Irony and the Meaning of Human Existence: The Wisdom of Classical Irony
“I have never done it before—stepping out of the life into the Alongside and looking at oneself living as if one were not alive. Do they all do that in your world, Piebald?” -The Green Lady, Perelandra, 1943 What is irony?  Irony is difficult to explicate with a definition. For example, the dictionary definition, though… The post Irony and the Meaning of Human Existence: The Wisdom of Classical Irony appeared first on VoegelinView.




“I have never done it before—stepping out of the life into the Alongside and looking at oneself living as if one were not alive. Do they all do that in your world, Piebald?” -The Green Lady, Perelandra, 1943
What is irony?  Irony is difficult to explicate with a definition. For example, the dictionary definition, though true, is lacking: “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning.” A psychologist, who assigns the skill of abstract thinking to early adolescence, would likely say that most children have arrived at the cognitive ability to understand irony by the age of eleven or twelve. In reality, irony is not only far more complex than the dictionary definition, but is learned much earlier than adolescence. It is one of the very first things we must learn in order exercise our humanity. Irony is learned when a toddler first plays “peek-a-boo.” Before the game of peek-a-boo is mastered, an infant is thrown into panic when his mother disappears from his field of vision, even though she is only hiding behind her own hands. To the infant, the mother is no longer visible, and therefore she no longer exists. In psychological literature, the infant is developing a sense of object permanence. But in philosophical language, we can say that the infant is developing the concept of irony.
In literature, irony can be classified in a number of different ways: dramatic irony, situational irony, verbal irony, and so on. But I wish to define irony as something more than just a literary device. Over the course of several essays, I will define it primarily in the context of intellectual history and focus principally on two types of irony: irony in the classical sense, and postmodern irony. By “classical” I do not refer to any specific era (as in classical Greece, or classical music) but rather “traditional”; i.e. what irony was always understood to mean before it became subjected to postmodern hermeneutics.
Classical irony may include various other sub-categories of irony: cosmic irony, historical irony, Socratic irony, tragic irony, etc. Postmodern irony, also, has its subcategories, such as meta-irony and post-postmodern irony. However, I am willing to risk oversimplification by merely comparing and contrasting the classical with the postmodern. Since the superset of postmodern categorical permutations is virtually limitless, this subject can easily become confusing and tedious. My goal is to assist the reader by limiting the range of endless possible minutia to just the simple categories of classical and postmodern.

The Wisdom of Classical Irony

Irony is an existential realization that there is more than a single reality. At minimum there are at least two: the reality we see and the reality we do not see. When the observer becomes conscious of the disjunction between the seen and unseen, he becomes a philosopher and an ironist. Therefore, it happens that we were all initiated into philosophy at the age of two whether we like it or not. Some of us recover and forget, some of us do not and choose further exploration. Let us return to the example of the toddler. The child’s mother is not visible when she is covering her face with her hands. To the child, the hands are not the mother; the eyes, nose, mouth, and hair are the mother. When the mother removes her hands and exclaims “peekaboo!” the child comes to understand that she nonetheless continues to exist behind her hands despite all empirical evidence to the contrary.
It is precisely at this moment of psychological and cognitive development in the child that the game of peek-a-boo becomes entertaining. The child takes delight in shifting between the states of reality and apparent reality. It becomes the infant’s first drama, and with the repeated rehearsal of it, the infant’s first comedy. Before irony, the disappearance of the mother is a tragedy with an intensity to rival Shakespeare or Homer. After irony, the reappearance of the mother is a comedy of such unmatched delight that reflection on it should give us insight into why Christ told us we must become as little children if we desire to enter the kingdom of heaven.
All else being equal, the child will always laugh during a game of peek-a-boo, and may demand to play it repeatedly, while finding it endlessly amusing. This is apropos to the argument that peek-a-boo is ironic in its essential nature because irony is almost always accompanied with laughter. There are indeed times when laughter is not the appropriate response to the ironic situation, but almost all ironic situations can be made funny. Whether or not they should be made funny is a subject for later discussion.
C.S. Lewis provides an excellent example of the ironic encounter in the second installment of his science fiction Space Trilogy, Perelandra. Lewis’s protagonist Elwin Ransom travels to Venus (Perelandra) where he meets the Edenic Green Lady, Lewis’s imaginative conception of the biblical Eve. Acting as a representative of the human race, Ransom has some intention to make a dignified first impression. But their first meeting turns out disastrous in this regard. Upon seeing Ransom, the Green Lady points a finger at him and laughs.
It takes a moment before Ransom realizes that it is his own appearance which provokes her laughter. Ransom’s celestial space journey had an unintended consequence: half his body had been tanned dark brown by the Sun’s rays while the other side, by stark contrast, remains leprously white. In response to Ransom’s two-toned figure, the Green Lady nicknames him “Piebald.” Ransom’s piebald appearance should be read with more import than as merely the byproduct of Lewis’s whimsical speculations about the effects of space travel. As Ransom serves as an emissary between his own fallen race and the prelapsarian innocence of the Green Lady, his dappled body functions as a image of mankind’s dappled nature. In order to live in the world, we are chronically burdened with the task of discerning the difference between seen and unseen realities. The tool we are given to navigate this landscape is irony.
It is the Greeks to whom we owe both the word “hypothesis” and “irony,” and there are undoubtedly similarities between the two concepts. The whole endeavor of the rationalist scientific method depends on the use of irony. We must hypothesize about the “face behind the hands,” (phenomena behind unseen realities) by crafting narratives, metanarratives, and scientific models to aid us in our understanding of our environment, bridging the gap between apprehension and comprehension. To form a scientific hypothesis, we must pretend we are someone else or standing in some place other than where we are standing, even though we are not. The Green Lady finds this exercise very odd. “I have never done it before,” she tells Ransom, “stepping out of the life into the Alongside and looking at oneself living as if one were not alive. Do they all do that in your world, Piebald?”[1] The Green Lady’s last question is a touch of Lewis’s own satirical wit. Yes, we all do that. Irony is a necessary tool for navigating the ridiculousness of phenomenological reality.
Irony is the encounter of a piebald reality: two appearances met in one form. That one form can have two appearances is ridiculous, and in this way the Green Lady’s laughter is synonymous with the infant’s. In fact, Irony is laughter—perhaps even the atomic building block of laughter. Conceivably this is the reason why when people say they are “only joking” what they really mean is that they are simply saying something that isn’t true merely for the amusement of it. Before the toddler understands irony, he wails and weeps when his mother disappears, grieving her loss. With no preprogrammed narrative in his imagination to ensure him that she will return, by what basis does he have to assume she ever will? Perhaps she has ceased to exist entirely!
However, for the adults, the game is a source of loving amusement, because the adult understands irony, and knows that the infant’s distress is a misapprehension of reality that will quickly be set aright. While the adult sees the disjunction, the infant does not. The infant is subject to an ironic encounter, and it is because it is ironic that the adults laugh when they witness it. When the child learns to get the joke, he laughs as well. The joke is, of course, that although the mother appears not to exist, she still does, and the child learns to enjoy this foray into pretend danger and death. It is an adventure to him. But it is an ironic adventure because the child has now learned how it ends, and gets the final laugh at a universe which feigns absurdity. She appears to be dead, but, presto! She is not! A mother is the world’s first and greatest magician.
The first time the mother disappears, it is a tragedy, because the child does not understand irony, but the second time she disappears it is a comedy, because the child has “seen the movie” already. He knows her death is only the appearance of death and learns to anticipate her resurrection. He is no longer vexed by the mother’s absence because he now knows there are two realities: the one he sees and the one he does not see. He has faith in the fact that the present reality in which she does not exist (however intolerable it momentarily appears to be) will eventually resolve into the other reality in which she exists again. Therefore, very little can be more important to the development of a child’s early moral imagination than the game of peek-a-boo. Through this game the child discovers that you can make a Pascalian wager with reality beyond the scope of your empirical knowledge, and if you are correct, reality will reward you.

