Sunday, June 12, 2016

For After: A Study in Irony

Of the many tools humanity has developed over the years to assist us during our residency on this planet, the least mentioned and most used is not the can opener, the car jack, or even the Swiss Army knife. Rather, it is irony, that stunning resource for helping us stay somewhere within the boundaries of sanity. 

Thus this observation: craziness does not require irony to function. Craziness is its own world, where irony would be every bit as suspect as any other feature of reality. This results in the unlikely paring of irony and craziness as the bookends on either side of the voluminous records of our attempts to make our day-to-day way through Reality.

Writers chow down on irony, using it to help themselves and their readers see events as more than a mere, unthinking randomness, or part of a patterned mischief that speaks to the individual the way the Sirens spoke to Odysseus' sailors

Irony has to begin somewhere; it does so with coincidence, the kind often expressed with someone saying, "It was ironic that I chose to attend the theater that night." 

Had he lived through going to the theater that night, Abraham Lincoln might well have thought it an irony to have attended the theater the same night John Wilkes Booth thought to attend. Booth, for his part in the matter, would have expressed disappointment to have missed Lincoln.

Coincidence colludes with irony, the product arriving when one makes a choice, which turns out to coincide with an opposing outcome. We say the choice was ironic in retrospect. Some choices bring about desired and bountiful results, others allow the luxury of thinking we'd been selected by some malevolent universal force for making the wrong choice. 

The irony is that there are neither good choices not bad choices, only choices. Some choices have outcomes that produce irony; other choices produce lackluster results such as disappointment, boredom or, in some circumstances, pleasure. But how many of those do we remember?

This is no idle observation. After six years of teaching a course in memoir writing, you note how the most memorable aspects of published accounts are those in which there appears always to be the uninvited guest of Irony, or at least a chair and table setting for It, like the place reserved at every Passover Seder for the prophet, Elijah.

Irony also invites the accompaniment of opposites. The same, admirable Abraham Lincoln might well have said of his decision to attend the theater that night, "I wouldn't have gone, had I known he'd be there."  

In that same vein, irony pairs up with sarcasm when one individual says the opposite of what he or she intends, all the while believing some of us will see the inherent irony.  "I couldn't be happier to go," as a substitute for, "The mere thought of going sickens me."  

If there were no irony in our narratives, you argue, the result of these narratives would be sagas, folktales, morals, sermons, even fables. But not story.  Irony is as vital to story as plot is vital to drama. Irony is dramatic expectation, then its fulfillment or frustration:

A man lay within the rumpled sheets of his deathbed, his hallucinations and reflections interrupted by a familiar and favored smell, coming from the kitchen.  He motions the hospice nurse close, whispers in her ear. "That smells like my favorite lemon poppyseed coffee cake. Please tell my wife that I could die happy if I had one last thin slice."

The nurse nods, then leaves the room.  Moments later, the man's wife enters the room, and the man repeats his request. The wife shakes her head.  "The lemon poppyseed coffee cake, that's for after."

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