Sweet Irony

2022-09-17 • 6 min read

Irony is saying one thing while expressing another, often opposite, thing. As Schaeffer (1975) observes:

I interpret “error” here not only to mean “mistake”, but more broadly, and mirroring its use in statistics, as “difference between the actual and the thing aimed for”.

“Arnheim Could Also Make the Claim that He Thought like a Socialist …” #

There’s a lovely passage in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities that describes Paul Arnheim’s views on money. Arnheim is a wealthy, famous and highly cultured industrialist. Ruminating on the hardships of being rich, Arnheim considers the fact that young people with no money but “only plans and talent” often ask them (the rich) for financial aid, not understanding that the real support the rich can give them is through “their ideas, their knowledge and their personal gravity”; and of course they (the supplicants) may also spend or invest a donation badly, leaving everyone worse off than before. “Perhaps these ends are good and these people incomparable; in that case you should assist them with all means, only not with money”, he concludes.

The next paragraph reads:

Arnheim could also make the claim that he thought like a socialist, and many rich people think like socialists. They have no objection to the idea that they have a natural law of society to thank for their capital, and they are firmly convinced that it is man who lends his significance to property and not the property that gives more weight and significance to man. They calmly reason about the possibility that all private property will at some point be abolished, when they no longer exist, and are further strengthened in their view that they have a social character by the fact that principled socialists, in confident anticipation of the at all events inevitable revolution, not infrequently prefer to spend their time until then among rich people rather than among the poor.[1]

There are many little things going on in Arnheim’s mind:

That is, Arnheim, who is rich, but feels that this is something that needs to be defended, conveniently finds that it is acceptable to be rich, and that his outstanding moral character is not in conflict with his wealth. But while this is what he says, you sense that he is actually giving expression to the opposite view.

As Perloff (2016) – my favourite book on irony (and the only one I’ve read) – points out, the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary produced great ironists. Robert Musil was one of them; another was Karl Kraus. Kraus was less subtle, more fiery than Musil.

I’ll borrow Perloff’s example – taken from Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind – of a group of young men who, swept up in the nationalistic fervour at the onset of the Great War, set about cleansing Vienna of foreign words. The scene ends with one of them advising the others on what to do should anybody challenge them in their campaign:

YOUNG MAN 1 (turning back): Apropos, that’s to say in the event of anybody protesting, just identify yourselves very simply as interimish volunteers of the Provisional Central Commission of the Executive Committee of the League for the General Boycott of Foreign Words. Addio!

As Perloff writes, “The joke here is that this cautionary speech is itself a tissue of foreign phrases: ‘apropos’ (French) is followed by the Latinate protestiert and legitimiert, and then the mongrel-Latin ‘interimistische’ […] But Kraus’s greatest irony is reserved for the compound Generalboykott[.] Boycott: the English word was coined during the Irish Land War (1880) in response to the edict of Captain Charles C. Boycott (1832-97), an English land agent who refused to lower rents for his tenant farmers. So ‘General Boycott of Foreign Words’ itself includes a foreign word – indeed a name derived from Austria’s most powerful enemy, England.” (To that I’ll add that you can trace provisional, central, commission, executive, committee, league, general and foreign back to Latin too, usually via French.)

So, again, while Kraus’s young man puts forth the view that foreign words are bad and that the Viennese shouldn’t use them, what he actually expresses is something rather different.

“O Man of Little Wit …” #

One can also produce irony can via narrative. For example, you can have a character boldly state a well-known fact which is then refuted by the story, or take a decisive action that produces the opposite of the intended effect.

In Mel Brooks’s The Producers, Max Bialystock and Leopold Bloom, having realised that they can make a fortune by producing a clinker, produce a tasteless musical about Adolf Hitler which of course turns out to be a smash hit. That’s irony wrapped in irony: they try to create a failure but fail, creating a success, but they seem to try to create a success and succeed, which causes their downfall.

But my favourite example of this type is “The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again through a Dream”, a story from One Thousand and One Nights which is too good and short not to reproduce in full (Payne 1914):

There lived once in Baghdad a very wealthy man, who lost all his substance and became so poor, that he could only earn his living by excessive labour. One night, he lay down to sleep, dejected and sick at heart, and saw in a dream one who said to him, “Thy fortune is at Cairo; go thither and seek it.” So he set out for Cairo; but, when he arrived there, night overtook him and he lay down to sleep in a mosque. Presently, as fate would have it, a company of thieves entered the mosque and made their way thence into an adjoining house; but the people of the house, being aroused by the noise, awoke and cried out; whereupon the chief of the police came to their aid with his officers. The robbers made off; but the police entered the mosque and finding the man from Baghdad asleep there, laid hold of him and beat him with palm rods, till he was well-nigh dead. Then they cast him into prison, where he abode three days, after which the chief of the police sent for him and said to him, “Whence art thou?” “From Baghdad”, answered he. “And what brought thee to Cairo?” asked the magistrate. Quoth the Baghdadi, “I saw in a dream one who said to me, ‘Thy fortune is at Cairo; go thither to it.’ But when I came hither, the fortune that he promised me proved to be the beating I had of thee.”

The chief of the police laughed, till he showed his jaw-teeth, and said, “O man of little wit, thrice have I seen in a dream one who said to me, ‘There is in Baghdad a house of such a fashion and situate so-and-so, in the garden whereof is a fountain and thereunder a great sum of money buried. Go thither and take it.’ Yet I went not; but thou, of thy little wit, hast journeyed from place to place, on the faith of a dream, which was but an illusion of sleep.” Then he gave him money, saying, “This is to help thee back to thy native land.” Now the house he had described was the man’s own house in Baghdad; so the latter returned thither, and digging underneath the fountain in his garden, discovered a great treasure; and [thus] God gave him abundant fortune.

References #

Musil, Robert. 1999. Mannen Utan Egenskaper: Del 1-2. Translated by Irma Nordvang. Albert Bonniers förlag.
Payne, John, tran. 1914. The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night.
Perloff, Marjorie. 2016. Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire. University of Chicago Press.
Schaeffer, Neil. 1975. “Irony.” Centennial Review, 178--86.

Footnotes #

  1. Translated into English by me from my Swedish translation (Musil 1999, 142): “Arnheim kunde också påstå om sig själv att han tänkte som en socialist, och många rika människor tänker som socialister. De har ingenting att invända mot att det skulle vara en samhällets naturlag som de har att tacka för sitt kapital, och de är fast övertygade om att det är människan som förlänar egendomen dess betydelse och inte egendomen som ger mera vikt och betydenhet åt människan. De resonerar lugnt om den möjligheten att all privategendom kommer att avskaffas en gång i framtiden, när de inte längre finns till, och blir ytterligare stärkta i sin åsikt att de har en social karaktär genom att karaktärsfasta socialister i övertygad väntan på den i alla händelser oundvikliga revolutionen inte sällan föredrar att till dess umgås hos rikt folk i stället för hos de fattiga.” ↩︎