Tag Archives: irony

The Comic, Romantic, Tragic and Ironic Sense of Life

four-seasons

The literary critic Harold Bloom suggests four casts of mind that influence different kinds of writers. He calls these the Comic, Romantic, Tragic, and Ironic sense of life. For Bloom these are irreducibly pluralistic ways of looking at life, different lenses through which different writers and artists may view the world. I don’t doubt that there can be found among the great literati “pure types” of these four ontological and aesthetic sensibilities. Indeed, it is the “pure types” who have the hardest time understanding and appreciating how any “rational and sane” individual could possibly see the world any differently than they do.

At the same time it must be said that there are plenty of thoughtful and sensitive souls among the first ranks of poets, novelists, essayists, playwrights, artists, historians, philosophers and scientists who prefer to hold the comic, romantic, tragic and ironic sensibilities in a kind of dialectical tension, to practice Keat’s “negative capability” without allowing any of these four moods to be given the final word.

It is tempting to draw a direct correlation between these four temperamental casts of mind and the four major worldviews of dualism, idealism, materialism and panpsychism, with agnostic pluralistic pragmatism functioning as the “all-and-none-of-the-above” function.  The problem with this correlation is that it does not work. The reason it does not work is because one can find theists, deists, pantheists, panentheists, polytheists, materialists, gnostics and esotericists who are alternately comic, romantic, tragic and ironic in their alternating moods and sensibilities.

My own view is that a more fully human life will be well acquainted with the experiences of comedy, romance, tragedy and irony, and that life as performance contains all four, whatever our worldview and belief system happens to be. These four moods of the soul are more primal than the particular worldviews we use to rationalize  the particular moods that capture us and become our dominate states of normative balance.

When I listen to a great symphony by Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, I don’t particularly care about the composer’s belief system and worldview. What I do care about is the composer’s ability to translate the various moods and movements of life into diverse and profound musical experience. There is no doubt that great composers, artists and poets do indeed have worldviews and that their worldviews are expressed through their artistic achievements. But one need not buy into their worldview assumptions in order to be enchanted and inspired by their creative works. Worldviews matter, but only as a form of secondary language. The primal language is one of comedy, romance, tragedy and irony.

Harold Gloom has a second paradigm for charting the great works of literature. It is the historical paradigm of Theocratic, Aristocratic, Democratic and Chaotic cultural zeitgeists. Here too there will be purists who identify exclusively with one historical epoch and cast of mind. But there will be others who can appreciate great literature that spans all four of these symbolic rubrics without taking any of them literally or as the absolute and exclusive truth. We can imagine what it is like to view the world through each of these sensibilities, and enrich our experience through widening our range of empathic perspectives. In so far as “nothing human is alien to us,” we can appreciate all the ages of humanity on their own terms rather than judging them entirely through the assumptions of our age.

What matters most to me is not a person’s particular worldview and belief system, whether dualist, idealist, materialist, panpsychist or agnostic, but rather the capacity of the individual to encompass life, knowledge, wisdom and experience in all its rich and complex diversity. That includes a “category X” for encounters with mystery, ambiguity, plurality and paradox. Not everything is Black or White.

An Encompassing Perspective will seek to cultivate the whole person — to care for the body, soul, heart, mind, will and spirit. It will seek to tend to the totality of life — including our relationships with family and friends, work and leisure, culture and society, the visible and the invisible. It will explore all the vital domains of cultural literacy and civil society–including philosophy and religion, history and literature, arts and sciences, economics and politics.

And in all of these it will see the continual interplay between the moods and movements of Comedy, Romance, Tragedy and Irony. Childhood is the season of comedy, whimsy, and ludic play. Youth and young adulthood is the season of Romance, Passion and Intimacy. Mid-life is the season of Tragedy, Challenge, and Courage. Elderhood is the Season of Irony, Reversal and Paradox. May we strive to become “men and women for all seasons.”

 

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On the Various Ways of Philosophers, Scientists, Literati, Artists…and Mystics

whole_brain_model

It can be argued that the historical period known as “modernity” was dominated by the intellectual domains of Philosophy and Science and that the period known as “post-modernity” has granted a greater primacy of influence to Literature and the Arts, along with the influence of the Political and Social Sciences. It is my view that Philosophy, Science, Literature and the Arts, along with the shape-shifting wild-card of Religion and Spirituality, and the ambitious newcomers of Psychology and Sociology are the separate yet overlapping domains that constitute the variegated and complex  intellectual and cultural tradition  our western civilization, and that each of these domains has a valuable contribution to make.

During the reign of modernity it was Philosophy and Science that shared the throne, with philosophy gradually surrendering the thrown to Science. Both Philosophy and Science were in search of Grand Theories of Everything, but they went about the search in different ways. Continental philosophy in particular begins with abstract metaphysical categories, whether of Kant or Hegel.

