Nowadays, in the print and broadcast media everything is all-too-promiscuously labeled irony and/or ironic, to the point where in its November 18th edition The New York Times gave a grotesque amount of space to an essay entitled “How to Live Without Irony” in its Sunday Review section. This low-brow divagation elicited a letter to the editor from your humble blogger, which the newspaper––characteristically––chose not to publish, so here it is for the record:
“TO THE EDITOR:
Christy Wampole’s ‘How to Live Without Irony’ (November 18) offers food for thought but, for all its prolixity, entirely misses stating what is at the core of irony as a rhetorical strategy, namely its negativity, its inability to signify anything of positive value. In terms developed by the modern founder of sign theory (semiotics), the American philosopher-scientist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), irony can never go beyond being an index, merely calling attention to itself and always necessarily falling short of being a symbol, which is the only kind of sign that encompasses positive meaning.
Worse yet, irony always tends toward masking the judgmental nature of what is being paraded as fact or the inefficacy of an effete judgment. The ironic statement thus runs the risk of ending up as just another cliché. That is precisely why the contemporary generation of “temporary sophisticates” (in Wayne Booth’s apt characterization of those who assume the ironic stance), with their heavy reliance on digitally-bound signification, can only comment on the object of their ironizing without ever contributing to its real substance.”
Apropos, only the most dogged literalist, without any real-life experience of the situational use of the proverb cited in the preceding post (“Language as an Aesthetic Object”), could comment that the mother must have “taken umbrage” at having her child’s provenience ascribed to adultery, thereby implying some kind of misplaced cosmic irony in her expressed admiration withal of the proverb’s poetic form and of its utterer.
Apart from poetry and art prose, language serves a purely utilitarian purpose, and its users rarely have occasion to comment on its form, although an apt turn of phrase or memorable formulation may call forth condign praise from an interlocutor.
One was reminded of the ability of language to elicit admiration for its aesthetic force by the following vignette on a Manhattan street. The parents of a two-year-old daughter were perambulating restaurant-wards in the company of an adult friend, a native speaker of a pre-Revolutionary variety of Russian. The father, an Italian, and the mother, a Russian, both in their forties, were discussing the question, which of them their daughter resembled, when their companion offered the following rhymed paroemic comment in Russian: Ни в мать, ни в отца, а в проезжего молодца. Literally, this phrase––a well-known cliché––amounts to saying that the child takes after neither the mother nor the father but “a passing swain.”
Upon hearing this utterance, the mother immediately expressed pleasurable amazement, not at the content or purport of the proverb, but at the fact that their walking companion had summoned it up (in what amounts to an alien, non-autochthonous environment), and at its poetic form. It should be added for clarity that the mother, an art historian with a keen linguistic sense but little opportunity to speak her mother tongue, was expressing an aesthetic appreciation that is so characteristic of Russians when they hear their native language spoken with élan in even the most humble contexts.
Every language has words––like terms of respect––that instantiate politeness through speech. Some languages––for instance, Japanese––even have a whole grammatical adstructure (called keigo in Japanese), to which speakers resort when addressing a person of higher status. These speech patterns are part of linguistic decorum, an important means by which the potential abrasiveness of human relations is forestalled and the transaction of the business of living with one’s fellows is anodized and rendered more bearable.
When encountering an interlocutor who is extraordinarily polite and respectful, one not only has the feeling of linguistic finesse but that of melioration in general of the human condition. Every language has the wherewithal to fulfill this function, but speakers necessarily vary (due to upbringing and temperament) in the degree to which they are adept at implementing it. In this respect, perhaps more than in any other aspect of interpersonal behavior, language has the capability of helping one fulfill one’s capacity to realize what could even be called the religious dimension of human consciousness that is at the root of our peculiarity as sentient beings.
[Authorial note: This post was prompted by an encounter with a young man, a waiter at the Denver Airport, whose politeness was of such a consummate excellence as to command special admiration.]