Irony Builds Community

Irony Builds Community

Dialogue in Action

By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Woven Tale Press writer Richard Wertime reflects
on the craft of fiction in an ongoing series of craft notes

“I trust I make myself obscure.”
(Sir Thomas More, in A Man for All Seasons)

… What was it that induced me, as I approached the three women, pushing my shopping cart ahead, to declare to them so suddenly—I, a complete stranger, never having encountered any one of them before—

“Why, I can tell at a glance that the three of you ladies have no intention whatever of behaving yourselves today!”

Whereupon one of them (they were smartly dressed women engaged in lively conversation; mid-60s was my guess; I was 70-some myself) turned to me and said in a bright, decisive tone, “Absolutely not.”

The four of us shared a laugh—and went about our separate business.


What does this exchange in the supermarket tell me? Here’s what I think:

I’d been seized by a sociable impulse—one of those entirely unanticipated moments when my, what, sense of trust, together with a ready admiration for the women, had impelled me to speak. To act. Take a chance! My admiration for them had no real foundation… or rather, it did: my intuitive sense—what the Italians call fiuto, a skilled sense of “smell”—having told me in a blink that they might be counted on to enjoy my humorous comment and appreciate the compliment I intended to pay them. As to say: “I see what an alert trio of women you are, your appearance, your bearing, your way of interacting… all showing me that you’re sharp mature adults—and will have the ironic understanding that the moment requires.”

 Had I risked a blunder? Absolutely I had. Especially in today’s highly sensitized climate, I stood in danger of overstepping—of patronizing them. Of being presumptuous, obnoxious, chauvinistic, out of line. Of assuming the fatuous role of the “gallant elderly gent.” Had the women not chosen to play along with me (irony asks that of us), I might have felt their scorn: disdainful looks, shunning silence, however expressed. And, my overture a failure, I might have been left feeling misperceived, if chastened—not appreciated for my good intentions. But I couldn’t have faulted them, on any grounds whatever, for not “going along.”

Since the evidence suggests that I wasn’t off in my surmise, the three having responded with a clear enough good will, we’re moved to this question: What, we might ask, was the outcome of our interaction—for them, for me, and for society in general?

For “society in general”?! Hmm. That does seem a stretch! Yet we begin to glimpse here, don’t we, the formative dynamics of community at work—the “birth-giving” nature of our first encounters with others, and at least some of the ways in which irony can facilitate the bringing-into-existence of something altogether new.

To be sure, first encounters don’t need irony to happen. In Hardy’s poem “The Man He Killed,” we see simple conviviality engendering friendship:

“Had he and I but met
…..By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat right down to wet
…….Right many a nipperkin!”

Had the two men “but met”—just met, total strangers—they would have “sat right down”—without hesitation, instantly bonded in reciprocal trust—electing to linger in each other’s company over more than a few drinks… whatever might follow for good or for ill (warfare included) from the relation thus forged.

And the men in the poem, taking leave of each other, might well have carried away with them a prized if fleeting moment of connection to another—enhanced in the pleasure each might take in himself, as well as in the pleasurable memory of the “other.” (As was the case with me and the women.)

Everyone, of course, is initially “strange” to us—even our own offspring. Until we’ve forged an acquaintance, a gulf separates us—“acquaintance” deriving from the Latin accognōscere, “to know perfectly, know completely” (meanings do shift over time), while “stranger” comes to us from Vulgar Latin, extrāneārius, “unattested.” That is, not spoken for! How profoundly our knowing others, interacting at all with others, is tied to our power of speech—to “know” in Old English coming to us via cennan, the verb “to declare.”

Irony as social “proving ground”

Wayne Booth tells the story of a cement worker in France. Booth is in the city of Angers with his family, and they’re heading across the city’s main square toward the cathedral, very visible ahead. The cement worker declares to them [this is all in French, we take it], no smile on his face, “The Cathedral is that way.” He pauses to point at it. Then he adds, “The Palace of Justice is there,” and points to the building right in front of them. Requiring but an instant to pick up on the irony, Booth replies, “Oh yes, and the workers are here”—pointing at the man—“and the Americans are here,” pointing to himself and his family. Booth concludes:

His [the workman’s] laughter told me that he now knew that I knew that he knew that I… The circle of inferences was closed, and we knew each other in ways that only extended conversation could otherwise have revealed [underlining mine]. Total strangers, we had just performed an intricate intellectual dance together, and we knew that we were somehow akin. (A Rhetoric of Irony, 30-31)

This anecdote of Booth’s brings into coalescence several key features of ironic exchange. Again we see, as in my encounter with the ladies—and will see again shortly—the remarkable power of compression of meaning that irony can achieve, “the shorthand,” you might say, in which complex, extended statements are “compacted” to become rendered virtually as cryptograms. This is, of course, metacommunication at its best—the interplay between outright statement and suggestion, “denotation” and “connotation,” those two old friends.

Not to be missed, too, in Booth’s story, and what I’ve highlighted above, is the “proving- ground” function irony can serve—its ability to serve as a kind of guarantor (as well as can be had, fraud forever on the prowl) that we’ve not been mistaken in our initial befriending of people. And when we go back to my question about what the supermarket tells us regarding “society in general,” we see a deeper connection to the birth-giving function I’d alluded to earlier. In enabling us to feel out the prospect of kinship when we first meet someone—the workman being to Booth much as I was to the women—we see that all such encounters, even fleeting ones like mine (and the merely “fleeting” ones are not to be denigrated!), reinforce the human order.

