Sean Walsh considers the Labour leader’s recent comments regarding Zionism and his ironic use of irony. He argues that at the very least the Labour leader accommodates – and quite possibly encourages, a culture of intolerance and that he sits atop a movement of activists that are ever vigilant and always anxious to find something to be offended by.
In an episode of the wonderful 90s comedy Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld learns that his dentist is looking to convert to Judaism “for the jokes”. When asked if this offends him as a Jewish person Seinfeld replies “no, it offends me as a comedian”. For some reason I thought of that scene when I read that Jeremy Corbyn considers the English Jewish diaspora to be insensitive to the nuances of “English irony”. They offended me not as a Jewish person (I am a Roman Catholic of Irish heritage), but as a lover of English irony.
I wasn’t even aware that Corbyn was an expert on the subject of English irony. I always assumed he preferred the robust congeniality of Gerry Adams over the acerbity of a Michael Palin or Ian Hislop. But I am no expert on the mind of Mr Corbyn, which seems like a sort of ball bearing ricocheting around a pinball machine, illuminating one Marxist trope after another. And the face of the Corbyn Labour Party is rarely one that smiles, being both humourless and menacing all at once. It is, after all, the party which includes as High Apparatchiks the likes of Dawn Butler and Emily Thornberry, neither of whom strike one as likely secretaries of the PG Wodehouse Appreciation Society.
Irony is an instance of the wider phenomenon of amusement, a subject of deep philosophical and cultural significance. And it is a subject that is surprisingly under-discussed. Human persons are the only creatures capable of experiencing amusement, a fact that cannot be disconnected from the wider truth that human persons are the only animals capable of rational agency. To have a theory of amusement is to assume a theory of the human soul. How, then, to analyse it? Amusement is a mental state whose object is humour and whose expression is laughter. But one can be amused without laughing and at an object which does not exist. Schopenhauer argued that humour is marked by incongruity: that a situation or piece of conversation is funny when it subverts the way things are supposed to be. Hence the absurdist genius of Father Ted, which describes a world much like ours but also subtly different, in which the usual laws of nature seem slightly out of kilter. Other philosophers have other things to say, of course. Thomas Hobbes, royal courtier and proponent of a somewhat jaundiced theory of human nature, thought that amusement was a sort of assertion of superiority. In his case that might well have been true. Freud believed that laughter was a form of release. But then he would say that, wouldn’t he?
Irony itself does seem more or less amenable to the “incongruity” analysis. Verbal irony relies on there being a surface meaning and a deeper meaning and it happens when the latter contradicts the former. It is a version of saying one thing but meaning the opposite. Not all instances of this are funny of course. When Theresa May asserts that a “common rule book” is different from a “single market” she is saying the opposite of what she knows to be true. But, Anna Soubry aside, who’s laughing?
I actually wonder whether Corbyn was being ironic himself when he asserts that the Jewish sensibility is one to which irony is invisible. Jewish humour is self-referential and subversive and is itself rich in irony. Then, of course, I remember the history of the man and that thought is quickly parked. There are subtleties in play here, and it is by no means obvious that the ramshackle foundations of the Corbyn cognitive architecture are sufficiently sturdy to bear their weight.
The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, who was a fascinating absurdist himself, specifically identified irony as being a bridge between the aesthetic and the religious stages of life. For Kierkegaard the supreme ironist was Socrates, the man who asserted he knew nothing and could you please help him out. Irony, on Kierkegaard’s view, cultivates a habit of detachment essential for spiritual development. And this seems to fit the following two facts: that the Corbyn movement has no sense of irony and carries with it no respect for any concept of moral improvement. Corbyn at the very least accommodates, and quite possibly encourages, a culture of intolerance in which judgment is not tempered by any sense that the contingencies of the “here an now” are possibly not always all that serious. He sits atop a movement of activists that are ever vigilant and always anxious to find something to be offended by. They saturate the comment boxes of the internet with invective, often at the foot of articles they have not troubled to read or understand.
I doubt that there is a specific “English irony” over and above a specifically English expression of general irony. I rather suspect, whisper it softly, that Corbyn has not thought this one through with the sort of vigour necessary to the question. But there is certainly a general sense of specifically Jewish irony. I’ll sign off with one of its greatest practitioners.