Socrates (c. 470BCE – 399BCE) has been central to discussions of irony from his time into the present (copy of bronze head by Lysippus in the Louvre).

Irony, in its broadest sense, is the juxtaposition of what on the surface appears to be the case and what is actually the case or to be expected. It typically figures as a rhetorical device and literary technique. In some philosophical contexts, however, it takes on a larger significance as an entire way of life.

Irony has been defined in many different ways, and there is no general agreement about the best way to organize its various types. This does not mean, however, that it is not a topic about which a great deal can be meaningfully said.

Etymology

'Irony' comes from the Greek eironeia (εἰρωνεία) and dates back to the 5th century BCE. This term itself was coined in reference to a stock-character from Old Comedy (such as that of Aristophanes) known as the eiron, who dissimulates and affects less intelligence than he has—and so ultimately triumphs over his opposite, the alazon, a vain-glorious braggart.[1][2][3]

Although initially synonymous with lying, in Plato's dialogues eironeia came to acquire a new sense of "an intended simulation which the audience or hearer was meant to recognise".[4] More simply put, it came to acquire the general definition, "the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect".[5]

Until the Renaissance, the Latin ironia was considered a part of rhetoric, usually a species of allegory, along the lines established by Cicero and Quintilian near the beginning of the 1st century CE.[6] "Irony" entered the English language as a figure of speech in the 16th century with a meaning similar to the French ironie, itself derived from the Latin.[7]

Around the end of the 18th century, "irony" takes on another sense, primarily credited to Friedrich Schlegel and other participants in what came to be known as early German Romanticism. They advance a concept of irony that is not a mere "artistic playfulness", but a "conscious form of literary creation", typically involving the "consistent alternation of affirmation and negation".[8] No longer just a rhetorical device, on their conception, it refers to an entire metaphysical stance on the world.[9]

The problem of definition

It is commonplace to begin a study of irony with the acknowledgement that the term quite simply eludes any single definition.[10][11][12] Philosopher Richard J. Bernstein opens his Ironic Life with the observation that a survey of the literature on irony leaves the reader with the "dominant impression" that the authors are simply "talking about different subjects".[13] Indeed, Geoffrey Nunberg, a lexical semantician, observes a trend of sarcasm replacing the linguistic role of verbal irony as a result of all this confusion.[14]

In the 1906 The King's English, Henry Watson Fowler writes, "any definition of irony—though hundreds might be given, and very few of them would be accepted—must include this, that the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same." A consequence of this, he observes, is that an analysis of irony requires the concept of a double audience "consisting of one party that hearing shall hear & shall not understand, & another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more & of the outsiders' incomprehension".[15]

From this basic feature, literary theorist Douglas C. Muecke identifies three basic characteristics of all irony:

  1. Irony depends on a double-layered or two-story phenomenon for success: "At the lower level is the situation either as it appears to the victim of irony (where there is a victim) or as it is deceptively presented by the ironist." The upper level is the situation as it appears to the reader or the ironist.[16]
  2. The ironist exploits a contradiction, incongruity, or incompatibility between the two levels.
  3. Irony plays upon the innocence of a character or victim: "Either a victim is confidently unaware of the very possibility of there being an upper level or point of view that invalidates his own, or an ironist pretends not to be aware of it".[17]

According to Wayne Booth, this uneven double-character of irony makes it a rhetorically complex phenomenon. Admired by some and feared by others, it has the power to tighten social bonds, but also to exacerbate divisions.[18]

Types of irony

How best to organize irony into distinct types is almost as controversial as how best to define it. There have been many proposals, generally relying on the same cluster of types; still, there is little agreement as to how to organize the types and what if any hierarchical arrangements might exist. Nevertheless, academic reference volumes standardly include at least all four of verbal irony, dramatic irony, cosmic irony, and Romantic irony as major types.[19][20][21][22] The latter three types are sometimes contrasted with verbal irony as forms of situational irony, that is, irony in which there is no ironist; so, instead of "he is being ironical" we would instead say "it is ironical that".[23][9]

