Now That’s Ironic

16 December 2008

Or, All is Not as it Should Appear

Clown, by Iujaz, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)Irony is the bitter afterthought of life, the little chuckle in the wind of fate that pushes against us as we shuffle through our days. I wrote of it recently in terms of humour – and what makes us laugh is surely that which acts against our expectations. But the concept is descended from the Greek for dissembler: eirōn, one who simulates inaccurately, who creates a false impression. Complimentary to its central role in the creation of laughter, irony is about surfaces being made to dissolve at the touch, gestures that misdirect, meaning given inappropriate substance.

Often irony has more than one level, which makes it all the more difficult to unravel, and all the more surprising in what it lays bare when the unravelling is done, once and again. The sad clown – a perfect embodiment of the notion itself – can often make us laugh, and in doing so elicits an ironic response to the initial irony (where confusion would be more appropriate, as it often is in kids faced with such a figure), although on reflection the whole scenario is, well, a little gaudy. Another misdirection; more dissembling.

So what moves my thoughts this way as the year fades, as Christmas nears and most people who care for it tend to be a little light of thought?  Oh the irony, it’s superb – it makes me chuckle then reflect on meaning turned back and forth against itself, again, once more and again. Given insistent clients in other areas entirely, I’ll be working through the Christmas holiday, at home, writing a tourism magazine.

It is, as I often like to say, a puzzling world.

The Joke’s on Us

18 October 2008

Irony in the History of Humour

Adversity will always bring on the chuckles. Anyone who has ever spent more than a short while in the Philippines will know that 500 years of plunder by a rapacious elite has been met with smiles and self-deprecating asides. Life just has to go on. And even more abrupt crises draw out the sort of humour that deflects us from thinking that chance alone has saved us from a particularly unpleasant fate. Iceland, you might know, is in deep trouble at the moment, but that might be all you know about it. “What’s the capital of Iceland?” asks Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. “About $20”.  We joke because it’s immediate – we understand the danger of the situation and are always prepared to laugh at someone else’s misfortune.

That’s the power of irony – the deflection of difficult meaning; saying something otherwise, usually in quite the opposite direction than is expected.

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