Monday, April 19, 2010

Irony, juxtaposition, coincidence

Sorry I've been on hiatus for so long, and thanks to Theresa for posting so much. My mother died after a long illness, and I went to England for a couple weeks (getting back right before the volcano cloud would have trapped me... but being trapped in England is sort of my hope for the afterlife :).

Anyway, I'm back to the usual much work and travail. But I decided to get back into the posting mode by talking about "irony". That's because I was reading a book about the big economic crisis we mostly avoided, and about the bankers involved, and there's a line about how pre-crisis-- I'll paraphrase here, because I don't recall the details-- "(name of bank) CEO (name of CEO) bought a $25 million apartment on the Upper East Side, ironically, the same apartment once owned by (another bank) CEO (name of CEO)."

Well, of course, I have to grouse about this. Coincidence does not an irony make. Just because two rich guys in the same line of work at some point own the same apartment in the same banker-friendly area of Manhattan doesn't make it even that much of a coincidence-- I mean, who but bank-bonus-babies can afford $25M apartments? It's sort of like saying that by a huge coincidence, both I and my neighbor happen to go out to dinner at a nearby restaurant Friday night. Well, no, it's not that big a coincidence, since it's Friday night and the restaurant is nearby.

Anyway, this got me thinking about what REALLY makes for irony. What would make Banker A and Banker B both owning the same apartment (at different times) ironic, do you think?

Well, let's define dramatic irony. I was taught it's a disparity between what the audience understands and the character understands, but I don't like that, because it seems to me that it's not just perception that makes an event ironic. (That is, wouldn't an ironic event be ironic even if no one notices?) Most of the dictionary definitions hit this distinction between the audience and character, but... but that supposes 1) the audience makes the irony by noticing it, thereby requiring an audience, and 2) the character doesn't notice the irony and certainly doesn't create it deliberately.

Oedipus understands the irony of his situation, I think, that in trying to figure out who the murderer is, he outs himself.

Iago certainly MEANS to be ironic when he praises Othello (trying to make Othello trust him). (But it's more than just a ploy... Iago wants to trick Othello, in order to prove himself superior... hmm... the audience realizes that. Does Iago?)

Stephen Colbert means to be ironic when he pretends to want to be the Bush White House press secretary and tells reporters, ""But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!"

So while a disconnect between the character and the audience can be ironic (it was certainly ironic that the White House correspondents refused to get the joke :), I wouldn't say it's necessary. (Maybe the "character" is Othello? The WH correspondents?)

What's necessary? Well, juxtaposition, I think. That is, two events or people or somethings have to be juxtaposed, whether it's Colbert's view of White House reporters and their own self-images ("the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage....") or Iago's desire to destroy Othello and Othello's belief in his loyalty.

But "juxtaposition" is more than opposition and more than coincidence, right? To juxtapose means that something is overlaid on something else (that is, they're connected, as both are about, say, Iago's feelings for Othello), but slanted or cock-eyed somehow. They aren't identical or parallel (as, ahem, when two rich bankers in the same wealth class and professional circle buy the same apartment), but related and distinct.

Also I think the irony has to mean something, has to show us something in a different light. Coincidence doesn't do that. ("Gee! I never knew that rich people bought expensive apartments!" Uh, no.) With Oedipus, there are several messages that come out of the juxtaposition, the "be careful what you wish for" one, for example, and "truth might set you free, but it's lies that make you happy". "That which makes you great (curiosity, a desire for truth) will bring you down" is quite ironic, I think.

Colbert's irony has the meaning that it's really hard to be tough on the president when you have dinner with him and depend on him for news.

Iago's ironic situation has the meaning that the ones we trust the most have the greatest power to betray us.

(Hmm. What's ironic? The event or the lines? That is, is what Colbert said ironic? Or just the event that what most people found wickedly funny left the reporters in stony silence? Or both? Is it just Iago's observations which are ironic, or the position he puts Othello in?) (Is it the juxtaposition that is ironic, or the result?)

So... anyway. Let's go back to the bankers and the expensive apartment. What would make that event of buying the same apartment truly ironic?

