As a student at the academy of arts in Arnhem, I followed the additional theoretical Honours Programme for which I conducted research into Romantic Irony. The video below shows a presentation about the research in the starting phase of the project. Below that, you will find a summary of the research paper I wrote entitled “Romantic Irony Now”. If you are interested in reading the whole paper please contact me at wnvanravenhorst[at]gmail.com
Presentation of Progress in Research Project about Romantic Irony.
During my studies at ArtEZ Arnhem, I was a student of the Honours Programme. A theoretical programme which could be followed alongside the regular course. I had come across some interesting ideas while reading for the philosophy lessons, which held my biggest interest. One term especially intrigued me, and that was ‘Romantic Irony’. I decided to do more research into this term and it appeared that it was a very complicated idea. The more I got to know about it, the more complicated it seemed to become. On top of this, it appeared that a lot of misconceptions surrounded the term as well, so I really had to dive into all the theory around it to figure out what it actually meant. Eventually, my research focused on explaining what Romantic irony actually meant, including explaining away the misconceptions surrounding it. I built up a historical framework to be able to explain how the term could come to be named. Then I focused on the figure that was most important in writing about Romantic Irony, which was Friedrich Schlegel. I then tried to show that the term was still relevant nowadays, with regard to art.
What I found in my research was…
First of all it is important to note that Romantic Irony is not a stylistic device, but an ontology, doctrine, an attitude towards life. It was German writer and philosopher Friedrich Schlegel who turned it into an ontology by applying it to life as a whole, not just literature, and calling it romantic irony. I also put the term in a historical framework. Because of the French Revolution, people had become disappointed in reason, which as opposed to harmony, had only created terror. People also began to realise that contradictions and changes were simply part of life and that there wasn’t one answer or solution for that. The romantics decided that the world had to be romanticised. They embraced the paradoxical character of nature and life, and the only way they could do this without falling into despair, was by implementing the ingredient of irony. The realisation of the unfulfillability of life thus became ironic in stead of tragic. Romantic Irony appeared to have a clear function to keep people from drowning in the tragedy of the new realisation of the unfulfillability of everything.
But it is more complicated than that. Schlegel says that every utterance is finite, but comes from an infinite perspective, which means you can never say anything truthful. So there is always movement, process, but never anything that can be absolutely true. Romantic Irony thus is not only a means (of not falling into despair) but also a goal. It shows that it is the unfulfillability that is the beauty of desire. This way you can take distance and transcend it. The attitude you take towards this, is to follow this desire with the knowledge that it is impossible to fulfil this desire.
Furthermore, I wanted to try to prove and show that Romantic Irony isn’t bound to the historical period of romanticism. The romantics themselves named Socrates and other writers who were active way before them as people using romantic irony. Also after romanticism, romantic irony keeps cropping up, not only in writers, but also in the work of visual artists and composers.
Speaking of nowadays, it seems that there are a lot of comparisons between romantic irony and meta modernism, which is a text published recently by the two philosophers Van den Akker en Vermeulen from Nijmegen, about the state of the arts. The attitude they describe in this, artists taking this attitude, very much resembles one of romantic irony. So artists today are again adopting the attitude of romantic irony.
Romantic Irony is the manifestation of the process of questioning, trying, endeavouring, doing, etc. without taking into account the fact that this might not lead to anything.