ON irony, or not meaning what you say

[...] Langgasse,
in Danzig
, sparked a short fuse. The massed
-banners appeared as machine-fresh
robust street-hangings, crests of the phalanx,
terror’s new standards. I do not recall which
death-camp it was that sheltered Goethe’s oak
inside the perimeter. I cannot
tell you who told me or in what footnote
it sat hidden. This and other disjecta
, the abused here drawn
together with pain for their further dis-
memberment, I offer to the presiding
judge of our art, self-pleasured Ironia.

(The Triumph of Love, CIII)

It was Buchenwald—the irony being Hill cannot for lapse of memory make his poem, a work of ‘our art’, complete; and enfolding another irony, one which positions lionised nation-artist Goethe’s oak, favoured place of respite and significant landmark in a life of rebuffed courtship,* opposite the laundry in a camp where thousands of Jews were murdered for a bankrupt concept of German empire. In a feat of startling analogy Hill joins the dismembered fragments of his own listing memory, ‘here [in this poem alone and this work] drawn together with pain’, to the abused victims of eugenic hysteria who populated Buchenwald, of whom the phrase ‘the abused here [ie. the death-camp] drawn together with pain for their further dis-memberment [the word itself dismembered by linebreak]’ is perfect description. Latinists will note that Ovid’s now fustianly literary ‘disjecta membra’ translates as ‘scattered limbs’. Moreover in offering the disjecta membra of murdered Jews and of memory (the pun is obvious), not to mention the memory of murdered Jews, to this ‘judge of our art’ Ironia, Hill performs a further irony: the very offering shows how useless and thewless is art against edifices of horrendous fact, how, like Hill’s memory, in such circumstance it fails, offering back only ‘self-pleasured’ irony, which this time by its meagre presence, the absence of anything more, has judged our art dismembered.

But if irony is not meaning what you say, and not meaning what you say is also not saying what you mean, how is any of this irony? Who is ‘you’? I think that common slip of sense issues from the human wont to personify, and that the personified entity here is ‘nature’, ‘the world’ or, better, ‘life’. All the gristle and skank of hours. In situating Goethe’s oak next to the laundry at Buchenwald, life is not meaning what it says: but the irony is twofold, for as the camp, the deaths, are what it means, and the artist’s oak is what it says, so also the oak’s being in the camp is what life means, and the world where in all other camps there are no oaks, just death, and all other poets’ oaks are not in camps, but greening in fine rain, is what it says. The camp oak is therefore both an instance and a symbol of irony.

Why expend so many words on Hill? The poem, I suppose, illustrates what in Henry IV (both parts referred to as whole) is the motor of comedy, which may be perceived as anything from weak insincerity to straight deception: that is, not meaning what you say. A pun is an instance of not meaning what you say (though it needn’t mean the opposite of what you say), since puns never say as much as they mean. Pistol is first a name; then a gun; then a cock. Pistol as name is all that’s said.

Not so, my lord. Your ill angel is light, but I hope he that looks upon me will take me without weighing; and yet in some respects, I grant, I cannot go. I cannot tell. Virtue is of so little regard in these costermongers’ times that true valour is turned bearheard; pregnancy is made a tapster, and his quick wit wasted in giving reckonings; all the other gifts appertinent to man, as the malice of this age shapes them, are not worth a gooseberry. You that are old consider not the capacities of us that are young. You do not measure the heat of our livers with the bitterness of your galls; and we that are in the vanguard of our youth, I must confess, are wags too.

The quality of Falstaff’s irony here is made intenser by the graceful mixing-in of truth—of saying what you mean—but really it is knowingness that lifts the passage. It’s impossible guilelessly not to mean what you say, for if genuinely without guile any meaning apart from what you’ve said must be a product of interpretation, and interpretation likely to make such products is usually triggered in the first place by knowingness. Prima facie meaning pregnant with ulterior meaning anyway tends to knowingness in expression, though expression (tone, diction) comes second; it is pregnancy, by which is meant nothing more than the assumed relation of content to truth, which loudest signals the presence of irony. An example: ‘I love you’ may be marked ironic only by tone, where ‘I love Tony Blair’ is likely ironic whatever the tone, because the former is probably true and the latter untrue. What is said (‘I love Tony Blair’) is clearer distant from what might be meant; probably whoever lies when he says (in earnest voice) ‘I love you’ lies also to himself.

