The 500-year-long battle to make written irony easier to understand

One of our most well-known experts on irony lived a life that was a mess of ironies itself: he was a married, gay High Anglican who lunched with occultists; a leftist politician who revelled in frivolous society gossip; a patriot who spied for both MI5 an

Our collective sense of irony, it seems, has never been in better health. We say, “How ironic!” as a politician’s hypocrisy is exposed; we laugh knowingly as Sacha Baron Cohen’s alter egos eviscerate their prey with perfect Socratic irony; we feel keenly the dramatic irony as Romeo takes his own life, thinking Juliet has killed herself. Irony, in all its forms, pervades our lives.

And yet, as soon as we move from being appreciative connoisseurs to active purveyors of irony, we run into difficulty. Verbal irony – the ostensibly simple act of stating something that is not meant – is a fragile thing, a contract between ironist and audience that is easily broken. Without mutual understanding, a theoretically ironic statement just does not work: a veiled compliment is mistaken for the insult behind which it is hidden, while an ironic expression of praise loses its critical sting. Sometimes, most simply, a meaningful statement becomes nonsensical.

Spoken irony, for the most part, avoids such pitfalls by virtue of tone of voice and the body language with which we accompany it. By cocking an eyebrow, by feigning enthusiasm or boredom, we give an attentive listener the clues they need to extract our true meaning. The problems most often arise not when we utter an ironic statement but when we try to write it down.

Yet written language is not without its own body language of sorts in the form of punctuation, and to approximate a specific tone of voice we might employ italic or bold text. Despite this, writers persist in looking for alternative ways to signal irony. For evidence of this we need look no further than the prevalence of the “smileys” with which we decorate jokes sent over SMS, instant messaging and email. Plainly, we do not trust conventional marks alone to convey our meaning. Even a crude :-) or ;-) is preferable to having an ironic comment misunderstood by its reader.

The difficulty of signalling textual irony was first documented in the 16th century, when in 1509 the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus bemoaned the lack of a mark with which ironic statements could be punctuated. Erasmus declined to address the problem himself, and it was not until 1668, in Restoration England, that the first true irony mark was minted. It came from the versatile mind of the Reverend John Wilkins, a clergyman, natural philosopher and minor da Vinci of his day.

Living through the English civil war and the restoration of the monarchy that followed it, Wilkins no doubt had a firm grasp of the concept of irony. Having once served as chaplain to the nephew of King Charles I, he married a sister of the Royalists’ bête noire, Oliver Cromwell, who installed him as head of Trinity College, Cambridge; he lost the post on the Restoration but contrived to become the first secretary of the newly established Royal Society. Here was a man comfortable with the ironies of his time.

Wilkins was tirelessly inquisitive. He posited the possibility of extraterrestrial life on the moon (and designed a flying machine to get there); he speculated on the construction of submarine “arks”; he wrote the first book on cryptography in English; and he fabricated transparent beehives that allowed honey to be extracted without killing the bees inside.

His creation of the irony mark, though, came by way of a project that he intended to be his crowning glory. His “Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language” described an artificial language capable of “the distinct expression of all things and notions that fall under discourse”. Just as we sometimes find written language inadequate to express of irony, so Wilkins found it inadequate for everything else besides, and his “real character” was designed to encompass all things and ideas the human mind could conceive of. His irony mark was little more than a footnote to this epic work, a suggestion that ironic statements might be punctuated with an inverted exclamation mark (¡). His was not only the first irony mark; it was also the first to fail.

It took more than a century after Wilkins’s bold but doomed endeavour for the next putative irony mark to appear. And, for now at least, it had migrated across the Channel: if England was not ready to note irony, the Continent most certainly was.

The first of Europe’s steady procession of irony marks appeared in an 1842 issue of a Belgian newspaper named Le Courrier Belge. In an article bemoaning the ceaseless political and martial wrangling of Europe’s “long 19th century”, Jean-Baptiste-Ambroise- Marcellin Jobard, the paper’s proprietor, opened a paragraph with a small mark shaped like a Christmas tree. The foot of his article bore an explanatory note: “Ceci un point d’ironie.” (Had he lived a century later, Jobard might have appropriated Magritte’s slogan and made it: “Ceci n’est pas un point d’ironie”.) In a book published the following year, Jobard elaborated on his experiment, explaining that a new family of marks could be created by rotating his Christmas tree to signal irritation, indignation or hesitation.

Jobard, like John Wilkins, was a technologist and inventor: he championed lithography, a novel method of printing; he studied the propagation of sound through hollow pipes; he agitated for the introduction of railways to Belgium; and he lit his home with gas lamps that he had designed.

