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Irony and Clerisy

Introduction: Irony and Clerisy

Deborah Elise White, Columbia University

  1. The topic for this volume in the Romantic Circles Praxis Series was intended as something of an experiment. My initial impulse in soliciting articles under the heterogenous rubrics of "irony" and "clerisy" was to consider each in the nature of a metonymy for broader generic and ideological questions raised in romantic writing. I suggested irony as a stand-in, so to speak, for the romantic topoi of self-conciousness and self-division: contradiction, fragmentation, dissolution. I suggested clerisy as a stand-in for the seemingly rather different romantic topoi of high-culture and high-mindedness: institutionalization, historicization, stabilization.

  2. Of course, the aporias of irony turn out to be, in many ways, the inevitable condition of clerical intervention and authority, even as the call for such intervention and authority testifies to an ironic consciousness that their influence can by no means be assumed. In conjoining these categories, I suppose (as do, I think, the authors of the articles that follow) that once they are set in motion, the interest lies in their profound interrelatedness and interdependence. The essays gathered together here explore such connections in a variety of ways that I shall take note of towards the close of this introduction, but I first take an editor's liberty of offering a brief sketch of the manner in which the two words have come into constellation within my own reading of romanticism.

  3. Both "irony" and "clerisy" emerge into peculiar discursive prominence during the romantic era. Irony's provenance as a rhetorical term dates back to antiquity, but its usage receives a new birth through the theorizing of Friedrich Schlegel, emerging in his writing as something rather different than the "merely" rhetorical strategy through which one says one thing and means another. For Schlegel (and in his wake) the divide that characterizes its traditional rhetorical definition becomes an allusive point of departure for rethinking the divided nature of discursivity and subjectivity both. "Clerisy" is Coleridge's coinage for a learned class of (more or less) state functionaries responsible for the preservation and dissemination of the national heritage. The role of such a class—its centrality and importance to the nation-state—is developed in various ways, theoretical and practical, throughout the nineteenth century and, in Britain, usually with explicit reference to Coleridge's formulation (see Knight, Prickett, and Readings).

  4. One way in which these two seemingly heterogeneous strands of romantic discourse come to be linked occurs thematically through the concept of Bildung or cultivation. In Schlegel's words "Bildung ist antithetische Synthesis, und Vollendung bis zur Ironie . . . " ("Cultivation is antithetical synthesis and perfection to the point of irony . . ." [quoted in Behler 98, my translation]). Irony for Schlegel plays many roles not the least of which is to designate the human capacity for playing many roles. The ironist stands away from himself. He arrives at perfection to the point of irony—to the point, that is, of reflection and reversal. Perhaps the best shorthand translation for specialists in British romanticism would be Keats's negative capability. Like negative capability, Schlegelian irony posits the projection of multiple identities in the absence of any one fixed identity. Keats associates this explicitly with the "poetical Character" (Keats 418), but for Schlegel all character is properly or, in its ironic (im)perfection, poetic. The notebook entry quoted above concludes:

    Bei einem Menschen, der eine gewisse Höhe und Universalität der Bildung erreicht hat, ist sein Innres eine fortgehende Kette der ungeheuersten Revolutionen.

    For a man who has achieved a certain height and universality of cultivation, his inner being is an ongoing chain of the most enormous revolutions. (Behler 98)

    Irony is the impossibility of arriving at the end of this process—i.e. the impossibility of being cultured.[1] For just this reason, it is cultivation's antithetical condition of possibility.

  5. The figure of "revolutions" evokes the radical provocation of such aphorisms for the business of Bildung—that is, for the production and reproduction of culture. The ongoing chain of irony must, to be genuinely ongoing and genuinely ironic, include itself as one of its links. "What gods will be able to save us from all these ironies?" Irony ends, as Schlegel himself writes, as "irony of irony," a fate from which no (human) history can escape: (Schulte-Sasse 125). This has been the emphasis of most contemporary readings of Schlegel. One of the most influential and uncompromising versions is still Paul de Man's: "absolute irony is a consciousness of madness, itself the end of all consciousness; it is a consiousness of a non-consciousness, a reflection on madness from the inside of madness itself . . . " (De Man 216).[2] Reading Schlegel as a (theoretical) revolutionary, one finds that the theory of irony ironizes even the acts of reflection that make irony possible.

