Vicious irony

Irony says the opposite of what it means.

Irony says “Thanks a lot!” when it means “That’s not what I wanted.”

Irony says “Aren’t you smart?” when it means “You’re pretty stupid.”

Irony says “Go away” when it means “I want you closer.”

Irony says “I don’t know why I put up with you” when it means “I’m so lucky to have you.”

Irony says the nasty thing to mean the nice thing. Which sounds nasty but no one’s allowed to say so, because it’s supposed to be code for nice. Irony also says the nice thing, but it means the nasty thing. Which feels nasty, but no one’s allowed to say so because the nasty thing wasn’t said out loud.

Irony undermines itself. It’s not just self-deprecating. It undermines the people that hear it as much as the person that speaks it. At its worst, irony is bitter and cutting. Schoolteachers use it to dull down the enthusiasm of children, to cut into their enthusiasm and to hammer in the deep dark threat of WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE ANYWAY.

Once the self has been infected with that little worm of self-doubt, the irony meme is nicely entrenched, ready to go about replicating itself furiously, sending out its prickly message again and again. The embittered child practises on his friends, on his parents. Later he will practise it on his lovers, and later still on his children.

It was all very fashionable, when the post-modernists got arty about showing how very clever and self-aware they were, to employ irony in art and literature. Stories suddenly started referring to their own narrative structures. Everything had to have multiple frames, and academics got themselves in a twist distancing themselves from any sincere commentary on anything. Art and literature threw darts at any trace of sincerity – and not surprisingly, seeing as society had been doing the same for decades.

The trouble with irony is that it offers no value. It offers nothing except a sense of loss and distance. It has comic value, for a second. There’s the brief moment where it pretends its clever. But cleverness, of a moment, is worth so little. It leaves little except the echoes of the long chain of hurt that went into this need to cut, cut, cut. And –  ironically enough – the neverending cutting is both the triumph and the desperate failure now-dead schoolmaster, the long-gone patriarch.

Let them be, I say. Say what you mean, not what you don’t. Find that little ghost, that casualty of the WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE monster, and coax it out. There’s no need to apologise. There’s no need to make yourself smaller to fit that threat. There’s no need to make others smaller, to cut cut cut. When you put down the small sharp knife, you’ll see how much room there is in your own two hands.


About Lisa

I live in South Africa with my husband and two small children, doing things, thinking about things and sometimes writing about them.
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3 Responses to Vicious irony

  1. Adam says:

    I think that’s unfair. Irony is a tool like any other, the value of which is in how it is wielded, and to what end. I wouldn’t use it on an eight year old, or a drunk in a bar, because it is cruel and it would diminish me; but I would use it on a dictator because the *flash* when it becomes clear that what is intended is the reverse of what was said would itself convey something. And the fact that I am saying what is acceptable on its face – but meaning what is not – may insulate me from the penalties for saying what is not acceptable. What would satire be without it; and where would we be without satire?

  2. Adam says:

    “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
    I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
    The evil that men do lives after them,
    The good is oft interred with their bones,
    So let it be with Caesar … The noble Brutus
    Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
    If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
    And grievously hath Caesar answered it …
    Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest,
    (For Brutus is an honourable man;
    So are they all; all honourable men)
    Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral …
    He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
    But Brutus says he was ambitious;
    And Brutus is an honourable man….
    He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
    Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
    Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
    When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
    Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
    Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
    And Brutus is an honourable man.
    You all did see that on the Lupercal
    I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
    Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
    Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
    And, sure, he is an honourable man.
    I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
    But here I am to speak what I do know.
    You all did love him once, not without cause:
    What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?
    O judgement! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
    And men have lost their reason…. Bear with me;
    My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
    And I must pause till it come back to me.’

    He cannot say that Brutus is a liar – or not outright at any event. But he can use irony, and so he does, to great effect. Much sugar is pilled in this way without it being wrong.

  3. Jeannine says:

    mmmm interesting post and great comment on it. I think Adam has a good point, not for use on an eight year old, but irony has its place in a mature, free society.
    I love your blog Lisa, it’s so varied and thought provoking. As well as being fun and full of great food. Well done!

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