Home > Essays > Brief Treatise Against Irony
Published: Mon Apr 15 2013
Eva Lundsager, We are quiet (nowhere to hide) (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
Brief Treatise Against Irony

The opposite of irony is nakedness. To be available to the eyes of others. So instead of ironic furnishings—carved wooden or coconut sabers or monkeys, for tourists, Aloha, Wilkommen, each worse than the next, that’s the point—a person buys a painting she can afford and hangs it in her house. Gives it something called “pride of place.” In this, the very rich resemble the not-so-rich-at-all: taste displayed according to means. What you see is what they like. Ugly, vapid, tender, exquisite: you’re free to judge. Such things in a frame, on a shelf front and center—crass/gilded, quiet/frank—are defenseless; sent forth without armor, or veils, or banter


The cure for irony isn’t a dose of sincerity. Sincerity can’t be applied like a salve, or plaster, or arranged to countervail mockery. Sincerity doesn’t take measures to appear to be, or to seem. Asked to prove itself, its voice squeaks. Sincerity walks headfirst into wind—and suffers the cold. In rough surf, it erodes. In heat, it stains. Its gauges work. It’s accurate.

To be an apple tree in fall, to fully enter the realm of gold, to be right up against the end, and no longer green—that gesture can’t be conscripted. Sincerity isn’t in service of. A tree doesn’t will itself to turn, to feel the chill crenellate in leaves, and let go. A tree gives over. That phrase “the promise of spring”? Trees really believe it.


Irony masks. It prepares for, in advance. No one sees its heart adjusting, dimming, tamping. Irony wouldn’t admit to heart (too messy, percussive). It ducks into corners and drops from eaves. It sniffs for changes in weather, so as to be first to . . . first to what? Whatever there is to be first to deny. Irony’s a stick figure in an oversized coat. It refuses the pleasures of shivering, the anticipation of a warm house after taking out the garbage—in a T-shirt, in an ice storm—that small restoration, minor hardship that stokes gratitude.


Irony rules its subjects the way a monarch might—the fiefdomcentric variety, not the Monarch butterfly, hereing and thereing, looping up, ferrying a clutch of sweetness. Gathering and bestowing, alighting on ripening buds with gifts, that a new crop might bloom. No hoarding, seizing, protecting of riches, just the delicate work of scattering gold.


Irony has a wobbly compass at its center. Seasickness from its north star, skidding. Irony references, cites, points to for the sake of having pointed—and in doing so, advances not at all. Each year its finger grows longer and thinner, as pale, slippery, and hollow as a stalactite. Its weather is clammy. Its system low-pressure. It suffers not the exertions of bright sun shining equally on good and evil, the deserving and the not-so.

Irony isn’t equipped to navigate rough democracies.


Unlike boredom, irony has no reserves. It sits and stews. If “boredom is a state in which hope is being secretly negotiated” (tacked on my bulletin board, author unknown), then irony is not fit to negotiate.

(But wait—I looked it up! Attributable to philosopher/psychologist Adam Phillips! Irony would do well to get younger. Be excited—still—about the powers of the Web!)

Irony would do well to hope for . . . something. Let disappointment come. Maybe envy. Squirm in frustration. Because none of this—boredom, disappointment, etc.—will kill you. Out of real need, or absence, or tedium, irony could begin to make something—not just lean. Lean into whom, or toward what? Is this a good angle? irony asks. Does it show my good side? As if someone was always, always looking.


Irony is the outward sign of a feeling one’s trying not to have. The adult version of yanking your crush’s braid on the playground. Here, it announces, is everything I’m not attaching to. The wide-lapel suit, worn not-seriously. The studiously untended mutton chops.

The song “How Deep Is Your Love,” though I hated it, was part of the soundtrack of my thirteenth year, and my long stay in the hospital. I did love a boy then, who was having the same back surgery. He was funny and gentle; I missed him terribly when he (or I) was wheeled away for some procedure. His huge, very kind family—they lived near, in the South Bronx—brought lots of food when visiting and always offered to share with my family. I know we kissed. How would we have managed that, both of us either laying flat or in body casts?

Once we left, we wrote a few letters, but I never saw him again.

I’d never play that song, say, at a dinner party, the table set with wineglasses from Bea’s & Roger’s (that double possessive the reason for buying) Anniversary Cruise, 1977.

I don’t imagine anyone liked, for example, the smell of coal trains, blackening the Russian stations of their childhood. But much is returned by way of that scent (admixed with sausages, perfume, cigarettes), held somewhere secretly, then bestowed. The most unlikely song or smell will guard a past and return it whole, when you’re least expecting it. Thus a person might find herself in tears, right there in the dentist’s chair, under the classic-rock speaker. Or when passing a newly tarred street, a whole country, an era—Moskovsky station in winter—steams up in the summer heat.


Irony has no sense of time. So what might have been meaningful once (blue Snoopy lunch box, his kind face and gladness at the midday reunion) is wiped away by irony’s taking it up again—as a find, an amusing touch. Which of course keeps one from having to face the ragged truth of endings, the breakage, the loss, i.e. one’s own finitude. Irony opposes the heirloom, the keepsake. It turns away from good leftovers. Nor will it cook up a fresh thing on a special occasion. A thing that might fail. Burn. Be dropped and splatter hopelessly. Require the guests’ good cheer, indulgence, willingness to order last-minute pizza, be part of a wholly disastrous dinner but a great story ever after—i.e., history.


Irony travels in one direction, around and around an inner circle.

