Voyages in Irony
John Michael Greer is a writer with whom, ultimately, I agree on almost nothing. Yet he turns up here a lot, and rarely — if ever — as a target of disparagement. It is understandable if that confuses people. (It is not a phenomenon that is lucidly intelligible even to myself.)
The most obvious reason to return so incessantly to Greer is the sheer consistency of his deep cycle theorizing, which achieves a conceptual elegance rarely seen elsewhere. At some point, the UF series on his historical thinking (1, 2, 2a) will reach some articulate conclusions about this. Still, there’s more to the engagement than that.
A recent Archdruid Report post on the limits of science (and, as always, many other things) added further indications of profound error, from the perspective of this blog. It hinges its overt arguments upon an impregnable fact–value distinction, which is a peculiarly weak and local principle, especially for a mind so disposed to a panoramic cosmic vision. Yet the post is also provocative, and clarifying. Responding to one of his commenters, who suggested that without the prospect of continued scientific and technological advance life loses all meaning, Greer repeats the lines from Dante that have just been hurled against him, and encapsulates them — by explicitly activating their own irony:
“Consider your lineage;
You were not born to live as animals,
But to seek virtue and knowledge.”
It’s a very conventional sentiment. The remarkable thing about this passage, though, is that Dante was not proposing the sentiment as a model for others to follow. Rather, this least conventional of poets put those words in the mouth of Ulysses, who appears in this passage of the Inferno as a damned soul frying in the eighth circle of Hell. Dante has it that after the events of Homer’s poem, Ulysses was so deeply in love with endless voyaging that he put to sea again, and these are the words with which he urged his second crew to sail beyond all known seas — a voyage which took them straight to a miserable death, and sent Ulysses himself tumbling down to eternal damnation.
Within the immediate context of the post — which, naturally, I encourage everybody to read — somebody with paranoid inclinations might interpret this passage as a critique of NRx (at least among its subordinate functions), and perhaps even an atypically stinging one. This is not, however, what concerns us here.
The sole comment to be made about it right now, is that it demonstrates the architectonics of irony. To ironize, with such supple capability, is to explore a structure, differentiating an inside from an outside. This is no mere rhetorical device, but a fully philosophical — and metaphysical — operation. Crude antagonism is bypassed, through envelopment. Ironically, therefore, irony itself becomes a mark of seriousness. It is introduced at exactly the point that a cognitive process exceeds a constricting frame, in a doubling, which repeats and exceeds simultaneously. In the complete absence of vulgar polemic, it demonstrates an incontestable superiority. There is an accomplishment, a lesson, and an elevation of the game.
For Outside in, signed up with Ulysses by solemn contract, this example is especially piercing. It cannot dissuade us from putting to sea again, because nothing could. That does not — at all — mean nothing has been learnt.