Some Earnest Thoughts on Irony

Sometime last year around this time I sat down to write — as I had many times before — a novel based on my experiences in Iraq. I had been trying to write the novel for some ten years and had produced well over a hundred thousand words of work in various fits and starts, but it had never been right. Some of the writing had been poor, to be sure, but even when I judged the writing good, I just couldn’t quite shake the feeling that it just wasn’t right.

Finally, after musing about the War and the War Experience, I realized what my problem writing was: irony.

This realization occurred when I realized that what had been bothering me about my previous attempts to write about the war was my own deeply held cynicism, which manifested on the page as irony, an irony which had certainly not been there at the time I was going through the deployment. That’s not to say that certain events and people were not deeply ironic, just that irony was the wrong platform on which to build a discussion of my war experiences. I love Catch-22, but I am not Joseph Heller. In fact, what made Catch-22 what it was was the fact that it was so different, the fact that at the time it was written, there weren’t very many Joseph Heller’s around.

Now, everybody is.

I’m not the first to point this out — in fact, I was deeply moved my last tour in Iraq by David Foster Wallace’s 1993 essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction in his collection Consider The Lobster. In it, DFW diagnoses irony as a post-modern problem, as a malady that has infected modern literature, television, and conversation. I didn’t realize how much until I started trying to write again myself.

The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. How much of my conversation was intentionally inscincere? What percentage of my day was spent making cynical one-liners, sarcastically false statements, saying things meant not really to be funny but to demonstrate that I was cool, hip, and ironic just like everybody else? The answer? Probably higher even now than I’d like to acknowledge.

Irony, I decided, is the way we let everyone else know we’re in on The Joke — The Joke being life. It’s all very postmodern, very slick, very cool — we all get it, we all understand that we’re cosmically insignificant, all understand that today we eat, drink, and are merry and tomorrow we die — we all grasp that there’s nothing out there getting too worked up over because in the end, it doesn’t really matter. We’re all insulated from the Real — from actual expressions of happiness and grief and pain and love and hate — insulated from genuine feeling. It’s all bathos and no pathos.

What’s the result? First, in our teens and early twenties, it was exhilirating, an expression of adulthood and independence — the ability to mock the sacred. But as time goes on, if most of us look at ourselves, we’d realize we weren’t quite as insulated as we thought. Even as we sought to distance ourselves from everything — to retreat into the idea that “all the world’s a stage and the people merely players” and that we are all part of some great post-modernist play — we’ve been subject to an irony’s insidious attack. I took stock and realized that ironic expression was no longer a conscious choice — it was my default mode.

I am far from alone.

Think about that, if you will, for a minute. Think about the profound sadness of a world where most adult conversation and reaction is default insincerity. It dulls both the heart and the mind, this constant arms race of who can out cynic who. It closes off whole worlds of expression and emotion to us. We can’t enjoy something simply for its sake, because we’ve got to be figuring out what the angle is, how to make sure it doesn’t effect us, how to prevent anyone else from knowing that there is something out there that can really effect us, really get to us.

Music, the philosophers say, is the sublimest expression of the soul — that is music, not song, but music. Music, the collection of sounds designed around an emotion or concept or conceit or idea, can convey feelings and passions that cannot be put into words across culture and time. Our all-pervasive culture of irony destroys the apprecation of the sublimest expression of the soul, because there’s nothing much there to mock. Why don’t we listen to symphonies anymore? It isn’t because they’re boring, or because we don’t have the time — it’s because they’ve lost their ability to speak to us, to our detriment. The same goes for poetry. Scarily enough, the same goes for the Classics, those written works that have the unique ability to speak to generations of humanity.

This isn’t a new problem, to be sure — the Enlightenment was full of irony, Shakespeare was ironic at times — the Greeks invented the term, after all. But the difference was that irony was a selective rhetorical weapon, not the everyman’s standard mode of thought and expression. Irony has its place and its uses, to be sure — but it must be used deliberately and selectively, else it crowds out everything else and we don’t even recognize it.

As Thomas Mann put it in The Magic Mountain:

Ah yes, irony! Beware of the irony that flourishes here… Beware of it in general as an intellectual stance. When it is not employed as an honest device of classical rhetoric, the purpose of which no healthy mind can doubt for a moment, it becomes a source of depravity, a barrier to civilization, a squalid flirtation with inertia, nihilism, and vice.

Beware indeed.

The original Greek root for irony means “feigned ignorance” and as the noted ironist Kurt Vonnegut himself noted in Mother Night , “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” I don’t have a solution to all of this, to the rampant cynicism of contemporary modernity, but I do know it’s destructive. I do know that the longer we feign ignorance of sincere emotion and empathy, the more we run the risk of that ignorance becoming not feigned, but real.