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· An Ironic Turning Place ·

I drove up to Redmond last week to attend a Microsoft event. A book discussion, it came near to the day, ironically enough, that Wayne Booth, author of The Rhetoric of Fiction and A Rhetoric of Irony, passed away — the Chicago critic whose work lays solid claim to grasping ironically "unreliable narrators."

Our Wednesday discussion dealt with one such, David Wilson, the curator of The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. The book we discussed, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology (1995), examines the MJT and puts me in mind of the odd serendipity of my topical connection there: the strange, perhaps ironic fact that Wilson's museum occupies an old L. A. barber shop I haunted as a kid in the 1940s.

But it is the larger topic — almost as Booth discusses it — of irony itself that matters here; for in Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler extends Booth's fine take on irony by noting a Rilke quote drawn from the Letters to a Young Poet — one happily fit in his text to the thought that "The first layers are just a filter"*:

Irony: Do not let yourself be governed by it [Rilke writes], especially not in uncreative moments. In creative moments try to make use of it as one more means of grasping life. Cleanly used, it too is clean, and one need not be ashamed of it; and if you feel you are getting too familiar with it, if you fear this growing intimacy with it, then turn to great and serious objects, before which it becomes small and helpless. See the depth of things: thither irony never descends — and when you come thus close to the edge of greatness, test out at the same time whether this ironic attitude springs from a necessity of your nature. For under the influence of serious things it will fall from you (if it is something fortuitous), or else it will (if it really innately belongs to you) strengthen into a stern instrument and take its place in the series of tools with which you will have to shape your art. As quoted in Lawrence Weschler, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology, New York: Pantheon, 1995, 113-114.

Though I can't begin to mark the richness of Wilson's place — much less that of Weschler's fine book — I can at least mark a modest effort, made some twenty years ago now, to examine another American artist, Henry James, in his short story "The Real Thing." It too dwells in the ironic slip between reality and appearance, and I thought to include it.

I've some added notes, but it's offered here as drafted — not under the influence of Wayne Booth but that of Paul de Man — as an early, academic effort toward deconstructive anti-deconstructive theory. Should that sound like a bunch of "unreliable narration," I'll let you, of course, be the judge.

As Figaro (a.k.a. Jay Heinrich) just reminded me from my latest post, Figurative Rhetoric: A Ringing Endorsement, the name of my short essay is It Figures. Enjoy.

*In context, Wilson has told Weschler (on p. 62) "I don't understand the difference [between aesthetically and ethically just men]" :

"You know, certain aspects of this museum you can peel away very easily, but the reality behind, once you peel away those relatively easy layers, is more amazing still than anything those initial layers purport to be. The first layers are just a filter . . . "


Re: The Museum of Jurassic Technology (esp., the Current Developments link — which I cannot reproduce here). Is this guy serious?

Posted by Loretta Markle on October 26, 2005 02:55 PM

The MacArthur Foundation at least thinks so, since Mr. Wilson won, in 2001, $500,000 since used to enlarge the MJT.

It must be nice to be a genius.

Perhaps his Tea Room and Kabinet Theater are MacArthur additions.

Posted by Styles on October 26, 2005 03:39 PM

At your recommendation, Styles, I bought Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder. Whether genius or eccentric, whether reliable or not, Wilson writes beautifully!

Posted by Loretta Markle on October 28, 2005 09:07 AM

That's Weschler, of course — and I agree.

Posted by Styles on October 28, 2005 10:14 AM

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