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Irony In "Bellerophoniad" – A De Manian Reading Of The Novella In Barth’s Chimera

By 22 marca 2020No Comments

This article embarks on one of de Man’s momentous principles, irony, in order to verify the impossibility of reading „Bellerophoniad”, the third novella in John Barth’s Chimera. The definition of irony for de Man might seem to be more of a complication than simplification. This article initially scrutinizes de Manian concept of the irony, and then tends to apply its implications to the novella, particularly Bellerophon’s ironic, parodic existence in the Barthian cosmo-farcical text, which exemplifies the allegory of misreading in „Bellerophoniad”.

Irony as de Manian Dedoublement

De Man in the second part of „The Rhetoric of Temporality”, „Irony” delineates a meticulous image of irony, bringing fore its historical exploitation, comparing it with the romantic and non-romantic interpretations of the term, and finally presenting his own version of irony. Descriptive rhetorical tradition, from Aristotle to the eighteenth century, defines irony as „saying one thing and meaning another, or in an even more restrictive context, as „blame-by-praise and praise-by-blame” (Knox 56). De Man asserts that this simple definition of irony pertains to the fact that the relationship between sign and meaning is discontinuous, involving an extraneous principle that determines the point and the manner at and in which the relationship is articulated. In irony, the sign points to something that differs from its literal meaning and has for its function the thematization of this difference. De Man also proclaims that this important structural aspect may well be a description of figural language in general; it clearly lacks discriminatory precision. In order to achieve such a precision, he turns to historical development of irony from Socrates to Schlegel and Lukac, and concludes that the greatest ironists of the nineteenth century generally are not novelists. However, de Man firmly believes that historical mystification or demystification cannot insinuate a proper definition of irony. For him the problem exists within the trope itself; „in describing a mode of language which does not mean what it says that one can actually say what one means” (Blindness, „The Rhetoric of Temporality” 211).

He frees himself from historicity by Baudelaire’s notion of dedoublement in the article „De l’ Essence du Rire” that he extensively approves of. As the first of facets of irony in de Man’s analysis, dedoublement instills a sense of self-duplication or self-multiplication. It is a relationship, within consciousness between two selves, not between man and man, two entities that are similar in essence, but between man and nature, that is two entities that are in essence different. Rejecting the concept of intersubjectivity, which is based on the superiority of one subject over another, de Man acclaims that in dedoublement distance not superiority marks all acts of an irony. „Superiority and inferiority then become merely spatial metaphors to indicate a discontinuity and a plurality of levels within a subject that comes to know itself by an increasing differentiation from what is not” (213). Dedoublement thus designates the activity of a consciousness by which a man differentiates himself from the non-human world. However, the crucial prerequisite of irony in which dedoublement occurs is language. Language divides the subject into an empirical self immersed in the world, and a self that becomes like a sign in its attempt at differentiation from the world and self-definition.

Now having established the premise of his discussion, de Man steps beyond Baudelaire’s concept of multiple consciousnesses, and maintains that the duplication of irony occurs „in immediate connection with a fall”.

In the idea of fall, a progression in self-knowledge is certainly implicit: the man who has fallen is somewhat wiser than the fool who walks around oblivious of the crack in the pavement about to trip him up. Therefore, the ironic language splits the subject into an empirical self that exists in a state of inauthenticity and a self that exists only in the form of a language that asserts the knowledge of this inauthenticity.

The second term in relation to irony is vertige. The moment the innocence or authenticity of the self’s sense of being in the world is put into question, „a far from harmless process gets underway” (215). Irony possesses an inherent tendency to gain momentum and not to stop until it has run its full course; from the small and apparently innocuous exposure of a small self-deception it soon reaches the dimensions of the absolute. Often starting as litotes or understatement, it contains within itself the power to become hyperbole. This unsettling power of irony is what de Man calls an unrelieved vertige, dizziness to the point of madness,

When we speak of irony originating at the cost of the empirical self, the statement has to be taken seriously enough to be carried to the extreme: the absolute irony is a consciousness of madness, itself the end of all consciousness; it is a consciousness of a non-consciousness, a reflection on madness from the inside of madness itself. The ironist invents a form of himself that is mad but does not know its madness; he then proceeds to reflect his madness thus objectified. (216)

Such madness makes it impossible to return to reality. Schlegel’s self-conscious narrator, in this regard, prevents the all too readily mystified reader from confusing fact and fiction and from forgetting the essential negativity of the fiction. There is no way back from the author’s fictional self to his actual self, something that is quite salient in „Bellerophoniad”. Thus, the dialect between the self-destruction and self-invention, which characterizes the ironic mind, is an endless process that leads to no synthesis. The positive name that de Man gives to this endless process, reflecting Schlegel’s „Fragment 668” in Philosophische Lehrjahre, is freedom, the unwillingness of the mind to accept any stage in its progression as definitive, since this would stop „infinite agility”.