The “human order”: yes. At once the most seemingly abstract of ideas, and yet, for all that, the most absolutely crucial of our existential realities, constituting as it does the cement, the adhesive, the “bonding” material that can lift each of us out of our individual isolation (which is also most real) and into community—unity-with-others. The human order: decency; fairness; the sheer, simple pleasure that people take in being together, and in interacting with one another. And while irony is often enough transacted with the eyes—that fleeting knowing glance we trade with others in passing, “commenting” on something—it’s in speech, overwhelmingly, that irony finds its home.

Irony as social “enforcement”—and correction

While irony helps to establish community, it also very much helps to regulate it—possessing as it does, and frequently enough, a corrective, indeed, even a punitive edge. Irony is generally not for the dull of wit (Sir Thomas’s statement in my epigraph is witty!); and its ability to keep us forever on our toes makes it small wonder that we’re tired at day’s end—eager for bed, perhaps, less from having worked so hard than from our ongoing vigilance in trying to figure out what others really meant!

Many years ago, while teaching a fiction-writing class, I asked the assembled group if anyone could think off the top of her head of an ironic statement that could serve as a “cryptogram”—an utterance compacting or condensing multiple meanings in a very short statement. Code, as it were.

Total silence. Then a girl spoke.

“Yes,” she said.

The room collapsed in laughter. Her deadpan was flawless. So was her timing—just the tiniest pause before she offered her reply.

I had to laugh too, even as I winced. “Oh, ouch!” I exclaimed. “Perfect. Zing! Touché!      . . . Now, let’s try to ‘unpack’ what’s implied by Cindy’s answer.”

The class grew shy here, fearful of offending me. So I elaborated. “Isn’t Cindy in effect saying something like this?—‘Dr. Wertime, you’re being—well—something of a jerk in posing such a question, fishing for an answer . . . don’t you think that we’re a bright enough class to have gotten the point when you gave your explanation? Please! Don’t condescend to us!’”

The class gave a nod. That entire message compacted in a “Yes.”

Cindy had indeed responded with a zinger, among the most frequent of ironic rejoinders, a form illustrating the balance that irony seeks—a balancing of aggression against the mildness of civility. “Correction through rebuke” is another way to put it: we’re invited, in being stung,to monitor ourselves and undertake an adjustment in our social behavior, lest we fall prey to being obtuse, or presumptuous, or hurtful, or whatever. (Europeans are quite adept at delivering zingers—zingers, and their close but more shadowy cousins, quips. Being “sociable” among them takes considerable astuteness as you pick your way through their minefield of subtleties.)

Irony’s punitive edge

The writer Elizabeth Bowen once observed,

“Speech [in fiction] is what the characters do to each other.”

Given, I dare say, the tenor of her fiction, it’s not surprising that Bowen would have said that. Urbane behavior—a mode of interaction we see so often in her work—will produce some of the most subtly savaged of victims, as we also see in Henry James’ novels, and Edith Wharton’s too (I’m thinking especially of The House of Mirth). Speech can be cruel—irony in particular. And “first connections” between people are sadly often forged in hostility or anger.

But we won’t be bruised and battered if we’re the oblivious sort, if we’re tone-deaf to irony. Hemingway captures obtuseness to perfection in “Indian Camp,” when Nick’s father, jubilant with self-congratulation, declares to his brother George—having just performed a C-section, no anesthetic, on a suffering woman while her despairing husband slits his own throat in the bunk bed above—“That’s one for the medical journal, George… Doing a Caesarian with a jack-knife and sewing it up with nine-foot, tapered gut leaders.”

To which George (young Nick’s uncle) replies, “Oh, you’re a great man, all right.”

We likewise see Holden seek to “punish-via-irony” his dorm neighbor Ackley in The Catcher in the Rye—a novel that may seem, in the rear-view mirror, almost too snarky, at least for some of us. “You’re a prince, Ackley kid,” Holden tells Ackley. “You know that?” And when Ackley seems not to get the intended put-down, Holden renews the effort a scant second later. “You’re a real prince. You’re a gentleman and a scholar, kid.” It’s not entirely clear if Ackley is the oblivious sort—clueless, like Nick’s father—or whether he sees Holden’s efforts at sarcasm, and is simply impervious to them.

Irony as the saving grace

There’s no disputing Elizabeth Bowen’s contention—that “speaking” amounts to what people do to each other—but we must readily grant the inverse:

Beyond being what people do to each other, dialogue is what people do for each other.

And the deepest saving grace that speech and irony might afford us, beyond their vital function in fostering “community,” may well lie in their role—speech and irony together—in enabling us to make sense of ourselves by conducting an enriched inner discourse with ourselves, one from which a “binocular” view can emerge… a view in which we see, and accept, in appropriate balance, the split self-understanding required by our humanity: our healthy importance to ourselves as individuals, rich in our sentient, subjective private centers, even as we accede to our humble inclusion in the vastness of humanity, where we understand ourselves to be less “consequential.”

I’ll call this, finally, the “ironic vision of the self.” It secures for us, when achieved, the vitality by which our individual self will thrive, and it fosters our capacity for fairness toward others. It makes us just human beings. It affirms our inclusion in the full human order. It empowers us to speak.


Here we conclude the series on writing dialogue—merely a partial exploration of so vast a topic. We go on to a new series collectively titled, “Guiding Your Reader’s Eye: The Choreography of Perception.”

Read Richard Wertime’s short fiction, “Soccer,” in WTP, and find his other reflections on craft here

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