Verbal irony is "a statement in which the meaning that a speaker employs is sharply different from the meaning that is ostensibly expressed".[1] Moreover, it is produced intentionally by the speaker, rather than being a literary construct, for instance, or the result of forces outside of their control.[19] Samuel Johnson gives as an example the sentence, "Bolingbroke was a holy man" (he was anything but).[24][25] Verbal irony is sometimes also considered to encompass various other literary devices such as hyperbole and its opposite, litotes, conscious naïveté, and others.[26][27]

Dramatic irony provides the audience with information of which characters are unaware, thereby placing the audience in a position of advantage to recognize their words and actions as counter-productive or opposed to what their situation actually requires.[28] Three stages may be distinguished — installation, exploitation, and resolution (often also called preparation, suspension, and resolution) — producing dramatic conflict in what one character relies or appears to rely upon, the contrary of which is known by observers (especially the audience, sometimes to other characters within the drama) to be true.[29] Tragic irony is a specific type of dramatic irony.[30]

Cosmic irony, sometimes also called "the irony of fate", presents agents as always ultimately thwarted by forces beyond human control. It is strongly associated with the works of Thomas Hardy.[28][30] This form of irony is also given metaphysical significance in the work of Søren Kierkegaard, among other philosophers.[8]

Romantic irony is closely related to cosmic irony, and sometimes the two terms are treated interchangeably.[9] Romantic irony is distinct, however, in that it is the author who assumes the role of the cosmic force. The narrator in Tristam Shandy is one early example.[31] The term is closely associated with Friedrich Schlegel and the early German Romantics, and in their hands it assumed a metaphysical significance similar to cosmic irony in the hands of Kierkegaard.[9] It was also of central importance to the literary theory advanced by New Criticism in mid-20th century.[31][27]

Another typology

Building upon the double-level structure of irony, self-described "ironologist" D. C. Muecke proposes another, complimentary way in which we may typify, and so better understand, ironic phenomena. What he proposes a dual distinction between and among three grades and four modes of ironic utterance.

Three grades of irony

Grades of irony are distinguished "according to the degree to which the real meaning is concealed". Muecke names them overt, covert, and private:[32]

Four modes of irony

Muecke's typology of modes are distinguished "according to the kind of relationship between the ironist and the irony". He calls these impersonal irony, self-disparaging irony, ingénue irony, and dramatized irony:[32]

The rhetorical dimension

To consider irony from a rhetorical perspective means to consider it as an act of communication.[40] In A Rhetoric of Irony, Wayne C. Booth seeks to answer the question of "how we manage to share ironies and why we so often do not".[18]

Because irony involves expressing something in a way contrary to literal meaning, it always involves a kind of "translation" on the part of the audience.[41] Booth identifies three principle kinds of agreement upon which the successful translation of irony depends: common mastery of language, shared cultural values, and (for artistic ironies) a common experience of genre.[42]

A consequence of this is that there is more at stake in whether one grasps an ironic utterance than there is in whether one grasps an utterance presented straight. As he puts it, the use of irony is

An aggressively intellectual exercise that fuses fact and value, requiring us to construct alternative hierarchies and choose among them; [it] demands that we look down on other men's follies or sins; floods us with emotion-charged value judgments which claim to be backed by the mind; accuses other men not only of wrong beliefs but of being wrong at their very foundations and blind to what these foundations imply[.][43]

This is why, when we misunderstand an intended ironic utterance, we often feel more embarrassed about our failure to recognize the incongruity than we typically do when we simply misunderstand a statement of fact.[44] When one's deepest beliefs are at issue, so too, often, is one's pride.[43] Nevertheless, even as it excludes its victims, irony also has the power to build and strengthen the community of those who do understand and appreciate.[45]

General irony, or "irony as a way of life"