However, his irony mark was not used beyond his own works. Writing only a decade after Jobard had publicised his creation, Jean-Jacques Rousseau echoed Erasmus by lamenting the apparent lack of punctuation for ironic statements.

The next irony mark was born in fin de siècle France, courtesy of the poet Alcanter de Brahm. In his 1899 essay L’Ostensoir des ironies (“the monstrance of ironies”), de Brahm put forward an irony mark shaped like a stylised, reversed question mark () and spoke of it “taking the form of a whip” to indicate the verbal lashing that irony could inflict. Perhaps more so than his predecessors, de Brahm was aware of the delicate balance to be struck when committing verbal irony to paper – the phrase point d’ironie, he noted, was a pun that also meant “no irony”. As a later scholar remarked of de Brahm’s symbol, can a reader ever be sure that an irony mark is not being used ironically in its own right?

This was of no concern to Hervé Bazin, an acclaimed French novelist and creator of the third and final point d’ironie to appear in print. In 1966 Bazin wrote a light-hearted book on words and language, Plumons l’oiseau, or “Let’s pluck the bird”. Presented as the work of a fictitious professor of linguistics, Plumons l’oiseau was chiefly a plea for spelling reform, though Bazin also devoted a chapter to a set of six proposed “intonation points”. Joining symbols expressing love, conviction, authority, acclamation and doubt was his own point d’ironie, constructed from an exclamation mark crossed by a stroke akin to a single horizontal parenthesis. Bazin explained his mark as follows:

This is an arrangement of the Greek letter ψ. This letter (psi) is an arrow in the bow, corresponding to ps: that is to say, the sound of that same arrow in the air. What could be better to denote irony?

Ultimately, Bazin’s picturesque symbol was no more successful than those of Jobard and de Brahm before it, and it remains the final attempt by a francophone writer to create an irony mark. It was also the last to precede the internet, the arrival of which fostered a new burst of short-lived irony marks. In comparison to the decades that elapsed between those of Jobard, de Brahm and Bazin, digital irony marks (or rather, sarcasm marks, as the internet favours irony’s derisive cousin) seem to crop up every other year. Yet none of these has quite the ironic gravity of their printed predecessors. At the risk of being accused of typographic snobbery, I would contend that the points d’ironie of Jobard, de Brahm and Bazin, cut in steel and cast in lead, have precisely one credible successor – one that, once again, is a European invention.

In 2007, the theme for the Boekenbal, the gala opening of the Dutch national book festival, was “In Praise of Folly – Jest, Irony and Satire” and a new mark of punctuation commissioned for the occasion was launched at the event.

Though conceived primarily as a publicity stunt, the “ironieteken” designed by Bas Jacobs of the European type foundry Underware was a considered addition to the pantheon of existing irony marks. Jacobs conceived his graceful, zigzag ironic exclamation mark (below) to blend in with existing punctuation marks and to be easy to write by hand, and he succeeded admirably on both counts.

Shock note: the mark proposed by Underware

Unfortunately, as one wag pointed out, two ironieteken placed next to each other (to punctuate an especially ironic exclamation, perhaps) bear not a little resemblance to the insignia of the Nazi SS (ϟϟ). Whether because of this or otherwise, the ironieteken remains more a curiosity than a viable punctuation mark.

If irony refuses to be punctuated, perhaps the solution is to mimic an ironic tone of voice. After all, we can already emphasise text in a number of ways, so why not extend our typographic palette to encompass the ironic register? Writing for the Times in February 1982, the columnist Bernard Levin recalled a proposal to do just that: “Much of my time is spent trying to dispel the belief that my words mean the exact opposite of what they say, such an assurance being necessary in view of the apparently unshakeable determination among many readers to misunderstand them.”

“As for trying to be funny – well, long ago Tom Driberg [the Labour MP] proposed that typographers should design a face that would slope in the opposite direction from italics, and be called ‘ironics’.” With jokes set in this typeface, Levin said, no one would have any excuse for failing to see them.

Fittingly, Driberg’s life was a mess of ironies: he was a married, gay High Anglican who lunched with occultists; a leftist politician who revelled in frivolous society gossip; a patriot who spied for both MI5 and the KGB. It seems entirely apt for him to have proposed the creation of a typeface to invest text with a double meaning.

Unfortunately, today’s word-processing software remains steadfastly unable to invest text with Driberg’s ironic tilt, and a sentence terminating in a “¡”, “” or ironieteken is more likely to be mistaken for a typographical error than seen as an ironic statement.

Getting irony across in writing remains as simple and as complicated as it ever was. Just say it like you mean it.

