Given my history, my choice of topic—irony—is strange: back in high school, a classmate accused me of lacking a funny bone. And when, recently, I overheard my husband say that he’d married me for my sense of humor, it turned out he thought so because I laughed at his jokes.
In a toast on my birthday, a dear friend described my spirit as virginal—not an adjective modern women aspire to. But at sixty we can deal. I took her to mean that my closeness to my emotions, my tendency to tear up when I speak of love, for example, shows authenticity. The flip side is an irony deficiency. I have no persona to fall back on, no alter ego to laugh at my self.
I began exploring irony after perusing a NY Times op-ed by Princeton professor Christy Walpole on its perils. Walpole calls irony “the ethos of our age” and hipsters “the archetype of ironic living.” She contends that, by alluding to times gone by in every defining gesture, from fashion statements (tiny shorts, mustaches) to hobbies (trombone playing, home brewing), hipsters create an insincere persona. In conversation they rely on hyperbole and inside jokes. They hide their real selves to “dodge responsibility for their choices.” Walpole interprets this behavior as an acknowledgement that “this generation has little to offer” because “everything has already been done.” Rather than look foolish, hipsters confine themselves to a shallow, uncommitted existence.
Though I found this analysis reductive, I wondered if it had an element of truth. When I asked my son and his pregnant wife, what they, as hipsters, thought, Nora said, “We’re not hipsters anymore.” Ben defined ironic as the opposite of earnest. It wasn’t clear if they knew or cared whether they had deep, open conversations with their friends. Nora said that her friend Nick who used to be the satirical life of the party had grown passionate about the injustices of the criminal justice system and now went on and on and on about that. Ben said, “Yes, he was better before.”
The Oxford English dictionary defines irony as: • the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect • a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often wryly amusing as a result.
If I were to act ironically, what might I do?
Oppose gun control?
Serve pancakes for dinner?
How about if I wore a burqa made of see-through plastic and was nude underneath?
That could even be performance art. I could take a photo of myself in my burqa for this essay and escape my staid middle-aged identity. Yet also reveal it. Disguised, I would set myself free.
The Spanish author and ironist Enrique Vila-Matas, whose book Never Any End to Paris inspired the form and substance of this piece, is considered a literary phenomenon in Europe, though he is just starting to be read in the U.S. He says, “Those who have the rare courage to literally expose themselves in their writing…only they seem to me to be true writers.” In sharp contrast to Walpole, he also calls irony “the highest form of sincerity.”
In my photo I’d take “literally expose” to another plane. I’d risk being misunderstood in order to be transparent. And risk transparency to be more fully understood.
In the text, Vila Matas repeats his title often and also provides the Hemingway quotation on which it is based. But doesn’t Vila-Matas really mean that there is no end to the transforming experiences of one’s youth? Just because he and Hemingway had theirs in Paris, doesn’t prove it gets the credit. Perhaps it is irony that has no limit. Vila-Matas enjoys insisting that he is a double of Hemingway, despite being thrown out of a look-alike contest for “his absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway.”
My dad gave me the Vila-Matas book, and I am writing this with him and his upcoming 95th birthday in mind. My sister, brother, and I had contemplated giving him a small party, so he and my 88-year-old stepmother could hear their guests. But the list they drew up had over 100 invitees. This could lend support to the notion that there is never an end to youth or irony. But Paris?
At this stage my life is defined largely by milestones in other people’s lives—right now the impending birth of my first grandchild. Perhaps my life has always been defined by events in other people’s lives. I became a teacher and put writing second partly to put motherhood first. What is the irony in this?
1. Coming of age in the age of women’s liberation, liberated me to be un-liberated.
2. I’m not intrinsically motherly.
3. I would have been a better writer than mother. That would be ironic if it were true.
Approaching grandma-hood as a reasonably satisfied yet ever doubting, part-time teacher, occasional writer, I have choices that I never had before. I don’t have to earn money or look after kids. I am at a propitious moment to push the envelope—quit my job and prioritize writing or grandmothering.
I am reluctant to commit.
Hemingway also said that in Paris, “…we were very poor and very happy.” Vila-Matas says he was poor and unhappy there. Both of them write about the celebrated artists and writers they encountered. I am middle aged, middle class and complacent in Brooklyn, despite not knowing any of the famous creative people who continue to flock here. I could write about that, though it lacks the obvious appeal of being young in Paris during an artistic heyday. One could argue that mine is terrain less covered, but likely for a reason. Can “Grandma Lit” become a new genre or only exist ironically?
“I can’t think of a greater way of stating the truth than being ironic about our own identity,” Vila-Matas writes. Throughout Never Any End to Paris he complains about those who deny that he looks like Hemingway, yet never deigns to offer proof. Moreover, the few clues he gives to his own personality, his sexual anxiety and lack of interest in social causes, make his claim seem comically delusional.
