Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning do to do afterward.” This is typical of the writer whose sharpest blade was a sense of irony, with which he cut through the existential absurdity of life. He knew and wrote a thing or two about tragedy: his books deal with wars both world-wide and Vietnam based, humanitarian crises, and global warming, and the author himself was a PoW, discovered his mother’s suicide at home on Mother’s Day, and suffered major depression later in life. His response to such horror was expressed in his narrator’s famous shrug: “So it goes.”
Vonnegut’s embrace of irony in the face of despair was both defensive (distancing him from his subject) and constructive (having placed himself at a reach, he had a better view of his subject and room to swing his sword). It is this second element that differentiates the truly ironic from what passes for it today. Contemporary usage tends to misuse the term irony in place of cynicism, hypocrisy, or hyperbole. Too often, it is abused as a justification for lazy apathy (“I watch Jeremy Kyle ironically”) or for failing or refusing to be more witty with wit (“I’m using that racial term ironically”). These misuses are unfortunate twice over: first, for being incorrect as synonyms, and then for drawing our attention away from irony’s enlightening qualities.
There is an everyday use of irony, defined in broad terms and encompassing sarcasm, satire, and simple laughter, that serves as an invaluable tool for fighting oppression. There is another use of a more specified form of irony that points us towards something transcendent. If the second of these categories hasn’t put you off by sounding overly sentimental, let’s take a look at both.
“One of the beginnings of human emancipation is the ability to laugh at authority.”
~ Christopher Hitchens
In 1962, a Tanzanian village was overcome by an outbreak of laughter (among other, less whimsical symptoms), beginning with giggles in a classroom of a local mission-run school before spreading to the wider community. The epidemic lasted almost eighteen months. Strangely, there was very little to laugh about in the village at that time. Joyless codes of conduct and windowless classrooms, overcrowding and poor nutrition in the community, responses to the laughter including punishment and litigation: these formed the backdrop to the contagious laughter. According to researchers, this was an example of mass psychogenic illness, which has been described as “a last resort for people of a low status, an easy way [...] to express that something is wrong”.
This principle is at work in other aspects of society and psychology. What else is nervous laughter if not the mind’s resistance to stress, and what is satire if not a deliberate extension of the impulse to defy power (especially in its oppressive forms) with a tool available to the most powerless? Oscar Wilde remarked that sarcasm is “the highest form of intelligence”, in response to the colloquialism that it is “the lowest form of wit”. I see it instead as the wit of the lowest, or as the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz put it (in writing of irony itself) “the glory of the slaves”. Sharp remarks and witty, biting asides are the consolation of those at the bottom of any hierarchy of power. No one but the speaker finds it funny when the oppressor sardonically mocks the oppressed; we relish it when the victim strikes back with a cutting quip.
Voltaire was one of the great purveyors of social satire, his astringent irony intended to emancipate the mind and, as a result, the downtrodden. His infamous Candide is both a pleasure to read and an indictment of theodicy, social apathy, philosophical optimism, and much more. It is said that when Voltaire was on his deathbed, an officious priest (too often the hand of power holding the powerless down) instructed him to renounce Satan, and the writer responded, “Now is not the time to make enemies.” The impulse to humorous resistance was strong even at the end for the man who in his prime had described priests as men who “manufacture a hundred versions of God, then eat and drink God, then piss and shit God”.
The poet-philosopher Friedrich Schlegel believed that irony is:
“all jest and all serious-ness, everything guilelessly open and deeply hidden. [...] It is the freest of all licences, because through it one transcends oneself, but at the same time it is the most prescribed, because [it is] absolutely necessary.”
One feature of the free mind is an ability to entertain contradictory ideas simultaneously; at its most refined, this is an appreciation of the ironic, which Schlegel showed is borne of contradiction. Albert Camus talked about the Absurd as the search for value in a valueless universe. Humans are both the only known creatures who comprehend the meaninglessness of the cosmos and the animals most insistent on discovering meaning, demonstrating that irony is at the heart of the human condition. To embrace irony is, therefore, to embrace life.
It is a fear or misunderstanding of irony that leads to absolutism, a retreat to certainty that disguises difficult paradoxes. The ironic mind makes room for nuance and doubt; the literal mind is constrained by its own demand for straightforward answers. The fundamentalist is a literal-minded person who hides from contradiction, forced by his worldview to become increasingly one-dimensional in his faith, insisting on a narrow reading of scripture and an equally confined dogma for living. But the obverse is just as revealing: those who reject the supernatural while making use of cultural dressings that take the existence of deities as a given, people such as Richard Holloway and Peter Rollins, embrace irony in doing so.
An irony of the socially/politically active atheist is the way that this identity is formed, by asserting, “This is the most important belief I don’t hold.” This is a necessary irony in the face of theocrats and dogmatists who force us to align ourselves in opposition to their certainty, but it is an irony nonetheless and one we ought to be conscious of. It is when we lose sight of the paradox and convince ourselves that our cause is straightforward and without uncertainties that we lose sight of the excluded middles in our false dichotomies between us and them.