The third term in de Man’s re-magnification of irony is distance. The act of irony reveals the existence of a temporality that is definitely not organic, in that it relates to its source only in terms of distance and difference and allows for no end, for no totality. Irony divides the flow of temporal experience into a past that is pure mystification and a future that remains harassed forever by a relapse within the inauthentic. It can know this inauthenticity but can never overcome it. It can only restate and repeat it. It dissolves in the narrowing spiral of a linguistic sign that becomes more and more remote from its meaning, and it can find no escape from this spiral.

The fourth feature of irony is its simultaneity. It appears as an instantaneous process that takes place rapidly, suddenly, in one single moment. It is like an explosion and the fall is sudden. At the final point, the two selves, the empirical as well as the ironic, are simultaneously present, juxtaposed within the same moment but as two irreconcilable and disjointed beings. „The difference now resides in the subject, whereas time is reduced to one single moment” (226).

It might appear that irony has turned out to be one of the used-up, much-elaborated upon icons of literary criticism. However, de Man with this article divulges a myriad of pristine facades of the term, relying on the figurality of all language whether it is an ironic, literary text, or an objective, non-literary propaganda. Apart from being a trope in de Manian perspective, irony delves deep into the crux of its subject, disrupting any systematic, defined ontological view of the self. The discrepancy between what is said and what is meant is in its turn enough to serve de Manian reading of irony.

The Irony of Not Being Bellerophon

The novella and particularly, Bellerophon can be pored over with respect to four-dimensionality of de Manian irony. The climatic, disturbing ending of „Bellerophoniad” allows the irony to works its way all through the text. In disparity with the previous novellas, where the endings can be espoused as Barthian cosmophily, „Bellerophonid” repudiates such a loophole for itself, and remains floating within a void that circularly turns back on itself. The spiral endings of „Dunyazadiad” and „Perseid” seem to be redundant in Bellerophon’s text in which irony overwhelms his lifeline. Before exemplifying irony in the text, it should be mentioned that in „Bellerophoniad” the entire process of storytelling becomes ironic, verging on dissipation, disintegration and delusion. Sherry’s storytellings for survival or Perseus’ constellated voice from the space succumb to Bellerophon’s nonexistence and alienation in „Bellerophoniad”. This is the way that irony penetrates throughout the entire text, and never allows it to hoist above the level of ironic fall.

Bellerophon „is no more to blame or praise for what exists than he is for his own existence or appearance, the sound of his voice or his appetites” (Meras 2). His very textual existence is conditioned by an ironic non-existence; he has not been Bellerophon throughout the novella, but Deliades. His persistence to continue his life in the text as the voice of Bellerus aggravates his lack of an ontology. Thus, the text rises above the parody of mythology, and becomes quite farcical. Jac Tharpe observes: „No man is more a victim of the paradox paradigm than the man who sees the paradigm” (113). Form the very outset, pseudo-Bellerophon has been the target of irony, primarily by Barth’s anticosmic „tabula rasa, an individual in whom no value is prescribed” (Nash 64).

In order to trace the first dimension of de Manian irony in „Bellerophoniad”, dedoublement, it is imperative to shed some light upon the genealogy of the hero in the text. He is initially depicted as a demigod, a Chimeromach, who is suffering from his mid-life crisis, and thus striving toward rejuvenating his heroic vigor, particularly in marriage, by following the Pattern of Perseus. However, allegorically (in de Man’s sense of the word) Anteia informs his that Chimera was not slain in that day, and his wife Philonoe has „got word recently from the goatherds on Mount Chimera that the monster was back in business again up in the crater, she killed the story to cover up for [him]” (301). Impostures, phony Pattern, killing the imaginary female monster (created by Polyeidus), mythology as the propaganda of winners, all try to rewrite the myth of Bellerophon. After such disparaging revelations, the irony exerts itself in the self-duplication of Bellerophon into a yet-mythological hero of the his own tale, maintaining to be the hero of the New Golden Age, and the textual, Barthian character, who is now spending his eternity in an incest with the daughter of Melanippe, his own daughter! The figural Bellerophon re-magnifies the inauthenticity of the literal Bellerophon. In contrast to Perseus who enjoys his eternity with Medusa, Bellerophon’s so-called, fictive eternity is encumbered with Melanippe’s complaints and sexual conflicts. Ironically, she „would be happier with less of a hero and more of a regular man”, and quite opposite to Medusa she is „tired of being a demigod’s girlfriend” (306). The shocking impact of dedoublement impinges upon the text when Melanippe reviles Bellerophon by giving a sharp rejoinder,

