Decadence is typically associated with a fall from, or an opposition to, ideals of civilization. Western Civilization traditionally traces its roots to the culture of Ancient Greece. While theorists of periodicity from Vico to Nietzsche and Deleuze, to Hayden White and other contemporary scholars, associate decadence with excess, artificiality and over-indulgence, they also recognize that decadence often incorporates pre-civilized, base or “Other” tendencies. Paradoxically, decadence as a degeneration of an original culture’s values can also rejuvenate that culture’s core values through mutation so that a new version of the original culture arises. In literature, degeneration has also been associated with the master trope of irony. Throughout ages when language fails to capture reality, or reality and ideals clash in other ways, irony results. Self-consciousness, for example, is inherently ironic, and could be set in contrast to “Golden Age” literature, in which master tropes such as metonymy and synecdoche dominate. Perhaps one of the first instances of a decadent character in Western literature was Plato’s Socrates, whose irony appears throughout the Dialogues as dissembling. If this is one of Socrates’ key characteristics, could it be why philosophy has been categorized as pre- and post-Socratic? Here I examine how Socratic irony relates to degenerative aspects of Greek society; better determine what we mean by the “Western” tradition that is supposed to have begun during the fifth century; and suggest that a society, a literature, or an individual must encounter an affirmative or positive irony to turn from degeneration to regeneration.
Adler, Daniel R
"Socrates the Degenerate: Irony as Trope of Decadence."
CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture
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