A kids’ TV show I used to watch, Zoom, ran a skit with a character called “Fannee Doolee.” She liked any person, place, thing, or concept with double letters in it, but hated its non-double-lettered equivalent, so “Fannee Doolee likes sweets but hates candy.” You could figure out how to play the game if you watched for a while, but it wasn’t apparent right away. Tuning in every week, a kid learned to pay attention, be curious, believe in hints. Something was there to be decoded. It was a challenge. A riddle. (In fact, once you solved the mystery, you could send in your own example to be read on TV). A riddle is an invitation, a game in language, while irony cordons off knowing. Admits only the knowing few. The tickets are invisible. You can’t buy them anywhere. In this way, irony both suggests and thwarts travel.

The inside track is a very small circle.


Irony is not animal. Animal just is—frightened, glad, gentle, vicious: of the moment. Last week, when I was walking my dog in the woods (urban woods with nearby streets), we were set upon by a pack; at first, dog by dog, they were tame, sniffing and romping and chasing Ruby. Then something turned. A mind like a wind blew through the dogs, gathered strength like a wave, from far off. It was slow and elemental as a tide. Once it entered, the conversion was swift. They closed in on my dog, growling and jumping, listening not at all to their walker’s shrill whistle. We slipped through a hole in the fence just in time.

The dogs weren’t kidding. Nor were they angry. Just subject to a force that turned them deeply into themselves. Which was an amazing thing to watch: instinct finding a vein and entering. As it did for me, bestowing a calm I don’t always have. In them was nothing tricky, or cruel. Nothing taught; they weren’t trained for meanness, as some city dogs are. They made a new shape, an organism that worked as one. It was beautiful and terrifying to see.


Irony hates getting dirty—save smudges artfully pre-arranged on jeans. But a kitchen stool must be painted for real, on a fall day, the rungs more complicated than you’d think, all those surfaces and you have to keep turning it over to find the hidden spots you missed—and for that you need an old pair of jeans with constellations of oil/ dirt/spackle. Work pants kept for such jobs; evidence of past accomplishments. Irony doesn’t repaint anything, or freshen stuff up for the holidays. Since guests are coming. The painting long overdue and Thanksgiving a good excuse. To do what? Make something look nice. Why? irony asks and asks, like a three-year-old who’s discovered it’s possible to further agitate a weary mother, who finally snaps and yells, “I don’t know, just because.”


Irony assumes itself to be the mode by which knowingness gets expressed.

Look, I’m from New York. Our “we’ve seen it all” attitude? It’s based in fact, not arrogance. If you’ve seen it all—in the course of a recent hour, two dogs in mink coats (I asked; I had to), a guy selling used dentures from a backpack (yes, really), if you know the ropes (at a deli during the morning rush, do not ponder the menu, do not dig around in your bag for exact change, just order and keep moving)—then irony’s passé. And something else overtakes—something older. Brisker. Sharper. Let’s call it the absurd. The daily surreal. All the infinite, unpredictable ways of being human. Look, it’s New York: you can do what you want. Ride your bike in a bikini with a snake as a necklace (it was hot that day, she was en route to the pet sitter, and he really likes to go for rides). The closer one is to the absurd, the more irony—a cultivated, intentional thing—looks earnest. All that time put in to make an impression, all that care taken to seem not to care!

But something else, too. Irony is local, homegrown, provincial, though it pretends to worldliness. There’s a moment in Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory, when, with anger, he considers the kind of reader who cannot understand the depths of loss an immigrant feels: “The following passage is not for the general reader, but for the particular idiot who, because he lost a fortune in some crash, thinks he understands me. My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for the émigré who ‘hates the Reds’ because they ‘stole’ his money and land is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes. . . .” Real exile is enforced distance from one’s internal geography. And irony doesn’t emigrate. All that contempt, nostalgia, sorrow—it’s not safe.

Of course irony’s all over New York, in so many forms and registers: Jeff Koons’s giant, balloon-style, steel bunny sculptures; a more affordable curated collection of vintage Mr. Bubble, Pop Tart, Jetsons T-shirts. Both of these sort of, kind of make you laugh, but not too much. Not out loud. . . more a mumbly appraisal-sound. Which I guess you practice behind your hand.

The absurd, however, is both public and shared.

To get the absurd, to really know it, is to understand brevity, longing, how much is thwarted or unmet, or met only partly. To acknowledge the infinite scheme, confirm the stark/tender, sad/sweet whole to which we all belong; to recognize the endless ways to be human—counter, original, spare, strange, as Hopkins wrote—and the lightness attending that recognition; the flash of camaraderie the absurd allows (brief glance at seatmate on the bus, eyebrow cocked to passerby): that’s the ethos I’m talking about. Open to all. Democratic. Abundant in New York, and available in so many versions, tongues, flavors: Puerto Rican, Senegalese, Korean, etc.

Irony is no one’s country of origin. Oh, I get it all right. It’s just not interesting. It won’t be amazed. It won’t admit fear. There isn’t a bit of longing in it. No danger. No failure. No dream.

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Lia Purpura is the author of nine collections of essays, poems, and translations. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Looking (essays, Sarabande Books), she has also received Guggenheim, NEA, and Fulbright Fellowships, as well as five Pushcart Prizes, the Associated Writing Programs Award in Nonfiction, and other honors. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Orion, The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, AGNI, Emergence, and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore, where she is writer in residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She has taught in the Rainier Writing Workshop’s MFA program, at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, in The University of Iowa’s nonfiction MFA program, and at conferences, workshops, and graduate programs throughout the country. Her newest collection of poems is It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (Penguin), and her latest collection of essays is All the Fierce Tethers (Sarabande Books). She  is a contributing editor of AGNI. (updated 4/2017)

Purpura’s AGNI essay “Glaciology” won a Pushcart Prize and is reprinted in the 2006 anthology.

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