Idea of irony finds itself deeply misunderstood
POSTMODERNISTS go on about it incessantly. Americans are said to have no sense of it. Canadian singer Alanis Morissette regards ‘‘ rain on your wedding day’’ as one of its manifestations. Lord Blackadder’s cretinous manservant, Baldrick, describes it as ‘‘ like goldy or bronzy, only made of iron’’.
Irony, it seems, is everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere because there is barely a coincidence or twist of fate or incongruous episode that escapes its semantic gravitational pull; nowhere because, more often than not, it is pressed into service in a half-baked way or in a way that mistakes its meaning completely.
Derived from the Greek word eironeia (simulated ignorance), it is now a catch-all signifier denoting anything quirky or out of the ordinary. Like icon and tragedy, irony is a word that seems ill at ease in the 21st century, a shadow of its former self.
In A Case for Irony, Jonathan Lear breathes life back into the concept. A professor of philosophy and practising psychoanalyst, Lear believes irony is ‘‘ fundamental to the human condition’’ and his book, which began life as a series of lectures, is an attempt to both complicate our understanding of irony and inquire into how we might use that understanding to lead better, more rewarding lives. To become human does not come easily, said Kierkegaard. Lear’s thesis is that irony can help.
We tend to think of the ironist as someone who displays a certain detachment, who says the opposite of what he means. But for Lear, this definition derives from a more complex meaning that goes back to Socrates. As he wandered through Athens, Socrates would ask ostensibly paradoxical questions such as, ‘‘ Among all the wise, is there a wise person?’’ This would lead to an interrogation at the end of which Socrates would conclude that no truly wise person existed (except perhaps him), and it is in this gap between what we think we are (our ‘‘ practical identity’’) and the kind of person we would be if we really were what we think we are that irony tends to operate. As Lear puts it: [I]t is characteristic of human life that we do make claims about who we are and the shape of our lives. This quintessentially
In the experience of irony, Lear suggests, ‘‘ The life and identity that I have hitherto taken as familiar have suddenly become unfamiliar’’. This ‘‘ peculiar species of uncanniness’’ is disruptive; but the disruption — and this is Lear’s key point — is actually helpful to one’s sense of self, revealing as it does a desire to improve, to go in a particular direction. If, marking academic papers, Lear is suddenly gripped by the thought that marking academic papers has nothing to do with real teaching and is led to question his identity as a consequence, then this can be upsetting but also helpful. ‘‘[ I]n the ironic experience, it is my fidelity to teaching that has brought my teacherly activities into question.’’
Lear urges us not only to embrace the experience of irony but also to develop a capacity for it — an ability to deploy it in ‘‘ the right sort of way at the right time in the living of one’s life’’. Eventually this can lead to ‘‘ ironic existence’’, which Lear defines as the ability to live well with the kinds of disruption occasioned by irony. As he puts it, using the example of courage, A Case for Irony can be a difficult read but such problems as it has derive less from its difficulty than from its author’s reluctance to contextualise his findings.
Lear has said in interviews his book was conceived, at least in part, as a response to Roger Rosenblatt’s assertion that the terrorist attacks of 2001 had brought an end to the ‘‘ age of irony’’, a situation of which he evidently approved. Lear’s feeling was that, on the contrary, a world without irony would be a disaster. To invite ironic disruption into our discourse is to question our fundamental values and, in so doing, to keep self-righteousness and literalism from overwhelming our politics.
I would have liked a bit more on that — on the political uses (and non-uses) of irony as they play themselves out in the public sphere — and a bit less on the relationship between the superego as defined by Freud and ‘‘ pretence-transcending aspiration’’.
A Case for Irony, in other words, suffers from a lack of cases. Nevertheless, the book can be fascinating. Irony may be a husk of a word but the concept remains as relevant as ever, and Lear is to be congratulated on having refreshed our understanding of it. human activity of putting oneself forward as a certain kind of person can, in certain circumstances, set us up for the fall: this can occur when the pretence simultaneously expresses and falls short of its own aspiration. Irony is the activity of bringing this falling short to light in a way that is meant to grab us. Part of what it is to be courageous is courageously to face the fact that living courageously will inevitably entangle one in practices and pretences and possible acts all of which are susceptible to the question, what does any of that have to do with courage?
Richard King is a Perth-based critic.