The Alchemy of Irony

This is something of a postscript on a previous post on a popular subset of postmodern literature, something you can find here.


Despite postmodernism’s recognition of literature’s limitations – and this includes the limitations of history’s previous accountings of events, as well as our attempts to explain the human experience through philosophy – this particular, popular strain of literature has fallen prey to ego, in particular writers’ egos. The crux of this corruption is in irony. But let me explain.

Irony is the juxtaposition of opposing forces, viewpoints, linguistic twists, etc., usually for one of two purposes: humor and emphasis. We all need humor, for sure. And it’s well and good to have in one’s arsenal such a tool as irony to add texture to whatever is written. Even though humor is meant to be a gentle shove toward correcting social mores, actions, and attitudes, its corruption comes when the humorist, the implementor of humor, uses it in a condescending fashion, to debase and demean its objects, rather than to correct them. And when too much is made of irony in the context of emphasis, the corruption is essentially the promotion of the user’s ego.

But how does this translate within postmodern literature?

In the post linked above, I sat down hard on overuse – and overemphasis on – narration. In nineteenth century novels, the narrator was the proxy oral storyteller (we were not yet that far removed from oral versions of story, it seems); thus the narrator was omniscient, able to speak to all phases of story and character – as if a literary god. After more than a century of modernism in storytelling, in which the reader was invited in, ever so intimately, to his or her own take on the story’s significance, the plumbing of character, etc., we now see a return to narration – not for the benevolence of story or character, but to express the self-consciousness of the writer. But why would a writer want to create a story in which all aspects of it revolve so obviously about the writer’s psychology? Sadly, to place the writer on a pedestal, above the character, the story, and the reading public.

And this is where irony begins to tarnish. Where once the writer was the instrument of literature’s muses, and to paraphrase McLuhan, the writer is now the message – the ultimate, abstracted end result of the “me” phenomenon. Here, irony turns cynical, egoistic, mean, literarily destructive. Where once irony was a tool to add depth to characterization and story, its modern corruptions make characters flat, story meaningless.


If we were to return to irony as a social corrective, a tool to create literary terrain, what would be the effect on the postmodern perspective?

  • the return of story as a social construct – incorporating history, philosophy, ethics – but with a more universal emphasis.
  • the surrender of writerly ego to the presence of literature itself.
  • a renewed ability of readers to embrace characterization as part of themselves – even when the characters aren’t within the reader’s personal experience.
  • the continued democratization of literature.

Clearly postmodernism is a transitory step in social evolution. What will emerge from that tunnel’s far end? I can guess, but I’d likely be wrong. But one thing’s for certain: were we to continue in the current path of postmodern literature, we would soon be presiding over the demise of literature itself.



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