Victor and I went to see Jonathan Lear speak on irony at the Chicago Humanities Festival in Hyde Park last month. Lear is a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago who has made irony into a specialty.
It's a pleasure to listen to a really thoughtful person. Jonathan Lear reminded me that philosophers are concerned not just with ideas, but how ideas can fuel a good (or better) life. In his discussion of irony, Lear started with a dictionary definition, which I thought an unworthy sort of straw man, but as his argument developed, I appreciated the simplistic beginning. Lear argues that the ironic stance is far from unserious; the ironist may be absolutely earnest in his quest for genuine meaning. The ironist observes that in a roomful of "Christians" there is not a single true Christian; that in a hospital ostensibly devoted to the care of the sick, there are no real healers, that in the world's greatest democracy only a minority of citizens regularly vote.
It has often been said that we live in an age of irony; the ironic stance is seen as hip, perhaps, but lacking in substance. Certainly the ironist is seen as the opposite of sincere (after all, the dictionary definition insists that irony involves saying the opposite of what you mean). On the contrary, Lear argues that the ironist is the one who feels most deeply: unable to bear hypocrisy, he exposes it with assertions designed to make others as uncomfortable as he already is. Lear sees the moment of ironic recognition (for example, the moment the teacher realizes that all this effort he expends in grading papers really has nothing to do with students' learning) as a profound one; potentially the first step we can take toward living a more authentic life.
It is important, of course, not to get stuck in the ironic moment, but to figure out, once you recognize the fake, how to generate the real--how to be a real teacher, citizen, etc. Because when we call out something as fake, we implicitly acknowledge that the real thing exists. Somewhere, somehow.
So, in a way, ironists are actually romantics, in love with ideals. Disappointed romantics, perhaps, but also earnest romantics. (Things always contain their opposites.)