On irony

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).

Gideon Rachman

Gideon Rachman

That is because Gideon, as a Brit in the lovably dysfunctional family that is The Economist, has a great sense of irony. We teem with ironic Brits at The Economist.

I had a reason for molesting Gideon. 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 chastized 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 “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.

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.)

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.

18 thoughts on “On irony

  1. The problem is simply that American and British humour are different – as different as French humour might be from German……

    British humour says: “Wouldn’t it be funny if……”

    American humour says “Isn’t it funny that…….”.

    Contrast Monty Python with Jerry Seinfeld. Need I say more?!!

  2. I got the idea of using “he” for “I” from the two autobiographical novels, “Boyhood” and “Youth” by JM Coetzee, who wrote them in the third person.

    When writing about myself, I can, I think, write more unsparingly of myself than if I was using “I”, because it’s not so confrontational for me.

    Also, “he” is more fictional than “I”, so it’s easier to engage in poetic license!!

  3. I love this piece. Your British colleague is correct in his observations of American irony, including “California irony.”

    Were I a winemaker here in our gushing Golden State, my label would be California Irony.
    Alcohol content 18%
    The sommelier would say the nose is overstated with a hint of subtlety. The finish (if there is one) is juxtaposed with the obvious.

    I am pleased to have found your writing. I like it.

  4. The British don’t have a lien on irony, nor are they necessarily the masters of it. The Russians like Tolstoy wield it much more precisely and they do so from the depths of realism! Even a German 😉 like Thomas Mann has a far superior feel for it than many British writers. In fact, if irony was once the glory of Britain, it’s degenerated into little more than a tic, or a cover for a lack of talent as the British writer, Sebastian Faulks, comes close to admitting here in this discussion of his latest novel:


    • Ah yes, Thomas Mann, an ironic fellow German. Then again, they kicked him, as me, out of the country. 😉

      Seriously (as it were), you’re right. The Brits don’t have a lien on it. In fact, it’s painful to be with a Brit who feels he has to live up to the expectation, and then gets it wrong.

      Trying to remember my Tolstoy now. Don’t recall all that irony, but I may have been too young.

      You Aussies are no slouches either, btw.

    • Hello. I’ve been thinking about it further. I reckon there’s a distinction to be made between irony and the need to ironise. And contemporary Brits may have more of the latter and less of the former, if you catch my drift. Yes, Aussies have this too, courtesy of our British heritage. As exuvia suggests, I think it has to do with the need to create distance, with aloofness and avoidance of hurt.

  5. Might we define irony as the humor of the deeply hurt? A way to avoid additional showers upon an already rained upon long awaited and much loved pick-nick. A darkened sense providing a desirable screen of twilight and aloofness between the self and other peoples reactions.

    Boarding schools might be a perfect breeding ground for such a character strategy. British boys don’t cry.

  6. There is a bit of a no mans land to irony and a kind of a do-it-to-yourself to the setup. Irony sets up the card house but every one gets to push it over himself. While sarcasm is a blunt killer irony is an opportunity for a subtle suicide. Sarcasm is a children’s game; yes is no and no is yes, and the victim gets it right away. It is a bomb while irony is a wind; a slight shrug, a standing aside. You can be confused when facing irony. You don’t know if it must be taken serious or not. In fact, you decide.

  7. This is a fascinating and sophisticated debate that is forcing me to reconsider my own view of irony.

    Solid Gold Creativity and exuvia are both suggesting that irony is a form of self-defense, albeit more refined that sarcasm. As in: “Of course the abused British toffs at Eton will have a sense of irony; how else could they survive!”

    this means that you guys are not really buying my (more innocent) definition of irony 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.”

    What, then, is the proper word for THAT? Because that’s what I’m a fan of.

    (Perhaps one of you could take a stab on your own blog? I don’t want to hog the conversation here.)

  8. Let me first appreciate THAT of which you write.

    I do not know that my vocabulary has a single word for THAT; you yourself have given a small, almost poetic, treatise, …a mini essay? THAT, any way, is also of my own liking and I very much enjoy your style and content.

    For now the word PARADOX is all I can come up with. I love paradox because it is EVERYWHERE and true.

  9. Ha ha, I don’t think this post is obsolete because you do make some meaningful distinctions. I wonder (and I haven’t thought this through at all (and am speaking in generalizations based on personal experience)) if it is a matter of quality. Not necessarily better or worse (at least in this discussion), but of difference between, say, the average British person’s use of irony and the average American’s.

    I’m focusing in especially on Gideon Rachman’s qualities of “self-deprecation” and “understatement.” These qualities speak to a humble disposition, which is the last word I would use to describe the average American. I wonder if their opposites, self-aggrandizement and overstatement/hyperbole, are the qualities of American irony….

    My synapses are loosening up here (a good thing?) so let’s make some more blanket statements. I see British humor or wit as more introspective, which perhaps follows from its humble qualities. But American … sarcasm is extrospective, it’s an attack, a mockery. I see it used, more often than not, to tear things down. It is anything but humble.

    Wit and sarcasm. Both, at least to me, are forms of irony, just different shades of it. And I realize readers here may have their own definitions of “wit” so let me be explicit: I’m using it to denote Rachman’s definition of irony in order to draw distinctions. If it is defined some way everywhere else but in this comment, at least, for the sake of clarity, let me define it thus.

    I especially like your “turns of phrase that are slightly and adroitly off-key and thus meaningfully surprising.” One of the consequences of the age in which we live and the deluge of information we must continuously wade through is that much of what we want to say has already been said before. Moderately intelligent people (that is, people with a lot of knowledge) use that to bash each other and each other’s ideas to death, smashing anything that anyone says to pieces. But the really good writer, to me, is someone who is able to take that detritus and assemble something that is perhaps slightly off-kilter (or “adroitly off-key”) and able to surprise a reader (or listener or whatever) into seeing something novel, instead of cliched. I think this is one of the reasons I don’t like realist fiction.

    As Papa Whitman once said, “I contain multitudes.”

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