The Truth, Mainly - 11/26/2001

An English teacher's sermon in defense of irony
by Leon Satterfield

Look out. I feel a lecture coming on. And I can't help myself.

You can take the English teacher out of teaching, but you can't take teaching out of the English teacher. Especially when we get morally indignant.

I'm indignant about the goofy abuse of one of the central concepts in English teacherdom. I'm talking, of course, about the way the meaning of irony is being twisted.

I know, I know. The English language, like all living languages, is constantly in a state of flux. Spelling changes. Pronunciation changes. Grammar changes. Even meaning changes. It's inevitable.

But I'm throwing my body in front of this one. What's been happening to irony since September 11 is-or ought to be-criminal.

Want evidence? I got evidence.

Gerry Howard, editorial director for Broadway Books, said "I think somebody should do a marker that says irony died on 9-11-01."

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune opined that irony has been "crippling" the youth of America.

Roger Rosenblatt, in the September 24 issue of Time, wrote that "one good thing could come from this horror: It could spell the end of the age of irony"-an age "when the good folks in charge of America's intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously."

(Note my restraint in not pointing out that Rosenblatt's phrase "good folks" is ironic here.)

All this mistreatment of irony probably got started three years ago when Jedediah Purdy published an essay called "Age of Irony." He called it a time epitomized by Jerry Seinfeld who "resists disappointment by refusing to identify strongly with any project, relationship, or aspiration." Ironists, Purdy wrote, are disengaged; they "would rather watch the wheel than put down chips."

These guys should read Wayne Booth's book, "The Rhetoric of Irony."

Sure, I know that only English teachers have time to read books about irony. So here's my simplistic lecture-or maybe it's my simplistic sermon-on what irony really is.

All the people quoted above confuse irony with cynicism and detachment. That accounts for the September 11 connection, their point being that we've been made painfully aware that now it's time to toss out our irony and become idealistic and engaged again-in ways we haven't been since WWII. (Even though two of our greatest WWII novels, "Catch 22," and "Slaughterhouse Five," are ironic as all get out.)

But the essence of irony has almost nothing to do with cynicism and detachment. I don't mean that a detached cynic can't be an ironist; I just mean that cynicism and detachment are no more at the heart of irony than, say, vegetarianism is.

Irony is discourse that appears to be going in one direction while it's really going in another. It's two-level language, the subsurface in some way opposing the surface.

And while irony may be used for cynical and detached purposes, it is just as likely to be used for idealistic and deeply committed purposes.

Read again the wonderfully ironic moral climax of Mark Twain's masterpiece. The narrator is Huck Finn, a 13-year-old boy with what Twain elsewhere calls "a sound heart and a deformed conscience." Huck's surface narrative goes in one direction, Twain's subsurface narrative goes in another.

Huck's sound heart and deformed conscience collide near the end of the book when he has to decide whether to turn Jim in as a runaway slave, or to continue to help him escape slavery. Huck's deformed conscience leads him to write a note to Jim's owner telling her where her property is. Then his sound heart kicks in and he remembers all of Jim's acts of kindness in their flight down the Mississippi. Huck looks at the note he's just written.

"It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied it a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

"'All right, then, I'll go to hell'-and I tore it up."

Twain is being ironic, but Huck isn't. Huck really believes that helping a runaway slave escape is punishable by hellfire (he's heard pre-emancipation sermons) and he tears up his note anyway. But on the subsurface level of the narrative, Twain is implicitly inviting us to join him in admiration of Huck's morality-even as Huck believes his choice is sending him to hell.

Delicious irony. So warm and humane and committed that it can still bring tears to my eyes more than 50 years after I first read it.

But cynical and detached? Believing in nothing? Taking nothing seriously? Crippling our youth?

Yeah. Right.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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