Beyond Irony

I’m feeling ambivalent about irony. Certainly I’m grateful to it for providing me imageswith 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.

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17 comments
jessica
jessica

Janet, r.e. Dickens: His control-freakism I chalk up to his Venus-Pluto conjunction; those he loved (Venus) got the brunt of his obsessive-compulsiveness. The dark side of Sadge (a need to be right and an inability to admit being wrong) combined with that Neptune (self-delusion) to give rise to blatant hypocrisies and outright lying, shrouded in elaborate moral self-justifications. I see his arrogance as Aquarius-gone-wrong. I know exactly what Miriam Margolyes meant when she said, "I adore him; I despise him".

janet
janet

I am interested in how Dicken's Aquarius Sun and a Sagittarius Moon conjunct Neptune contributed to his conforming sadism and hubris. The twist in perception. I found his writings always suspect, the edge of narcissism ever present.

Anon and Ever
Anon and Ever

Irony can be a help or can be a sort of mask for a collective de-responsabilization... In this sense you are absolutely right... I also have this sensation of something false related to this excess of irony we see in our present... As if this world would be a pleasing place... While it is not... This world kills, this world destroys resources, and this world annihilates possibilities of thousands and thousands of people, and does all this absolutely with **no irony at all!

Brian George
Brian George

Hi Siri, Good point about vibration. In terms of listening to people speak, I have found, too, that things can work the opposite way. In Worcester, the city where I grew up, in the mid-1970s, I had a chance to hear the poet Robert Bly do a number of readings from his work. This was somewhat after the publication of “The Light Around the Body,” “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last,” and the translations of Rumi and Kabir, when he was at the height of his popularity. Many of the writers that I knew were big fans of Bly. My own feelings were mixed. Bly had certainly performed a service by calling the attention of US writers to other traditions from around the world—to South American Surrealism and Scandinavian contemplative nature poetry, for example—as well as for his passionate insistence that poetry should matter. To me, though, his work was of more interest for what it was trying to do than for what it usually did. The first time I heard Bly actually read I was pleasantly surprised—to the point of being shocked. I am still not sure about Bly’s level of spiritual sophistication at this time. I had always assumed that “the light around the body” was no more than a concept. When he read and moved, however, a kind of dancing energy began to swell, and then to ripple out over the audience, and then continue to intensify, until the energy was washing out over the audience in waves. I was not alone in experiencing this as ecstasy. Years later, I had a number of similar experiences when the Whirling Dervishes of Konya came to Boston. I knew, by this time, that the energy that Bly transmitted was not in any way a personal one. Oddly, perhaps, this first experience of hearing and seeing Bly did not change my opinion as to the literary value of his work, but it did make me vividly aware that communication works on a variety of levels.

Siri Lewis
Siri Lewis

Also, language as a sound has a vibration. I have noticed that there are times I have difficulty listening to certain people speak, not because of what they are saying but because of the way the sounds they produce make me feel.

Brian George
Brian George

Hi Siri, I have often thought about the spiritual implications of human speech—among other things, about what it means that humans must use language to communicate. It is a commonplace in some New Age circles that other-dimensional beings are more spiritual, and somehow more “evolved,” because they can communicate by telepathy. To me, this goes hand in hand with a general devaluation of the plane of physical experience—as if we were here by accident, and we simply didn’t know better! Against this, I would say that speech is a primordial power, and it is a power given in a unique degree to humans. The very opacity of language is a part of this; because of it we are free to think, and act, and imagine things that are outside of the control of any predetermined order. However much we might abuse this power, it is a key aspect of who and what we are. Language can, of course, become a trap, but its capacity for ambiguity—its trickster-like aspect—is also central to its liberating power. Its capacity to embody many contradictory meanings allows us to protect some core of creative darkness, and—at least potentially—to move fluently up and down the ladder between worlds.

Siri Lewis
Siri Lewis

I think the command of language in all its nuances is essential for the production and appreciation of irony. As a non native English speaker appreciating irony in English is elusive but good irony always enhances experiences in my native tongue.