King Solomon, The Great Classical Ironist

In the domain of criminal justice, the ability to think ironically often becomes an absolutely essential tool of both prosecution and defense. We see this reflected in the literary works of Sir Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, but there is probably no greater champion of irony than the biblical King Solomon and his judgment of the two prostitutes.  The story goes that two prostitutes each gave birth to sons. One of the mothers rolls over onto her child in her sleep and smothers him. Seized first by shame and then by jealousy, the guilty mother steals the son of the other woman and claims it for her own. The first mother sees through her trickery and brings the case before Solomon. Solomon, much to the shock of the whole court, offers what seems to be a horrific and insane verdict: cut the baby in two and give each mother half.
What could be more outrageous? It would seem in this moment that Solomon was not offering justice but its exact opposite. But Solomon deliberately offers a false solution, and it is only by this false solution that the true mother reveals herself. Here we see the wisdom of a great ironist at work. Solomon constructs a false picture of reality, and it is the very offensiveness of the falsity which provokes the true reality to reveal itself, but only by negation
Solomon’s order is an act of misdirection, but his misdirection is selected specifically to achieve a separate aim: the revelation of truth Insofar as he succeeds in misdirecting the prostitutes he is not missing the mark but missing the mark with perfect precision. To deliberately hit every point of the target except the bullseye takes just as much skill as hitting the bullseye – and in many cases, maybe even more skill.
The second characteristic of classical irony, therefore, is that it presents a negative reality which presumes the existence of a positive reality. Solomon pretends the solution is cutting the baby in half, as if the baby were a block of cheese—in fact, he bids the prostitutes to embrace a universe in which babies are like blocks of cheese that can be cut in half and still be useful. The irony of the situation only exists because Solomon acts in the faith that the true mother is in fact in the room. He embraces the absurd not because he believes the universe is fundamentally absurd but because he believes it is not absurd. He acts in faith that the true mother will correct his error, which she immediately does by surrendering her claim upon the child: “Please my lord, give her the living baby, do not kill him.”[2] He creates a vacuum inside of unreality so that reality will rush in and fill the void.
Such a vacuum, however, is only effective if there is a bottom layer of “final sincerity” a layer which all can agree upon to be the undisputed truth. Without the final sincerity, there can be no irony.
However, the idea that we can correctly assume a priori the existence of final sincerity is by no means an undisputed claim in postmodern irony. That is why I have decided to make a distinction between irony in the classical sense and postmodern irony, which I will now explore in the next essay.


[1] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra, 1943
[2] 1 Kings 3:26.

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