“People who shout joy from the rooftops are often the saddest of all.”
~ Milan Kundera, The Joke
But what happens when we become humour’s servants, when our laughing master insists always on comedy at the expense of tragedy, bathos forever supplanting true pathos?
The original intent of deliberately “off-colour” humour was to shock society with the new. Lenny Bruce challenged our conceptions of obscenity with his routine of profanity and sexual innuendo. The Office (UK) exposed “casual bigotry” with its ironic use of racist and sexist jokes that subverted the form to make racists and sexists the butt of the joke. But this kind of social commentary has been lost amid the exponential growth of shock-value comedy, the inanity of which is exposed by its label: rather than using shock to change values, the vacuous comedy of something like Family Guy values only the shock. This kind of humour merely consolidates one’s place within the in-group of cynical cool kids by sniggering at increasingly “offensive” jokes, a sort of lack-of-virtue signalling.
The poverty of this postmodernism-passing-for-irony is that it is enslaved to its own fear of being banal. It refuses to take the world seriously without understanding the seriousness of that pose. The reason that shows like Family Guy are so empty is that they want to mock everything (because that’s detached and cool) while refusing to show us anything (because that would be old-fashioned and ridiculous). On the other hand, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia works because it owns its nihilism and shows us the worst that postmodern irony can do when its cynicism is left unchecked. Always Sunny undermines notions of causality, justice, and narrative fulfilment while causing the viewer to question what is left without those things. This makes it truly ironic. The heart of irony is paradox, and a mindless pose of contrarianism that quips as an automatic behaviour has only one layer and therefore no room for paradox; it is a heartless form of irony.
The same humour that once tore back the curtain to expose those things that needed to be seen has now become a mask to hide from us the hollow inadequacies at its barely beating heart. Just look at the recent Thor: Ragnarok, a film that sacrificed every potentially sincere moment on the altar of the cheap laugh. (And don’t get me wrong, I laughed – the most insidious element of this kind of humour is the way it engenders docility with its undeniable ability to induce laughter.)
The same humour that was once liberating is now enslaving. The joke, to put it simply, can wear thin.
In Milan Kundera’s The Festival of Insignificance, two of his characters have long been putting on a charade of pretending to be foreign while working as waiters for high-society cocktail parties. They speak in a meticulously crafted gibberish to poke fun at the bourgeois pretensions of their hosts, but eventually the guests are so alienated by their waiters’ inability to communicate that the men are ignored by those they mean to mock. A third character, friend to the waiters, observes of their shtick:
“We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerously headlong rush. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously. But I think our jokes have lost their power. [...] All you get out of it is weariness and boredom.”
I cannot think of a more concise summary of postmodernism and the situation we find ourselves in as a culture today. What began as a response to the “headlong rush” of the modern world when more high-minded or moralistic stances seemed ineffectual has degenerated into mindless banter that we increasingly seek relief from.
Our weariness with this mode of being is evident in the rise of something off-puttingly labelled “post-irony”, which is the expression of self-ridicule to protect oneself from the ridicule of others; more simply, it is the admission that something you accept and enjoy falls into the camp of things that postmodern humour would have us cynically dismiss. “I know it’s sentimental, but ...” or “Even though it’s a cliché ...” The sometimes saccharine and often touching comedy of Parks and Recreation is a direct response to the world-weary though incisive satire of South Park.
“Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.”
~ Jean Racine
Vonnegut’s quote about laughter and tears is predicated on two faulty assumptions: that laughter causes little mess, and that mess is disagreeable. Yet we have seen that laughter can destroy ideologies and tear down institutions, it has reduced great towers and produced much rubble. As for desirable messes, aside from the bigotries and stupidity that irony decimates, it cannot be avoided that life itself is messy. Running and hiding from this confusion and chaos causes terrible existential turmoil. This is why we need, addressing Racine’s saying about comedy and tragedy, to unify that polarity and to accept life as a great tragicomedy. There is beauty and solace in approaching life with irony, in that it encourages us to embrace duality and contradiction.
Paradox is the place at which the intellect humbles itself and assumes the subordinate role, accepting its limitations – never nihilistically or in a resigned manner. Instead, it adopts the mind-set of attempting to understand while in contentment with one’s own ignorance. Irony is an expression of humanity in an impersonal universe, the certain confusion within tentative rationales and equations, it is the heart of the intellect. This is what it is to embrace irony with sincerity.
• Percy Bysshe Shelley, To A Skylark (1820)
• Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday (1981), then Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
• Christopher Hitchens, in interview with Jeremy Paxman (2014)
• Voltaire, quoted in Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (2000)
• Friedrich Schlegel, 108th Lyceum Fragment (1797)
• Milan Kundera, The Joke (1967), then The Festival of Insignificance (2013)
• Jean Racine, possibly misattributed from Jean de La Bruyère or Horace Walpole.