Reflections from Limbo: The Death of Irony

Irony is overplayed and lost when its implicit sense comes too far forward and reveals itself as the foreground meaning, hence obliterating the critical distance the ironist requires in order to achieve his defining purposes. For the defining purposes of irony, pursued to varying degrees of emphasis by all ironists, are humor and philosophy–neither humor nor philosophy pursued independently of the other, but the two working together to produce the specific ironic effect. The effect, stated simplistically, is to tease the hearer or reader into self-understanding or doubt, thereby preparing the intellectual ground for the unprejudiced search for wisdom.

The ironist positions himself among his fellows in order the more subtly to influence or undermine them for the sake of their own improvement, where improvement means a shift in perspective from self-satisfied certainty, which is born of a deep emotional investment, to deeper investigation and analysis, which require some measure of detachment.

In order for the most serious ironist to accomplish the aims of his craft, then, he must have an audience prepared to believe in itself enough to take the ironist’s (somewhat flattering) surface sense at face value, at least to some degree. Otherwise, the slow explosion of doubt or reversal that provokes deeper thought will never occur. When the ironist is unable to achieve this effect due to the blunted nature of his audience, his work fails. The audience’s receptiveness to the subtle underlying meaning may be blunted by the dynamics of group thinking, as was the case at the trial of Socrates, where his famous, life-enhancing irony failed utterly because his jurors simply saw him as a muckraker insulting their intelligence.

But even the wholly successful irony may cease to be effective over time, as a new audience blunter or more cynical than the ironist’s original “victims” sees his once-subtle underlying sense as simply a truism or an offense, and therefore catalogs it as a mere statement, rather than as the moral tweak it was meant to be. As a result, whether that “mere statement” meets with approval or disapproval, it has lost its power to change men’s minds. It is no longer a conditioning for philosophical conversion, but only another “opinion” to be agreed with or rejected.

We live in such a time, perhaps the most blunted time in recorded history. To demonstrate this fact, and its effects on our receptiveness to once-successful irony, I submit the following test case.


The Place of the Damned
Jonathan Swift 

All folks who pretend to religion and grace,
Allow there’s a HELL, but dispute of the place:
But, if HELL may by logical rules be defined
The place of the damned -I’ll tell you my mind.
Wherever the damned do chiefly abound,
Most certainly there is HELL to be found:
Damned poets, damned critics, damned blockheads, damned knaves,
Damned senators bribed, damned prostitute slaves;
Damned lawyers and judges, damned lords and damned squires;
Damned spies and informers, damned friends and damned liars;
Damned villains, corrupted in every station;
Damned time-serving priests all over the nation;
And into the bargain I’ll readily give you
Damned ignorant prelates, and counsellors privy.
Then let us no longer by parsons be flammed,
For we know by these marks the place of the damned:
And HELL to be sure is at Paris or Rome.
How happy for us that it is not at home!

Wherever you are today, you know the place of the damned is very much “at home,” and you know that everyone else knows it, too–or is a progressive, and therefore beyond all hope of knowing anything.


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