December 3, 2012

Steve Mason on Irony/Josephus*

(*For the hopeful takeaway towards my own research in Matthew, skim to bottom.)

I've been re-reading Steve Mason's chapter in Flavius Josephus and Flavian Rome, called "Figured Speech and Irony in T. Flavius Josephus". It's amazing how the same piece can be so much more helpful when much reflection goes on between first and second reviews. Anyway, here's what I got this time around:

Ancient people were "partial to figured speech" but modern ironologists find definition impossible. The most elusive forms of Irony involve "saying something without saying it". Of course, doing so effectively depends on having a clued-in observer, so the writer's challenge is how to clue them in, and the analyst's challenge is how to determine where/when the game is afoot.

The two types of irony (in literature) are text-dependent irony and audience-dependent irony. Mason explains carefully:
Text-dependent irony is the simpler and less risky of the two forms. An author wants to ensure that an audience, or an indefinite number of audiences, will detect his intended irony. So he frames the ironic story within an authoritative statement, for the audience alone, of facts unknown to characters in the story.
...
The most famous [non-comedic] example is probably the Gospel of John, which includes an authoritative divine prologue (John 1:1-18) concerning Jesus' heavenly origin... The repeated claims of ignorant characters in the story to certain knowledge of Jesus' origins (John 2:45-6; 6:42; 7:41-3) are devestating because the audience - any audience at any time - knows otherwise. 
Audience dependent irony is what the ancient critics had in mind when they discussed 'figured speech' (above). [Mason had previously cited Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, and several others.] ... Because of the tacit connections with current affairs, the genre is not easily portable: a modern reader of Aristophanes can only appreciate these references through diligent background study... [But] It was prior audience knowledge of the plot that gave poignancy to Oedipus' vow to find and punish the one who was polluting Thebes... 
Audience-dependent irony can be subtler and more effective than text-driven irony, though it is riskier because it operates without the safety net of authoritative guides. The author must be sure not only that the audience will know certain crucial items but, in potentially dangerous contexts, that they will not read the wrong sort of irony into his presentation.
From this point, Mason goes on to show the necessity of dissimulation in the upper classes of early Imperial Rome, from Augustus' age to Domitian's. The rest of the article is a compelling argument that much of Josephus' writing included sly winks to his Flavian readers. A comment about Nero served as a subtle jab at Domitian, for example. In such cases, Mason argues, what helps contemporary readers to feel certain about Josephus' true meaning is the contemporary knowledge we have about ancient Rome in those days.

It's a great article on the whole, and Oxford only wants $225 for a copy of the whole book. Alas, I don't get by TCU as much as I used to. But if anyone wants to get this for my christmas gift... seriously, don't do it. $225, are you crazy? But thanks for the thought. (!)

As far as my new questions about Irony in Matthew, this helps tremendously by giving me practical terms in which I can proceed. Instead of reading the Gospel again and asking "Okay, where's the irony?" it seems more appropriate (and more obvious, suddenly!) to ask, "What did Matthew expect his readers to know, at any given point?" To be thorough, of course, I'll look for both text-dependent irony as well, because any time one character knows something another does not, the reader is "clued in" as well.

One more thing; Quintilian found three "contexts" [appropriate times for usage] for such language. They are: "when it is unsafe to speak frankly, or unseemly to do so, or merely for subtle effect." After I've gone through and found places where Matthew either (type 1) directly provides or (type 2) seems to expect any special knowledge from his readers, I shall also consider which of these three (if any) may have motivated his usage.

Tons of fun, right? I actually think so, though it can be exhausting.

Feel free to join in and help...

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