S’il se vante, je l’abaisse; s’il s’abaisse, je le vante; et le contredis toujours, jusqu’à ce qu’il comprenne qu’il est un monstre incompréhensible.*
Ironizing is taking what a man supposes himself to be and making him see himself as its opposite. Contradiction in speech will reveal contrariety in being for the benefit of the one contradicted. And this benefit, the goal of the method, is not found in resolving a tension but in revealing it. The method does not untangle knots but pulls them tight so that they cannot be ignored.
In the end, what does this do for a man? Does it make him happy? strong? long-living? In most cases, no. What does it do, then?
The method of ironizing sets a man apart from himself—that is, from his pretenses and constructed self-image. It undermines what he calls his own and his “self,” and yet it does not prompt him to flippantly leave himself behind in despair. Undermining self, according to this method, fends off deception, especially self-deception, for the sake of commitment to an ideal, a virtue, a good, the good. The Protestant reformers called it coming into “sin-consciousness,” the awareness that one has missed the mark one was aiming for, or should have been aiming for. The next step is either retreat or recommitment.
From the perspective of biblical Christianity, repentance is impossible for anyone who has not taken part in the consecration of irony, and no one can commit himself to the narrow way without defacing his pretenses—that is, his self-made images of God and of self.
What if John the Baptist and Jesus were employing the method of ironizing? Its power as a hermeneutic is amazing: What if “The Sermon on the Mount” were interpreted with this kind of pretense-contradicting irony in mind?
* From Pensées §420 (130). Translated: “If he exalts himself, I bring him low. If he lowers himself, I exalt him. And I go on contradicting him until he comprehends that he is an incomprehensible monster.”