by Serena Alagappan
“Sarcasm” does not immediately conjure an image of the body. But the word has its origins in the Greek root sark–, meaning “flesh”. The contemporary usage hearkens back to the translation of sarkazein, literally, “to strip off the flesh”. Later that definition became “to speak bitterly” or “to sneer”. I suppose sarcasm is a kind of stripping. Through its linguistic ambivalence, it strips certainty; through its paradoxical insistence on saying one thing and meaning another, it both strips the possibility of projecting significance and requires it. Consider the expressions You don’t say and Tell me something I don’t know. In the silhouette of sarcasm, one can play a game — see if certain phrases will singe or stoke laughter. Sarcasm accommodates these equivocations. But we don’t usually associate ambiguity with tangible form. This is why I find the root of “sarcasm” in the body surprising. Although, that is the prerequisite for good humour, isn’t it — a surprise?
In the Netflix sensation, Nanette, comedian Hannah Gadsby says that a joke ‘when you strip it back’ to its bare components needs two things: a set-up and a punchline. It’s a question with a surprise answer. She goes on to explain that her job is to artificially inseminate a question with tension and then release the tension by allowing the audience a laugh. The trouble with self-deprecating humour, according to Gadsby, deepens for herself and other human beings on the margins: ‘it’s not humility,’ she says. ‘It’s humiliation.’ But that argument develops outside the bounds of sarcasm. Gadsby undresses the mechanics of a joke to emphasise how honesty can also strip down. ‘Do you know why I’m such a funny fucker?’ she asks, ‘It’s because … I’ve been learning the art of tension diffusion since I was a [child]. Back then it wasn’t a job, wasn’t even a hobby, it was a survival tactic.’ Gadsby isn’t being sarcastic anymore, and she doesn’t resolve the tension for her audience when she discusses her own trauma. She stops modulating her tone, shouts, and sheds tears.
Someone once told me that laughing at a serious thing doesn’t mean you don’t take it seriously. It just means you’re not letting that serious thing overtake you. I wonder if one can approach sarcasm the same way or if its particular breed of humour demands further attention. I’m not sure why I like the occasional kiddo, sweetheart, or honey, even when it’s sodden with irony.
So what is the line between the material stripping of flesh and figurative sneering? When does language precipitate action, and when does jest precipitate real feeling?
In the library a few years ago, I was sitting with a friend with whom I often marvelled out loud about literature. I showed him this passage from Ulysses: ‘The summer evening had begun to fold the world in its mysterious embrace. Far away in the west the sun was setting and the last glow of all too fleeting day lingered lovingly on sea and strand, on the proud promontory of dear old Howth guarding as ever the waters of the bay…’ My friend said it didn’t really do it for him. In response to my wide eyes, he gently explained that Joyce was mocking the language of Romanticism. The excerpt I shared is crammed with what I now understand as saccharine nostalgic prose (‘summer evening’, ‘mysterious embrace’, ‘the last glow’) and cheap alliterative flourishes (‘lingered lovingly’, ‘on sea and strand’, ‘proud promontory’). But my heart had sloshed at the thought of a wistful dusk, at the way the sun occasionally seems stung to go, at Howth’s affectionate epithet and its gesture to senescence. I won’t descend into facile metaphorical coordinates that justify my misreading. I was wrong. I still felt fooled.
Parodic transformation is a tactic. It can manipulate, catalyse, and mediate. Sarcasm flourished in literature and speech, like most things, before it was named. According to the writer Willis E. McNelly, James Joyce invokes liturgy satirically in Ulysses to demonstrate his ‘facile wit’, ‘delight in language’ and ‘semi-blasphemous jocularity’. Ironically, delight is relatively difficult to feign and ‘semi-blasphemous’ implies a sacred counterpoint to Joyce’s sacrilege. Even interpreting the whole of Ulysses as parody wouldn’t diminish its resonance. In one moment, Leopold Bloom, the absurd anti-hero of a modernist epic, wipes crumbs from the bed where his wife Molly made love to another man earlier that day. Bloom observes ‘additional odours … some crumbs, some flakes of potted meat, recooked, which he removed.’ He walks around Dublin all day, avoiding home, and then attempts to shelve Molly’s affair by brushing a blanket clean. He’s pathetic, and aching. ‘If he had smiled why would he have smiled?’ Is the reader laughing?
Joyce ridicules his own characters. The mortification of Bloom as an unremarkable, mediocre man isn’t glib or playful, like Joyce’s vulgarity and puns. This mockery can at times be funny, but it’s sorrowful too — to come to the end of the very long day and wonder if anything is different, to fear nothing will have changed by tomorrow.
Sarcasm is an oblique form of communication; it requires excavation. Observe a person’s face: did they raise their eyebrows? Twist their mouth? Go cold and quiet? What about when there’s no access to a face, and you must decipher tone from words on screens of different sizes?
The value judgment on sarcasm is its own debate. According to a 2015 study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, sarcasm was deemed an ‘instigator of conflict but also a catalyst for creativity.’ Its innovative vigour has to do with the abstraction required to respond to something uttered and received ambivalently. The study implicitly advocated for more sarcasm. An explicit addendum to avoid catastrophe: with people you trust.
The ouroboros is an ancient emblem of a serpent eating its own tail. The image’s structure is meant to represent the perpetual cycle of birth and death. An apt symbol for sarcasm, the snake both resolves and exacerbates its own conflict. It soothes tension by shaping into a perfect circle, suggesting contiguous inception and destruction as the natural course of things. But it also hurts — like Bloom sweeping scraps, like Gadsby weary of making herself the punchline. The serpent is consuming itself. Nuancing the acceptance of destruction as a prerequisite to vitality, the ouroboros portrays self-destruction metastasising infinitely. Could something so cyclical exist beyond cynicism?
In his facetious New Yorker piece, ‘I Like All Types of Music, and My Sense of Humor Is So Random,’ Nate Dern satirises the quirkiness everyone seems to have and believe is unique. The sudden and arbitrary exclamation, ‘Blarp! Can you believe I just said “blarp”? Is that even a word? LOL’ is a microcosm of his joke. But after many examples of typical randomness, something else happens. Everything softens. The narrator explains, ‘sometimes, when we’re out drinking, I do this thing where … I throw my head back in laughter, then catch a glimpse of the night sky and become awestruck by the true randomness of the stars — gentle pinprick illuminations penetrating the darkness, an accidental spill of glittering sea salt on a concave obsidian slab, twinkling down on us across unimaginable stretches of time and space.’ Crying by the confession’s finale, Dern’s narrator relays how a friend remarked, ‘Were you just looking up at like, nothing? You are so random.’ The narrator replies only to his reader, almost in a whisper, ‘And the thing is? I really am.’
So, is this a case of contrived literary devices and rhetorically pleasing clichés? Or is the humility of staring up, feeling small, and laughing through tears sincere? Is an earnest murmur made more earnest if it pivots from parody? I’m starting to wonder if my infatuation with understanding sarcasm is a way into the most authentic form of communication, or proof that I’ve finally become jaded. A satire of questions inseminated with tension, chasing our tails and mining for an origin, stripped to etymology, baring insecurity, nursing creativity — sweetheart, this could have been you and me.
SERENA ALAGAPPAN is pursuing an MSc in Social Anthropology at St. John’s College. She’s a big fan of Bloomsday, but prefers cereal to kidneys for breakfast.
Art by Millie Anderson