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Ironies and Paradoxes

Satisfactory Essays
Ironies and Paradoxes

ABSTRACT: In contemporary literary culture there is a widespread belief that ironies and paradoxes are closely akin. This is due to the importance that is given to the use of language in contemporary estimations of literature. Ironies and paradoxes seem to embody the sorts of a linguistic rebellion, innovation, deviation, and play, that have throughout this century become the dominant criteria of literary value. The association of irony with paradox, and of both with literature, is often ascribed to the New Criticism, and more specifically to Cleanth Brooks. Brooks, however, used the two terms in a manner that was unconventional, even eccentric, and that differed significantly from their use in figurative theory. I therefore examine irony and paradox as verbal figures, noting their characteristic features and criteria, and, in particular, how they differ from one another (for instance, a paradox means exactly what it says whereas an irony does not). I argue that irony and paradox — as understood by Brooks — have important affinities with irony and paradox as figures, but that they must be regarded as quite distinct, both in figurative theory and in Brooks’ extended sense.

In contemporary literary culture there is a widespread belief, or feeling, that ironies and paradoxes are closely akin. This is due in part to the huge importance that is given to the use of language in contemporary descriptions and estimations of literature. Ironies and paradoxes seem to reflect and embody the sorts of linguistic rebellion, innovation, deviation, and play, that have throughout this century become the dominant criteria of literary value.

The explicit association of irony with paradox, and of both with literature, is often ascribed to the New Criticism, and more specifically to Cleanth Brooks. Brooks, however, used the two terms in a manner that was unconventional, even eccentric. He seemed to think of irony as a principle of order and unity: not so much a feature of language or meaning as a sort of coherence yoking disparate elements together, rather like Aristotle's conception of wholeness and integrity in Poetics 8 (Brooks 1951). As for paradox, Brooks seemed to regard it as a quality in language very like Viktor Shklovsky's defamiliarisation: that is, a deviation from conventional language designed to wrench our perceptions and our thoughts into unaccustomed, and therefore enlightening, pathways. Paradox, in this view, is a device which compensates for the limitations of conventional language, and is thus the only way in which poets can express the unconventional insights that are their stock in trade.
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