Monday, 9 May 2016

Spotlight on Theory of Irony By Erik Von Norden

Ever wonder why so much makes no sense? Why is there an inverse proportion between the size of the print and the importance of the message? Why do washed-up actors and athletes end up as Governors and Congressmen? Why do they pay out millions of tax dollars for anti-smoking campaigns, and to farmers to grow more tobacco? Why did Missouri send thousands of men to fight on opposite sides at the Battle of Vicksburg? Why was it that Pope John XII died while making love with a married woman? Why can't we separate art from obscenity and why, oh why, do armies destroy towns to save them?

Erik Von Norden processes the world with an odd, well-caffeinated kind of logic and answers in an eccentric, corkscrewed sort of way. Always funny, sometimes scholarly and no sacred cows. He calls this eccentric thinking the Theory of Irony.

Available in print and in Kindle format at:

Excerpt #1

“One more victory, and I’ll be utterly destroyed.”

The King postured, while banners fluttered and standards glinted in the sun, and he imagined himself to be the next Alexander the Great. As ruler of Epirus, a powerful nation covering what is now northern Greece, he commanded an invasion of Roman Italy during the third century BC. To that end the King brought along a herd of fearsome war elephants, a ruthless Greek Army, a plan to stoke Roman defections and a reputation for battlefield success. He merely shrugged in the face of staggering losses while overcoming the Roman Army on the fields of Heraclea – where mawkishness, he felt, was the bane of lesser men. The Greek King continued forward, bereft of emotion and brimming with resolve, to fight his enemy once more at the hills of Asculum. There, he watched appalling deaths without sentiment and sacrificed men for the greater cause of triumph, which at the end of the day again embraced him. To this, he quipped, “One more victory, and I’ll be utterly destroyed.”

The fates though, began to conspire against him. First, the Romans formed an alliance with (their soon-to-be enemies in) Carthage. Meanwhile, the King set sail for Sicily and made all kinds of trouble there, to little lasting effect and then for less reason he sailed back to wage yet more war on the Italian mainland. Despite all the battlefield wins, his troop losses proved increasingly heavy, his reinforcements fewer and defections almost non-existent. And, the Romans figured out ingenious ways to scare the daylights out of the war elephants, which would then panic, turn and stampede back over their own advancing handlers. You can only imagine what this did for Greek morale.

The King nonetheless had a sense of purpose and a psychological insight few men will ever comprehend, which drove him forever forward. He ordered his Army to crash headlong yet again into the Roman lines, this time at the ultimate Battle of Maleventum. The monarch’s gamble proved momentous to Western Civilization – an unbelievably bad mistake and actually just stupidity masquerading as bravery. He did not win and in the end, was forced to skitter all the way back to Greece.

The King’s error, it seems, has snowballed right through history. Nearly the same thing happened when a museum won a bidding war for a famous artwork, only to end up paying handsomely for an alleged forgery. Or, when science devoted vast resources to discover a miracle cure, only to incur side effects worse than the disease. It repeated when a company spent piles of money to win a lawsuit, only to have the jury award one dollar in damages. And when a star athlete made the game-saving play, only to suffer a career-ending injury. This is why in the modern era, when someone foolishly wins a battle at a cost of losing the war, as did this King – whose name happened to be Pyrrhus – we derisively call it a Pyrrhic victory.

"Entertaining, amusing and sometimes laugh out loud funny as author, Erik von Norden, explores the irony of the development of ‘western’ civilization and system of religious beliefs. I am sure that there will be people up in arms about the author’s observations on both history and matters of faith, but in all honesty it’s a case of “sad but true”. If this were a work of fiction it would be rejected because the tale is absolutely preposterous. Humanity has succeeded in spite of itself. Well researched, well structured and well worth the read."
~ Sarah Jackson (Author)

Excerpt #2

Today, “Western” Civilization is a really big thing. You could start on the Rock of Gibraltar, meander across Western Europe, Russian Asia, traverse the frozen Bering Strait, strut through North America, then South America all the way down to Tierra del Fuego and never really leave it. And though “Western” often connotes the nations of Europe – like England, France and Italy – for a long time Western Civilization was in large part an African institution. Many laypeople would reject that, but a map of the Roman Empire – and nothing embodies the West more – shows two of its biggest Cities, Alexandria and Carthage, were clearly African. And for a time beyond that Western Civilization was in a big way an Asian affair. Others may laugh, but a map of the Byzantine Empire – which carried civilization after Rome fell – reveals that of its biggest Cities, Constantinople sits one-half in Asia and Antioch sits entirely so. It was only relatively recently – in the past few centuries – which the West came to include places such as Canada, Mexico and Argentina.

