Dear Craig Brown
4th June 2000
The first thing you should know is that, married to an American, I might be presumed to live in an irony-free zone. As it happens, Sarah has a delightful wit and a lively apprehension of British humour, but I am conscious from people’s comments about Americans in general that irony is seen as a peculiarly British trait, like tea and crumpets or the stiff upper lip. A penchant for irony seems to be one of those defining characteristics, in which the rapier thrust of the nimble-minded ironist is contrasted favourably with the lumbering blunderbuss broadsides of, for instance, the German intellectual tradition which has so influenced American public discourse.
Irony is also a commonly misused term. There is an Alanis Morrisette song called Ironic which illustrates this perfectly. It’s “like rain on your wedding day” she warbles. In case you missed her drift, she goes on to say that it’s also ironical to take “a free ride when you’ve already paid.” No, actually, Alanis, it isn’t-it’s just a crying shame.
In search of a more precise definition, I turned, as English people always do, to my OED, which I keep (all 20-odd volumes of it) by my bedside. Here, I find that irony is “a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used.” Now I know that you were educated classically, so let me brag a little by telling you that in its first recorded appearance, in Plato’s Republic, it has the meaning of “a glib and underhand way of taking people in.” In Plato, it’s usually Socrates who takes the role of the eiron or “dissembler.” He asks the na? questions that trap his interlocutor into an apprehension of the truth about things. Hence Socratic irony. Translated into Greek comedy, the eiron became the underdog, a feckless but quick-witted character who always got the better of the blustering braggadocio. (I copied that last bit out of a reference book, by the way.)
The first mention of irony in English comes in 1502: “yronye-of grammare, by whiche a man sayth one & gyveth to understande the contrarye.” By the middle of the 18th century, Dryden, Swift, Voltaire, Pope, Fielding and Johnson have all displayed a fine literary command of irony, even though it was not much referred to as a concept. By now it’s clear that there are basically two kinds of irony: verbal irony and irony of situation or behaviour. The latter flourishes in the works of all great English writers: Austen, Gibbon, Byron, Dickens, Hardy, James, Shaw, Waugh, Murdoch, Amis. Such a strong literary tradition of irony may be one reason why the English deploy it so effortlessly, and have such an affection for it. Joseph Conrad makes one of his characters say in Under Western Eyes: “Remember… that women, children, and revolutionists hate irony, which is the negation of faith, of all devotion, of all action.”
Which is where I come in. The ironic tone that now envelops the British media-what Umberto Eco called self-expression in inverted commas-is part of a sustained assault on seriousness for the purpose of populist entertainment. There is nothing wrong with a culture of ridicule in the face of overwheening power, but when irony becomes the first, and sometimes the only mode of discourse, it clogs up the arteries of grown-up discussion.
Irony and ignorance have formed an unholy alliance. Socrates affected ignorance; the British commentariat employs an ironic knowingness to disguise a real lack of knowledge. And in parts of academia, this ramshackle instrument is all the more lethal when referred to, approvingly, as “postmodern.”
I know I am describing something that does exist and about which many people, perhaps Prospect readers in particular, feel uneasy. The fundamental question I think we should address is: Why? I suspect that much of this riot of irony can be attributed to Britain’s historical and cultural predicament between the years 1950 and 2000. For 200 years British cultural dominance was a recognised, and rather astounding, international phenomenon. The longshoremen who greeted arriving British transatlantic steamers with shouts of “How is Little Nell?” were not simply honouring the power of Dickens the storyteller.
The Victorian heyday of British power was, you might say, innately pompous; there was no real appetite for irony. Take away English cultural supremacy and replace it with-horrors-the dominance of a former colony and you have not just an Athens vs Rome, but a David vs Goliath drama in which we, the British, become the small boy hurling stones with catapults, but probably in the hope of breaking windows, not heads.
Now, Craig, I don’t think of you as a small boy crouching behind a hedge, and in your own commanding use of irony you set the standard to which so many others aspire, so perhaps you can tell me what it is about irony that is so beguiling to the contemporary British writer, and why it has all but replaced satire (to my mind a nobler form) as a form of discourse, particularly in our newspapers?
Dear Robert McCrum
5th June 2000
Last things first. You say that you prefer satire to irony, but isn’t this like saying you prefer carrots to vegetables? Not only are they not separate categories, but I think you’d find it hard to come up with a successful satire that did not use irony. The most celebrated satire, Swift’s A Modest Proposal, is entirely ironic.
