Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Irony is a staunch friend of the writer of nonfiction and fiction; it is among other things expressing one idea or sentiment with the absolute certainty that your audience understands you to mean the exact opposite.

Or not.

In which case--the not case--the non-understander is de facto naive to a fault or just plain dense.

Irony, often in life and almost invariably in fiction, becomes a conspiracy against one or more characters. Unless it is directed against us and we are the victim, we the audience, are an active party in the conspiracy. The author has conspired to let us know that one person--let's call that individual The Targer Person--is to be the one who misunderstands. If The Target Person is to be brought before the bar of humor (see yesterday's post on humor) we understand that this individual's humiliation will in some way become a cosmic payoff for past abuse. James Thurber's remarkable short story, The Man in the Cat-Bird Seat, plays off this sense of irony as retribution for past sins.

As an audience, we are interested in irony and its effects because often, perhaps even too often because of some personal foible, we have been The Target Person, humiliated because we so willingly read out own agenda into an outcome, because the joke was on us, because we were found out to be not as inside or hip or knowledgeable as we thought or, worse, as knowledgeable as we pretended to be.

The greater joke or, if you will, irony is that there are times when each of us is out on the ledge of the structure of irony, not quite sure how we got there, certain we have issed something important. The humor or irony compounds when we consider our potential for communication: Homo sapiens are, after all, allegedly the most reasonable species extant, right?

Sarcasm is irony run wild, a state of mind difficult enough to bring off in real life, dangerously inadvisable in fiction or essay because of the possibility that the sarcasm will be misinterpreted for something entirely else.

Therein lies the mischievous joy or irony, the concept of something entirely else. Stage plays, novels, and short stories abound where two or more individuals appear on the surface to be in complete agreement only to discover that each has brought an entirely different notion to the table. Or the bed (which is where things commence to be interesting beyond dramatic. Or perhaps dramatic beyond interesting.

"I thought you understood. Surely I gave you every possible signal."

"I thought you knew I was only joking."

What, indeed, is the cure, the pill to swallow, the statin to ingest, the exercise to pursue to keep irony at bay, almost as though it were a mosquito responding to citronella?

And thus we come to the greatest irony of all. There is no cure, no way, no elixir or tonic or steroid. We are all of us vulnerable to it and we never know where it will appear, under which guise it will present itself, and even worse, when some writer will conspire with some audience to yank the rug or the tablecloth out from under us.

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