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.