The dh suggests that the first banker was being bugged by the FBI, and the second banker gets caught in the net and arrested. I was thinking that would be -really- ironic if Banker 1 was Banker 2's idol, and that 2 bought the apartment because he so admired 1 and wanted to be like him. THEN he finds out the FBI had bugs all over the apartment? Would it be more or less ironic if what he really admired about 1 was his "honesty and ethics"?

What if 2 got the apartment at a huge discount because he'd ruined 1 in some deal, and 1 had to sell to avoid foreclosure, and so 2 feels like he triumphed over 1 and the symbol of this is the apartment... and it's the apartment that eventually leads to his downfall (because the FBI had it bugged)?

What else?

What's the diff between ironical speech and sarcasm? Was Iago just being sarcastic?

How much of this requires an involved and savvy audience? Can the banker's downfall be ironic even if there's no audience to it? (But don't we at least like to imagine #1's glee at reading of #2's arrest?)

Irony is important in fiction and drama, and juxtaposition is REALLY important. Okay, so is juxtaposition always ironic? Is irony always funny?

Here's an example of something I think gets meaning from juxtaposition but maybe isn't ironic (though it requires a savvy audience), Rhonda in Big Love singing "Happiest Girl." If you know the show (which kind of grows on me, though I think it's annoying ), Rhonda is a 15-year-old bride of "The Prophet" (the old man in the first frame of the video). Oh, she's going to be his 9th wife-- and the others are all still alive.

So here she is, singing this "happy song" and she looks (and is) miserable. (She's also a lying manipulator, and that tests our sympathy... but she is a victim.) Also she's singing a song about the love between equals ("You make my lunch and I'll make yours"), and monogamy, and she's the powerless child bride of an aging but still very powerful polygamist.

Is that irony? Or just juxtaposition? Does the juxtaposition create irony or subtext? Is irony subtext, or is subtext irony, or???

And more important than the audience almost is the author-- there's a writer who is forcing these two things into juxtaposition. (I mean, selection is all in irony, isn't it? It wouldn't be ironic if she were singing, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.") So does there have to be a consciousness of the irony before it's even presented to the audience?

Does anyone use irony much? What are your thoughts about this? I think I use "meaningful juxtaposition," but I don't know if it's ironic.

I am wrestling with a character who is deliberately and self-consciously ironic, and I'm finding it hard to make any dramatic irony... I think because he's his own audience, noticing the irony. (Oscar Wilde's characters were like that, come to think of it.)

Alicia (who thinks what befell the bankers wasn't ironic enough :)


Leona said...

I'm sorry to hear about your mother. My condolences. And believe me they are heart felt. How would you feel if you created irony with your post?

Today, on my blog I spoke about the pain of losing my brother as the first anniversary of his death arises.

I feel "Better" having heard your news - not because you had bad news - but because I realized that my pain, a year old, is less than the fresh pain.

Feeling bad for someone else made my pain less. Your pointing out your loss didn't trivialize mine or make me happy. It simply helped. Okay, I'm not sure if I'm describing this right.

WE are glad you're back, even if you would like to be stuck in England! I think Theresa's next post would have been on something much more headache building than Irony.

I think she wanted to share hers with the rest of us :P Actually, this blog has improved my writing, even if my commenting skills still suck.

A year ago, I wrote something. I looked at and thought about sending it in. I started reading over it. Nope. If it ever sees the light of day, it will be after MUCH editing and revising. More than I have time for now as I'm busily finishing up stories and writing on two paranormals (which, thanks to Jami's advice I'm no longer stuck on) to try and fix it.

Thankfully, my new work is reflective of the things I've learned here. Keep it up :D

Edittorrent said...

Thanks-- it helps to think it won't hurt as much in a year. Time passes-- maybe then the memories will be pleasant reminders.

Oh, well, it is the great circle of life, I guess.

Dave Shaw said...

My condolences, Alicia. The ache does become less immediate as time passes, although I'm afraid it never vanishes. The good memories strengthen, though, and the bad weaken, at least for me.

