Fragment of Cicero's

Fragment of Cicero's

In Brief

Figure of speech. In keeping with the interest in oratory that runs throughout the Aeolus chapter, Professor MacHugh mocks Dan Dawson's grandiloquent speech by calling it "A recently discovered fragment of Cicero's." The device at work here, irony, was important in the rhetorical tradition.

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Irony (EYE-ruh-nee, from Greek eironeia = dissembling, feigned ignorance) takes many forms and has been defined in many ways, but it typically involves sharp incongruity: a pointed difference between what is said and what is meant, or what is expected to happen and what does happen, or what the characters in a play suppose and what the audience knows. The term probably originated in the first of these three kinds of disparity, since it derives from the Greek word eirein = to say. In ancient Greek theater the eiron was a stock comical character who said less than he might and thereby undermined the alazon or boaster. Socrates put this kind of irony to philosophical use, pretending ignorance of subjects on which his victims were content to pronounce certainties, admiring their supposed wisdom, and then demonstrating that they did not know what they were talking about.

Oratory has always had use for figures of speech that can demean an opponent or undermine his argument. The Roman rhetoricians understood irony to be mockery disguised as compliment–– pretending to admire someone or something while tacitly signaling disapproval. Quintilian recommends speech "in which something contrary to what is said is to be understood," and he advises speakers to signal their use of the device through changes of intonation––advice that Professor MacHugh follows by delivering his witty praise of Dawson as a new Cicero with "pomp of tone." George Puttenham calls ironia "the drie mock." John Smith defines it as "mocking or counterfeiting: a trope whereby in derision, we speak contrary to what we think or mean." Shakespeare gave the device supreme dramatic expression in Julius Caesar, where Mark Antony first says with apparent sincerity that "Brutus is an honorable man" and then repeats the sentence again and again with growing disdain, working the crowd into a growing sense of outrage.

In recent centuries irony has often come to refer to a more free-floating appreciation of life's limitless absurdities––a way of seeing the world rather than a mere tool for demolishing an opponent. It would be fair to suppose that Joyce––writing a novel about the survival of ancient heroism in a modern city, and a chapter about the survival of ancient rhetorical arts in a newspaper office––may have savored this kind of irony as he penned Professor MacHugh's witticism. The conceit that Dawson's dreadful blather could possibly be mistaken for something penned by the greatest Roman orator is deliciously incongruous––a cosmic disconnect. But even if Joyce's irony is modern in this way, MacHugh's is Quintilian: he is holding Dan Dawson up to ridicule.

John Hunt 2023
No Smoking sign at the Baker Street tube station. Source: Wikimedia Commons.