Reading Swift Straight

"A joke is an epitaph on an emotion."

Telling truth in the form of a lie is one of the odder things human beings do. It is hard to imagine irony in Paradise, and there can certainly be none in Heaven, where we know even as we are known, and there is nothing to hide and nothing hideable. In Paradise after the Fall, on the other hand, God's first words—"Where art thou?"—would sound ironic to guilty Adam, who may not have known the word, but who had done the thing: the root meaning of irony is "dissimulation."

We begin to speak ironically very early in life, although most of us first become conscious of irony in adolescence, when we learn simultaneously that it is admired in writing and disapproved of by our parents and teachers. Later on, probably at the university, we learn that irony can be an attitude of mind, a kind of universal solvent capable, as Keats said in another connection, of making all disagreeables evaporate. Later still, when we know more and are certain of less, the ironic attitude will seem less a sanctuary and much more a funkhole.

To simplify a complex problem, irony draws bus power to amuse, infuriate, protect, and proclaim from the circumstance that things are seldom what they seem. There appear to be two chief kinds of irony: one that announces a fact, another that evades it. Whether...

Join now to access the full article and gain access to other exclusive features.

Get Started

Already a member? Sign in here