  6. To cultivate the self is, in effect, to discover that there is no self to cultivate. From a pedagogical point of view, in particular, to do it right is to get it wrong. The institutional forces of education and learning—for which Coleridge coined the term clerisy—must operate precisely in the space of this paradox. Irony constitutes the crisis of the clerisy. At the same time, and as it were ironically, clerisy represents itself as the resolution of that crisis. In Fichte's words, the scholar's vocation is to "supervise and promote" (Breazeale 173) the ongoing Bildung of all classes even as he continues on his own progress of unending development. (That is, he is supposed to teach and do research). The asymptotic narrative is recognizably the same as Schlegel's, but the goal to which it approaches is rather different: "absolute unity, constant self-identity, complete agreement with oneself" (Breazeale, 149). One does not have to be more than an average dialectician to see that the difference may amount to less than it appears. Nevertheless, for most contemporary readers, irony names an interruption of the authority laid claim to by secular and not so secular clerics whose vocation is to guarantee the continuity of culture in the face of the most enormous (or, as one might also translate ungeheuerste, the most monstrous) of revolutions. Clerisy presumably would like to lay such monsters to rest. The "cultivation, in the harmonious development of those qualities and faculties that characterise our humanity," is, in Coleridge's words, the guarantee of a "continuing" socio-political compact: "We must be men in order to be citizens" (Coleridge, 42-43, his emphasis).

  7. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that an identity-oriented or traditionalist concept of the clerisy operates without its own quite deliberate ironies. The very project of instituting a social class responsible for culture bespeaks a certain ironic consciousness in and of that culture. Coleridge's account of the "idea" of the clerisy in On the Constitution of Church and State is thoroughly ironic, if by irony one means the deliberate conjoining in one form of two absolutely irreconcilable intentions (a definition that is, at least, very close to Schlegel's "antithetical synthesis," [cf. Albert]). Coleridge's "translation" of Fichte (Hartman, 208) develops the nationalist dimension of Fichte's cultural project quite explicitly, but in doing so it also situates national culture against the antithetical horizon of Christianity. What On the Constitution of Church and State calls the "national church" comprehends "the learned of all denominations:"

    -- the sages and professors of the law and jurisprudence; of medicine and physiology; of music; of military and civil architecture; of the physical sciences; with the mathematical as the common organ of the preceding; in short, all the so called liberal arts and sciences, the possession and application of which constitute the civilization of a country, as well as the Theological. (Coleridge 46)

    Theology is not one among many, but the "head of all" the liberal arts and sciences (46), and yet the reason Coleridge gives for its place in the heirachy of learning is anything but theological. If theology "of good right [claims] the precedence," it does so on an entirely philological basis:

    Because under the name of Theology, or Divinity, were contained the interpretation of languages; the conservation and tradition of past events; the momentous epochs, and revolutions of the race and nation; the continuation of the records; logic, ethics, and the determination of ethical science, in application to the rights and duties of men in all their various relations, social and civil; and lastly, the ground-knowledge, the prima scientia as it was named,—PHILOSOPHY, of the doctrine and discipline of ideas. (Coleridge 46-47)
  8. These are long passages, and I propose no more here than to remark how thoroughly secular Coleridge's vision of the national "church" is (a tribute, one should add, to the earnestness of his Christianity). Theology matters because the "SCIENCE" of theology stands at the origin of the secular disciplines. To associate its spiritual or "sacerdotal" function with its national one "is to be considered as . . . a mis-growth of ignorance and oppression." At the same time, Coleridge refuses to make the final disciplinary cut, one that would separate sacred and profane truths with all due finality. On the contrary, he insists at several points that without reference to the sacerdotal, all other sciences would be reduced to so much empiricism and utilitarianism. There can be no national church without an other church, antithetical to the nation-state, antithetical even to the very idea of the nation-state, as its quasi-teleological framework. I write "quasi" teleological only to emphasize that actually to arrive at the telos would be, for Coleridge, to regress into "ignorance and oppression." (The structural affinities with Fichte and Schlegel are evident.) From the point of view of the nation, religion is a productive blind spot. Though, of course, from the point of view of religion, it is the nation that sees through a glass darkly.