I suppose that the form that is most strongly satirical, but least ironic, is the political cartoon. People applaud the savagery of Rowlandson or George Grosz or, more recently, the caricatures of Fluck and Law on Spitting Image. But the fault with such savagery is that it is unable to discriminate between, say, pomposity and evil, so that in the end, Princess Anne and Neil Kinnock come out looking much of a muchness with Imelda Marcos and Nicolae Ceausescu. Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s is often seen as satire’s flagship-but isn’t there a chance that, in undermining a fragile democracy, those satirists unwittingly helped pave the way for Nazism? (I remember the wholly and bewilderingly ironic Peter Cook growing bored with some people who were singing the praises of satire: he chipped in that were it not for the great left-wing satirists of the 1930s, Hitler might have come to power.)
Irony, on the other hand, seems to me to possess this necessary power of discrimination. It gains the ability to differentiate by forfeiting its right to behave politically, to seek to change things. Irony is reliant on aping those it opposes; it delights in pulling the rug from under its own feet. The most successful ironist is the one who most completely inhabits the language and attitudes of his target; it is, I suppose, a form of jujitsu, in which with a sly twist here and there the opponent’s own force is turned against him.
You say that irony has become “the negation of everything… part of an assault on seriousness for the purpose of populist entertainment.” It worries me that you, as the newly-appointed biographer of PG Wodehouse, should be getting in quite such a tizz about an assault on seriousness by the forces of entertainment. I don’t wish to support every ham-fisted jokester in the British media-I recall a Heath cartoon in the late 1970s when the Guardian was at its most wearyingly jocular, in which a reader stares quizzically at the headline “Ten Thousand Killed in Earthquake” and says to his wife “But where’s the pun in that?”-but I strongly believe that “ironic” and “serious” are far from opposites.
In fact, among the least serious articles I read each day in the press are those that affect the greater seriousness, those written by po-faced Olympian commentators, their grand careers constructed on a creaky apparatus of faulty analysis, bogus omniscience, cack-handed prediction and effortless self-righteousness. Who knows? If the good fairy had not withheld her beguiling gift of irony from them, they might have grown up into well-rounded human beings with something serious to say, and a lively and well-adapted language-the language of humour-in which to say it.
I agree with you that there may be something post-imperial about our predilection for irony. Irony is the perfect means for the impotent to maintain the vestiges of power, and it is a handy comfort-blanket. But at least this suggests that we are adapting to our changed circumstances; an unironic Britain full of Powellian common sense or Bennite literalism, would surely be a far grimmer place.
You insist that you don’t think of me as a small boy, crouching behind a hedge. Heaven knows why not: it seems a fair description. Frankly, I would prefer to be in charge of a catapult than a cannon, to break windows rather than heads. Why do you have such reverence for the head-breakers? Is it because you think they are more, ahem, serious? If they fit your definition of seriousness perhaps you should think about changing that much-thumbed dictionary of yours.
6th June 2000
You take me to task for failing to recognise that irony and satire are interchangeable, but what struck me about your letter was that it was not about irony, but parody, a form in which you are an acknowledged master. And yes, of course parody works best if it is infused with the spirit of irony.
PG Wodehouse-since you raise him-is an interesting hybrid. In his early years he did adopt a satirical stance, particularly in books like Psmith Journalist and Psmith in the City. But he quickly decided that satire was not his m?er. After some false starts, he embarked on the high farce of the early Jeeves and Wooster stories, what he came to call “a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether.” This he raised to a pitch of art unrivalled before, or since. In The Code of the Woosters (1938) and Hot Water (1932) you do find quasi-satirical and deeply ironical portraits of contemporary types, notably Roderick Spode who has that eye which can “open an oyster at sixty paces.” Wodehouse was also a dab hand at light verse-parody.