Your thoughts on irony are very interesting. I don't try to use it much, as if it isn't strong enough to hit me over the head I usually miss it, so I'm not good at it. Maybe I need to ponder on it more. Thanks!

Jami Gold said...


I'm so sorry for your loss. This is one of those times as a writer that I wish I had some "magic words" to make you feel better. Know that you're in my thoughts.

To answer your question, I don't think irony is always funny, as it's difficult to encompass opposites if both things have to be on the happy-happy-joy-joy side of things. As you said, people tend to define irony differently, but everyone's probably familiar with the simultaneous communication of opposites (bittersweet) definition though.

Personally, I *love* meaningful juxtapositions. But I guess I tend to see that as happening more at the sentence or paragraph level (She wanted A but got B.).

It feels more like irony to me if it has a larger scope. But because of the single 3rd POV I use, I don't usually utilize the dramatic style of irony, as the reader wouldn't know more than the character. However, I do use what I consider situational irony, where the entire situation is a juxtaposition (when a death is both tragic and uplifting at the same time or a character sacrifices out of selfishness).

But I've heard that the goal of true irony is to have the reader see the truth of both extremes. Imagine a bad guy that garners a touch of reader sympathy because they can understand his motivations. Or that the hero's main weakness is also their greatest strength. I'm not sure if that's what you meant, but that's the way I think of it. :)

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Yeah, I love juxtaposition, but irony as the main mode of humor tends to annoy me. (I never got Seingeld, for example.) But I do like subtext, and I think that can use irony.

Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

My heart goes out to you, Alicia.

I'm not good with irony, especially in humor. The bittersweet version is the only type I understand.

Lydia Sharp posted this thought blog, a while back: "Every effective pitch has to contain some kind of irony." I've worried about my pitch ever since.

Edittorrent said...

Deb, why don't we think of it as "juxtaposition" and not irony? Like say you were pitching a story about an arranged marriage:
"It was supposed to be the happiest day of her life."

Or if you were pitching a story about a reporter infiltrating a biker social club: "What's a nice girl like her doing in a place like this?"

That is, focus on the reversal from the conventional. It can be clever, I suppose, like if the reporter was infiltrating a vampire matchmaking service: "It was love at first bite."

If I think "juxtaposition," it's easier to come up with pitches. I don't think it's as easy to create irony!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Condolences on losing your mom, Alicia. May her memory be for a blessing.

Julie Harrington said...

Alicia, I'm so sorry to hear about your mom. {{hugs}}

Whenever I think irony the first thing that pops into my head is the song my Alanis Morissette. LOL. Though a lot of people argue about if the lyrics of her song are actually Ironic. Which I think is the core of the problem. A lot of people use "irony" to me "funny" or "curious" when irony seems to be more about the juxtaposition of opposites (the woman who has always been terrified of dentists who winds up married to a dentist).

I don't know if I use this. I've never really thought about it in those terms. Hmm. I like to play around with core concepts like Good vs Evil... what makes "good" good and "evil" evil and what happens if you just flip the perspective and wind up with Good doing bad things in the name of the Greater Good while Evil actually has a point? Is that Ironic?

But as to your 2 bankers, if Banker A was Banker B's idol and Banker A went down for corruption because Banker B was so sure Banker A was innocent that he actually helped the feds out to prove Banker A's innocence and actually ended up providing the feds with the access to seal Banker A's fate.... Is that ironic?

This is making my head hurt.


Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

Hey, JewelTones - your scenario strikes me as ironic!

Alicia, I think I see what you mean. Right now I'm not juxtaposing the right things. Le sigh.

Jami Gold said...

JT said: I like to play around with core concepts like Good vs Evil... what makes "good" good and "evil" evil and what happens if you just flip the perspective and wind up with Good doing bad things in the name of the Greater Good while Evil actually has a point?

Yes! That's exactly what I was talking about. I do this a *lot* as well. And no, I don't think Alanis's lyrics actually entail irony. They're more of those coincidences, I think (I can't remember the lyrics right now, but I remember that was my impression of them.).