Typically "irony" is used, as described above, with respect to some specific act or situation. In more philosophical contexts, however, the term is sometimes assigned a more general significance, in which it is used to describe an entire way of life or a universal truth about the human situation. Even Booth, whose interest is expressly rhetorical, notes that the word "irony" tends to attach to "a type of character — Aristophanes' foxy eirons, Plato's disconcerting Socrates — rather than to any one device".[46] In these contexts, what is expressed rhetorically by cosmic irony is ascribed existential or metaphysical significance. As Muecke puts it, such irony is that of "life itself or any general aspect of life seen as fundamentally and inescapably an ironic state of affairs. No longer is it a case of isolated victims.... we are all victims of impossible situations".[47][48]

This usage has its origins primarily in the work of Friedrich Schlegel and other early 19th-century German Romantics and in Søren Kierkegaard's analysis of Socrates in The Concept of Irony.[49][48]

Friedrich Schlegel

Friedrich Schlegel was at the forefront of the intellectual movement that has come to be known as Frühromantik, or early German Romanticism, situated narrowly between 1797 and 1801.[50] For Schlegel, the "romantic imperative" (a rejoinder to Immanuel Kant's "categorical imperative") is to break down the distinction between art and life with the creation of a "new mythology" for the modern age.[51] In particular, Schlegel was responding to what he took to be the failure of the foundationalist enterprise, exemplified for him by the philosophy of Johann Gottlieb Fichte.[52]

Portrait by Franz Gareis

Irony is a response to the apparent epistemic uncertainties of anti-foundationalism. In the words of scholar Frederick C. Beiser, Schlegel presents irony as consisting in "the recognition that, even though we cannot attain truth, we still must forever strive toward it, because only then do we approach it." His model is Socrates, who "knew that he knew nothing", yet never ceased in his pursuit of truth and virtue.[53][54] According to Schlegel, instead of resting upon a single foundation, "the individual parts of a successful synthesis formation support and negate each other reciprocally".[55]

Although Schlegel frequently does describe the Romantic project with a literary vocabulary, his use of the term "poetry" (Poesie) is non-standard. Instead, he goes back to the broader sense of the original Greek poiētikós, which refers to any kind of making.[56] As Beiser puts it, "Schlegel intentionally explodes the narrow literary meaning of Poesie by explicitly identifying the poetic with the creative power in human beings, and indeed with the productive principle in nature itself." Poetry in the restricted literary sense is its highest form, but in no way its only form.[57]

Irony is not the only literary term to which Schlegel assigns extra-literary significance. Indeed, irony itself is presented as the uneasy synthesis of allegory and wit. Summarized by scholar Manfred Frank: "As allegory, the individual exceeds itself in the direction of the infinite, while as wit the infinite allows the unity that breaks from the wholeness of the series to appear selectively."[58] According to Schlegel, allegory points beyond itself toward that which can be expressed only poetically, not directly.[59] He describes wit as a "selective flashing" (Aufblitzen); its content, he says, is "always paradoxical", its unifications of the finite and the infinite are always fragmentary.[60]

These two figures cannot exist together at once. What allegory attains indirectly by conjoining, wit attains only momentarily by total individuation, the fragmentary finitude of which contradicts the intended infinite content.[61] Schlegel presents irony as the "structural whole" sought by these two "abstract" figures. It accomplishes this by "surpassing of all self-imposed limits".[62] Frank cites Schlegel's descriptions from a variety of sources:

Irony consists in a "constant alternation (Wechsel) between self-creation and self-destruction", in a "wonderful, eternal alternation between enthusiasm and irony", between "creation and destruction", an "eternal oscillation between self-expansion and self-limitation of thought", a "reciprocal play (Wechselspiel) between the infinite and the finite", it is "the pulse and alternation between universality and individuality"—no matter how the contrasting pairs may be articulated.[63]

In this way, according to Schlegel, irony captures the human situation of always striving towards, but never completely possessing, what is infinite or true.[64]