Brian George
Brian George

Hi Jessica, “There was a time when only wise books were read”—Czeslaw Milosz In my previous comment—as you have, I am sure, figured out—my intention was not to disagree with you, but rather to call attention to a different type of irony. Hemingway said that it was essential for a writer to possess a “built-in bullshit detector.” A sense of irony is one of the signs that this detector is functioning properly. To me, a sense of irony is a particular instance of an ability to see the world from a multitude of angles—an ability which can also manifest in the form of visionary intuition, as the lightning flash that transforms sense into nonsense and nonsense into sense. My wife associates the birth of her sense of irony with her first psychedelic experience. As in Eastern Europe after World War II, as I have mentioned, the development of a sense of irony can be a matter of life and death, at least psychically; it allows one to see through and around and behind the Archontic force-fields of the “common wisdom.” During the last election, for example, I was a supporter of Hillary Clinton, who I saw as being one of the last defenders of New Deal Democratic tradition. It was a staple of the common wisdom, however, that Barack Obama was the far more “progressive” candidate. With stars in their eyes, many of my friends saw Obama as the reincarnation of John Kennedy. What I saw was an actor— with what might very well be a crypto- corporatist agenda. I could not help but see all of his talk about “Change” in a highly ironic light: Yes, the US is changing back into a Darwinian “survival-of-the-fittest” playground, red in tooth and claw, and ruled by robber barons from the 1890s that have now been rebranded as populists. It is always possible, of course, that Obama is a master strategist who is playing a kind of long-term, three-dimensional chess game. In this instance, I would be only too happy to be proven wrong! Here are a couple of context-subverting comments attributed to Diogenes that you might like: 1) “After being banished from Sinope, Diogenes said, ‘The Sinopeans have condemned me to banishment; I condemn them to stay at home!’” 2) “When asked how he would like to be buried, Diogenes replied 'face downwards.' When asked why, he explained that the Macedonians were rising in power so rapidly that the world would shortly be turned upside down and he would then be the right way up.” When I was at Mass College of Art, I had a philosophy teacher from Hungary called Jasminka Udoviki. She was an excellent teacher, but, perhaps because English was not her native language, or due to her passion for social justice, she seemed to have no sense of irony whatsoever. During one semester, she refused to grade any of my essays, claiming that they were too “poetic,” and that the language was too far outside the bounds of normal philosophical discourse. Unlike Nietzsche or Cioran, I suppose. Luckily, I still ended up with an A minus in the course. In retrospect, I can see that the problem was less one of metaphor than of irony. She would tend to take almost all of my ironic statements at face value. This meant that she would often think that I meant the exact opposite of what I actually meant; any subsequent arguments would then make no sense at all!

