Monday, July 8, 2013

What is Irony?

Irony is like a bloodthirsty bunny.
You'll understand later, why.
A good question deserves a good answer. Recently, a friend of mine--who you should be aware of is an incredibly well-established man's man of Greek heritage--recently bought a flop-eared rabbit and named the cuddly thing Ares, claiming that as irony.  However what is truly ironic about the situation--the rabbit or the man? Irony seems to be an ever elusive quality that once is realized dissipates like it never existed in the first place. There seems to be some kind of need for defining irony as it always in modern film in literature is being defined over and over again.

What's with the 2000s
and these artsy book covers?
In the Young Adult Novel, Looking for Alaska, our protagonist encounters his roommate, nicknamed "the Colonel", at a boarding school who nicknames our pencil-thin protagonist "Pudge" ironically, and goes to explain that it's irony.  This along with the film Reality Bites, offers the idea that irony is labeling something its opposite.

Reality Bites (1994) literally says that irony is when the actual meaning is the complete opposite of the literal meaning. Which as the Nostalgia Chick points out isn't quite correct. I mean, if you open the dictionary, sure that's part of it, but if that were all that irony was--calling something its opposite--then calling the sky "ground" and the ground "sky" would count as irony--but it wouldn't. No, there's some other "hidden element" to irony that has to be there in order for the "opposite label/definition" definition works, and that element I have to say is the humor that exists as the same as "inside jokes".

No where is this made clearer than in Con Air (1997) by giving an example of a "bunch of idiots" partying on a plane to a song written by a band which died in a plane crash. The irony is lost on anyone who does not have the prior knowledge of the song and the band that recorded it, thus requiring our character to point out the irony of the situation. However, like every inside joke the humor evaporates once explained so that we're left at the end of the scene thinking our character who defined irony is a bit too intelligent in almost a proto-Hipster way. Hipsters, I should note love and revel in irony, thinking they invented it.

The irony... it burns... it burns!

Becoming Jane (2007) offers two competing views on irony--one that it is the merger of two opposites to reach a greater truth, and the other that it is an insult with a smile. Irony can be used to insult with someone as a smile--but usually that is sarcasm that does that, not irony. And while sarcasm is a complementary tool of irony, it is not I believe the end all and be all of irony. However the view offered by the character of Jane Austen (I am unsure whether she actually held the view touted in this film) I think arrives at probably the best truth. Definition and classification can only bring us so far that it can't quantify the unquantifiable, which is the realm from which irony comes from. In this sense irony is a paradox intentionally created to try and capture some larger truth that can't be reached through "normal" methods. It's not really so ironic to say that my friend's bunny named Ares is ironic itself, but if Ares himself is a bloodthirsty rabbit (thus living up to the reputation of the name), then the rabbit itself is ironic as two opposite notions are joined together in paradox. It isn't just enough there to have opposites clashing together, but clashing together in an act of paradox.

And there we have arrived at it, irony is at once an inside joke, a paradox, the unfathomable, the unquantifiable, and the opposite. And that is what it is as a literary device. However is irony a literary device or is there something more to it? Northrop Frye in his essay on mythos argues that irony along with satire makes up the "fourth mythos" of "winter" to comedy's spring, romance's summer, and tragedy's autumn. The first three stages he describes as satire, while the last three stages of the mythos he clearly ascribes to irony.

This is our king?
He calls the first stage "tragic irony" where our tragic heroes fail and are left utterly devastated due to their own undoings instead of that of fate or some supernatural power--essentially King Lear is this stage or any work by Tolstoy. This goes beyond the world view of tragedy, in which violating a force greater than the protagonist causes the downfall of the protagonist. No, in tragic irony there's nothing greater--no supernatural wonder--in irony God is as Nietzsche put him: dead. The only reason there's any tragedy is that a character falls, and he falls not attempting to break some sort of natural law of the universe, he falls by his own actions.

