I love irony. If Socrates were still alive, he and I would be BFFs (although he might only admit to being BFWGRLOMs: Best Friends until We Get Reincarnated and Lose Our Memories). Kierkegaard and I are like this (here it would be helpful if you could imagine me wrapping two fingers around each other). And I won’t even admit how much time I waste reading The Onion (or how much time I spent in college producing my own knock-off version).
There are people who dabble in irony here and there—they might tell the homeless man on the bus that his theory about alien electricians rewiring D.C. street lamps to flash hypnotic messages is “very interesting,” or play Chumbawamba’s 1997 hit “Tubthumping” at a party to get laughs. But Serious Irony Aficionados (arguably the real 1%) like me know that this is mere child’s play. Much like the magicians in the movie The Prestige, the S.I.A. makes irony a way of life: he drinks PBR because he actually likes it; he uses thrift-store mugs because he genuinely likes his morning cup of coffee wishing him a Happy 80th Birthday, Dad; most tellingly, when people ask him whether he really likes something or just likes it ironically, he doesn’t understand the question and refuses to answer it.
By now you might be wondering why I’m talking about irony on Valentine’s Day. After all, what could possibly inspire irony in a holiday dedicated to True Love, in which lovers exchange cards with mass-produced expressions of someone else’s love in them, schoolchildren double as ad agents by handing around glossy cards on which brand-name animated characters profess improbable degrees of affection and encouragement, and teachers are forced to admit to students that this is the one day in the year they’re allowed to eat chalk, and then only if it has LUV YA stenciled on it in red lettering?
The point here (and I swear there is one) is that irony is not really about being snide or feeling superior: it’s about love. While the casual ironist may use irony simply to mock or degrade other people’s loves, the S.I.A. plunges into the heart of irony and finds real sincerity there; he looks into things commonly considered cheap, banal, or hokey and discovers real goods that have been overlooked, and that are really worthy of love. For the S.I.A., his tastes are not a wry joke or a pose; he has let himself be open to the goodness of the things he meets, and has learned to love them.
Believe it or not, I’m not making this up. Kierkegaard (remember the fingers-wrapped-around-each-other thing again) argued that the dynamic of irony is to break men out of their selfish individualism, to point out the limits of the finite so that men may turn to see the limitless infinity of divine communion for which they long. Irony can of course be corrupted into a purely negative attack that tears down everyone else’s sincere labors and points nowhere but the empty void; but used according to its proper nature, irony is a positive vision that helps people to see that the wounds of the world are actually windows whereby one can see the light of divine love in a new way.
In fact, it’s actually helpful that Valentine’s Day provides such ample fodder for ironic delight, because the way our celebrations of Valentine’s combine irony and love can help us get to the unexpected heart of the ultimate irony of love: that God, who is utterly perfect and complete in himself, desired out of sheer generosity to create each of us, to sustain us in being out of love even as we kick and scream and sin and generally make ourselves ugly in his sight, to send his Son to be born, die, and rise again in order to restore the divine life in our hearts, and that he does all this not after we have tidied ourselves up, but while we were still sinners. From our point of view, it is ironic that God would love creatures who are so unlovely.
And that’s why the genuine movement of love that underlies the S.I.A.’s action can be a distant foreshadowing of the supreme, redemptive love of God. The S.I.A. struts around with a six-inch belt buckle that says TEXAS superimposed on a cowboy riding a bull surrounded by stars because he has properly identified the goodness in it that others have overlooked. But God does more than simply remind us to attend to the goodness our sins have covered over; by his gaze of love, by the regenerating power of his grace, he brings about the goodness that he sees, transforming us from within to make us love in a way that befits the loveliness he sees in us.
So Serious Irony Aficionados of the world, unite! This Valentine’s Day, go ahead and get your sweetie that figurine of a penguin on a surfboard wearing a Hawaiian shirt that says “Stay Cool, Baby.” You’re right, it would be hilarious. And if your beloved happens not to be as captivated by its beauty as you are, remember that only in heaven will the love of God transform our gaze so perfectly that we will love as he loves, when every sneer shall be wiped away, and insincerity shall be no more, neither shall there be misunderstanding nor snarking nor blank stares any more, for the former things will have passed away (cf. Rev 21:4).
Image: Rene Magritte, The Song of Love