I empathize with Vila-Matas’ frustration, because my friends laugh when I mention my resemblance to Roseanne of the eponymous TV show, which depicts an ironic and sentimental version of Roseanne Barr and her family. Somehow, my friends are unimpressed when I point out that Roseanne and I share a weakness for bathroom jokes and sequins.
Additionally, though both Roseanne and I have made our children our priority, we’re not all that maternal, i.e. sweet. Our whole Mother Earth shtick is half-hearted, and our children call us on it. Recently when Ben was writing in our apartment, I offered him a bag of chocolate truffles, adding that we needed help polishing off the peanut butter-filled ones. The next time Nora and Ben visited, I again offered the truffles. Nora said, “You were pushing the peanut butter ones on Ben.” Clearly I’d been the subject of comedy in their household. In true Roseanne form, I responded with aggressively self-deprecating repartee. “Yes, where was his sense of social responsibility?” (Actually, I muttered, “Only if he liked them.”) Nora said, “No one likes peanut butter.”
Christopher Hitchens infamously asserted that women aren’t funny. Still, the feminists of both genders who felt called upon to refute his points fell into a literal trap. Bad-boy overstatement is by definition ironic. And Hitchens had run a preemptive strike by acknowledging that there are great comediennes, even interviewing Fran Lebowitz and Nora Ephron for the article.
Besides, we all know funny women, including some for whom irony is the default mode. After I’d blithely described myself as a Pollyanna on New Year’s Eve, my sister-in-law said, “Maybe that should be my resolution. I should try to see the bright side for an hour.”
Still, if it’s acceptable to point out that women are generally more emotive than men, can’t we acknowledge that there are more funny men than women? Partly we can blame biology, which starts us on this path. Hard as dad may try to bond with his newborn, he can’t compete. Baby and mom, having just been one, promptly reattach, so baby can continue to feed and thrive. Before long dad falls back on what he was built for and tosses baby up in the air, invoking ironic distance to get a laugh.
Males grow up knowing that they have to be funny—at least learn to retell jokes. Females know their role is to be social glue. As guardians of the “real,” of feelings that connect, women won’t risk being misconstrued. Males, on the other hand—the amusing outsiders—are afraid to open up.
Men are comfortable appearing in a negative light. My retired husband hesitated when our host asked what he did. When she added, “Or do you do nothing?” he ran with it. When my ironic sister-in-law asked my daughter’s boyfriend if he was studying geology in order to work for an oil company and get the big bucks, he simply said yes. Only I worried that she might misunderstand who Christian “really” is.
Vila-Matas mocks the idea that “ in real life” is truer or even as true as fiction, the movies, or the ironic vision. When he visits Trotsky’s house in Mexico, he finds it dull, dead, until he manages to “see” bloodstains that had never fully been cleaned from the carpet. It is imagination that brings a “real life” place to life. Vila-Matas imagines saying later, “I saw Trotsky’s blood in real life.”
Fiction writers try to capture real life, but hate to admit that it’s exactly that.
Back in 2001 when Ben first went to college and wore irony—on parents’ weekend he was attired in thrift-store pink madras shorts—he was also studying it in his postmodern literature classes. Though postmodernism is hard to pin down, generally its iconic authors, like Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, use sarcasm, parody, and paradox to undercut accepted notions of reality. They are also members of a white male club.
Certainly the female authors of color who were essential reading at the time, like Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, also challenge prevailing views, especially about race, gender, and identity. To this end they use inventive techniques that blend and rupture conventional genres and points of view. But not humor. Though irony has been called “a weapon of the weak,” the evidence suggests that those in power feel freer to employ it.
Perhaps the next phase of female empowerment should be humor liberation. 21st century women need to release their inner comediennes by playing with irony. And extend their range and flexibility by laughing at themselves.
First, women need to give themselves permission. Shortly after I started writing this piece, I told an ironic joke in my dream, which made me and everyone else in the dream laugh. I don’t remember that happening before. Irony is seeping into my subconscious and setting it free.
As for the joke—sorry—you had to be there.
All this points to how I might approach the next stage of my life. The times seem past due for a playful post-modern grandmother.
Instead of putting you down for a nap, baby boy, I’ll take one with you. As you grow, I’ll teach you proverbs with a subversive twist. We’ll make each other giggle with endless antics. When I can’t keep up, I’ll giggle more. Plus, I’ll maintain enough distance to make mental notes and write about us afterward. You’ll be the light of my life. And my material.
And when Grandma Lit becomes a hot genre, go ahead and laugh.
About the author:
Eliza Migdal’s essays have appeared in TravelMag, Opednews, Education.com, Prick of the Spindle, and elsewhere. She teaches Literature and Writing in the non-profit Prep for Prep program. She and her husband live in Brooklyn, New York, and also spend time annually in Oaxaca, Mexico.