Brian George
Brian George

Hi Jessica, I have often had similar thoughts about a certain type of irony. If deployed as an all-purpose attitude toward the world, the subversive force of irony can quickly become boring. As the saying goes, “To a hammer everything looks like a nail.” Too much hyper-self-awareness is—ironically—not that different from unconsciousness. True insight is attentive to its object, whereas the judgment of the ironist is on everything and nothing, and all judgments must inevitably confirm his/her sense of superiority. Well, that settles that! As the agents of the City Beyond Time, we should no doubt strive to be 100% sincere. As a poet, however, I also have a somewhat different way of looking at the issue, for, without irony, there would be no modern poetry. Not every type of irony reflects the disengagement of the slacker. In fact, irony can be one of the primary weapons that allows a poet to take on an empire, and that empowers him to move freely against overwhelming odds. It is the pin that pops the metaphysical balloon, the slingshot that takes down Goliath. For example: I am truly in awe of some of the poetry that was written in Eastern Europe after World War II—when, for some period of time, literature itself was thought to be impossible. These writers--among them Milosz, Celan, and Herbert—give form to my intuitions as to how spiritual vision can be tempered by and integrated with a weight of historical knowledge. To all of these writers, irony was one of the primary weapons in their arsenal. To use it well was a matter of life or death. Here is the beginning of Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “Caligula Speaks”: __ Caligula Speaks Among all the citizens of Rome I loved only one Incitatus—a horse when he entered the Senate the unstainable toga of his coat gleamed in the midst of purple-lined assassins Incitatus possessed many merits he never made speeches had a stoic temperament I think at night in the stable he read the philosophers I loved him so much that one day I decided to crucify him but his noble anatomy made it impossible he accepted the honor of consulship with indifference exercised authority in the best manner that is not at all he would not be persuaded toward a lasting liason with my second wife Caesonia thus unfortunately the lineage of centaur ceasars was not engendered that is why Rome fell __ These writers often seem to be saying: Civilization does not automatically progress. True change does not come through politics. No technological solution can be expected to appear on the horizon. There is often a very visceral sense of the reality of evil, of bureaucratic corruption, and of the power of the lie. At the same time, there is no easy recourse to stern moralistic finger wagging. Something altogether more mysterious is often going on—the veil between the worlds has ripped, and a wave of supernatural force has begun to transfigure common objects. Irony here performs a function similar to that of metaphor—it is a method of linking seemingly discontinuous meanings, and of jumping between one level of reality and the next. Unlike the slacker version, this use of irony is expansive rather than contractive. It is a tool for liberation. Reading the best of Eastern European writers from this period, it is difficult for me not to view myself and my contemporaries as naive, and I look to them for clues as to how I might be possible to “begin beyond the end.” And, finally, here is Herbert’s “The Envoy of Mr Cogito”—a very non-ironic statement by an otherwise highly ironic writer. In it, the author gives us direct access into the world view and sense of purpose that underlie his use of irony. __ The Envoy of Mr Cogito Go where those others went to the dark boundary for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize go upright among those who are on their knees among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust you were saved not in order to live you have little time you must give testimony be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous in the final account only this is important and let your helpless Anger be like the sea whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten let you sister Scorn not leave you for the informers executioners cowards—they will win they will go to your funeral with relief will throw a lump of earth the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography and do not forgive truly it is not in your power to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn beware however of unnecessary pride keep looking at your clown's face in the mirror repeat: I was called—weren't there better ones than I beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring the bird with an unknown name the winter oak light on a wall the splendor of the sky they don't need your warm breath they are there to say: no one will console you be vigilant—when the light on the mountains gives the sign—arise and go as long as blood turns in the breast your dark star repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain repeat great words repeat them stubbornly like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand and they will reward you with what they have at hand with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap go because only in this way you will be admitted to the company of cold skulls to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes Be faithful Go

janet
janet

IN reference to C. Dickens and 'his florid idealism" I understand C.Dickens as a man of small wit and integrity. I give this statement from Rev. John O'Rourke,P.P 1874 Th history of the Great Famine 1847 "Charles Dickens is looked upon not only as the strenuous denouncer of vice, but as the happy exponent of the higher and purer feelings of human nature also. For three-fourths of his life he wrote like a man who felt he had a mission to preach toleration, philanthropy—universal benevolence. He had travelled much. He had been over Belgium and France; he was through the Rhenish Provinces; in all which places the people are Catholics; they have received the highest praise from travellers and writers for their industry; their thrift; their cleanliness; Charles Dickens saw all this, but it never occurred to him to credit their religion with it. When the contrary occurs, and when fault is to be found, Popery, like a hack-block kept for such purposes, is made responsible, and receives a blow. He had, indeed, a sad misgiving that the religion of Ireland lay deep at the root of her sorrows. Surely this is enough to try one's patience. We have passed through and out-lived the terrible codes of Elizabeth and James and Anne and the two first Georges, under which, gallows-trees were erected on the hill side for our conversion or extinction; we have even survived the iron heels and ruthless sabres of Cromwell's sanctimonious troopers; and we can go back upon the history of those times calmly enough now. But this "sad misgiving" of Mr. Dickens; this patronizing condescension; this contemptuous pity, is more than provoking. It is probable he had not the time or inclination to read deeply into Irish history, but he must have had a general knowledge of it more than sufficient to inform him, that there were causes in superabundance to account for the poverty and degradation of our people, without going to their religion for them. Instead of doing so, he should have confessed with shame and humiliation, that his own countrymen, for a long series of years, did everything in their power to destroy the image of God in the native Irish, by driving them like beasts of chase into the mountains, and bogs, and fastnesses, and over the Shannon. Our people suffered these things and much more for conscience sake; inflicted, as they were, by Mr. Dickens's countrymen, in the name of religion; in the name of conscience; in advancing, as they pretended, the sacred cause of the right of private judgment. He makes Popery responsible for the results. " This gives a truer insight into the action of Aquar sun and Sag moon conj Neptune.

