Some thoughts on irony

It’s a pity about irony. It’s really interesting, but almost universally misunderstood. It can be funny — but it is not the same as humor. Ironic language can be delivered in a sarcastic tone — but irony is not the same thing as sarcasm. And, most importantly, it simply isn’t about things like dying on your birthday.

The best starting point for understanding irony is paradox. Like paradox, irony involves a juxtaposition of conditions which both do and do not appear to coexist or be capable of coexisting. In the case of irony, one of the conditions generally adheres to strict logic, while the other represents a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the logical principle at hand.

Frequently, the ironic juxtaposition is humorous as well as ironic, and that’s the reason that irony so often gets confused with humor. Here’s an example, in the form of an exchange between two professors (an exchange I overheard many years ago):

Professor 1: I told a student he was stupid today. 
Professor 2: Really?
Professor 1: Actually I got him to tell me how stupid he was.
Professor 2: Oh, the Socratic method!

(Professor 1, for the record, has a curmudgeonly streak but also a heart of gold.) The irony here resides in the juxtaposition of two propositions: that getting a student to work his own way to understanding an idea is the basis of Socratic method, and that a teacher would employ Socratic method to expose a weakness on the part of the student.

The irony, moreover, is a quality of the final statement itself. Irony is first and foremost a rhetorical device. That’s one way it differs from paradox: a paradox really is a set of internally contradictory conditions that can’t be resolved, whereas irony is, so to speak, the pronouncement of paradox in situations that don’t actually fail to resolve. Professor 2 spoke ironically. Humorously, too; but ironically.

Here’s another example — this time a mealtime conversation between students (of whom I was one) and their teacher. The teacher had, as he generally did at this weekly restaurant meal, ordered tongue.

A student: You really do like eating tongue, don't you?
Teacher: I agree with Mozart about the importance of silence. That's why I eat them so assiduously. 

If you like silence, you’ll eat tongues. That makes (a kind of) sense. But the idea that eating tongues will actually lead to more silence is absurd. The statement itself is ironic.

Actions can be ironic too. This example is a little more elaborate, but so good that I can’t resist it. My poker group plays a version of poker where your cards are lined up in front of you in a row, some face up and some face down. Over the course of the game, cards that were not wild can become wild. (Real poker players: please don’t wince.) When a card becomes wild, we typically push it forward about an inch so that there are two rows: the wild cards, and the non-wild and face-down cards.

One time I had only one card, and it became wild. I only had one row of cards — since only one card. Nonetheless, I reached down and pushed my single card forward an inch.

This action was ironic. Strictly speaking, it made sense: we push wild cards forward. But it was also absurd, since I only had one card; I wasn’t separating wild cards from non-wild cards. There’s no actual paradox involved because the situation was under my control, and indeed of my own making. The irony resided in the juxtaposition of the inexorable logic and the irreducible absurdity.

There is of course a ton more to say, but enough said for now. Irony is all around us, but often not recognized. I think it deserves better than it generally gets.