Natural and Physical Science begins with classifying the various types of minerals, vegetation, animals and Homo sapiens — from early to late formation, from symbol to complex. It has no need to metaphysical categories. The physical categories will do just fine.  E.O. Wilson offers a Scientistic Theory of Everything in which he maintains that the real and rational world may be reduced to what can be known by the physical and natural sciences, and that the other domains of knowledge and opinion, whether philosophy, religion, psychology, sociology, literature or the arts can best be explained in terms of the laws and patterns that govern the physical and natural world.

For those endowed with a literary and artistic cast of mind, neither the methods of rational philosophy and of empirical science are both unsatisfying and insufficient. Literary and artistic types are less interested in abstract philosophical categories of “being” and abstract scientific taxonomies of “species” than they are in the unique, complex, ambiguous, many-sided, nuanced and idiosyncratic individual.  The genius of Shakespeare exemplifies this sensibility, as Jonathan Bate points out in his books, “The Genius of Shakespeare,” and “Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare.” Literary critic Harold Bloom locates Shakespeare at the center of the Western Literary Canon. Bloom writes in the spirit of Shakespeare in his book, “Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds.” Bloom uses the Mystical Esoteric Kabbala as a complex template for exploring various writers with family resemblances.” Quoting Emerson who said he “read for the lusters,” Bloom groups his exemplary writers into twenty “lusters.” For Bloom as for Shakespeare there are more things in heaven and earth than are contained in our philosophies..and our sciences.

The point is not that literary and artistically minded persons like Bloom do not themselves use abstract templates, categories, rubrics and taxonomies to classify various kinds of writers and artists, for they most surely do. But what is of greatest interest to writers and artists is not the general rubric or category but “the particular and unique individual and his story.” What Bloom and other literati are doing when they write about many authors and artists is to use both hemispheres of the brain — the rational and the imaginative, the convergent and divergent, the general and the particular, the analytical and the existential.

It now becomes more clear why literati and artists prefer local concrete narratives to grand abstract narratives. The best writers and artists give us a vivid sensation, intensified perception and heightened awareness of immediate experience within the web of our relationships with ourselves and between other human beings, the natural world, and the mystery of being. And that is why we need literature and art, because abstract philosophical categories of ontology and scientific rubrics of taxonomical classification are not enough to sustain the soul that thrives in the midst of mystery, ambiguity, plurality and paradox, or what the literary critic Lionel Trilling called “variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.”

For the post-modern sensibility, it is literature, linguistics, literary criticism and social criticism that play the central epistemological role. Richard Rorty is is exemplary of this view. He is a neo-pragmatist whose central themes are Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. He combined “private irony” and “liberal hope.” For Rorty as for Bloom the commanding authorities of rational philosophy and empirical science are replaced by what Bloom called “the stong poet.”

Literati and artists rely upon local narratives and creative artifacts to “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” and are wary of the pretensions of rationalism and scientism when philosophers and scientists claim to have found Grand Theories of Everything. Our creative writers and  artists have different fish to fry, yet perhaps it is not too much to hope that one day our philosophers, scientists, poets and artists may make good fishing buddies.

What is at the root of the differences between the ways that philosophers, scientists, poets and artists experience life and seek to understand and explore it? Among other things it may have to do with brain quadrant preferences. I know, another theory, though not quite a Grand Theory of Everything. The chart at the top of this blog suggests why these four cultures tend to talk past each other. Their sensory, emotive and cognitive processes simply work in different ways. Each type chooses to emphasize certain things and  minimize the rest. What about Facts, Form, Feelings and Future? Facts correlates with the scientific way. Form correlates with the philosophical way. Feelings correlates with the literary and artistic way.

But what about the Emergent Future, or for that matter the Historical Past and  Present Moment? It seems to me that the “Future” in the four quadrant model at the top of this blog correlates with the Transcendental Perspective of the Visionary Intuitive. The Visionary Intuitive may be associated culturally and religiously with the archetypal Shaman, Druid, Sage, Mystic, Priest, Prophet and Evangelist,  whose functions are to use insight, illumination, ritual, tradition, memory and hope to integrate the complementary functions of Facts, Forms and Feelings into a synoptic vision of the wholeness of life within the Unity of Being. Are not each of these  also expressions of “the Strong Poet?”

As it turns out, the Philosopher, Scientist, Literati and Artist need one more companion for the road, the Visionary Intuitive with a Transcendental Perspective who appreciates the “languages” of Facts, Forms and Feelings, and who integrates them with a “tacit knowlede” of the Historical Past, the Eternal Now, and the Emergent Future.