  9. Institutionally, the interplay of theology and nation-state is embodied in Coleridge's vision of a specifically Anglican clerisy. The guardians of culture not only may but must be embodied in the sacerdotal figure. England, of course, is peculiarly fortunate in that its national church is also a Christian one, but in any case priestly authority must be responsible for the heterogenous though interdependent functions of national and spiritual well-being:

    . . . two distinct functions do not necessarily imply or require two different functionaries. Nay, the perfection of each may require the union of both in the same person. And in the instance now in question, great and grievous errors have arisen from confounding the functions; and fearfully great and grievous will be the evils from the success of an attempt to separate them . . . (Coleridge 57)

    The logic is that of both/and. The clerisy as the guardian not just of the state's civilization (that is, its material development) but as Coleridge repeatedly insists of its culture (its philosophical and moral development) must always be, as it were, in touch with a noumenol realm "outside" the nation if it is indeed to arrive at anything approaching culture. And yet that realm must never be equated with the cultural mission of the nation-state as such. Practically, to do so would be to equate transcendental conditions of morality to the particular mores of a time and place—at an extreme, to institute not a clerisy but an inquisition. Even ideally, Coleridge cannot permit himself to imagine such an end to his project, for it would lose its antithetical and productive power (cf. Prickett 268-269). Human history and divine providence would be at all times and everywhere the same.

  10. The irony of Coleridgean clerisy lies in the thoroughly secular nature of its defense of theology. It also lies in the thoroughly theological ground of its secular ideals. More precisely, it lies in the impossibility and the necessity of bringing these together. The choice of the word irony to describe On the Constitution of Church and State may always seem a bit counter-intuitive. It is far from an amusing read—Coleridge could not be more in earnest—but romantic irony is no joke. I refer again to Schlegel, this time on Socratic irony in the Lyceum: "It contains and arouses a feeling of indissoluble antagonism betwen the absolute and the relative, between the impossibility and the necessity of complete communication" (Schlegel 13). Linking "irony" and "clerisy" draws out the structure of fundamental "antagonism" that they share. In this context, too, it becomes clear that irony is not so much the crisis of clerisy or clerisy a response to that crisis as that both are negotiations of antithetical structures that can be traced across boundaries of discursivity and subjectivity, culture and theology, philosophy and poetry.