charty durrant
charty durrant

Jessica thankyou again for an incredibly clever and insightful observation. Id like to add two things; 1. when i was growing up in the uk in the 70s the common "agreement" amoungst my parent's inteleectual coterie was that Americans didnt understand irony - it just wasnt in them. i kicked against it at the time but i could see the self rightious seeds of the superior Brits feeling they had a handle on, clever, whitty, disparaging Irony. That isnt true now and i notice that most of the kids profgrammes on Disney channel are peppered with irony. Though i still think the Simpsons ( or as we like to call it in our hosue - the symptoms) has a very rye and clever use of said irony. 2. Irony has a little sister and her sister has been rampaging for too long now she is called; judgement. Irony and judgemental behaviour are always close bedfellows, more lack of love is suppose. It is always in the3 hands of the deliverer and some do irony very well as joe Brink pointed out, But i look forward when we stop trashing and teasing and deriding our fellow men/women and can just accept each other! Thanks Jessica you are amazing!

Joel Brink
Joel Brink

I think of it as a parrying game, like fencing, where both parties are at once attacking and fending off their opponent's attack. That's why it's not more effective, or even memorable. You may press your opponent back for awhile, or s/he may manage to cut you above the eye, but in the larger scheme of things there's "no skin in the game." The jibe and the quip are glancing blows unless wielded by a master like Oscar Wilde, in which case they'll be cut into your headstone and reputation for all time.

sistertongue
sistertongue

Irony in and of itself is a useful form of humour. When over-used, however, it becomes a stultified and addictive stance toward the world - it is transformed, indeed, into a defense mechanism. This is so with all aspects of our being. Having a gifted intellect is wonderful, though it is easily transformed as well into a defensive stance when all aspects of life become intellectualized. Health is determined by the range of affective and behavioral responsiveness of an individual within the context in which they live. Adaptability and flexibility are key. A beautiful example of the use of wise, neptunian humor can be found in the writings of Pema Chodron, who, without reservation, often divulges very personal aspects of her own life first to demonstrate our very universal foibles (the ability to laugh at one's self is a high order of spiritual awareness) and then to let us in on how she works her way through her own ego reactions to a more adult and graceful interaction with the world. This is the unique opportunity neptune in pisces offers us - to identify the personal and ultimately transform it into the universal. It's greatest ability is to allow us to hold the me and we together. Our current cultural cynicism is, indeed, a defense mechanism designed to stave off the profound sense of collective helplessness in the face of overwhelming despair. That cynicism, unless overcome, will become the downfall of us all.

Anna Maria
Anna Maria

Thank you so much for saying this. As a 50 year old who has always enjoyed irony and sarcasm, I have found in recent years that it is just way overused; no longer a tool, but a compulsion, a default response that has become a norm, making heartfelt sincerity seem abnormal and suspicious. I think your points about it providing an armor from despair to be very accurate. So glad Big Sky Astrology posted a link to your site on FB; I look forward to reading more.

Jim Guinness
Jim Guinness

Great article, great points. Thanks so much. Forthright writing and speaking is rarer these days, but no less powerful.

0-degrees Aries
0-degrees Aries

Ironically,(pun intended)irony requires a sense of humor, even up against the darkest and most dangerous of Plutonic fears. Freud et al wrote and spoke of humor as a psychological defense of the most evolved order. Nonetheless, and to your point, Jessica, joking/joshing/kidding/irony are functions of that level of defense. My sense is that we employ sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek in an effort to soften the blow of some of the harsh, gut-kicking realities we need to take in and metabolize in this zeitgeist. Perhaps it isn't so bad that we use these various forms of humor to make some of the unvarnished truth more palatable. Underneath the barbs and the sucker-punches, we usually "get" where the joker is coming from and if she/he has a good heart. But yes, in a perfect world, it would probably be quite refreshing for frankness and sobriety to prevail sans the over-the-top mania of irony and high farce.

John
John

Very cool, and a little ironic to find such wisdom only on a relatvely obscure, but insightful and wisdom-filled site. too bad... kudos are in order, but I might put myself in danger of not being ironic enough.