The cultural critic José Ortega y Gasset wrote in 1925, “I much doubt that any young person of our time can be impressed by a poem, a painting, or a piece of music that is not flavored with a dash of irony.” Is it possible that this is no longer true today, that irony failed to survive postmodernism?
What do we mean by irony?
There are many types of irony: dramatic irony, structural irony, romantic irony, sarcasm, but what we generally refer to as irony is verbal irony. What irony does is dissemble the meaning of the words; it is a pronouncement where the meaning implied differs significantly from what is being expressed.
I have noticed during the last 10 or 20 years of being online that irony often fails when used in an internet conversation or posting. It is a truth universally acknowledged that people who respond to the most mundane statements by laughing out loud and rolling on the floor might be less likely to recognize irony, especially subtle irony. I can’t tell you the number of posts I have made over the years that returned an Emily Litella angry response. Usually a return explanation elicits a “never mind,” but not always. Some people seem to lack the gene that recognizes, acknowledges, and enjoys irony. My general technique is to broaden the irony, making it so outlandish and obvious that it is impossible to misunderstand. Funny thing, though, I still get the negative responses that indicate my obviousness was not so obvious after all.
I would love to blame this one on Ronald Reagan too, but that would be a stretch even for me.
When I was a wee bairn, there was a totally inane joke going around that had us boys rolling on the floor laughing out loud; it went something like this—”Wanna hear a dirty story? Sure! [pant pant] A boy ran around the corner and fell into a mud puddle”—now that was irony, and not too subtle.
It remains to question whether contemporary literature, especially since, say, Ronald Reagan, has maintained the level of irony that Ortega referred to or whether it has declined and in many instances disappeared. Since I strongly believe most books written today are just copies of older books, many of the literary techniques, including irony, are being replicated every time a new blockbuster is stacked on the front-rounder at Barnes and Noble (If literature were television we could watch a few episodes of I Love Lucy and then sell the television set because 60 years later they are still copying what Desiderio Arnaz did in the early 1950s.) Thank goodness there are some fresh and imaginative books being written which are escaping from the old saws such as the unreliable narrator and developing new and exciting forms of irony, or whatever we might consider irony today.
What current books have you read recently that extend or replace the concept of irony that has been so central in art during the previous century?