Keith Houston is the author of “Shady Characters: Ampersands, Interrobangs and Other Typographical Curiosities” (Particular Books, £16.99)

Font of wisdom: written language already contains a range of special characters to aid comprehension. Could a symbol denoting irony ever join them? Image: Dan Murrell

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

THE PIERRE AND MARIA-GAETANA MATISSE COLLECTION, 2002/© 2017 ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK
Show Hide image

How Leonora Carrington fled privilege and the Nazis to live the surrealist dream

In this centenary year of her birth, Carrington is at last receiving the attention she deserves.

“When France sneezes,” the 19th-century Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metter­nich once said, “Europe catches cold.” France was no less contagious in the first decades of the 20th century, when Paris became the cultural capital of the Western world. Cubism, fauvism, Dada and surrealism were incubated in its galleries and cafés, where artists of various nationalities dreamed up new ways to blast away the past, among them Gertrude Stein, Marie Laurencin, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. But when the Nazis arrived, the City of Light went dark, and expats in Paris – as well as those such as the German surrealist Max Ernst, holed up in the French countryside and branded “degenerate” in his homeland – needed to escape, and fast. This was a European war, many decided, and salvation lay in the United States.

Portugal, facing the Atlantic and officially neutral in the conflict, offered the surest way to the Americas. And so Lisbon became “the great embarkation point”, as the film Casablanca described it in 1942. The British journalist Hugh Muir observed that the churn of diplomats, spies and refugees passing through left the local population “much as they were”; they inhabited not the Portuguese capital but a Lisbon of their own making that happened to share its geography.
Those with the means filled the best hotels. Those without scraped by in boarding houses, doing what they could to survive.

The hitherto sleepy seaport was transformed. By October 1941, the Irish Times was declaring Lisbon “the hub of the Western universe”. On the city’s news-stands, vendors sold the British Daily Mail alongside the New York Times, the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung and the Falangist Arriba, free from censorship and without segregation on the shelves by language. The newspapers were a welcome distraction for their readers, who had plenty of time to read. It could take months for the necessary travel documents to come through, and most people seeking safe passage to the US had little choice but to wait, and wait, and wait.

One of those waiting was a Mexican called Renato Leduc, who as a teenager had fought for Pancho Villa’s forces in his country’s calamitous civil war. Since then, Leduc had studied law and become a poet, before drifting into a job at the Mexican embassy in Paris, where he struck up friendships with the surrealists André Breton and Paul ­Éluard. At a dinner party in the spring of 1938, he met – and was charmed by – a young Englishwoman called Leonora Carrington, then Max Ernst’s lover. Three years had passed since that fleeting encounter in France and now Leduc was living with Carrington in the Alfama district of Lisbon, pressing administrators to confirm the date when they could be married at the British embassy.

Yet it wasn’t love that bound Carrington to Leduc. Born into new money on 6 April 1917, Carrington spent her childhood at Crookhey Hall, a mansion in Lancashire standing in 17 acres of gardens and woodland. Her father, Harold, was an ambitious textile manufacturer who, to the young Leonora, resembled “a mafioso” in his disciplinarian manner. When her mother, Maurie, gave her a copy of Herbert Read’s book Surrealism, published to coincide with the movement’s landmark London exhibition in summer 1936, Carrington was intrigued and visited the show. There she was exhilarated by the work of one artist in particular – Max Ernst – and, through connections at the art school where she was studying, she arranged an ­introduction to him at the Highgate home of the architect Ernö Goldfinger.

Carrington, an instinctive rebel who had been forced by her parents to “come out” as a debutante at Buckingham Palace not long before, instantly fell for the German artist, despite their age gap of 26 years. “From the second they set eyes on one another,” writes Carrington’s cousin Joanna Moorhead in her new biography, “the electricity is palpable between the beautiful, sparky young woman with her dark eyes, crimson lips and cascade of raven curls, and the white-haired, slim, middle-aged man with his lined forehead and kind-looking eyes.” That almost obscenely cliché-ridden description seems to have strayed on to the pages from a bad romance novel, but what is love but a big cliché we can believe in, and can’t help but do so?

Perhaps “cliché” isn’t quite the right word for anything to do with Carrington, however, because her life was an extended refutation of convention. The love between her and Ernst was more correctly of a mythic order, or, at least, it is presented as such in Moorhead’s account (“Max Ernst has met his bride of the wind, and Leonora Carrington has met her saviour . . .”). And mythic is the register that she explored as a painter and writer, first among the surrealists in France and then as one of a small group of like-minded artists in Mexico, where she moved towards the end of the Second World War. In striking works such as The Giantess (c.1947), with its towering woman tenderly guarding a small egg, she invented a kind of symbolic code that channelled the occult and the Renaissance masters to suggest a subliminal life larger than what tasteful language could reasonably convey.

