is like the little arrow on the dashboard of your car. It signals a turn. It signals that the journey is not going to be straight; it is going to be ironic. That little arrow is an irony signal.

The way is not straight, said Socrates, the ironist. So, don’t take yes for an answer. Or for that matter, don’t take no for an answer either. Don’t take anything for an answer. As Peter Sloterdijk wrote in Critique of Cynical Reason: "We need an advance in the training of mistrust." [20]  Irony lessons. Perhaps this is why Moses’ tongue was slow, Isaiah’s lips were unclean, Jeremiah demurred, and Ezekiel was mute. [21] Because never is what is spoken what is actually said.

There is no unironic situation because there is always an other side, an unsaid. It’s threshold all the way down.

We are the point of the arrow of irony’s intentionality. Wallace Stevens’ lines are apt: "Intangible arrows quiver and stick in the skin / And I taste at the root of the tongue the unreal of what is real." [22] The arrow actually is a boomerang.

We are like postmodern secular Saint Sebastians being shot at from all sides by the arrows/eros of irony. And it may be, as Glenn Holland has observed in a recent book, that the irony is divine. [23] Psalm 64.7 reminds us that "God will shoot his arrow at them and they will be wounded suddenly." And Zechariah 9.14 says that "the Lord will appear over them and his arrow will go forth like lightning."

The Greek word toxikon, though it means poison, means a specific poison, the one on the tip of an arrow (toxikos meaning originally "from the bow") … and this will give English the word "intoxicate" … such as the intoxication of ideas in the life of the mind … an arrow of outrageous postmodern fortune striking the chink in ego's armor. Ego giving up its direction for irony’s arrows/eros. It places us on an eternal threshold. The irony of irony, finally, is that it is all irony.

Psyche as threshold. All threshold. Nothing on either side. As Jung once wrote concerning Nietzsche: "The deadly arrows do not strike the hero from without; it Is oneself who hunts, fight, and tortures the self. In the self, instinct wars with instinct; therefore the poet says, 'Thyself pierced through,' which means that a person is wounded by one’s own arrow." [24]

The poet, Denise Levertov, has captured the ironic point, the point of the arrows/eros of irony, in a poem called "The Life of Others"—the others in this poem being a wedge of Canadian geese flying overhead …

"Their high pitched baying
As if in prayer’s unison
Remote, undistracted, given over
Utterly to belief,
The skein of geese
Voyages south,
Hierarchic arrow of its convergence toward
The point of grace
Swinging and rippling, ribbon tail
Of a kite, loftily
Over lakes where they have not
Elected to rest,
Over men who suppose
Earth is man’s, over golden earth
Preparing itself
For night and winter.
We humans
Are smaller than they, and crawl
About and about the smoky map." [25]
This is a goose eyed view of the something that is ironically taking its course at the end of this day. Remember (as Geroge Axelos once said): "Galactic irony is watching you." [26]  And, if not irony, maybe a goose!


1. I am certainly not the first to force this pun.  Jacques Derrida comments on its use by Peter Eisenman in Psyche: L’Invention de l’autre (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1987), p. 506.  Eisenman’s essay was entitled Fin d’OU T hou S (London, Architectural Association, 1985), and contains the subtitle:  “Moving Arrows Eros and Other Errors.”  I discovered this reference after I had constructed the title for this presentation.

2. H. M. Block and R. G. Shedd, eds., Masters of Modern Drama (New York: Random House, 1962), 1106.

3.Will Kaufman, The Comedian as Confidence Man: Studies in Irony Fatigue (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997).

4. Any attempt to achieve a clear understanding of the concept of irony is fated to be frustrated.  The famous scholar of “irony,” D. C. Muecke, in his book The Compass of Irony, wrote:  “Getting to grips with irony seems to have something in common with gathering the mist; there is plenty to take hold of if only one could.”  See:  Glenn S. Holland, Divine Irony (Selingsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2000), 19.

5. Joseph A. Dane, The Critical Mythology of Irony (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991).

6. Linda Hutcheon, Irony’s Edge.  (New York : Routledge, 1994).

7. Stanley Romaine Hopper, "Irony--The Pathos of the Middle," Cross Currents, 12/1 (1963): 40.

8. Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives.  (New York : Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1945), pp. 511-17.