So Falstaff. The ‘gooseberry’ sentence is elemented with truth, but so hyperbolic as to indicate the knowingness of irony—the easy argument for this being that if we took Falstaff seriously we’d think him a churl and sour-faced bore, where in fact we smile along. The list of qualities (virtue, valour) in playful self-regard set Falstaff against his costermongers’ times and, by hyperbolic irony, at the same time suggest him specimen of them. Complicated indeed, this passage invites explanation but labours all explainers. Let me try. Falstaff says ‘true valour’ is debased, but exaggerates with ‘bearheard’, so that he assumes the stung tone of one talking from experience. At this point, what is said (1) = ‘The times are bad’ and what is meant (2) = ‘I am good’. Then however we note something mischievous in so referring to oneself, something non-virtuous, and a second irony in which (1) = ‘I am good’ and (2) = ‘I am naughty, but it’s the times’ fault (though you might not be able to trust all I say about the times)’ realises itself. After this, Falstaff’s irony shifts a third time in a way that reasserts his goodness: we see that, because he has handled what might have been a brittle, fogeyish lament so well, really he is virtuous and pregnant, but not in the immediate senses of virtue and pregnancy whose destitution he bemoans. The paraphrase becomes: (1) ‘I am naughty, etc.’ and (2) ‘I am good; it is my very deployment of irony that shows it; I am certainly naughty as the times would define it, but that’s because the times are bad, and so wrong’. He does not say this. Nor simply does he mean it. The laboured truth is that he means it so far as he is it.

We are finally confronted by a much balder irony:

You that are old consider not the capacities of us that are young. You do not measure the heat of our livers with the bitterness of your galls; and we that are in the vanguard of our youth, I must confess, are wags too.

Obviously Falstaff knows he is not young: there is no implication of unbalance sufficient for him truly to believe himself a young man. The key distinction between this and the foregoing is that here Falstaff is past knowingness—for what is there to know? This is irony as personality, irony for fun, irony as quick eddy of the Falstaffian whirl. Its ‘meaning’ component could be anything from ‘You, Lord Chief Justice, are an uptight fool’ to ‘I’m rather old’ to ‘Aren’t I a jolly bloke carrying on like this?’ In these lines you feel it’s almost possible to fix Falstaff’s innocence and his goodness, even why he is beloved, but, having so felt, you are like a squat pug wheezing after a greyhound, in weary focus unaware he’s lapped you ten times already. (And is the greyhound Shakestaff or Falspeare?) Our fix, in any case, is the word ‘vanguard’, or ‘vaward’ in Folio. The epitome of overreaching Falstaff-ism, ‘vanguard’ lacks any of Ironia’s cunning; behind it there is no calculation because it was said so freely in a spirit of jest; it is a wide-eyed open-hearted word, and yet a lie. I do not even know that its intention is—humbly, mercurially—self-mocking, given what follows (the confession of waggery) is both basically and self-referentially true, and without hint of ridicule. Welles thought Falstaff the best representation of a good man in all drama. The character’s breed of conflicted virtue is the Shakespearean counterpoint, a ‘globe of sinful continents’, to moral ideals that do not face honestly the mess and truth of life. Shakespeare knew that if lust is sin, everyone’s a sinner, and the idea of sin is useless. ’vanguard’ is untrue in a way that’s true to Falstaff, which means that it’s truer to life than truth. By saying what he does not mean Falstaff sustains that unstably comic penumbra of being under which nothing is dully certain because everything could be its opposite—nothing, that is, except the honesty and truth of the acknowledgement that people embody irony, because they are fuzzy, and cannot be drawn with ruler and lead.

Irony is like metaphor: what is said the vehicle, what is meant the tenor, what is meant by not meaning what is said the grounds. The difference with strong irony is the vehicle and tenor are opposites.

*I made this up.

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