A Brief History of Irony

Jonathan Lear, author of A Case for Irony, offers up his own definition of irony in a Salon interview. He distinguishes irony from sarcasm and snark, which he considers evasions of a confrontation with the ideal self, the proper subject of irony.

[The] really core issue of irony is when it hits you about yourself and the living of your life. Am I really succeeding as the kind of person I want to be? What outstrips what I’m now doing? Where do I stand with respect to that? What am I going to do with that? That, I think, is the key experience of irony.

In short, irony is the difference between what I think and what I actually live through.

Lear says irony has almost completely vanished from American politics, which is not surprising in an age of ideological conformity. The job of jolting us from our complacencies has fallen to ironists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

I like Stewart and Colbert as much as the next person, but if they’re the high point of contemporary irony, then we live in a poor age for irony. Lear refuses to name a particular period as the golden age of irony, so let me suggest one: the Modernist era from 1895 to 1945.

The origin of modern literary irony is eighteenth-century satire, which was concerned with the evaporation of a common sense understanding of the world. Beginning with German Romanticism and spreading to French literature through Charles Baudelaire irony ceases to be situational and expands into something endemic to life in modernity. By the twentieth century irony becomes the master trope of the great incongruity between the finite ego and a universe that is utterly alien, purposeless, deterministic, and incomprehensibly vast. The Modernist depiction of this type of irony can be seen in the monadic relativism of Gide, Conrad, Pirandello, and Woolf, in the gaps and discontinuities they habitually explored and expressed.

For Lear contemporary irony is a property of a privileged middle-class life. Irony forces one to confront a failure of nerve, a forgetting of one’s commitments, especially to oneself. Implicit in Lear’s account is the possibility that irony is the first step to wholeness, that the self and world split can be eventually healed. This isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw in Lear’s definition of irony, for a number of commentators have pointed out that irony is usually accompanied by a vision of wholeness. Nevertheless, I prefer the dramatic despair of the old Modernist irony. Lear says irony “can get into your soul” and point to where you have failed to life to your ideals. Inside Mrs. Ramsay, however, isn’t a better, more perfect Mrs. Ramsay, but a “wedge-shaped core of darkness.”

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