In other words, irony is probably the younger sister of satire, but also the cousin of parody, and they are all related. But my point is that it’s the misuse of irony, the debasement of the everyday currency of irony and satire that has become so troubling. I think that there is a political dimension to this. The young satirists of the 1980s and 1990s-Spitting Image, alternative comedy, Weekending and so on-poured oceans of vitriol over the Tory party. Now that the Tories have gone this oppositional energy has given way to sarcastic indifference or plain facetiousness. I think this is of consequence because it contributes to a feeling that nothing matters, that nothing should be taken seriously, that everything is about “spin,” that nothing can be changed, and that no one can be trusted. The ironic mode becomes a sort of Private Eye/Have I Got News for You meta-attitude which knows that everyone is on the make and on the take and that all politicians are bastards-it is not open to evidence or argument. This leads to an infantilisation of public discourse, exemplified by the sneering combination of irony, populism and kitsch which was the unlamented Modern Review.
But perhaps most important of all it belittles freedom, a precious thing secured in Britain after centuries of sacrifice and heroism. Irony, in its political form, is the characteristic response of writers and intellectuals to tyranny and authoritarianism-most famously in Russia, before and after 1917. We do not live in a tyranny; we live in an anti-authoritarian democracy in an age when authority has never been so constrained. We can speak to power directly, ask it questions, contradict it, present it with facts it may not like, and then kick it out at the next election. Yet judging by the ironic tone of some parts of the media (particularly, alas, the liberal media) we might be living in the high days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. We are drowning in political irony when we need it least, and it makes us seem spoiled, oblivious of how lucky we are to live in a stable, liberal democracy, during one of the most extraordinary economic booms in memory. This may have something to do with the end of ideology. Now that the big slogans have given way to a host of micro-problems it takes intellectual effort to follow politics. How much easier to give an ironic shrug.
I agree with you that there is nothing more tiresome than the “po-faced Olympian commentators.” But at least the best of them are trying to say something. The new generation of columnists know little more than the ironic babble. You cannot be held responsible for them but I cannot help feeling that some of them are cheap imitations of Craig Brown. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and thumb through my dictionaries once more.
7th June 2000
Thank you for the sketch of Wodehouse’s retreat from satire and his advance into the sustained assault on seriousness which characterises his mature work. But I think that perhaps it is time to stop worrying about whether irony is the younger sister of satire, or its second cousin once removed, or even its great-aunt by marriage to parody. We now seem to agree that they are all inter-related, and that any attempt to separate them completely will take you on a hiding to nowhere.
I do not agree that humour should be the hand-maiden of macro-economics-scuttling behind politicians as they forsake ideology for accountancy. However I have no wish to defend all jokesters, good and bad. This would be a bit like having to defend all dentists, good and bad, or even all teeth, good and bad. Some of the saddest moments of my life have been spent listening to unfunny comedians and reading boorishly flippant articles.
Your attack on what you perceive as the Private Eye meta-attitude-a pervasive cynicism to those in power-reminds me a little of Blair’s “pull your socks up” down-with-the-carpers speech to the media shortly before the opening of the millennium dome. This speech had an unexpectedly invigorating effect, and for a while sent the cynics into hiding. A Guardian editorial even suggested that we should all rally round and support the dome even if we disapproved of it because it was being used as a stick with which to beat the government.
We are now over halfway through the dome’s year, and ?800m and a trickle of visitors later, it seems pretty clear to most people that the cynics were right. When I look through old copies of Private Eye I’m amazed by quite how many of what you would no doubt claim are its “infantile attacks” have turned out to be eerily accurate. I remember when Private Eye began its Adrian Mole-spoof The Secret Diary of John Major aged 47 and three quarters. I thought it would be a joke that wouldn’t last and the longer Major occupied No. 10, the more he would accrue the ex-officio gravitas of a prime minister. But it never happened: throughout his terms in office, he became if anything more gawky and awkward and gauche. The same is true of the Thatchers: when I met them a couple of years ago it struck me that they had become like an over-the-top music hall embodiment of their caricatures in the “Dear Bill” letters. And Blair seems week by week to become more sanctimonious, more insubstantial, more manipulative, more like his doppelgänger vicar in Private Eye’s “St Albion’s” feature.
Of course we do not live in a tyranny, and if jokes, or “an ironic tone” posed a serious threat to our stable liberal democracy I would be the first to adopt a straight face. But when the chancellor of the exchequer, the deputy prime minister, and the foreign secretary all decide that the most important issue facing this country was the rejection of Laura Spence from her preferred choice of university, then we must ask not only who is doing the joking, but whether the most appropriate response is the furrowed brow or the titter of irony.