You thought that that Pattern Polyeidus gave you for your Second Flood predicted three women, but by my count I’m the fourth: Sibyl, my mother, Philonoë, and me, right? But you said yourself that everything comes in fives in the Betterophoniad, so maybe you ought to start looking for that next one and get on with your career. Maybe this Chimera has turned into a pretty girl again, like Medusa in the Perseid. You should check and see if she’s It, and if she isn’t, kill her for real this time and see if that gets you where you want to go. Anyhow I know I’m not It for you, and you know it too, only you don’t want to admit it. You’re not getting any younger; neither am I… I swear, this isn’t immortality: it’s suspended animation. (307-8)

Such a fissure is the result of the dedoublement. The fall is intensely reified when the figural, linguistic Bellerophon is not Bellerophon but Deliades. As aforementioned, the fall is sudden and simultaneous, without the duration that marks the allegory. The novella ends with Bellerophon’s repulse of his fall: „I hate this, World! It’s not at all what I had in mind for Bellerophon. It’s a beastly fiction, ill-proportioned, full of longueurs, lumps, lacunae, a kind of monstrous mixed metaphor” (322). His factious, instrumental relation to the text that now has become an impregnable mixed metaphor makes his fall extremely pernicious.

The third step in ironic reading of the text is vertige. Now having established the discrepancy between self-invention and self-destruction, or multiplication of the self, the text draws Bellerophon to the state of madness, which in de Manian terminology is emancipating. The loss of self-consciousness reaches its climax when Bellerophon cries out that „It’s no Bellerophoniad. It’s a „(322). Here the closing sentence breaks off abruptly, lacking its final word and full stop. But the completion of this fragment is not to be found in this text’s opening sentence; rather the missing word is supplied by the book’s title: „It’s no Bellerophonid. It’s a Chimera” (323). Since irony is synchronic, past of the text is pure mystification and its future is harassed by inauthenticity. Thus, the two selves of Bellerophon cannot rise above their tussle and turn back on each other. The vertige of multiplication obstacles the process of heroic initiation, resulting in a delirium; a Mobius strip. De Man considers such madness as liberating; now Deliades emancipated from being the patterned Bellerophon can commence a new cycle, even if it is within the same text. The irony of being Bellerophon yet not Bellerophon hinders any descriptive, definitive reading of the trope.

The final features of irony, distance and simultaneity, are manifested in Bellerophon’s persistence in being Bellerophon’s (Bellerus’) voice. The distance between the ontological, being-the-writer-of-my-text and the figural, an-aspect-of-Bellerus is never diminished. However, the juxtaposition between the two is not temporal, or diachronic. The difference between the two selves resides in the trope of Bellerophon hand in hand, within a single moment. Thus it is quite palpable that Deliades continues to live on as Bellerus’ voice (Bellerophon’s name before killing his brother). The disparity between the two is correlated in the figure of Deliades-as-Bellerus, seething with their incompatibilities. The instantaneity and yet distance of the two selves in „Bellerophoniad” is what de Man considers to be the infinite agility of the subject in an irony. Bellerophon can never be minimalized into an all-embracive symbol or icon in a pristine mythological panorama.

Application of de Man’s notion of irony can illuminate the anti-essentialism of the novella, with its dual treatment of mythology. Monomythism is trounced by the ironic plurality of subjectivity, and the detachment from habits of logocentric thought marks any locution of the text. De Man never dissects irony into four fundamentals, as this part of the thesis did. For a pragmatic reading of the text it was essential to numerically systematize de Man’s somewhat muddled mentality. Irony with its seismic potentialities disrupts the image of Bellerophon, and also aggrandizes Barth’s role as the ironist-author of the text.

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