Reading Swift Straight by F. W. Brownlown”A joke is an epitaph on an emotion.nThe Alluring Problem: An Essaynin Irony by D.J. Enright, NewnYork: Oxford University Press.nTelling truth in the form of a lie isnone of the odder things humannbeings do. It is hard to imagine irony innParadise, and there can certainly bennone in Heaven, where we know evennas we are known, and there is nothing tonhide and nothing hideable. In Paradisenafter the Fall, on the other hand, God’snfirst words — “Where art thou?” —nwould sound ironic to guilty Adam,nwho may not have known the word, butnwho had done the thing: the rootnmeaning of irony is “dissimulation.”nWe begin to speak ironically verynearly in life, although most of us firstnbecome conscious of irony in adolescence,nwhen we learn simultaneouslynthat it is admired in writing and disapprovednof by our parents and teachers.nLater on, probably at the university, wenlearn that irony can be an attitude ofnmind, a kind of universal solvent capable,nas Keats said in another connection,nof making all disagreeables evaporate.nLater still, when we know more and arencertain of less, the ironic attitude willnseem less a sanctuary and much more anfunkhole.nTo simplify a complex problem, ironyndraws bus power to amuse, infuriate,nprotect, and proclaim from the circumstancenthat things are seldom what theynseem. There appear to be two chiefnkinds of irony: one that announces anfact, another that evades it. Whethernyou enjoy the irony will depend on yournassessment of the fact unless—like thenAmerican electorate—you dislike ironynon principle. Certainly, irony raises difficulties,nand books about it ought to beninteresting, if only for the examples.nOn the whole they are not. Likenother figures of speech, irony is moreninteresting to read than to read about.nBesides, ironists have a reputation asnF.W. Brownlow is professor of Englishnat Mount Holyoke College innMassachusetts.n— Nietzschenclever, sophisticated, even profoundnpeople, and no writer on the subjectnwants to seem less clever than hisnsubjects. This often leads to unnecessarynconvolution and indirection. Thenworst temptation is to treat irony ironically.nKierkegaard did this, and it is tonD.J. Enright’s credit that he says earlynon in this book that he foundnKierkegaard’s essay incomprehensible.nThat kind of willingness to speaknplainly is Enright’s strength. Irony,nthough, is not a mode one associatesnwith him. A writer who publishes thenlines “And wash the coated tongue thatnit might speak” or “Who was it slid thennoiseless shoji?” (from Bread RathernThan Blossoms) hasn’t the selfprotectivenessnof the ironist, or hisncapacity for seeing that everything,nincluding a reader’s response, has atnleast two sides. Perhaps irony alluresnEnright because in some ways it evadesnhim. Many of his ironies depend onnattitudes not everyone will share, andnmany of the grand examples thatnour whole culture has recognized arenmissing.nHis book is not, as the titie says, annessay so much as 28 little essays, anpersonal album of ironies with commentnand explanation. The intention isnto be lively, unacademic, apothegmatic,nto appeal to a taste for one thingnitself and intelligent talk about it.nUp to a point, Enright succeeds.nThe comment is succinct, often interestingnand fair. The author knows hownto present himself as a character in hisnown right, and the personal vignettesn— Enright in Singapore, Enrightndodging a large policeman — are enjoyable.nWhy, then, does the booknseem bland and accommodating, sonunprovoked by a provoking subject?nThe answer is in the conclusion: “Ironynlives in the ample territory betweenn[paradise and hell]; it acknowledgesnwhat must be, contends against whatnshould not and need not be, andnintimates what conceivably could be.”nIn other words, irony is a social democrat.nShe has a clear conscience andndoes good, socially responsible things:nshe acknowledges, contends, and intimates.nWho could object to that? Shenalso knows what’s what, and has thengood taste not to define it.nSo despite the book’s form,nEnright’s irony is academic, center-left,ntimid, and conventional. The examplesnoften reflect the academic curriculumn|»f^^^r^.i^^^^^^^,(i^;. i’^iti^r^g?^-: if:^”^n,0 i1’y^/nnnSEPTEMBER 1988/31n