Hegel's misinterpretation

This presentation of Schlegel's account of irony is at odds with many recent interpretations, which, neglecting the larger historical context, have been predominately postmodern.[65][66] These readings overstate the irrational dimension of early Romantic thought at the expense of its rational commitments—precisely the dilemma irony is introduced to resolve.[67]

Already in Schlegel's own day, G. W. F. Hegel was unfavorably contrasting Romantic irony with that of Socrates. On Hegel's reading, Socratic irony partially anticipates his own dialectical approach to philosophy. Romantic irony, by contrast, Hegel alleges to be fundamentally trivializing and opposed to all seriousness about what is of substantial interest.[68] According to Rüdiger Bubner, however, Hegel's "misunderstanding" of Schlegel's concept of irony is "total" in its denunciation of a figure actually intended to preserve "our openness to a systematic philosophy".[69]

It is Hegel's interpretation, however, that would be taken up and amplified by Kierkegaard, who further extends the critique to Socrates himself.[70]

Kierkegaard: irony as "infinite, absolute negativity"

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and others, saw irony, such as that used by Socrates, as a disruptive force with the power to undo texts and readers alike.[71] The phrase itself is taken from Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics, and is applied by Kierkegaard to the irony of Socrates. This tradition includes 19th-century German critic and novelist Friedrich Schlegel ("On Incomprehensibility"), Charles Baudelaire, Stendhal, and the 20th century deconstructionist Paul de Man ("The Concept of Irony"). In Kierkegaard's words, from On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates:

[Socratic] irony [is] the infinite absolute negativity. It is negativity, because it only negates; it is infinite, because it does not negate this or that phenomenon; it is absolute, because that by virtue of which it negates is a higher something that still is not. The irony established nothing, because that which is to be established lies behind it...[72]

Where much of philosophy attempts to reconcile opposites into a larger positive project, Kierkegaard and others insist that irony—whether expressed in complex games of authorship or simple litotes—must, in Kierkegaard's words, "swallow its own stomach". Irony entails endless reflection and violent reversals, and ensures incomprehensibility at the moment it compels speech. Similarly, among other literary critics, writer David Foster Wallace viewed the pervasiveness of ironic and other postmodern tropes as the cause of "great despair and stasis in U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fictionists [ironies] pose terrifically vexing problems".[73]

Overlap with rhetorical irony

Referring to earlier self-conscious works such as Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, D. C. Muecke points particularly to Peter Weiss's 1964 play, Marat/Sade. This work is a play within a play set in a lunatic asylum, in which it is difficult to tell whether the players are speaking only to other players or also directly to the audience. When The Herald says, "The regrettable incident you've just seen was unavoidable indeed foreseen by our playwright", there is confusion as to who is being addressed, the "audience" on the stage or the audience in the theatre. Also, since the play within the play is performed by the inmates of a lunatic asylum, the theatre audience cannot tell whether the paranoia displayed before them is that of the players, or the people they are portraying. Muecke notes that, "in America, Romantic irony has had a bad press", while "in England...[it] is almost unknown."[74]

In a book entitled English Romantic Irony, Anne Mellor writes, referring to Byron, Keats, Carlyle, Coleridge, and Lewis Carroll:[75]

Romantic irony is both a philosophical conception of the universe and an artistic program. Ontologically, it sees the world as fundamentally chaotic. No order, no far goal of time, ordained by God or right reason, determines the progression of human or natural events […] Of course, romantic irony itself has more than one mode. The style of romantic irony varies from writer to writer […] But however distinctive the voice, a writer is a romantic ironist if and when his or her work commits itself enthusiastically both in content and form to a hovering or unresolved debate between a world of merely man-made being and a world of ontological becoming.

Similarly, metafiction is: "Fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions (esp. naturalism) and narrative techniques."[76] It is a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, thereby exposing the fictional illusion.