Despite their obvious attraction, Ernst and Carrington seemed mismatched to her father. Ernst was twice married, German and, worse, an artist – one who delighted in flouting the social hierarchies that Harold had so studiously climbed. So, like the “old gentleman” in Carrington’s short story “The Oval Lady” who burns his daughter’s favourite wooden horse (“What I’m going to do is purely for your own good,” he says), Harold attempted to have Ernst deported to Hitler’s Germany on bogus pornography charges, hoping to end the relationship.

What followed was a family bust-up that left Carrington an exile for the rest of her life. The couple fled to Cornwall and then Paris to live among the surrealists, ignoring Harold’s warnings that they would “die without money”. He would stop her allowance, he said, but she didn’t care. She was leaving home – not just for Ernst, not just for the thrills and wonders of a new artistic milieu, but for “a whole new beginning” (another of Moorhead’s romance novel phrases but, again, perfectly true).

The Paris interlude was a blessed one. The couple took up residence in Saint Germain a few metres down the road from Picasso; he would drop by to dine and dance in their kitchen, a bottle of wine in his hand. Dalí was another friend, as were Man Ray, Elsa Schiaparelli and Marcel Duchamp. While in the city, the surrealists held an exhibition at the Galerie Beaux Arts featuring mannequins in a darkened room that visitors had to navigate using torches – one of the earliest examples of installation art.

Throughout this time, Carrington was developing her own work. She painted, she drew and she wrote, publishing a beguiling story called “The House of Fear” in 1938 in a limited edition with illustrations by Ernst – her first published writing and also, as Moorhead writes, “a kind of public acknowledgement of her relationship with Max”. His estranged second wife, Marie-Berthe, was understandably mortified by their romance;
to escape her scorn (and also that of the surrealists’ leader Breton, who had fallen out with Ernst over his friend Paul Éluard’s rejection of ­Trotskyism), the lovers moved south to the remote Ardèche region.

Their farmhouse was inhospitable and lacking in comfort, so they worked on the building, installing a terrace – but they also made an artwork of the building, adorning its surfaces with images of unicorns, winged creatures, lovers and horses. It was an idyllic and productive retreat but it came to an abrupt end. In 1939, Ernst was arrested as an enemy alien after France declared war on Germany. He was sent to an internment camp and released three months later; but in May 1940, after the Germans crossed the Maginot Line, he was arrested again. Unable to secure his freedom, Carrington fell into a deep depression and, by the time she was persuaded by friends to depart for Lisbon to escape the Nazis, she was beginning to lose all sense of reality.

Carrington later documented the decline of her mental health in Down Below, an extraordinary account of her life in a sanatorium in Madrid, to which she was committed after suffering paranoid delusions on her way to Portugal. Insanity, for her, took the form of a powerful “identification with the external world”, which somehow involved the hypnotic control of Europe by a Dutchman called Van Ghent (who was also “my father, my enemy, and the enemy of mankind”). In her introduction, Marina Warner notes that Carrington “had realised one of the most desirable ambitions of surrealism, the voyage down into madness”; yet, stripped of the playful intellectualism of the art movement, the “absolute disorientation” that Breton idealised is difficult to experience as a reader with much pleasure.

Carrington regained her freedom after reacquainting herself with Renato Leduc, who offered to marry her to facilitate her escape to New York: travel was easy for him because he was an embassy employee. In Lisbon, her mind slowly recovered and she prepared for a new life in the US. But, in that hub of the Western universe, it was hard to leave the past behind. One day, she glanced across a market and saw Max Ernst, who had been released by the French at last.

Carrington once said that she had only joined the surrealist group because she was in love with Ernst. However, being with him was never the sum total of her life. They travelled to New York together, but when Leduc returned to Mexico, she went with him, cutting ties with Ernst. Then she found a new love, a Hungarian expat called Csizi (“Chiki”) Weisz; they had two children (for whom she wrote stories, soon to be published by New York Review Books as The Milk of Dreams); she painted; she made new friends, most notably the Spanish-Mexican artist Remedios Varo. She lived, and on her own terms.

In this centenary year of her birth, Carrington, who died in 2011, is at last receiving the attention she deserves. Her shorter fiction, compiled in The Debutante and Other Stories, reveals an imagination that could transfigure horror into enchantment, and the human into the bestial. Yet her most significant achievement is her paintings. In Self-Portrait (1937-38), a wild-haired Carrington sits on a chair in front of a rocking horse, communing with a hyena. We see in the window behind her a real white horse, running free; our eyes are drawn to it by the room’s outlines. Surrealism prided itself in defying logic, but there is a logic here – one of emotional sense, if not literal meaning. Her life was made of multiple escapes. With that galloping horse, how vividly she evokes a longing for freedom. 

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496