THE ALLURING PROBLEM! An Essay on Irony by D.J. Enright

THE ALLURING PROBLEM! An Essay on Irony

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Irony is nothing to joke about, and so it is with a modestly light hand that Enright (The Oxford Book of Death) here takes on irony in its outstanding varieties, from romantic to Faustian, Chinese to Shakespearian, Swiftian, Jamesian, Kierkegaardian, Proustian, Freudian and others. ""Getting to grips with irony seems to have something in common with gathering the mist,"" one commentator remarks: ""there is plenty to take hold of if only one could."" What is irony? Enright asks, then refuses to answer, preferring to quote Samuel Johnson: ""A mode of speech of which the meaning is contrary to the words."" This is wonderfully exemplified in Socrates telling Athens that ""those eager to cast a slur on the State will blame the men of Athens for killing him, killing a wise man, 'for,' he warns them disinterestedly, 'you know, those who wish to revile you will say I am wise, even though I am not.' ""Irony in the Old Testament always bears the threat of Jehovah, who works in mysterious ways. Then there is Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, who is exposed to Yossarian's view of God as not so much working in mysterious ways as not working at all. He asks her why she is getting upset since she doesn't believe in God anyway."" 'I don't,' she sobs. 'But the God I don't believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He's not the mean and stupid God you make him out to be.' "" Prince Hamlet's black jests are exemplars in the field. And who can forget Swift's Modest Proposal for thwarting the famine in Ireland, which includes serving infants' flesh at convivial gatherings ""particularly weddings and christenings""? Hardy's irony is cosmic, Henry James' often very funny, as when a boorish Ohioan hires Roderick Random to sculpt ""a representation in white marble of the idea of Intellectual Refinement."" In Proust ironies are long-developing and rich: Les Temps Perdu's invert villain, Charlus, despises effeminates and worship's virile, ""manly"" men. Pleasing, but no laff-riot.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1987
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press