“The tragic irony of life”. March 5, 2020, New School for Social Research

Abstract: According to a pervasive and widespread literature, we came to surround our existences with all sorts of narratives: retrospective interpretations of what came before us and how we were born, anticipative stories about what is to come and what we should expect, and, most of all, restless attempts to describe what our present is made of so as to find ways to make sense of it. First-person narratives occupy a central position amongst these varieties of narratives, as they give each of us a chance to provide meaning to our lives and achieve some kind of self-understanding.

Taking a resolutely opposite stance, Sartre (in)famously declared through the voice of the main character of his novel La Nausée that stories do nothing other than betray the lives they claim to describe, and necessarily fail to account faithfully for the very experiencing of life that constitutes its specific grain and texture. In which sense is this failure a failure? In which sense must we consider it a failure, if narratives are the privileged device we use to make sense of existences in general, and of ours in particular? Wouldn’t it be both tragic and ironical, from that perspective, that we live our lives in a way that remains impervious to our attempts to bring some meaning to our existence, and that first-person narratives should be regarded as fundamentally inadequate and incapable of accounting for life as we live it?

This paper will address these questions in light of the definition of ‘tragic irony’ that Richard Moran draws from his interpretation of Sartre, understanding tragedy as a clash between forms of significance displayed by incompatible perspectives. We will examine in particular the problem raised by first-person narratives, which conflate the seemingly incompatible perspectives of the narrator and of the character of the story, as one becomes the narrator of their own life. Drawing on Sartre and Cavell’s analyses of the credibility of the narrator, I will argue that Moran’s view fails to see in which sense we need to acknowledge that the failure of first-person narratives are also the condition of their success, and that the irony of life might rely first and foremost on its ability to succeed even (if not mostly) when it fails. After all, isn’t it most ironical that Sartre, notwithstanding his harsh critique of the fundamental inadequacy of life narratives, ended his literary career with the publication of his most acclaimed autobiography?

More details on the New School’s website