I’m feeling ambivalent about irony. Certainly I’m grateful to it for providing me with some of the best laughs I get these days; mostly from British humorists, who are masters of the form. And ironic prose is often challengingly amusing, offering a showcase for a kind of chilly cleverness.
It must say something about our society that the use of irony has become so all-pervasive. Why do we rely on it so much in writing? Why do we frame so much of what we say with finger quotes?
It strikes me that irony is essentially a self-protective mechanism, disguised as a stylish gesture. It works by holding its cards close to the vest. When we’re being ironic, we allude to our point instead of throwing all of our weight behind it. We make a show of holding back our sincerity. Irony makes no claims to opening the heart, in either the speaker or the listener.
I think we often resort to irony out of frustration. I know that when I hear about, say, Obama’s cave-in on drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, or about working class reactionaries voting for tax breaks for the rich, I can feel the exasperation rising, forming itself into a scathing remark like a stalagmite of the soul. What would be the alternative to coming out with an inverted, bitter jibe? In this case it would mean confronting, head on, a momentary feeling of anguish. I think I make an unconscious decision that that would be too painful.
David Foster Wallace said irony was built on despair.
Adolescents are notorious for irony; which I think must be related to the fact that they haven’t yet formed a solid ego structure, and tend to care a great deal about being seen as cool. Astrologically speaking, Scorpio is the ironist of the zodiac. But because we understand the nature of water, we know that the sarcastic barbs for which this sign is notorious have their source in emotional vulnerability.
It’s remarkable, by contrast, how un-ironic writers from earlier epochs were. Many of the Victorian thinkers, even the sober, philosophical ones, come across now as eye-rollingly naïve. A good example is Charles Dickens, who condemned the injustices of his time in prose that strikes our modern tastes as unbearably sentimental. But there is one thing about his un-ironic tone, with its unabashed outrage, its florid idealism (he had an Aquarius Sun and a Sagittarius Moon conjunct Neptune, for heaven’s sake) that you can’t argue with: it passes the test of time. Irony is less able to make this claim.
We don’t have to delve back into history to find writing free of irony. Every now and again we find intelligent modern thinkers who lay bare their hearts without irony’s brittle armor; but they are rare. If we were to make a distinction between the smart and the wise – putting spiritual teachers like the Dalai Lama and Eckert Tolle in the second category — I think we’d find that the latter group use irony very infrequently, and then only with the gentlest touch imaginable. Most of the points these speakers make are put forth boldly and forthrightly. They tend to make their assertions simply, without a bunch of ornate qualifications, as acts of faith. They dare to condemn what needs to be condemned without putting their tongue in their cheek and without pulling any punches.
When, for example, Martin Luther King spoke out against “the madness of militarism,” he was making use of many skills, a poetic command of language and a deft public relations savvy among them. But he didn’t need irony to come up with a consummate catchphrase that rings in our ears fifty years later.
The Neptune in Pisces years (2011-25) are about feeling everything, even those feelings we are afraid of because we have labeled them as painful; though that is a problem born of our expectation. As we enter into this long Neptunian exercise, questioning our emotional conventions would be a good idea; because I don’t think we can feel fully and deeply within the censorship of self-insulating mechanisms like irony.
Daring to suspend irony would mean reaching into our hearts and feeling everything. This will certainly be humbling, which is the Neptunian lesson.
Maybe humble will become the new cool.