Romantic Irony, Humor, and the Modern Self

“Romantic Irony” might sound like a strange idea: we normally associate romanticism with the sincere expression of emotion and also with the ideal of naturalness as opposed to artifice. But the early German romantics at the beginning of the 19th century were obsessed with irony as a literary trope and aesthetic principle. They even raised it to the status of existential attitude and metaphysical category, closely related to their idea of genius. In their effort to make irony an organizing principle of life, they anticipate 20th century the avant-garde movements and later subcultures like “hipsters.” The criticisms people had of Romantic Irony look very similar to the kinds of gripes people have with irony now.

For instance, here is Hegel, a contemporary (non-romantic), criticizing the romantics and their use of irony in his Lectures on Aesthetics [1835.] As you can see he’s extremely disapproving of the life of the romantic artist living an ironic lifestyle.

He has in mind the Jena Circle of early romantics, including Ludwig Tieck, and the Schlegel brothers, August and Friedrich. In Schlegel’s “Critical Fragments” [1797], he refers back to Socratic irony as the basis for his aestheticized attitude to life.

This sophisticated, urbane detachment from a commitment to determinate meaning (“Am I kidding or not? Who’s to say what’s a joke?”) could frustrates the possibility of true commitment to any content in your life. It’s also easy to see how this could be grating.

For one thing, it’s manifestly elitist: Schlegel says, in effect, “look, there are some people that just will never *get it* and basically that’s part of the fun.” But this can’t be written off as mere elitism, a kind of vanity game for the 18th-19th century hipster. But Schlegel says it’s not really about deception; irony is not meant simply to undermine communication for its own sake as a game, but to communicate something that’s difficult to present matter-of-factly. It captures, “the impossibility and necessity of complete communication.” So, from a certain perspective, it’s more like: “there are important things worth communicating, but it’s precisely those that need an ironic treatment.” Romantic Irony brings to the foreground the frisson of subjectivity and uncertainty that surrounds all meaning.

However, this is internally unstable: only a community in the know understands what’s being meant, then only an artist would know whether he was rising above his subject-matter ironically or not, and then even he might not know what he really meant. At some point the thoroughly romantic artist would be unable to both be a rigorous practitioner of irony and have any meaningful commitments to anything. Hidden meaning quickly accelerates to indeterminacy and then no meaning. This is part of the reason why Hegel thinks that irony ultimately results in the kind of narcissistic navel gazing that he associated with early romantics. Against irony, which Hegel said was a performance of the superiority of the ego to the world, he preferred humor.

Humor, according to Hegel, showed that there was something bigger than ourselves that we had to make peace with. When we feel like the world is frustrating our plans for comic effect, this is akin to this sense of humor: I try to do something, and fail, but that’s funny. In this schema, the ironist is laughing at the world, but the humorist laughs at themselves. An ironist could self-parody, but they would be doing it so show the superiority of their ego, and their ego’s ability to transcend itself and others.

But if there’s more to romantic irony than mere pretense and vanity it’s that it points to the ability of human beings to transcend their context, to see the limitations inherent in the meanings that are given to them by their community, and to attempt to forge their own.

Though the he persistence of irony in the age of the internet has dimensions that could have hardly been imagined by the early romantics, much of the underlying structure remains the same. Irony is used as a shibboleth in subcultural communities, and also to test boundaries of communal life in ways that sometimes seems to dissolve the possibility of meaning itself. It’s also used as a way to tentatively test out commitments to risky positions, signaling that one can always retreat and say “didn’t really mean that.”

Kierkegaard, taking up Hegel and the romantics, believed that irony had a constructive possibility as a path to a deeply committed life that transcends both sheer egotism and the unreflective normality of conventional society, but more on that in separate post.

Irony is not something that can be rejected as a way of life in favor of a return to uncomplicated sincerity. The sheer act of “deciding not to be ironic” plays into the ironist’s game: it shows that we are always already constructing an artificial self. When Schlegel says, in effect, “Irony is not meant to deceive anyone except those who think they are smarter,” he’s making the Socratic point that it is an admission that we don’t know: since things transcend us, excessive seriousness does not mean wisdom; it’s actually silly.

To the person who uses performance of seriousness as a shield against the contingency of meaning, the ironist would say, “Look, you’re far more silly than me because you believe your own bullshit. You buy into this self you’ve created. At least I know it’s kind of all phony!”

This is why we smile when we see people who are excessively serious and sincere, because they seem to have forgotten that ultimately these are just fragile human things, too. Self-irony, rather than being arrogance, is potentially a kind humility. To try to harmonize irony and humor: irony is knowing that we transcend circumstances, that we are always *more than*, it’s related to pretense; humor keeps pretense under control, knowing when we try we probably will trip and fall.