Thursday, December 15, 2016

Poor Tom 's Philosophy 2 -- The Irony of Irony

-- By Tom Phillips 

Poor Tom
Kierkegaard says irony is like a dwarf wearing a hat that makes him invisible.  But Poor Tom has discovered it's not so simple.   It's like a whole bunch of dwarfs -- and every time you look at one of them, they all put on their hats and become invisible.  The most you can perceive is distant laughter, as they chuckle among themselves at your vain pursuit. For irony takes many forms, none of them with any substance.

Thirty years ago, Tom took a shot at identifying the clumsiest of the dwarfs -- the slowest at putting on their hats.  At the time he was skulking along the dirt floor of Academe, disguised as an assistant professor of journalism.  So he set out to define at least the kinds of irony you find in newspapers.  He was able to identify three for his thesis, titled "Irony in Journalism: Teaching the Twisteroo."
  • The first type he called "surface irony" -- a clash of appearances, such as the bluenose senator caught in the bus stop restroom... 
  • The second was "dramatic irony" -- the reversal of intentions, as in the defendant who sneaked out of court, only to be found not guilty, then charged anew with jumping bail.  Or President Nixon bugging the oval office, creating evidence against himself. 
  • The third he dubbed "cosmic irony"-- bizarre or baffling coincidences, outcomes that seem wrong, but actually happen.  A twisteroo: which is more newsworthy, a car crash in which four people are killed, or one where no one is killed?  The standard answer is the fatal crash.  But what if a car carrying four teenagers plunges over a thousand-foot cliff, and they walk away unharmed?  (It happened..)
Today, Tom laughs at "three types of irony."  He knows now that there are as many "types" as there are types of human being -- a number equal to the population of the world.  Irony, we say offhandedly, takes place in the gaps between perception and reality.  But we have no access to unperceived reality.  Irony begins in the gap between perception and perception, person and person.

In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, the editor of Vanity Fair magazine declared that the "age of irony" was over -- from now on we had to face things head-on, as if we could.  Today the age of irony is back, big-time.   How else to look at a president-elect who regards himself as the greatest man who ever lived -- and is perceived by much of the world as a narcissistic buffoon?  The gap between Trump's view of himself and say, Alec Baldwin's, is YUGE, a yawning entry into a gold mine of humor.  Garry Trudeau has been working it in "Doonesbury" ever since Trump's presidential ambitions surfaced in the 1980s.  But Trump, by his own account, has no clue what this cartoonist is up to.  "It's too bad he's allowed to write this garbage," says the man who will be defending our freedoms.      

Looking for a theory of irony, Poor Tom finds himself mocked by his own quest -- surrounded at every turn by the empty space between mind and mind, soul and soul, the ground of continual misapprehensions, great and small, comic and tragic, ever new and unique to each observer.  Say what?  What say? 

Still, in his leading role in the play, Tom knows that this is not the whole story.   Skulking across the moor naked, eating cow dung for salads, he lives for the denouement -- the catharsis when the truth is revealed.   

The entire purpose of classical theater is to conquer irony -- to create moments in which everyone knows and feels the same truth.  At the end of "Lear," on a stage strewn with victims of reversed intentions, Edgar finally stands unmasked, assumes power in the kingdom.  We all know it will be a brief interregnum before interests diverge, the void opens, and conflict again threatens chaos.

In that brief lull between storms, as in the eye of a hurricane, Edgar says:
                "The weight of this sad time we must obey --
                Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." 

And the dwarfs take off their hats.

 --  Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips

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