Conversely, “civilization” is really a much smaller thing – and often the opposite of – what most people believe. The term civilized (the one social scientists use) does not mean peaceful and artistic. The notion of civilization actually refers to connected roadways, unified coinage, literacy and interstate commerce. Hence, the Conquistadors who persecuted Central American natives were civilized, while counter-intuitively the kindly Arawaks who met Columbus were not.

The very word “irony” involves a high level of irony. No two dictionaries seem to agree, but most give definitions like, “A result opposite from what was expected.” For example, if bus drivers consumed alcohol for a drunk driving study and their safety scores increased, that would be a clear cut case. But the real curiosity arises from things like coincidence, tragedy and poetic justice that textbooks do not see as irony, but most people do. If hypothetically, all seven children in the Smith family were born the same day it would technically be an extraordinary coincidence. If Juliet faked her own death, only to have Romeo commit suicide on hearing the news, it would nominally be a tragedy. If a king died on the same gallows he had built in order to hang an innocent man, it would ostensibly be poetic justice. That is not to mention paradox, oxymoron, synchronicity, unintended consequence or self-fulfilling prophecy – and therein lies the basis of the Theory of Irony (indeed, the Irony of Western Civilization), which holds that the opposite of what is expected will happen more than it logically should.

"In The Theory of Irony, Von Norden uses a combination of knowledge, wit, and sarcasm to guide readers through the military, political, religious, commercial, and artistic history of Western civilization.

I am not much of a history buff; however, Von Norden's writing was able to hold my interest. He provided enough dates and details to be informative, used modern examples that I could relate to, and kept the pace going as he moved from one period of time to another. It was well-written, clear, and his witty asides make it easier to read than many books in this genre.

I would definitely recommend Theory of Irony to anyone who is interested in history and I plan on letting my husband, who is a bit of a history buff, read it."
~ Charity Rowell-Stansbury

The Author:

Erik Von Norden grew up in a town just outside New York City, blessed by a miracle of geography. To the west, the greatest metropolis in the universe boasts the tallest skyscrapers and wonderfully diverse neighborhoods, and to the south lie miles of the splashiest open-surf, wide-sand beaches on the planet. There, fifteen minutes after the end of World War II, two million middle-class New Yorkers paved over hundreds of miles of perfectly good potato farms, bulldozed 10-lane superhighways that stay jammed past midnight, and, cobbled together endless suburban tract houses without uniformity or distinction. It was from there that he meandered, at the age of 17, to the State University at Albany where he had been accepted off the wait list by the skin of his teeth.

Albany survives as a political capital, whose heyday came (and went) long ago with the Erie Canal. In this place, Erik found roommates, rented what might euphemistically be called a firetrap and got work in a print shop. Thanks to the state’s lavishly subsidized college system, he scraped together enough money for tuition and subsisted happily enough off macaroni and cheese. Erik found he could sneak into a dive bar on every corner, join a conversation on every porch, and more often than not, a house-party above.

At the end of four years, Erik Von Norden got a job as a paralegal, met the woman who would become his wife, and eventually earned a master’s degree in history. Then one day, he walked in and passed the bar exam – without going to law school or a taking prep course – and because of an anachronistic quirk in the system, he ended up as an attorney. He also abstained from alcohol, cigarettes, meat and drugs, parachuted from a small plane, skied the front four at Stowe and tubed the River of Caves in Belize. Nevertheless, these adventures pale in comparison to being married for over 20 years and raising two teenagers.

Erik, who writes under a pen name, now lives at the far end of civilization – in a small town in northern Vermont, the most rural of all the United States. To get an idea just how far north, and how rural, to take a vacation down in tropical Kennebunkport, Maine requires a four-hour drive generally south. His adjacent county, which borders French Canada, is closer to the North Pole than the Equator. His little house, set deep in the woods off a dirt road, is miles from the nearest pavement. It is a brutally cold but mindlessly beautiful spot, and he loves it.

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