I read a lot of Anthony Esolen books. Someday I hope to be accused of plagiarizing his work, because then I’ll know I have finally absorbed his way of thinking to the point that people will not be able to tell the difference. Currently, I am slowly reading Ironies of the Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature. Yes, another cutting-edge review. This one a mere 9 years after publication. It’s new to me, though, and I am finding that Esolen’s insights into the nature of irony have not aged in the slightest.
As a retrograde high-churchman who is convinced that every Mass ought to have a dedicated boat-boy (if you don’t know what this is, you aren’t high-church enough), every priest covered in biretta and incense, and no amount of lace is enough for a proper surplice, I find that one ought not take oneself too seriously. Of course, faith is the most serious pursuit in this life (and the next), but does this mean we cannot laugh at ourselves a bit? Nothing is more off-putting than a priest who cannot find the whimsicality in some of the excesses of our religious endeavors.
GK Chesterton agrees (I think. I cannot actually find the source for this quote although I seem to remember reading it in print long ago. Help!), and the internet claims he once wrote, “The test of a good religion is whether or not it can laugh at itself.” Meaning not that it is hilariously anti-rational, but rather that humor is a virtue. It reveals confidence in our identity. When we laugh, we participate in God’s laughter. Thus, one the great heroes of the Old Testament, Isaac, is named for the laughter of his mother.
Irony isn’t quite the same as humor. It can be amusing, for sure, and is often used in art to draw a wry chuckle. Often, though, irony provokes a sudden epiphany, a thoughtful juxtaposition, or a contrary reaction. For instance, Esolen offers the example of St. Paul’s use of irony in his letter to the Philippians. Christ is glorified precisely because he is humble. Lord of all, not in spite of his obedience, but because he is obedient.
It is too simple to define irony as “the use of words to mean the opposite of what is really meant.” This seems to be the preferred dictionary definition. But notice that such a definition would also comfortably accommodate lying and sarcasm, neither of which is irony. This truncated definition, I think, is prone to be wielded cynically and is what authors of the new sincerity like David Foster Wallace are rebelling against. In a really great article for First Things, James K.A. Smith writes,
Wallace was growing not only tired but also suspicious of irony, which “got dangerous when it became a habit.” In a letter from this period, Wallace cites Lewis Hyde on John Berryman: “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage.
The irony against which DFW rightly rebels is a domesticated form of what Shakespeare or the Greek tragedists employ. It is a pale shadow of true irony and he is right to resist it. But how is the modern novelist/reader to find the way forward? It seems as though modernism has destroyed all that went before and true irony is no longer intellectually possible. Here is where Esolen is so incredibly insightful in showing us the way forward. Reading the chapter in which he breaks down irony in St. Augustine’s Confessions or Shakespeare’s Tempest is pure joy, and in so doing, we begin to see the way in which irony might be recovered. In order to understand irony, he argues, one must possess humility and love. Further, one must have some grasp of truth in order to say something ironic about it. The Christian tradition has all this in spades. Modernism, alas, does not. Draw your own conclusion about which literary tradition is more robust.
So, how does Anthony Esolen define irony? He begins with an illustration
A bystander watches as a professor, holding forth to his suffering companion on the epistemological subtleties of irony, steps dangerously near a banana peel.
Irony is a problem of knowledge, “a stark clash between what a character thinks he knows and what he really knows.” It reveals “order, where randomness was expected.” It isn’t as simple as something unexpected, or ignorance, but a subtle interplay of the two wherein a deeper truth is revealed. This is made all the more delicious if an audience is present who are in on the joke.
This gives food for thought as we enter this most ironic time in the Church calendar, the Passion and Resurrection of Our Lord. Easter is a time when death is defeated by dying, a king is glorified through a shameful, criminal punishment, a cross becomes a throne, an innocent Lamb a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, and eternal life enters this temporal, fading world to wrestle us free from sins we hardly knew we were guilty of, to lead us to a happiness we hardly knew existed. When everything we know and do is shot through with Heaven, life drips irony. Isn’t it better that way? To know that any moment a deeper reality might force its way to the surface and stop you dead in your tracks? I don’t know if I ought to kneel down to pray or shake my head and chuckle – better yet, both at the same time.