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This review is taken from PN Review 57, Volume 14 Number 1, September - October 1987.

COMMUNITY OF MEANING Gary J. Handwerk: Irony and Ethics in Narrative: From Schlegel to Lacan (Yale University Press) £21.00

Gary Handwerk's ambitious book seeks to steer discussion of narrative away from the rhetorical or aesthetic domains, towards the realm of ethics. The act of reading, for Handwerk, can never be a neutral activity, 'a place of impartial and detached observation', but is 'a realm of practical ethical interpretation'. He shows why this is so in his introduction, and in his first chapter on Friedrich Schlegel. He summarizes at least four distinct types of irony, and borrows from Schlegel the concept of 'ethical irony', which is to be the central preoccupation of his book. This is an irony which 'focuses on how verbal incompatibilities set up and provoke a deeper interrogation of self-consciousness', by foregrounding the question of the identity of 'the human subject'. Ethical irony is specific in that it shows that any answer to the question of subjectivity can only be found in dialogue with other human subjects; the subject - be she writer, thinker, or fictional character - is returned continually to the community, as the essential fund and forum of any possible aesthetic significance, and any provisional sense of 'self-identity'.

Handwerk traces the twists and turns of Schlegel's thought as it develops a notion of irony, and he finally locates ethical irony, most powerfully, at the point where the actual term disappears He shows how Schlegel's concept of 'conscience' 'exhibits precisely those traits I have been arguing are central to ironic self-consciousness'. Irony, in Schlegel's terms, is a humanizing force, mediating between the ...


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