  11. Such negotiations are the topic of the four essays that follow. All are variegated and nuanced in ways that the telegraphic summaries of an introduction cannot hope to convey. One rather marked difference, however, between all of them and my own formulations lies in the greater prominence they give to political questions and concepts. Adam Carter's "'Insurgent Governments': Romantic Irony and the Theory of the State" specifically traces the relation between Schlegel's theory of irony and his theory of the state. It suggests, too, the tensions—productive but also dangerous—between an ironic dialectic of political pluralism and the impositions of arbitrary authority that bring it to a halt even in the relatively early writings of the Lyceum and Athenaeum fragments. The next two essays take up quite explicitly the question of political apostasy that, I think, hovers in the margins of Carter's discussion of Schlegel. More particularly, they take up the political turn from revolutionary to reactionary that constitutes the narrative irony of so many romantic trajectories. Charles Mahoney's "The Multeity of Coleridgean Apostasy" reads Coleridge's own working through of "apostasy" as the very principle of vacillation against which and yet through which his thought takes shape. Mahoney suggests apostasy as a uniquely Coleridgean translation of Schlegelian irony: a falling away from any (possibility of) foundational or static principles, that is all too often misread—even by Coleridge himself—as the foundation for yet another stance. Linda Brigham's "Alastor, Apostasy, and the Ecology of Criticism," reads Shelley's poem as offering an analysis of just such ironies of apostasy especially as they shape Shelley's own reading of Wordsworth. In Alastor, Shelley dramatizes a tale of two poets to explore how a Wordsworthian opposition to an earlier or an other self (a perfection taken to the point of irony) produces the mirror image of what it opposes. This reading of the poem brings it into closer conjunction with later Shelley works such as Prometheus Unbound, but Brigham also implicates contemporary literary criticism and theoretical debate in a similarly structured dialectic of opposition and identity. In Shelley, she finds a different model of reading and writing, one whose point of departure includes a sheer "communication of pleasure" that (in Shelley's view) Wordsworth has replaced with a symmetrical discourse of sympathy that can all too easily give way to ideology and totalization. This threat is reflected (in Brigham's view) in the totalizing implications, whether sympathetic or oppositional, of much academic debate. The concluding essay, Forest Pyle's "'Frail Spells': Shelley and the Ironies of Exile" takes up similar problems, but situates them in relation to Shelley's rhetoric of exile. Pyle argues that Shelley can be productively read as deriving a powerful and liberatory language of critique both from his position of exile from Britain and from a supplementary critique of the concepts of nation and homeland that underwrite that position. The dialectic of contemporary criticism that would recuperate exile—or "diaspora"—as a position of authoritative critique fails to take such a supplementary critique of exile into account—a mistake that Shelley, in Pyle's reading, does not make. Shelly's "exile" operates, therefore, as a limit case of "epistemological irony so extensive that it disqualifies the claims of any clerisy to escape it." As in Brigham's reading, Shelley is used as a lens through which to focus on debates in contemporary criticism, though the emphasis is on the remainders of knowledge rather than those of pleasure. In a broader sense, all four of the pieces gathered here reflect an interest in "irony" and "clerisy" not only as historical artifacts but as historical forces at once enabling and disrupting the antithetical structuring of an ongoing scholarly, critical, and pedagogical Bildung.


    1 Bildung takes in a world of translations. It is cultivation or formation, and still more specifically "liberal education leading to self-development," (Hartman 34). For Schlegel, a more or less normative definition of its aims may be found in Fichte's definition of Cultur as a harmonious oneness between man's rational and sensuous nature:

    Insofar as man is considered as a rational, sensuous creature, then culture [Cultur] is the ultimate and highest means of his final goal: complete harmony with himself ... Man's ultimate and supreme goal is complete harmony wth himself and -- so that he can be in harmony with himself -- the harmony of all external things with his own necessary, practical concepts of them (i.e. with those concepts which determine how things ought to be. (Breazeale 150; Fichte 298-299)

    Schlegel's aphoristic notation with its emphasis on antithesis and irony obviously puts a certain amount of pressure on this norm, and on Fichte's figure of harmony (Übereinstimmung) in particular, but his fundamental assumptions are similar.

    2 Strictly speaking, the passage I am quoting refers to Baudelaire. Later in the essay De Man equates Baudelaire's absolute irony to Schlegel's (De Man 220-221).

    Works Cited

    Albert, Georgia. "Understanding Irony: Three Essais on Friedrich Schlegel." MLN 108 (1993): 825-848.

    Behler, Ernst. Klassische Ironie, Romantische Ironie, Tragische Ironie. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1972.

    Breazeale, Daniel, Ed. and trans. Fichte: Early Philosophical Writings. Ithaca: Cornel UP, 1988.

    Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. On The Constitution of Church and State. Ed. John Colmer. Princeton: U of Princeton P, 1976. Vol. 10 of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 14 vols. to date.

    de Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

    Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. Sämmtliche Werke. Berlin: Veit und Comp., 1845.

    Hartman, Geoffrey H. The Fateful Question of Culture. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.

    Keats, John. John Keats. Ed. Elizabeth Cook. The Oxford Authors. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.

    Prickett, Stephen. "Coleridge and the Idea of the Clerisy." Reading Coleridge: Approaches and Applications. Ed. Walter B. Crawford. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979. 252-273.

    Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996.

    Schlegel, Friedrich. Philosophical Fragments. Trans. Peter Firchow. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991.

    Schulte-Sasse, Jochen, et al., ed. and trans. Theory as Practice: A Critical Anthology of Early German Romantic Writings. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.

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August 1999