Your nine-year-old daughter has just performed a flawless rendition of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" at her school recital. The parent sitting next to you remarks, "Isn't she a virtuoso?"
Alternatively, your nine-year-old has just managed to butcher "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" in an excruciating performance. The parent sitting next to you remarks, "Isn't she a virtuoso?"
By altering the context and shifting the inflection from isn't to she, the identical phrase changes from an expression of glowing admiration to the cattiest of barbs. Such is the power of sarcasm, the mechanism through which positive becomes negative and praise becomes disdain.
Sarcasm has been around since the beginning of recorded history, tracing its origins back to Biblical times. In fact, its first recorded expression appears only seven days after the Jewish exodus from Egypt. Boxed in against the sea, with nowhere to turn and Pharaoh's chariots bearing down upon them, the Israelites cried out to Moses, "Were there not enough graves in Egypt, that you had to bring us to die in the desert?"
Needless to say, there were plenty of graves in Egypt, and the Jews could have made their point equally well by saying, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in the desert?" Instead, they seasoned their complaint with a heavy measure of sarcasm.
Why? Where does this sarcastic impulse come from? And why is it so prevalent throughout Jewish culture?
WHAT'S IN A WORD?
Let's begin with a definition. According to Webster:
Sarcasm n. [Latin sarcasmus, from the Greek sarkazo, to tear flesh like dogs, to speak bitterly.] A bitter, cutting expression; a satirical remark; a gibe; often associated with irony.
The Greek origin is revealing. Sarcasm articulates not simple disdain but the most profound bitterness; it expresses the kind of intense misery that seeks company by going for the throat like a wild dog; it desires not merely to vent its passion but to tear the object of its scorn from limb from limb. And so we find the related terms, biting one's lip, gnashing one's teeth and, most relevantly, the cutting remark that is quintessentially sarcastic.
It is Webster's concluding phrase, however, that gives reason for pause: often associated with irony. Well, if we want to be accurate in our terminologies, another definition is in order:
Irony n. [Latin ironia, from the Greek eiron, a dissembler in speech, and its derivative, eironeia, deliberately pretending ignorance, particularly as a rhetorical device to get the better of one's opponent in argument.] A mode of speech by which words express a sense contrary to that really intended; sarcasm, in which apparent praise really conveys disapprobation.
As with sarcasm, irony seeks to gain the upper hand although the pretended ignorance of irony doesn't figure prominently in our example of the nine-year-old pianist. And again, the concluding definition is curious: sarcasm. If sarcasm is defined by irony and irony is defined by sarcasm, then we have no meaningful definition of either.
Specific types of irony offer significant insights. Socrates pretended ignorance when he posed questions that tied his listeners up in knots. Of course, this was precisely his intention. For all his wisdom, however, Socrates might have anticipated the outcome of his ironic interrogations: his fellow Greeks convicted him of crimes against the state and sentenced him to drink poison.
Dramatic irony makes use of characters who remain unaware of the incongruity between their words and their circumstances. Their persistent cluelessness offers fodder for endless amusement, but without the bite or sting of sarcasm.
Incongruity is the source of all humor. It is the juxtaposition of opposites that makes us laugh. A horse wearing a sundress. A chimpanzee in a diaper. A baby wearing an ascot and mirrored sunglasses. In more sophisticated form, the law of unintended consequences is often the most compelling arbiter of irony, whereby the stature of the individual shrinks before the vastness of a universe he can only begin to comprehend.
WELL, WHAT DO YOU THINK I MEAN?
How then can we define the difference between sarcasm and irony? According to Dictionary.com, irony exhibits superior subtlety and wit through the structure of language; sarcasm resorts to coarse ridicule and mockery through vocal inflection. It is particularly instructive to note that deaf people cannot recognize sarcasm but have little trouble with irony.
Irony is an admission of one's own limitations; sarcasm is an assertion of one's own superiority. Irony allows others to join in on the joke; sarcasm is always at someone else's expense. An article in Civilization Magazine once observed this distinction as the difference between late night hosts Johnny Carson and David Letterman. The ironic Carson could laugh at himself. The sarcastic Letterman is always laughing at you.
So how does inclusive, good-natured irony become twisted into partisan, mean-spirited sarcasm? And how did the Jews, for whom refined speech is so fundamental an ideal, become such a sarcastic people?
It seems likely that sarcasm began as a psychological defense mechanism. Trapped against the sea, with Pharaoh's chariots racing toward them and nowhere to run, the Jews might have dissolved into sobbing helplessness and capitulation. Instead, they channeled their bitterness into humorous aggression, priming themselves for battle by venting their anger against the nearest available target: in this case, Moses. No, it wasn't fair. But it was excusable under the circumstances.
Over 3300 years later, having endured countless edicts, pogroms, persecutions, incarcerations, crusades, jihads, and holocausts, sarcasm has become a Jewish reflex as automatic as breathing. It's easier to laugh than to cry, especially when the life deals out so much bitterness.
But before we go biting the nearest person's head off, we ought to stop to consider how much better off we are if we save our sarcastic responses for moments of genuine crisis. Habitual sarcasm is destructive, demeaning, and divisive, momentarily assuaging our pain by deflecting it onto others while leaving us even more bitter in the long run. It is the junk food of emotional expression.
How much healthier to share in the humor, even at our own expense, by finding the positive rather than the negative spin. How much more comforting to humbly acknowledge that the more we try to impose order on our world, the more the world reminds us of the inescapable disorder of our own lives. How much better to laugh and let the world laugh with us, since crying doesn't become any more pleasant simply because we aren't crying alone.
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