Maud Newton’s reply to my post on Deborah Solomon prompted me to do a little reading and reflection on the subject of irony, which I studied too long ago to remember any of it. (Actually, I remembered just one name – D. C. Muecke – which I never heard before or since. But the man knew his irony.)
Since I didn’t mean “ironic” as Maud defined it, I did a little surfing to figure out what I meant. (I rely on the Internet the way Mr. Bagnet relies on Mrs. Bagnet. I say “Old girl, give me my opinion. You know it. Tell me what it is.”)
According to a Ukrainian scholar:
The critical history of “irony” invites a broad distinction between two uses of the term. In its first sense, dominant till the end of the 18th century, the term refers to a rhetorical or verbal mode – the dissimulation of ignorance (Gr eironeia) by one who says other or less than he means (eiron) – as exemplified by Socrates in the Dialogues. Classical rhetoricians defined irony as a figure and a trope, medieval theorists did likewise, though, typically, as a sub-category of allegona. “Allegory is other-speech. One thing is spoken, another is meant” (Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae). Samuel Johnson’s single definition (with the illustration ‘Boling-broke was a holy man’) conforms with traditional usage in limiting “irony” to “a mode of speech in which the meaning is contrary to the words.”
Use of the term irony in its second, and much more complex, sense, was introduced by German romantic theorists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Friedrich Schlegel’s redefinition is pivotal: irony is “the recognition of the fact that the world in its essence is paradoxical and that an ambivalent attitude alone can grasp its contradictory totality” (Wellek). Irony so conceived, explains Schlegel, is by nature non-corrective in the sense that, like Socratic wisdom, it is self-regarding and endless. “No things are more unlike than satire, polemic, and irony. Irony in the new sense is self-criticism [Selbstpolemik] surmounted, it is never-ending satire.
Neat thing about this passage is that it defines “irony” in the sense I intended– “the dissimulation of ignorance by one who says other or less than he means” seems to be exactly what Solomon is doing – as well as in Maud’s sense (via Johnson), and distinguishes both these from yet another meaning that is broader and more ambiguous. I also liked the connection to Socratic dialogue, which I hadn’t thought of, even though Solomon’s piece is a dialogue too.
(Comparing Solomon and Socrates — surely I’m being ironic?)
Which brings me to Maud’s other question: how do you tell if someone is being ironic? This time I turned to my bookshelf for my musty copy of Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Irony. (That time the basement flooded.) Booth’s better known book is The Rhetoric of Fiction (one of the defining texts for the concept of the “unreliable narrator”), but the irony book is pretty interesting too. The book distinguishes between seven kinds of irony:
The dimensions are defined as follows:
Stable/Unstable – Intended meaning inherently clear vs. ambiguous
Overt/Covert – Presence of irony clear or unclear
Local/Infinite – Scope of the negation represented by the irony (ranging from “the opposite of this specific statement is true” to “the universe is ambiguous and unknowable.”)
It seems to me that Solomon’s piece is more understandable as unstable-covert irony than as the product of accident or sloppiness. Although I think Maud’s on the right track when she attributes this kind of irony to Americans in particular. For everyday examples, I think of David Letterman’s frequent refrain after telling a joke: “I don’t even know what that means!” – and Jon Stewart, who undermines his meaning even when it’s clear – “I’m just the dancing monkey.”
In Chapter 3, “Is it Ironic?” Booth posits five “clues” that help us determine whether a piece of writing is ironic or not:
1. Straightforward warnings in the author’s voice, often in titles or epigraphs, or (in books) introductions or post-scripts. Kenneth Burke: “I must impress it upon the reader that many of the statements made in my story with an air of great finality should, as Sir Thomas Browne said even of his pious writings, be taken somewhat ‘tropically.’”
2. Known error proclaimed. Fractured cliches, misquotations from other works, or violations of “conventional judgment” are common. Nabokov, Ada: “‘All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,’ says a great Russian writer from the beginning of a famous novel …”
3. Conflicts of facts within the work. “A very great proportion of ironic essays could be said to have this essential structure: (a) a plausible but false voice is presented; (b) contradictions of this voice are introduced; (c) a correct voice is finally heard, repudiating all or most or some of what the ostensible speaker has said.”
4. Clashes of style. “If a speaker’s style departs notably from whatever the reader considers the normal way of saying a thing, or the way normal for this speaker, the reader may suspect irony.”
5. Conflicts of belief. “Finally, we are alerted whenever we notice an unmistakable conflict between the beliefs expressed and the beliefs we hold and suspect the author of holding.”
Like a lot of heuristics, this one turns out to be less useful in practice than you might expect. In fact, it’s really hard to tell when covert irony is at work; it’s a little like trying to tell when someone is lying. And as with lying, if you believe (or want to believe) in what’s being said, you may never see the irony even when it’s explained to you.
None of this helps us determine whether what we’re looking at is a case of intended irony that fails, as Maud suggests as a possibility here. If it is “failed irony,” why not subject it to a “straight” reading? Here’s why: if you believe the writer is intending but failing to be ironic, you’re granting that the apparent meaning isn’t the real one – in fact the real meaning may be the opposite. So accepting the apparent meaning at that point doesn’t seem logical — it’s more reasonable to say “I don’t think she means this, but I don’t know what the hell she does mean.”
Elsewhere Booth points out that irony is often used defensively. He quotes Swift’s Grub Street hack in A Tale of a Tub: “Where I am not understood, it shall be concluded, that something very useful and profound is coucht underneath.” I think I’d probably fault Solomon for irony-as-self-defense rather than writerly sloppiness. By adopting a tongue-in-cheek pose, a writer escapes censure for elitism, or naivete, or disrespect, or anything else indicated by her statements. But by evading responsibility for what she writes, she opens herself up to charges of dishonesty, frivolousness, or cowardice, depending on the seriousness of the subject.
You can decide for yourself how serious the subject of Poet Laureate of the United States is, though Joseph Epstein is happy to help.
Of course, if you don’t think Solomon is being ironic, none of this is relevant.