The text today is irony, from the Greek for dissimulation, as I learn from J. R. Cuddon’s marvelous book (more about that anon), from which I quote the following, enough for an initial definition. “For the Roman theoreticians (in particular Cicero and Quintilian) ‘ironic’ denoted a rhetorical figure and a manner of discourse in which . . . the meaning was contrary to the words, the double-edgedness appearing to be a diachronic feature of irony.”
Please don’t ask me to explain “diachronic,” which would lead me to one of my bêtes noires, the Swiss pundit Ferdinand de Saussure, father of semiology. What was good enough for Cicero and Quintilian will be sufficient for me for the nonce. To recapitulate, saying one thing and meaning its opposite is a sophisticated device unknown to or uncomprehended by hoi polloi. Let me cite as example the beginning of a note from the subtle and sophisticated novelist James Salter, in response to a communication from me: “Dear John, What beautiful handwriting. If I didn’t know you, I would say it shows an orderly mind of great intelligence.” Here the irony was as it were announced by that “If I didn’t know you.” Ordinarily, no such warning that an irony is intended is deemed necessary.
Of course irony should, more or less discreetly, reveal itself as such, as if, for instance, we were to say or write “As the great Stephen King would have it.” To be sure, it may be missed by unsophisticated Americans, the ones whom Hermann Hesse qualified as “blithe and easily satisfied half human.” It can be inferred also by such a remark as Oscar Wilde’s, “Anybody can write a three-volumed novel. It merely requires complete ignorance of both life and literature.” Or, by way of a more salient example, take the following from Fran Leibowitz: ”Your responsibility as a parent is not as great as you might imagine. You need not supply the world with the next conqueror of disease or major motion picture star. If your child simply grows up to be someone who does not use the word ‘collectible’ as a noun, you may consider yourself an unqualified success.” Collectible as a substantive may not be your paradigmatic lapse, like, say, “Greetings from my wife and I,” but it will do. The subtle irony is clear enough.
Or how about this from the great aphorist Georg C. Lichtenberg: “Sometimes men come by the name of genius in the same way that certain insects come by the name of centipede—not because they have a hundred feet, but because most people can’t count above fourteen.” What a wonderfully ironic way of saying that most people are stupid. I would go so far as to claim that certain people invite irony by their very look or name. Take an article in the Times of September 5: “National Chief for Gymnastics Is Forced Out After Turmoil.” The chief in question, whose accompanying picture makes her look like a dimwitted blond kewpie doll, is named Kerry Perry, which a right-minded daughter would have legally changed. Perry was forced out for championing the nefarious doctor Larry Nasser. She had succeeded a gymnastic president named Steve Penny, close enough, though I would have preferred Benny Penny, but you can’t have everything. Still, the article reads like ironic sympathy for Perry.
I myself have practiced conspicuous irony, describing Liza Minnelli as a potential winner of a beauty contest--for beagles. At least I picked the seemingly right canine breed: not too pretty, like Afghan or Briard, nor too homely, like bulldog or chihuahua. I regret even more a remark about Diana Rigg in profile in a play’s nude scene as “a basilica with inadequate flying buttresses.” This is always misquoted, even by Ms. Rigg, as a mausoleum etc. The building in question cannot be faulted, as basilicas do not have flying buttresses, any more than do mausoleums, which in this context would have downright sinister implications. At least a basilica is holy.
I am inclined not to regret my reply to someone’s question about what good things I thought of Adrienne Rich after a poetry reading. I answered that to do justice to it one would need the attributes of a Homer and a Beethoven, namely blindness and deafness. This is a classic irony, as, without requiring elucidation, where what augurs well really disparages.
One of my favorite ironies stems from the wonderful critic Kenneth Tynan. In a review of “Titus Andronicus,” he referred to Vivien Leigh as a Lavinia who “received the news that she is about to be ravished on the corpse of her husband as one who would have preferred foam rubber.” Thus in the American version; in the British, Tynan used the name of a popular rubber bed brand, which is even funnier, but would not have traction in America.
Another favorite irony is Hilaire Belloc’s epigram about a British lord: “I heard today Godolphin say/ He never gave himself away./ Come, come, Godolphin, scion of kings,/ Be generous in little things.” This is perfect in its switch from evoked nobility to actual mockery without any warning.
Now how about the great Viennese writer and wit Peter Altenberg , a consummate lover of women (especially girls), who allowed: “Coquetry is the immense decency of a desirable woman, thereby, for the moment at least, to hold off the disappointment she is bound to bring you.” This irony is permitted Altenberg (1859-1919), who wrote some of the most affectionate and lyrical prose in praise of women as well as sarcasm. Be it recalled, however, that this often eloquent advocate was, unfortunately for him, a homely man.
Let me point out some obvious everyday ironies. “What a wonderful day” we exclaim as we look out on another gray morning. “How clever you are,” we comment on a dear one’s folly. “We will always be together” we tell a lover whom we no longer love. “I will never do that again” we say after a clumsiness we damn well know we’ll commit again. And so on.
But the really great ironies are in literature as in Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal,” about the poor selling their unwanted babies to England for food. Even the full title is redolent of irony: “A Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country, and for making them Beneficial to the Publick.” This piece of a few pages may be the greatest example of irony in the English language; altogether some of irony’s most distinguished practitioners lived in the eighteenth century. It is there also in “Gulliver’s Travels,” and much of the verse and prose of Alexander Pope. Take only this from one of Pope’s letters: “I never knew any man in my life who could not bear another’s misfortunes perfectly like a Christian.” This manages to make fun of people in general as well as Christians in particular.
J. A. Cuddon’s magnificent “Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory,” is most easily available in America in the Penguin version of its fourth edition, edited by C. E. Preston. It covers six pages with its entry on irony. Delightful to readers and indispensable to writers, it contains, for example, the earliest reference to irony in English, dated 1502: “yronie . . . of grammare, by the whiche a man sayth one & gyveth to understande the contrary. “ I am amused by the reference to a “splendid essay” on irony of 1970 by one D. C. Muecke, the name in German meaning mosquito, and being perfect for the subject. Of the many ironists Cuddon cites, from Aeschylus to Iris Murdoch, his favorites are Voltaire, Gibbon, Swift, Henry James and Thomas Mann. He is an expert in writings in the obscurest languages the world over.
There are various forms of irony, including the situational, whereby, for instance, Lear endows his hypocritical, worthless daughters but excoriates and expels his truly worthy, loving one. Similarly, Othello trusts the villain Iago, but rejects and eventually strangles the virtuous Desdemona. Dissimulation, i.e., irony, thrives as dramatic irony, whereby the audience knows things the characters don’t.
In conclusion, I would suggest, utopian as my plea may be, that teachers instruct their students in irony, perhaps even offer a course in it. It would provide an emotional outlet vastly preferable to guns and knives.