In my first report card, my form master described me as, inter alia, having a “dry wit”. As might be expected of someone whose education involved report cards, form masters, and the casual use of Latin in sentences, the following several years of education amplified rather than removed this trait. And it persists to this day: Steve Turnbull has taken it as one of his missions to gloss my social media comments with a metaphor comparing my wit to wine so dry it is dust in the glass. So, it will come as no surprise I am fond of irony. However, for the same span of time, one irony has irritated me: divine irony.
While irony is often used as a label for saying the opposite of what you mean, the technical meaning is the broader idea of something having different meanings to different (theoretical) audiences: for example, the insertion of jokes for adults in children’s films. These audiences are not limited to real-world audiences: dramatic irony lets the reader/viewer know something a character in the story doesn’t, giving each a different perspective on the events of the story.
I enjoy irony in all its forms, from the emotional accessibility of sarcasm to the post-modern intellectual thrill of romantic irony – all except divine (or cosmic) irony. Divine irony is the trope that the universe (either as a divine being or a more nebulous process of fate) deliberately raises up a character only to equally deliberately bring them down. Perhaps the most famous example is Thomas Hardy’s manifesto for victim-blaming, Tess of the D’Urbervilles) in which events conspire to make each of Tess’s attempts at virtue at best fruitless; not wishing to spread his foulness I leave it to readers with a strong sense of self or pressing need to purge their stomachs to research further if they wish.
The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind.
– H.P. Lovecraft
Frequent readers will no doubt be wondering how this fits with my enjoyment of the Cthulhu Mythos. The difference lies in the reason people fail: both suggests a world in which an individual’s actions are futile before immense cosmic forces, but in the Mythos we are truly insignificant; protagonists fail not because some malicious demiurge lurks waiting to change the rules after we have acted, but because humans are so separate in both power and perspective from certain beings that there is no real interaction.
Whether tragedies, comedies, or some fusion, satisfying stories are about protagonists facing some challenge (emotional, intellectual, or physical) and being changed by their response to it. They do not need to succeed, but their failure must have meaning. While a professor investigating the Mythos might never overcome Azathoth, he can overcome a cult who worships Azathoth and then die in the knowledge he saved his wife from being sacrificed; he need not fear Azathoth making his wife die of a heart attack after he has freed her.