Monday, August 25, 2008

Funny You Say That: Irony in America

Irony is the stage manager in most human drama. It is the genome of crossed purposes, misinterpretation, and expressions of feelings other than those actually felt. It is someone saying, I'm doing all right but conveying that the individual is doing anything but all right.

In its way irony in literature and drama means a conspiracy between the reader and the writer, directed against one or more characters.

Yossarian, the main dramatic focus in Joe Heller's remarkable Catch-22, discovers early on the irony of the system against him, by which men in the armed forces are kept in combat because, having served the requisite combat time, they want to go home, which is a sign of sanity, which means they are fit for more combat.

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen begins with the ironic, "It is a truth universally recognized that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in search of a wife." Righe, except it is no such thing; a wealthy young man is looking--well. let's say he's looking, but not necessarily for a wife.

It is considered irony when two persons believe they understand each other but in fact do not, leading to the drama of discovery. It is definitely irony when a person says something which will be interpreted by its opposite degree, thus I couldn't agree with you more becomes, You've got to be kidding!

One of the many great exercises actors use as a part of their training is to express emotion about something without mentioning the something by name, thus a character in a shaky romantic relationship might go on at some length about how poorly constructed new cars are, how they don't hold together the way they used to, how tenuous everything is.

If controlled, used carefully without too much piling on of effect, irony is a perfect tool for social commentary. I hate to tell you this, properly used becomes I couldn't wait to be the first to give you this lousy news, You could have fooled me becomes I knew it all the time. Of course I knew it all the time could easily become You could have fooled me.

When irony is not used with restraint, when it is overdone, it becomes sarcasm, which by all accounts is the most difficult emotional tone to convey, which should serve as a warning not to overdo irony.

Funny you should say that.

Irony is often spoken of as a capstone of American writing, but this can be an understatement (which in itself is a form of irony) and thus irony is a major essential of dramatic writing, reaching out to hold hands with ambiguity, which is simply not telling or explaining too much (so that irony, like quantum physics, can get to work on your story).

Funny you should say that, too.

So then, is irony funny?

Depends on who's point of view you're taking.


Anonymous said...

Now I have no idea what to say.

Querulous Squirrel said...

mapelba: you've already said this by triggering this post. I just love the way the two of you bounce off each other and then inspire me to bounce off the two of you. I hope you don't mind. Credits all around.

Anonymous said...

Irony is locking your keys in the house, and after getting in to retrieve them, resolving to have a key made. Further after having the key made, at some little bit of extra expense, your landlord switches over to a coded lock system, rendering the original and the spare absolutely useless.

Well funny you should ask, yes, this did happen to me! Isn't irony fun?

Anonymous said...


I'm startled, but I don't mind.

Matt said...

So then, is irony funny?

Depends on who's point of view you're taking.

Since you mention quantum physics earlier, reading your last words on irony reminded me of Schrödinger and his paradoxic "cat", which coexists in both living in dead states. Interesting parallel.

Unknown said...

Dear Mr. Lionhead,

In your view is irony lost on America? Or is America simply lost?

Unknown said...

More irony.

Regarding the plane crash in NYC yesterday. Andrew Jamison, a passenger on the US Air flight, said, "God was certainly looking out for all of us."

I guess god was busy doing something else when those pesky birds flew in the way of the aeroplane.

lowenkopf said...

One never knows, do one?