Yes, Robert, we are, as you say, lucky to live in a stable, liberal democracy-and one of the joys of living in such a state is the right it gives us to take with a pinch of salt all those who would seek to boss us about. One of the things I have learnt in my years on the coalface of jokes is that politicians tend to parody themselves far more effectively than the most dogged parodist could ever hope to do. For example: “Caroline gave each of us a copy of The Communist Manifesto in our stockings, published in English in Russia, and she gave Josh a book called Marx for Beginners and gave Hilary Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume biography of Trotsky.” This is the entry from 26th December 1976 from the diaries of Tony Benn. I could compile a fat anthology of similar political self-parody from the autobiographies on my shelves (Wyatt, Aitken, Thatcher, Callaghan, Jenkins, and so on).
8th June 2000
What this exchange has demonstrated to me is that you should never ask a trapeze artist how he does it. The uplifting mobility of irony, satire, parody-what you will-is at heart a mystery. Analyse it at your peril.
There is a cartoon in this week’s New Yorker that’s apposite. A man in a suit is lying on the couch, telling his shrink “Look, call it denial if you like, but I think what goes on in my personal life is, frankly, none of my business.” Which brings me back to where we began-the difference between the British and the American humorous sensibility. Irony, you might say, comes with personal flippancy and emotional evasiveness, a refusal to face things squarely and an unwillingness to admit that serious concerns should be treated seriously. Yes, it’s partly post-imperial; it’s also connected with other trends such as dumbing down, the crisis of authority, the end of (left-wing) idealism. Above all it’s a national characteristic.
I am writing just after Blair’s humiliation by the Women’s Institute, an episode that is so improbably comic that no British “jokester” would ever dare make it up. As you point out, our politicians can contribute to lowering our respect for them as much as any “postmodern” ironical clever-clogs. The chances are that the Pecksniffs of New Labour are going to get their comeuppance in ways that no one on Private Eye can imagine, and there’ll be a lot of cheering from all parts of the ground when it does. But doesn’t it sometimes occur to you that by tearing down our essentially harmless political leaders you are contributing to an alienation from political life. The ironic blast of the mass media is hard to gainsay. Perhaps John Major never acquired gravitas precisely because of the Adrian Mole spoof and Steve Bell’s caricatures. You assume that the ironist/satirist is painting a true picture of the idiocies of power-but that is often not so.
Just now, history is closer to farce than tragedy but it was not always thus. Was it irreverence or the stiff upper lip that got us through two world wars and a depression? Is irony the luxury we enjoy during good times which transforms itself into an essential survival mechanism we deploy during the worst?
In our “Republic of Entertainment,” in which politics (and history) merge with the 24-hour media it’s inevitable that the earnestness I still want from a good part of public discourse will be contaminated by frivolity. But I will just have to live with that. This is Britain after all, with a long and distinguished tradition of irony and satire. The jokesters will always have the last laugh.
9th June 2000
With your “blasts” and your “tearing down” you over-estimate the power of the humorist: Macmillan and Thatcher were treated far more harshly by satire than Major, yet they sailed blithely on acquiring all the necessary barnacles of gravitas. And the satirist can only play with what is already there: if one attempted to portray Blair as pompous and belligerent or Hague as snobbish and lily-livered it wouldn’t work.
Between ourselves, however, I, too, am a little fed up with the quantity of humour that is filling the broadsheets and the television these days. I want to lean out of my window and scream “Get your tanks off my lawn!” to all these born-again humorists, for how can one aim-as I have always done-to be the spanner in the works if the whole works suddenly decides to go into spanner production?
These days, even the most senior politicians spend hours polishing their god-awful puns- “the lady’s not for turning,” and so on-and more often than not the Blair/Hague exchanges in the Commons are judged solely on which one of them made the better jokes. When I was a parliamentary sketchwriter, my colleagues would say “good day for you Craig, ho, ho!” after this or that MP had cracked a joke or two. But of course they were completely wrong: humour succeeds best against a backdrop of high seriousness.
In other words, although I still maintain that satire, irony, parody, what-you-will, are the sign of a healthy society (not a lot of jokes under Hitler, yet quite a few, even at the height of war, under Churchill), I think we can agree that there is a danger that, if the wind changes, this country may be left with a permanent smirk on its face. The serious and the comic certainly need each other, and should perhaps be encouraged to canoodle, but for their own good they should never tie the knot.