IRONY, it seems, is the hot topic of the moment. The trigger for this spate of op-eds and Sunday arts-section essays is the recent publication of a book by a graduate student at Yale University. Nearly all of the reviewers and commentators treated this young man’s book the way my kids treat a box of breakfast cereal: on opening it, they reach down past the main contents of the package and pluck out the toy at the bottom. In the case of this book, the “toy” is the argument that America is suffering from a pervasive attitude of irony.
Nearly all the commentators agree on the essential features of this postmodern affliction: irony is a form of intense self-consciousness—a knowing, cynical mistrust of institutions and shared truths. Out of this jaded sensibility comes the ironist’s twisted sense of humor, based on the conviction that everything is derivative. The ironist delights in creating a stream of joking allusions, “quoting,” as it were, from the cultural baggage of history. “Been there; done that” might be the only words in the credo of the postmodern ironist. Jerry Seinfeld, and his late, eponymous sitcom are frequently upheld as epitomes of irony. An aging, witty bachelor, Seinfeld and his sitcom buddies skate over the surface of real life, avoiding disappointment by evading real commitment; one imagines these characters continuing on, in their post-sitcom years, growing older as they slowly amuse themselves to death.
Many more examples of this ironic stance could be cited, especially from the realm of high art (from Warholian soup cans to elephant dung-bespattered Virgin Marys). But despite my sympathy for these criticisms of cultural decadence, I find it necessary to register my dissent, on at least two fronts. First, I believe that using the word irony to describe the phenomena I’ve just sketched out is to abuse a profound and subtle term. And second, I am disturbed by the number of religious people I’ve met who have latched onto the concept of irony as a way of condemning nearly all contemporary art.
Many of us were told by our high school English teachers that when a newspaper calls a fatal car wreck “tragic,” it is a corruption of language. The randomness of an accident, however sad, is a far cry from the classical understanding of tragedy as the fall of a noble protagonist with a tragic flaw. So it is with irony, one of the central forms of the imagination. Irony is a capacious term, with an enormous range of tone and intent, from the tragic, dramatic irony of Oedipus Rex to the satirical deadpan of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.
The simplest definition of irony that I’ve encountered is “the recognition of a reality different from the masking appearance.” The goal of the artist is to enable his or her audience to encounter irony as a moment of recognition, an awareness of the disparity between appearance and reality. Like many of the artist’s devices, irony is something of an interactive game, requiring a discerning mind that is willing to sift through the evidence and draw conclusions. When irony is used by the greatest minds, recognition can become revelation, a way of piercing through the ambiguities of daily life to a fleetingly-glimpsed truth.
For this reason, I think that irony is the wrong term for the sort of postmodern self-consciousness we’ve begun to grow tired of. I’ve decided that it is better to speak of this cynical habit that puts everything in quotation marks as bad faith, because this habit is, ultimately, a form of insincerity and evasion. Irony, on the other hand, is not the opposite of sincerity. Used responsibly, irony reminds us of how difficult it is to achieve the transparency of true sincerity. Our hubris constantly undermines our quest to discover and communicate truth, which is why irony can put us in our place.
I can understand why some believers think of the pre-modern era of cathedrals as a source of unclouded radiance, whereas our modern, conflicted sensibility lacks that earlier time’s plangent faith. And yet, as any glance at the gargoyles on those cathedrals—or the writings of Chaucer and Dante—will show, irony was just as much a part of medieval art as it is today.
Those who are suspicious of irony might claim that the Devil, speaking through the serpent in Eden, was its first master. In saying that Adam and Eve would not die—and that their eyes would be opened—when they ate the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden, the serpent was dealing in ironic half-truths. But no sooner had our first parents fallen than the Lord God came down for a stroll in the garden, calling out to his friend Adam, “Where art thou?” Here, in this first game of hide and seek, Yahweh demonstrates that he is not to be outdone in the irony department.
To my mind, Jesus is the supreme ironist. It is impossible for me to think of his parables, or the many koan-like conundrums he poses to apostles, Pharisees, and gentiles, without sensing his playful use of indirection, that teasing form of testing those who encounter him, that is the essence of irony. When that mysterious figure joins the two apostles on the road to Emmaus, asking them a seemingly innocent question—as Yahweh’s call to Adam appeared to be—ironies begin to pile up on top of one another. The apostles’ lack of faith prevents them from recognizing both the true mission of Jesus and his immediate presence before them. Only when he breaks bread with them—a direct allusion to his sacrificial death and the source of their communion—are their eyes opened. At this very moment, which reverses the false “eye-opening” of Eden, the ironist disappears, bidding us seek him in all the myriad disparities between our blinding pride and his playful love.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.