Along with freedom, dreams, and meaning, we lose any and all sense of the heroic. We can have characters, but they aren't the messianic heroes of Romance, or the heroic martyrs of Tragedy. Our characters fight for no causes, nor strive for anything greater--because there is nothing to do but exist, and if they try for something more it'd have no meaning and only bring suffering anyway. Pain and suffering occurs to our characters without any real cause or any true meaning--it simply occurs and our characters either succumb or endure it--and that's about as far from the sense of the heroic as you can get. Nowhere is this made anymore clear than in the film Brazil (1985), where our protagonist dreams of being a hero, but clearly can never be what he dreams--and that contrast creates a particular irony, especially considering the end where he imagines your stereotypical happy ending hero-triumphs scenario, but then is brought back to the harsh reality of being executed. We long for a hero in irony, but irony is the complete absence of such figures as "we're all in it together" and no one stands apart.

Vladimir and Estragon wait and wait and wait...
Fatalistic irony is the second stage where freedom and dreams are lost and our characters are left to merely muddle through these tough times. Of this stage, characters who are waiting for something to happen and in the meanwhile find ways to pass the time. I think probably the best example of this stage of irony is Waiting for Godot. Two men waiting by the side of the road day after day after day for someone named Godot to appear, but who never does--in fact we can never be sure if Godot even exists in the world of the play as the messenger sent to tell them that Godot won't make it today, but perhaps tomorrow--never has seen Godot himself either. It's in this stage that we get the idea that we're on an endless cycle, repeating things and simply having to entertain ourselves to pass the time as very little else changes.

Just when you thought things couldn't get worse...
The final stage is dystopian irony, which depicts a world of unrelieved bondage or hell on earth. Frye spends little time on this stage but paints that every age and every era while it has its utopian romance dreams of its own ideals, it also sees the dystopian irony nightmares of those same ideals taken to the extremes. This is the world of 1984, Brave New World, Brazil, or more recently in the first book of The Hunger Games series. It is typically depicted as an unchanging world of unending torment and enslavement. Death is not seen as a salvation remember because all that exists is this life, there is no afterlife, and life on earth is already hell. Of this stage, The Hunger Games is the lightest, as that society still has some sense of the heroic. The books goes out of their way to point out that Katniss isn't heroic herself, simply playing a role her society demands of her.

The other side of evolution
These three stages however seem to miss another stage that I believe exists between the seasonal aspects of Ironic Winter and Comic Spring (to keep with Frye's seasonal analogy), and that is Comic Irony. Comic Irony I'd assign to being the cusp between the world of irony and the world of comedy. Comic Irony can challenge our humanity while at the same time reaffirming it in an extremely hilarious way. This is the location of Absurdism, straddling between the world of Irony and the world of Comedy. The best example I can give is the Ionesco play Rhinoceros. Rhinoceros is about a small town in which slowly its inhabitants all transform into Rhinoceri to hilarious implications, eventually leaving one man left to be a man--and he soon comes to realize that there's nothing special about being the only human left and that compared to the Rhinoceri he's rather inferior with all his faults and flaws. He eventually comes to the conclusion that "people who attempt to maintain their individuality always come to a bad end"--a truly bittersweet realization before he himself knocks himself out of his doldrums and goes charging headlong into the Rhinos that were once his friends and neighbors. The world of suffering starts becoming laughable once again thanks to the absurd and surreal nature of it all, and from here we can begin to start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The world view of irony could be said to be extremely negative and pessimistic--reality becomes so "real" it becomes a torture cell, any meaning is lost and we're left with an utter wasteland to wander for the rest of our days, with the realization that this is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever shall be.  When one stops to truly think about the implications of irony, one gets caught in its force--and like a whirlpool is sucked to the murky bottom. Our one way out of such a hellhole is to see the absurdity of it all and laugh, as comic irony hints at.

While satire rules the day currently, irony has been trying many times to establish itself--which is why there have been many attempts to define it in literature and film lately. Personally I fear for when it does establish itself as the zeitgeist of the time--for if dystopian literature is irony in its purest expression...  do I even have to finish that sentence? Just remember that when it does finally take over, your ticket out of hell on earth is to laugh. Laughter will set you free.