Psychotic irony is when I know that I am a mega-famous celebrity who everyone knows on sight but I pretend to myself and everyone around me that I am not. I act as if I am just a normal, non-famous kind of a person and you all act as if you think I am just normal and non-famous too, but under this surface-level appearance there is a delicious thrill of ‘irony’ because I know that it is all just a game we are playing. It is like a secret that we are all sharing. I know that I am famous and I also know what everyone else knows it too – if they didn’t know it then I wouldn’t be famous!
This type of irony is ‘psychotic’ because I have failed to realize that the idea of being a mega-famous celebrity is itself ironic. I have taken it that I really am this supremely well-known celebrity, and I haven’t realized that the ‘fame’ in question is not really to be understood literally – it is a metaphor for something else.
If I were to realize that the state of being famous is a metaphor for something else then the sense of irony that am experiencing would be divine rather than psychotic. Both divine and psychotic irony exist in contrast to the state of being neurotic, which is devoid of any kind of irony. The reason the state of neurosis is suffering is because there is no possibility of irony in it – the lack of ironic awareness is itself suffering!
When we are very very happy (like children are sometimes happy) we look at each other with precisely this sense of shared irony. It is as if I know that you are not really Jane or Henry and you know that I am not really Geraldine or Paul, and we both know that the other knows. This ‘sharing of the irony of conditioned existence’ constitutes a conscious transcendence of the game that we are usually helplessly lost in. We are sharing a delightful secret, a secret that we know we are not supposed to talk about, but which we know we all know because we can see it in each others eyes. This secret is the actual source of our happiness – it is our happiness.
That type of ‘ironic happiness’ is extremely rare when we grow up and start taking the metaphors of life and our roles in life as literal statements of fact. The type of ‘happiness’ that we have in its place is the non-ironic type of happiness that is better referred to as pleasure.
Pleasure is the enjoyable feeling that I get as an actor or player in a game who does not know himself to be an actor or player in the game. If I were to have any sense of irony regarding my role in the proceedings then obviously I could obtain no euphoria as a result of gains made in that game, as a result of advantages attained in that game.
Depression or despair is the disagreeable feeling we obtain as a result of losses or disadvantages sustained in the game. Both pleasure and pain are literal, i.e. they only make the type of sense that they do make to us because we experience them in relation to a strictly literal (or non-ironic) understanding of who we are.
In order to have the possibility of euphoric reward I have to make sure that I stay literal! Without literalism there is no euphoria and that is why I fear the loss of my literalism, my concreticity. Staying literal means playing a game without seeing that I am playing a game. The role-identity that understands itself literally continuously schemes ways in which it can obtain advantage and because of its plots, it’s clever and convoluted schemes (which it regularly keeps secret even from itself) it weaves a web from which it is virtually impossible to escape.
The knots and tangles that we get so tortuously and endlessly caught up with are due entirely to our unexamined reluctance to see through our own literal-minded thinking. Recovering our sense of irony about ourselves would free us from the trap which we find ourselves in, but the truth of the matter is that we are actually attached to our trap. We too attached to our idea of ourselves to allow any humour into the situation. Without the literal-mindedness that keeps me prisoner I lose any chance of obtaining the euphoria that I am so very fond of, and so I cannot afford to see through it. And yet the euphoria is a poisonous prize – it hurts me even as I enjoy it!
When the mask enjoys, this is euphoria; when the mask is joyously shed, this is happiness or bliss.
The corollary of these two statements is that when I am despairing, it is the mask which despairs, and when I am gripped with fear it is the mask which fears. When I am anxious, it is the mask that the anxiety belongs to. The mask fears being shed above anything else because it cannot comprehend any reality beyond itself – it is functionally incapable of understanding that that there is a reality beyond itself because of its literal nature. It cannot understand that it is only a mask, only a pose that has been playfully struck, only a posture that has been freely assumed. The mask is the me and the me understands itself literally. Because of its irredeemable obtuseness, because of its immense concreteness, because of its indefatigable literality, the me is stuck in the prison of itself…
The player of the game is trapped in the prison of the mask! The player in the game is subject to the rule of fear and the fear is the trap. I am the slave of fear because I do not know my true ‘non-mask-like’ nature. The terrified one cannot properly understand what it is actually terrified of because in order to know this it would need to understand that it is the wearer of the mask not the mask itself. If it truly understood itself, then it would no longer take itself so dreadfully seriously. As Wei Wu Wei says in Open Secret –
As long as we do not perceive the fatuity of a phenomenon telling itself how marvelous it is, we will never come to the knowledge of that which we are when we have understood that, as phenomena, we are not.
Only that which is unshakably convinced of its own literal existence can torture itself with unendurable cravings for that which it hopes so desperately to possess but never can, and only that which insists upon taking itself as being absolutely important in its own right can experience the exquisitely ineffable horror that comes when it is forced to relinquish that which it never had.
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.