Mediterranean Irony

A recent opinion piece by Roger Cohen in The New York Times, about goings-on at the Bank of England, put me in mind of a flavor of pessimism not obviously associated with England. Let’s call it Mediterranean irony. Here is Cohen’s opening paragraph:

Guildhall at the heart of the City can be a lulling sort of place after a long day. The statuary and vaulted timber ceiling of the medieval great hall lead the eye to wander and the mind to muse on Britain’s strangest quirk–its centuries of continuity. Grace is said, claret is served, glasses clink and dreaminess sets in. A keynote speech from a central banker is all that is required to complete the soporific effect.

Here’s an example of Mediterranean irony, by Albert Camus, a master of the form:

It struck me that I’d better see about dinner. I had been leaning so long on the back of my chair, looking down, that my neck hurt when I straightened myself up. I went down, bought some bread and spaghetti, did my cooking, and ate my meal standing. I’d intended to smoke another cigarette at my window, but the night had turned rather chilly and I decided against it. As I was coming back, after shutting the window, I glanced at the mirror and saw reflected in it a corner of my table with my spirit lamp and some bits of bread beside it. It occurred to me that somehow I’d got through another Sunday, that Mother now was buried, and tomorrow I’d be going back to work as usual. Really, nothing in my life had changed.

As in all forms of irony, the meaning  is hidden or oblique. The specific difference in Mediterranean irony, however, is that a happening of some moment is buried in a desert of ordinariness, in the barrenness of the everyday–a central banker at the “soporific” Bank of England delivers a policy speech that impacts the lives of millions around the globe; Meursault buries his mother in what turns out to be just another tedious Sunday.

Examples of Mediterranean irony show up everywhere–from Montaigne to Camus and well beyond–once you develop an ear for it. I’m not sure this is a blessing, especially if you think as I do that one of the greatest perils of our age is nihilism, but it is certainly one of the many gifts left us by the endlessly creative spirit of Mediterranean culture.

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