9. The proceedings of that conference are published in:  Stanley R. Hopper and David L. Miller., eds., Interpretation: The Poetry of Meaning (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1967).

10.Heidegger writes this in Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens (Pfullingen: Neske, 1965), 21.

11.“Irony and the Unspoken," a lecture given the at Fourth International Consultation on Hermeneutics, September 30 to October 3, 1970, Syracuse University, New York.  Allemann's speech was on October 2nd.  The pagination is to the manuscript copy.  Allemann’s earlier work on the topic is: Ironie und Dichtung (Pfullingen: Verlag Gunther Neske, 1969).

12. Paul Klee, Pedagogical Sketchbook, tr. S. Moholy-Nagy (New York: Praeger, 1965).

13. Charles Fourier, in Roland Barthes, Sade, Fourier, Loyola , tr. R. Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976), 95; cf. Constance Classen, The Color of Angels (New York: Routledge, 1998), 9

14. Charles Boer, “Confessions of an Altar Boy,” The Salt Journal, 2/5 (July-August 2000), 29.

15. Edward Casey, Imagining (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976).

16. Wolfgang Giegerich, The Soul’s Logical Life (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1998), 9, cf. Groenlaender und Faeringer Geschichten, Thule, vol. 13, Duesseldorf 1965, p. 143, and Heino Gehrts, "Vom Wesen des Speeres," in: Hestia 1984/85, Bonn (Bouvier) 1985, pp. 71-103, esp. p. 73, with note 7 on p. 100.)

17. The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1890), I.234.  The final strophe is:  “Long, long afterward, in an oak / I found the arrow, still unroke; / And the song, from beginning to end, / I found again in the heart of a friend.”

18. Adam Phillips, Darwin’s Worms  (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 108.

19. Cf. Joseph Campbell, The Flight of the Wild Gander (New York: Viking, 1969), 160, 169, 178: "'The syllable AUM is the bow; the arrow is the soul; Brahman is said to be the target. Undistractedly, one is to hit the mark.One is to become joined to the target, like an arrow [citing the Mudaka Upanishad]….  "The bow, in order to function as a bow and not as a snare, must have no meaning whatsoever in itself--or in any part of itself--beyond that of being an agent for disengagement--from itself: no more meaning than the impact of the doctor's little hammer when it hits your knee, to make it jerk.  A symbol--and here I want to propose a definition--is an energy-evoking and -directing agent.  When given a meaning, either corporeal or spiritual, it serves for the engagement of the energy to itself--and this may be compared to the notching of the arrow to the bowstring and drawing of the bow.  When, however, all meaning is withdrawn, the symbol serves for disengagement, and the energy is dismissed--to its own end, which cannot be defined in terms of the parts of the bow.  'There is no heaven, no hell, not even release,' we read in one of the texts celebrating the yogic rapture.  'In short,' this text continues, 'in the yogic vision there is nothing at all.'"

20. Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, tr. M. Eldred (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 48f

21. Cf.Catherine Pickstock, After Writing (Blackwell, 1998), 215.  I am grateful to Ayse Tuzlak for this reference.

22. Collected Poems,  313

23. Glenn S. Holland, Divine Irony (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2000).

24. Collected Works 5.446

25. Denise Levertov, “The Life of Others,” The Life around Us (New York: New Directions, 1997)

26. Kostas Axelos, Vers la pensée planétaire (Paris: Minuit, 1964), in J. Ehrmann, Game, Play, Literature (Boston: Beacon, 1968), 12.  The whole citation is:  “"We open ourselves to abysses, but we are swallowed up in systems and totalizations … without foreseeing what might be the home, the house, the habitat of a living, thinking person, an unfinished, unfinishable being in a history which is equally so, neither a shell stuck fast to a rock, nor a simple nomad or vagabond.  Mortals wish for the familiar and for adventure, the known and the unknown, undecided as to whom decides and to what is decided, chosen rather than choosing.  Since people are unable to be their own masters, they allow themselves to be fixed, tossed about, carried away, scattered and put to flight, incapable of choosing--if choice there be--between success in and in relation to the world, and the World.  All this does not constitute an error; wandering (errance) commands it.  Galactic irony is watching us."


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