Monday, March 18, 2013

How to Deliver Your Message, Part 6: Irony

Irony is one of the sharpest tools at the disposal of a writer. Essentially, irony means saying the opposite of what you are conveying, but with a wink to the reader so it’s understood that you’re actually advocating the contrary of your surface message. The enormous advantages of irony over preaching to your audience are that irony entertains, uses humor to disarm the reader’s defenses, and still strikes right to the heart. 

One of the most famous examples of irony is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, subtitled For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public. Even the title is devastatingly ironic. Swift published this short essay as a pamphlet in 1729 at a time when dire poverty was common in his native Ireland, and there was no safety net for the poor, who often faced starvation, disease, and freezing weather with no protection or remedy.

Swift pretended to present his solution to this poverty in the voice of an optimistic do-gooder. The narrator proposes fattening children to the age of one year so they can be sold as food for the rich: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.” The reader has to laugh, but behind that chuckle is the unsettling thought that this is really what it has come to: children are so poorly provided for that eating them almost seems like an plausible alternative.

Part of the brilliance and hilarity of this essay is that Swift never stops acting his part. He always speaks in the voice of the concerned citizen, acting the hopeful social engineer who believes that his solution will work: “I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.”

When is it appropriate to use the sort of wry humor Swift employs so successfully? As the poet Chana Bloch commented on the subject of irony in discussing the Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein, "It's a defense mechanism, a coping mechanism: the more harrowing the context, the more threatening the circumstance, the sharper the irony." The powerless have power when they wield the blade of irony.

Many writers who lived under communism in Eastern Europe were experts with the razor of irony. The poet Wislawa Szymborska was particularly good at playing the role of the naive speaker whose words were just a bit suspect. One great example is her poem “True Love,” which pretends to be an argument against romantic relationships:

True love. Is it normal
is it serious, is it practical?
What does the world get from two people
who exist in a world of their own?

Another great example of irony in Eastern European literature is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s chapter in The Gulag Archipelago on “The Ships of the Archipelago.” In this section Solzhenytsin describes the railroad cars used to transport prisoners to Siberia, or from prison to prison, during the worst days of the Stalinist purges in Russia. The conditions he narrates are almost unbearable to read: the crowding worse than any zoo, the disease-ridden water, the lack of toilets or time to meet basic human functions, the brutality of the guards. It would be intolerable to read these details, except that Solzhenitsyn strangely takes the side of the guards against the prisoners. Of course the guards’ behavior is understandable, he argues, because there is no alternative. Instead of hauling fresh water from farther away, why shouldn’t they give the prisoners the more accessible water from the locomotive tender that is “yellow and murky, with some lubricating grease mixed in with it.” Makes perfect sense, right? And, he adds, “why should a Soviet soldier have to carry water like a donkey for enemies of the people?” Solzhenytsin’s argument is close to plausible, so the irony makes us even more acutely aware of how unjustifiable such treatment is. The humor of this completely unexpected argument allows the unendurable information conveyed to be not only readable, but entertaining.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

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