Gesa Giesing writes that "the most common form of metafiction is particularly frequent in Romantic literature. The phenomenon is then referred to as Romantic Irony." Giesing notes that "There has obviously been an increased interest in metafiction again after World War II."[77]

For example, Patricia Waugh quotes from several works at the top of her chapter headed "What is metafiction?". These include:

The thing is this. That of all the several ways of beginning a book […] I am confident my own way of doing it is best

Since I've started this story, I've gotten boils […]

— Ronald Sukenick, The Death of the Novel and Other Stories[78]

Additionally, The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodern Fiction says of John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, "For the first twelve chapters...the reader has been able to immerse him or herself in the story, enjoying the kind of 'suspension of disbelief' required of realist novels...what follows is a remarkable act of metafictional 'frame-breaking'". As evidence, chapter 13 "notoriously" begins: "I do not know. This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind. […] if this is a novel, it cannot be a novel in the modern sense".[79]

Related phenomena

Sarcasm

A fair amount of confusion has surrounded the issue of the relationship between verbal irony and sarcasm. For instance, various reference sources assert the following:

The psychologist Rod A. Martin, in The Psychology of Humour (2007), is quite clear that irony is where "the literal meaning is opposite to the intended" and sarcasm is "aggressive humor that pokes fun".[85] He has the following examples: for irony he uses the statement "What a nice day" when it is raining. For sarcasm, he cites Winston Churchill, who is supposed to have said, when told by Bessie Braddock that he was drunk, "But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly", as being sarcastic, while not saying the opposite of what is intended.

Psychology researchers Lee and Katz have addressed the issue directly. They found that ridicule is an important aspect of sarcasm, but not of verbal irony in general. By this account, sarcasm is a particular kind of personal criticism levelled against a person or group of persons that incorporates verbal irony. For example, a woman reports to her friend that rather than going to a medical doctor to treat her cancer, she has decided to see a spiritual healer instead. In response her friend says sarcastically, "Oh, brilliant, what an ingenious idea, that's really going to cure you." The friend could have also replied with any number of ironic expressions that should not be labeled as sarcasm exactly, but still have many shared elements with sarcasm.[86]

Most instances of verbal irony are labeled by research subjects as sarcastic, suggesting that the term sarcasm is more widely used than its technical definition suggests it should be.[87] Some psycholinguistic theorists[88] suggest that sarcasm, hyperbole, understatement, rhetorical questions, double entendre, and jocularity should all be considered forms of verbal irony. The differences between these rhetorical devices (tropes) can be quite subtle and relate to typical emotional reactions of listeners, and the goals of the speakers. Regardless of the various ways theorists categorize figurative language types, people in conversation who are attempting to interpret speaker intentions and discourse goals do not generally identify the kinds of tropes used.[89]

Misuse of the term

Some speakers of English complain that the words irony and ironic are often misused,[90] though the more general casual usage of a contradiction between circumstance and expectation originated in the 1640s.[91][example needed]

Tim Conley cites the following: "Philip Howard assembled a list of seven implied meanings for the word "ironically", as it opens a sentence:

The term is sometimes used as a synonym for incongruous and applied to "every trivial oddity" in situations where there is no double audience.[93]

