Saturday, March 8, 2014

Epiphany #16

That would be scanned.--Iago, in Othello

So, my close friend issues a Lenten challenge to me: to give up sarcasm for the entire Lenten season. Now, you may know me, or you may know my writing here, so you gauge a couple of things about this challenge:

1. The incredible difficulty of it.
2.  The fact that someone would zero in on this as the thing that I need to work on.

I think of myself as having a highly-developed sense of irony.  I am amused, far more than I should be, I suppose, by the cosmic jokes that surround us day to day.  I look regularly at relationships, politics, finances, disappointments, the general unfairness of life with a sense of wanting to shake my head and laugh far more often than I'm likely to get all that mad about it.  It is a defense mechanism, of course.

Once I gave a presentation at an English conference that used Elie Wiesel's Night as the text for "Using Irony To Combat Despair."  I saw how that Holocaust memoir relied so heavily on understatement, jarring juxtaposition, and even the grimmest of "jokes" (cosmic, of course) that I thought Wiesel was probably protecting himself as well.  How else does one come to terms with the senseless?  It seemed pretty sophisticated to me.

But I cannot escape the basic reality that much of my irony is sarcasm and nothing more.  What most definitions of sarcasm miss in their variations of "saying that opposite of what you mean" is that that opposite that I am saying is negative--I am damning with faint praise, saying more when I mean less, appearing to be positive when I mean to be negative, undercutting accomplishments, skewering, tossing blame around, etc.

In defense of the sarcastic, I would claim that we say what others only think or are afraid to say.  To join in against the sarcastic and what can't be defended, it is entirely possible that a) other people don't actually focus on folly the way we sarcastics do, and b) who are we to show others their flaws anyway? And, finally, c) who is to say that what we jibe about actually needs to be said?

And so, the challenge has me thinking, which it was designed to do.  What good is Lent if the giving up or taking on has no self-reflection piece?

INSIGHT #1:  I rarely lead with sarcasm.  Instead, it is a retreat, a rearguard action.  If you're getting a sarcastic comment, chances are it's a comeback, not the first salvo.  Unless somebody is flat-out looking for a fight.

INSIGHT#2:  I only use sarcasm with people whom I know well (and, perversely, probably like).  Weird, isn't it?  But this special gift doesn't deliver well with a context and without some knowledge of the delivery man.  It's a good way to get one's ass kicked or to be wildly misunderstood or to burn a bridge.  Yeah, sarcasm's kind of a cowardly disease.

INSIGHT #3:  I don't mean anything by it.  Which isn't to say that sarcasm doesn't/can't hurt.  I know it does.  But the whole "people put you down to make themselves feel better" doesn't really work with me.  Whatever makes me feel better is usually internal, and certainly not based on your weakness or foolishness.  I don't get off on that.

The only solution I can see to curing my sarcasm is for me to shut the Hell up.  The problem is that you can see my eyes.  You know I'm thinking it.


troutking said...

Right, like this piece is really well-thought out and insightful.

Billy said...

Holy mother of hell yes. First, if one is gratingly self-deprecating, is it because s/he suffers from severe insecurity or is foolishly attempting to hide an overblown ego? Second, if one is only as sarcastic as one is self-deprecating, then isn't s/he only, in a sense, doing unto others as he regularly does unto himself? And is that all bad, or all good?

I guess I don't have much respect for people who classify an approach to human communication as entirely one thing or another. Human communication isn't that simple. But wouldn't it be pretty to think so?

Can't we inspect the trees rather than condemning the entire sarcastic forest?

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