- Beyond Endless “Aesthetic” Irony: A Comparison of the Irony Critique of Søren Kierkegaard and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest
Although David Foster Wallace’s critique of irony has received a lot of critical and scholarly attention, perhaps the most illuminating perspective has been largely ignored, namely the existentialist philosophy of Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard. Marshall Boswell has noted the relevance of Kierkegaard’s philosophy in relation to Wallace’s writing (137–40, 143–44). Wallace himself wrote, in my correspondence with him: “I too believe that most of the problems of what might be called ‘the tyranny of irony’ in today’s West can be explained almost perfectly in terms of Kierkegaard’s distinction between the aesthetic and the ethical life.”2 In this essay, I will offer a systematic comparison of the irony critique of both authors, focusing on Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest. Since essays by and interviews with Wallace have played an important role in the discussion about the irony critique in his work, I will include these in my analysis.
Below, I will analyze the resemblance between Kierkegaard’s and Wallace’s critique of irony on five crucial aspects: (1) their critique is concerned with irony as an attitude towards existence, not as just a verbal strategy; (2) they agree that irony can initially have a liberating effect; but (3) that things go wrong when irony becomes permanent—Kierkegaard calls this the “aesthetic” attitude; (4) that liberation from this empty, aimless form of irony cannot be achieved through the ironizing of irony, i.e. meta-irony; and (5) that liberation from irony is only possible through (what Kierkegaard calls) a “leap,” by “ethically” choosing one’s freedom, by choosing the responsibility to give shape and meaning to that freedom. [End Page 325]
Under the influence of postmodernist thought, most interpretations of Wallace’s critique have approached irony as a linguistic phenomenon, and not so much as an existential attitude, which I think is the actual aim of the critique. Taking this latter approach also prevents the discussion from being narrowed down to the question whether alleged instances of ironic language use in Wallace’s fiction contradict the irony critique formulated therein. To be sure: I am not arguing that Wallace’s fiction does not contain any irony. What I do argue is that the irony critique in Infinite Jest is aimed at a specific, ironic life-view, and that the possible presence of other, verbal forms of irony in the novel does not contradict or refute the critique of that specific form. Here, it is also important to see that describing irony in order to critique it is not the same as being (verbally) ironic about irony. Such an equation would rely on a simplistic reading of irony as covering all instances of “not saying what you mean” or “saying what you do not mean,” whereby “(not) meaning something” also takes on a signification—i.e., words (not) referring to a “real” state of affairs—that does not properly apply to the context of fictional texts. Such a reading would, in fact, render all fiction (verbally) ironic. In Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, the difference is formulated as follows: “there is indeed irony in the book—but that does not mean that the book is irony” (2: 66).3 As in Kierkegaard’s case, the ultimate test for the critique formulated in Infinite Jest, because it concerns an all-negating ironic attitude, is whether the novel succeeds in realizing a “positive” content, an affirmation of value or meaning.
Irony as an Attitude towards Existence
As was mentioned above, Kierkegaard and Wallace are not critical of all forms of irony. They do not regard irony as a single, monolithic phenomenon that is to be rejected in all of its forms, as for instance Michael Little writes about Wallace (66). In their critique of irony, Kierkegaard and Wallace are not concerned with irony as just a verbal strategy, a figure of speech, an indirect or ambiguous form of language use, but with irony as an attitude towards existence.
In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms, the ethicist Johannes...