Thursday 25 February 2010

Request for help: John Webster on irony

Not much posting over the past few days: we've been moving house this week, and (to be honest) I've also felt a little dismal after my recent post on libraries. I liked that post very much, but I'm not sure I'll ever be able to write a better post – and that gives me the blues.

Anyway, today I need to appeal to my learned readers for some help. In my article on blogging (which is about to be printed in Cultural Encounters), I quote John Webster's remark that irony is "a sickness of the spirit". I was away from my books when I wrote the paper, so I just quoted this from memory, and I also provided a reference from memory (I felt sure it was from his "Theological Theology" essay in Confessing God). So I was checking the proofs yesterday, and I realised that this reference was incorrect. Now I'm starting to doubt whether Webster ever said such a thing. Did I dream it? Was it perhaps something I heard in a conference paper by Webster? Does anyone know of a place where he describes irony as a "sickness of the spirit"? If so, please help me out!

For your interest, here's the paragraph in which this (mis)quotation occurs – I'm discussing the playfulness of online theology:

One catches a glimpse here of what Karl Barth called the jollity of theology. When we speak truth, it should make a “joyful and pleasant sound”; “the theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all.” Of course, there is also a troubling side to such playfulness: one see this wherever a serious question or critique is brushed off with a friendly witticism, instead of being seriously engaged; or where our talk about God becomes marked by an ironic distance. John Webster is rather too severe when he describes irony as “a sickness of the spirit”, but he is surely right to see that ironic detachment is by no means identical with joy, and that an ironic stance may be hard to reconcile with the intense subjective involvement which theology demands.


David W. Congdon said...

The closest thing I can find is this statement from Confessing God:

"To confess in the words of a credal formula is to acknowledge that there are times in the life of the church when indifference, irony, hesitation or scruple are false spiritual stances, and that the church's relation to the truth requires the adoption of a position and the publication of that position in an act of loyalty." ("Confession and Confessions," p. 76)

David W. Congdon said...

There's also this line from Ronald Hall's book, Word and Spirit: A Kierkegaardian Critique of the Modern Age, where he says:

"For Kierkegaard 'romantic irony' is a sickness of the spirit..." (p. 117).

Andrew Esqueda said...

Couldn't find anything. Sorry Ben.

Anna Blanch said...

@ David: Does Hall say where Kierkegaard said it?

Justin Lewis-Anthony said...

Might it be Jacobean Webster?

Kremel Herd said...

I don't have the full-text of this available to me, but you might check

Webster, J B. "Thoughts on Prometheus Rebound : The Irony of Atheism." Toronto Journal of Theology 7.2 (1991): 226.

I just did a search in ATLA's Religion Database for "irony" and Webster, J B. in the author field.

Anonymous said...

After a thorough literature review, I can tell you unequivocally that Webster does not use irony in any of his works.

Lugioyo said...

Ben, I would just e-mail John and ask him if he did indeed say such a thing and if he didn't ask him if he would be willing to reply to you in an e-mail with the quotation "irony is a sickness of spirit" which you then could quote from your private correspondence. Then you would have the citation by him either way.



J said...

Doesn't Aquinas classify irony as a species of...Mendacity? --following Aug., I believe. Perhaps venial, but nevertheless, falsity.

Then, considering irony as a species of comedy, any anti-irony campaigns (end Seinfeld reruns, now!) would be bad for business, whether entertainment, or the usual daytime Teevee yukfest.

Anonymous said...

John Webster is rather too severe when, in a dream I had, he describes irony as “a sickness of the spirit”...

Unknown said...

Your post on libraries was very, very good, but you have WAY better posts ahead. when you 'paint your masterpiece' we'll be there cheering you on..

Anonymous said...

I think it was a comment Webster made to a graduate student in 1996, expressing his regret about tapping his foot to that Alanis Morrissette radio hit.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for all these suggestions: I especially liked Brian's idea! Anyway just when I had nearly given up hope, I received the answer in the following email from Dennis Hou:

Citation info: "Biblical Reasoning." Anglican Theological Review, Volume 90, Issue 4, Fall 2008, p. 733-751. Second-to-last sentence, page 751.

For your convenience, the last paragraph plus some bold: "May it not be that what afflicts some of the church in its present hermeneutical gridlock is a disorder of the passions, a destructive instability which will not allow itself to be drawn into the self-abandonment (intellectual, moral, political) which is the only way in which redemption will have its way with us? One of the deepest fault lines in the church at the present time runs between those who do their theological reasoning on the basis of a conviction that in Scripture the breath of the divine Word quickens reason to knowledge and love of God, and those who fear (or hope?) that neither Scripture nor reason takes us any further than human poetics. The latter choice generates irony and squabbling, and both of these are sicknesses of the soul. The former is more persuasively present than it has been for some long while, and we should seize the day."

(And while the language is surely Kierkegaardian, I'm sure you're aware the sentiment disregards the dialectical nature of the Dane's analysis, which contrasts with Hegel's reduction of irony to sickness and posits a contrast of the Romantic notion with Socrates's--one thinks of the nuance analogously earned by Sloterdijk on cynicism, or, somewhat less materially parallel, Benjamin on melancholy.)


Many thanks to Dennis! Since this is a journal article which explores some of the virtues of blog-communities, it's fitting that I would receive this timely help via the blog. Even the article's footnotes were a collective project!

bruce said...

@Anonymous also I am sure there is another reference to irony in Webster (over and above the one Ben found)... I distinctly remember Christopher Holmes mentioning it in a lecture last year in Dunedin... must look it up in my work computer ... something to do with theology as irony - subversive of dominant culture... sorry my memory is too vague

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