Tuesday, October 6, 2015
Unstable Irony, Postmodern Humor, And Me
“I shall compose long, dry documents about funniness!”
This was my warcry as I entered the MA Lit program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks in the year 2000.
I went to the campus library and checked out a book called A Rhetoric of Irony by Wayne C Booth. In it, I found just what I was seeking. Booth details several types of ‘stable ironies’, various manifestations of mismeaning – funny lies, basically – with which I was already passingly familiar. Then, he goes on to explore ‘unstable ironies’, and it was here that I found what I sought.
You might step out on a rainy day, and say, “Well, at least it’s sunny.” This would be a stable irony: a simple mistruth. Another example is when something dreadful happens and one says, “Great.” This sort of stable ironic statement is mere mismeaning. The day is obviously not sunny. What happened to you is obviously not great.
An unstable ironic statement is one in which the truth or untruth of the statement is ultimately unclear, the final judgement call a subjective one. One example of this is when two assertions effectively cancel each other out: “I am the best! So are you!” Well, we can’t both be the best, can we? And as for which of us, if either, is actually the best, well, it’s just up in the air.
Armed with this powerful concept, unstable irony, I proceeded to root up examples in some of my favorite books, like Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I was actually working up a paper on Catch-22 the very night that Joseph Heller died.
Eventually, I had worked up a decent document about unstable irony, which I called “Postmodern Humor”. I submitted “Postmodern Humor” to that year’s UNLV conference on Postmodernism in Literature and it was accepted; I was invited to present my work at the conference. Since the paper was essentially about how unstable irony creates a blank which the reader must fill in, I entitled my presentation “…”.
I got good and drunk on the plane to Vegas, as one must, and showed up at UNLV to check in for the conference in a glorious stupor. There, I was informed that my presentation was scheduled to take place the day after my return flight to Alaska.
In response to my slurred, bleary inquiry as to whether my presentation might be rescheduled to occur while I was actually in Vegas, I was told that the only available slot was about an hour from that moment.
My only option being to present my long, complex thesis about unstable irony in postmodern literature in a state of complete intoxication, I opted out.
I took myself instead to any number of casinos, where I had a grand time losing all my money.
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