See also

References

  1. ^ a b Abrams & Harpham 2008, p. 165.
  2. ^ Preminger & Brogan 1993, p. 633.
  3. ^ Frye 1990, p. 172.
  4. ^ Colebrook 2004, p. 6.
  5. ^ OED staff 2016, sense 1.a.
  6. ^ Colebrook 2004, p. 7.
  7. ^ OED staff 2016, etymology.
  8. ^ a b Preminger & Brogan 1993, p. 634.
  9. ^ a b c d Cuddon 2013, p. 372.
  10. ^ Muecke 2023, pp. 14–15.
  11. ^ Booth 1974, pp. ix–x.
  12. ^ Colebrook 2004, p. 1.
  13. ^ Bernstein 2016, p. 1.
  14. ^ Kreuz 2020, ch. 9, § "Skunked Terms?".
  15. ^ Fowler 1994.
  16. ^ Muecke 2023, p. 19.
  17. ^ Muecke 2023, p. 20.
  18. ^ a b Booth 1974, p. ix.
  19. ^ a b Preminger & Brogan 1993, pp. 633–35.
  20. ^ Abrams & Harpham 2008, pp. 165–68.
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  27. ^ a b Preminger & Brogan 1993, p. 635.
  28. ^ a b Abrams & Harpham 2008, p. 167.
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  37. ^ Muecke 2023, pp. 87–88.
  38. ^ Muecke 2023, p. 91.
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  40. ^ Booth 1974, p. 7.
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  44. ^ Booth 1974, pp. xi, 1.
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  49. ^ Muecke 2023, pp. 119–22.
  50. ^ Beiser 2006, pp. 6–7.
  51. ^ Beiser 2006, p. 19.
  52. ^ Beiser 2006, pp. 107–08, 130.
  53. ^ Beiser 2006, pp. 128–29.
  54. ^ Bubner 2003, pp. 207–08.
  55. ^ Frank 2004, p. 202.
  56. ^ Beiser 2006, p. 16.
  57. ^ Beiser 2006, p. 15.
  58. ^ Frank 2004, p. 206.
  59. ^ Frank 2004, p. 208.
  60. ^ Frank 2004, p. 210.
  61. ^ Frank 2004, pp. 209–14.
  62. ^ Frank 2004, pp. 216–17.
  63. ^ Frank 2004, p. 217 (in-text citations to the German texts omitted).
  64. ^ Frank 2004, p. 218.
  65. ^ Beiser 2006, pp. 1–5.
  66. ^ Rush 2016, pp. 2–3.
  67. ^ Beiser 2006, p. 4.
  68. ^ Inwood 1992, pp. 146–50.
  69. ^ Bubner 2003, p. 213.
  70. ^ Bubner 2003, p. 215.
  71. ^ Kierkegaard, S, The concept of irony with continuous reference to Socrates (1841), Harper & Row, 1966, p. 278.
  72. ^ "Kierkegaard, D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on – The Concept of Irony". sorenkierkegaard.org. Archived from the original on 9 October 2017. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
  73. ^ Wallace, David Foster. "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction". Review of Contemporary Fiction. 13 (2): 151–194.
  74. ^ Muecke 2023, pp. 178–80.
  75. ^ Mellor, Anne K., English Romantic Irony, Harvard University Press, 1980, pp. 4, 187.
  76. ^ The Oxford English Dictionary, entry "metafiction".
  77. ^ Giesing, G., Metafictional Aspects in Novels by Muriel Spark, GRIN Verlag, 2004, p. 6.
  78. ^ Waugh, P., Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, Routledge, 2002, p. 1.
  79. ^ Nicol, B., The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodern Fiction, Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. 108–109.
  80. ^ Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926; reprinted to at least 2015)".
  81. ^ The Oxford English Dictionary, "irony"
  82. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica[edition needed]
  83. ^ Webster's Dictionary[edition needed]
  84. ^ Partridge in Usage and Abusage (1997)
  85. ^ Martin, R. A., The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach, Elsevier Academic Press, 2007. p. 13.
  86. ^ Lee & Katz, 1998.
  87. ^ Bryant & Fox Tree, 2002; Gibbs, 2000
  88. ^ e.g., Gibbs, 2000
  89. ^ Leggitt & Gibbs, 2000
  90. ^ "Learning to love Alanis Morissette's 'irony' – The Boston Globe". bostonglobe.com. Archived from the original on 25 November 2016. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
  91. ^ "irony – Origin and meaning of irony by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com. Archived from the original on 14 June 2017. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
  92. ^ Conley, T., Joyces Mistakes: Problems of Intention, Irony, and Interpretation, University of Toronto Press, 2011, p. 81. [1] Archived 2016-08-08 at the Wayback Machine
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