Having a sense of irony can be an isolating and lonely experience if you find yourself living in America. I should know.
While contemplating a post on irony, I pinged a former colleague of mine, Gideon Rachman (who is now a columnist and blogger at the Financial Times).
That is because Gideon, as a Brit in the lovably dysfunctional family that is The Economist, has a great sense of irony. (Apparently, though, he already knows it.) Adrian Wooldridge, Dominic Ziegler… we practically teem with ironic Brits at The Economist.
I had a reason for molesting Gideon in particular, however. He is the only one of us who dared make himself our Irony Correspondent. He did this in the Christmas Issue of 1999, with this piece on the role of irony in British diplomacy. Clearly, he must be the expert.
And what did I get in return? “I think you are turning into a bit of a hippy” (sic), he chastised me in his email. All this living in California cannot be good for my writing, he stipulates, because
English irony, with its self-deprecation and use of understatement is almost the opposite of what I see as the Californian tone of voice – earnest and gushing.
Earnest and gushing. Spot on. If there is such a thing as a quintessentially American, and in particular Californian, “voice”, it is earnest and gushing. Often indignant. Occasionally sarcastic. Sporadically narcissistic. Don’t get me wrong. American writing can be moving, powerful and … good. But it is rarely ironic.
Irony: Definition & eulogy
Irony is not only the highest form of humor (whereas sarcasm is the lowest), it is a sure sign of a civilized mind. I define it as
the non-aggressive savoring of contradictions in life and people (others and yourself) and of turns of phrase that are slightly and adroitly off-key and thus meaningfully surprising.
So irony is not merely saying the opposite of what you mean. Examples:
Oh, that’s so cool!, when it’s clearly not, is sarcastic and a knee-slapper around the Neanderthal campfire, where it belongs.
Protesting that rumors of your death are wildly exaggerated, as Mark Twain, an ironic Yank (they exist), did, is ironic. (The irony is entirely in the word exaggerated.)
Sneering that, Oh yeah, Hillary Clinton is just sooo blue-collar, is sarcastic. Pointing out with the subtlest of smirks that Hillary Clinton discovered her blue-collar roots earlier this year in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia is ironic.
Irony is not about punch lines. It’s not about jokes that bring the house down. It is about seeing the world in a certain way. That way is worldly and cavalier (another British concept). In this world view, it is unseemly to be outraged all the time, as Americans seem to be. Rather, one is expected to be shocked-shocked!, which is subtly different. The insanity of “it all” becomes your backdrop. It may amuse you; it may cause you pain; but it also produces the raw material for your irony. You do not use it to lash out against others (that’s sarcasm’s job). You use it to commune with some others, those who share your sense of irony.
Put differently, you could almost say that irony is Buddhist humor: Wit borne out of compassion, since we’re all in this mess together, whatever that mess happens to be.
Now, why would Gideon and I keep complaining about America? Well, because there are these … moments. Awkward moments. Moments which, cumulatively, teach me to be … careful! To tone it down. To make it just a bit more explicit so that readers get it. Americans (in their advertising, their movies, their dinner-party conversations) are most worried about somebody not getting it. Brits are most worried about everyone getting it.
The enemy in America is literalism. A simple example, from a British friend who occasionally travels in America: One night, he had to get up at an ungodly hour to check out of his hotel to make a flight, so he stumbled down to the front desk to check out and handed over his plastic.
The pretty young thing on the other side thrust a pile of paperwork his way and asked if he had questions about any details.
In his best Hugh Grant, he stammered “Oh no, thank you, I barely know what time it is.”
“It is now 4:13am,” the lady reported matter-of-factly. He gaped. She didn’t really think he was asking for the time just now?!
So it goes every day. I hang out with Americans, and I’m just not sure whether it’s wise even to attempt an irony. If it goes wrong, they will probably find a way to be outraged. Then I have to back-paddle, and we all feel bad. So I stay literal. But that’s worse. Worse yet, we might trade … jokes. Inexorably, I become … Californian.