Alicia, I think subtext can play a role in this as well. The reader can assume character A is "good" because they're working toward some good end, but what if the means to that end is shown to be bad?

And I love your juxtaposition pitches. You could probably run a blog post just on those. Help us out with coming up with them. :)

Jami G.

Julie Harrington said...

I caught the last episode of CSI Miami the other day and the plot made me think, "Now that's ironic."

Not to get too spoilery for anybody who hasn't seen it, but its the quest for a building better life/securing a stable financial future that winds up causing the death of the person the killer wanted the better future for.

I found that to be a very ironic plot.


Riley Murphy said...

Alicia: I am so sorry for your loss.

Death may be the greatest of all human blessings.


Andrew Rosenberg said...

Condolences on your loss. :(

Wrote this a while back:
It's like seeding rain, on a rainy day.
It's a free ride, on the freeway.
It's the good advice, that you gave to someone else but just didn't take yourself.
Who woulda thought there would be no real irony in that song?

Riley Murphy said...

You say: I am wrestling with a character who is deliberately and self-consciously ironic, and I'm finding it hard to make any dramatic irony... I think because he's his own audience, noticing the irony.

Hmm...if your character notices the irony, then how can there be dramatic irony? Isn’t the purpose of establishing dramatic irony when the final revelation of the irony is accomplished by an audience and not the ironist himself (in this case, your character)? Hey, if you want to find your way with him why don’t you make his deliberate irony the dramatic irony of your story? ;)

You ask: So does there have to be a consciousness of the irony before it's even presented to the audience?

I’m not sure I understand this question. I do think that an author has to have a consciousness of truth before s/he can effectively use irony and make it shine in their work. Because really, an ironic phrase puts itself in the way of truth, doesn’t it? Irony introduces thoughts that aren’t articulated - that’s what’s cool about it.

I think the difference between dramatic irony and spoken irony is basic. Dramatic irony is for the benefit of an audience while spoken irony is for the benefit of the ironist. Where one can tap into heavier emotions (drama - terror or upset - the other taps into immediate amusement and enlightenment). Crap! I’ll have to think about this...


Martina Boone said...

Great post, and I'm so sorry about the loss of your mother!

I love irony, though not always as a vehicle for humor. Just as often, I find it can highlight elements of a theme or story in a way that would be difficult to achieve otherwise.

Carly Carson said...

My condolences on the loss of your mother.

Irony would be if Banker B bought the apt. of his idol, Banker A, and then Banker B discovered his male parts were no bigger than before the purchase.

(Sorry guys, and I hope this is not too off-color. Just press delete if it is.)

Leona said...

@carly LOL um, have you read any of Murphy's posts? Maybe some cougar posts? Or Wes, Dave Murphy posts? Of course, Jami and I and a few others chime in, but that's to keep the others riled up. Tricky to not become the target, but oh, so fun to behold! :D

I had the same thought when I re-read the post LOL Now THAT would be ironic. But only to the audience. It was probably confusing to the poor grass-is-greener banker who is probably a white collar gangster :P

Wes said...

Leona!!!! How did I get lumped in with the rest of those characters?

Alicia, I am sorry for your loss.


Dave Shaw said...

Apartments as penis extenders? That's weird. Cars, motorcycles, horses, even riding lawnmowers, but apartments? Maybe bankers really are a different species.

Genella deGrey said...


I love Oscar Wilde.

Anonymous said...

My heartfelt condolences for your loss, Alicia. I fear the pain of losing your mother may never go, but I pray it eases with time and with the help of happy memories.

I struggled with your post because while I read it, I had this sentence reverberating through my head - "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

This sentence has been my benchmark for irony, but after your post my world is on a tilt - perhaps this is really juxtaposition? I'll need to chew this over.

When you say you've a character "deliberately and self consciously ironic" I imagine the dramatic irony to be in his thoughts and speech, which then makes my head think that the humour from your character arises more out of sardonic behaviour than irony. Then again, my head is full of vague notions, and so it is no doubt totally off-key!