Thursday, July 14, 2005


I love writing this blog. Each evening, when I leave the office and get on the train, my brain is whirring away and I latch on to some idea and think, yes, that'll do nicely for the blog.

This evening, walking through the Metro, I set eyes on an attractive blonde woman wearing a black tee-shirt. It had a message emblazoned across the chest and as she walked towards me I had to look quite closely at her to read it. I'm quite keen on messages on tee-shirts, and I really wanted to know what this one said. I guess she noticed because she gave me a sulky sort of look. But then, if you wear messages on your chest, I guess you have to expect that kind of thing. Actually, the message was in French, so I imagine I had to look a bit longer than most people in order to read and understand it...

The tee-shirt said simply: "Parlez doucement, je suis blonde".

If you don't speak French, that means: "Speak slowly, I'm blonde."

That brought me up with a bit of a jolt.

Irony? On a tee-shirt? Things are moving on. Then I thought: Is that irony? What is irony? I think I know what irony is, but if someone asked me to define it exactly, I would have a bit of difficulty to give a good definition. I know irony is a bit like sarcasm, but then it's not exactly sarcasm, or we would call it sarcasm.

Was this tee-shirt sarcastic? Well, I don't think so. Actually, sarcasm is something that can only really be put across in a verbal way, by the manner in which one speaks. That's why you have to write: "he said, in a sarcastic voice" after any quotation that is supposed to be sarcastic.

As I thought about the word 'irony', I remembered a specific instance in which someone had referred to my poetry as 'ironic'. This was a long time ago, and I am sure the person had meant it in a complimentary way, but I was never quite sure what he had meant by his comment. I had not knowingly set out to write things that were ironic, and certainly not sarcastic.

I also had, in the back of my mind, a sort of dim conscience of all postmodern art as residing under a large label with the word 'IRONIC' written on it, and that the word 'irony' was being used by those who wished to dismiss postmodern art, as in: "Oh, I hate that stuff, it's all so tediously ironic." In this usage, I imagine we can consider that the word 'irony' can be replaced by 'knowing' or 'clever-clever' and that the critic is instead hankering after something 'passionate' and 'real'. A bit of romance.

When I got home, I went and looked in the dictionary. My thick Collins Dictionary has three definitons for 'irony':

1. The humorous or mildly sarcastic use of words to imply the opposite of what they normally mean.

2. An instance of this, used to draw attention to some incongruity or irrationality.

3. Incongruity between what is expected to be and what actually is, or a situation or result showing such incongruity.

Where 'incongruity' means 'the state or quality of being incongruous', and where 'incongruous' means:

1. Incompatible with what is suitable.

2. Inappropriate

3. Containing disparate or discordant elements or parts.

At which point, I started to wish I'd got interested in Einstein's General Theory of Relativity instead...

Fortunately, my daughter looked up from her dinner and, although she is only eight, spouted a stunning ironic statement. My wife had just said to her: "If you don't eat your dinner nicely, you'll have to go and sit at the baby table." To which she replied, in a rather po-faced voice: " Yes, and I suppose that would be really awful."

What she was actually saying was: "I don't care what you think about the way I'm eating and I don't care if you make me go and sit at the baby table if that's the worst you can do." But, of course, she had found a much more elegant way of saying it, which was with an ironic humour aimed at both charming and disarming my wife. She was also drawing attention to the fact that she was old enough to know that sitting at the big table was really not such a privilige as we had once led her to believe at the age of say, five years old.

After dinner I sat down and picked up a paper. Turning to the arts section, my eyes immediately alighted on a statement linking postmodernism and irony. I guess that's the way things are when you start thinking about a certain subject: observations just start piling up. It makes you wonder, if you had the right questions to ask, might you be able to solve the mysteries of the universe in an single afternoon? Which reminds me of something else written by Claude Levi-Strauss: "the scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right questions."

Here's the quote from The Sunday Times newspaper. It is the first sentence from an article written by Richard Brooks about the Venice Biennale art show:

"There may be chandeliers studded with tampons and palazzo walls smeared with excrement, but for all the postmodern ironic posturing, the contemporary art world's biggest beano has impeccable Establishment credentials."

You just know that the article is going to be a load of codswallop when you read that, don't you? And it is. There isn't a single word in the article about the actual art on show at this international event, instead it is a pile of claptrap about the rich and famous who attend and the partying that goes on. This, in a section of the paper that labels itself "culture". If the British believe that this is "culture", they should be ashamed.

Here, "postmodern ironic posturing" is used in a dismissive sense about a type of art the writer clearly doesn't like. From his description, it does not seem surprising that he doesn't like it. Tampons, after all have unpleasant associations (for some) and excrement certainly does. We know he doesn't like the art, because he doesn't even bother to waste any words on it. For him, it is just 'crap about crap'. However, he then turns the sentence around and says the show has "impeccable Establishment credentials". Which establishment are we talking about here then? Well, he goes on to say, the show was first opened in 1895 by King Umberto I and the Italians may since have lost their royalty but, urmmm...

Yes? Go on. What Establishment are you actually referring to? Actually, are the Establishment the 'rich white trash' as you so nicely refer to them? So, it's postmodern ironic crap supported by rich white trash, is it? And that makes it okay? Well, of course it does. Hasn't it always been like that? Say no more.

Hopefully, you get my drift. There is really no sense in this (feeble) critique or art of why "ironic posturing" can itself be considered a criticism. I would say that, on the face of it, there is not much that is ironic about a chandelier with tampons stuck on it. Incongruous, yes. Ironic, no, I don't think so. Ah, hang on a mo. Tampons eh? These tampons are supposed to look like candles, aren't they? I see, so we look at the chandlier and think, "oh, that's pretty", and then suddenly we realise that they're not candles but tampons. Now, that's incongruous, maybe even a bit ironic, if I could work out why it was humorous. But why didn't the writer explain what he meant? After all, most chandeliers are now electric. Perhaps someone would have found the idea of candles replaced by tampons interesting. Perhaps it would have meant something to someone...

And excrement smeared on Palazzo walls? No, that's not ironic is it? That's hardy even incongruous. Excrement must get smeared on Palazzo walls all the time. Certainly on Palazzo pavements...

Ah, maybe that's what is incongruous about it: the excrement should have been smeared on the pavement and in fact it's smeared on the wall. Ah, you say, now you're the one being sarcastic Taupe. And yes, I am. But what I am content about is showing that people who dismiss postmodernism as ironic probably couldn't define irony very well either and are not really bothering to think about whether the art in question is actually ironic or not. And on the other hand, considering my daughter's witty response to my wife, and that black tee-shirt (which certainly was an effective use of irony) there is a lot of life left in the art of irony yet.

As to whether my own poems are ironic, I'll think about that some other time.


Andrea said...

Think the tshirt was a giggler and that your daughter is one smart cookie.
Very interesting thoughts though. Has me all thinking.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thanks Andrea. Yes, she is smart. I like this quotation by the French poet Pierre Dehaye whose work I have been translating:

"Bien observés , nos enfants sont pour nous de bons éducateurs."

Or, in English:

"Pay attention! Your child may be teaching you something..."

Anonymous said...

Another way of saying that it's time blondes are not to be considered as dumb objects and it sure was an irony hitting gross normal thinking of another age and thus maybe the irony here seeks the truth?