Idea of irony finds it­self deeply mis­un­der­stood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King

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.

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