Irony Scare

by Benjamin Anastas

Only at TNR Online | Post date 05.18.01    

Jedediah Purdy is my Co-Pilot
--an "ironic" bumpersticker

If you are a regular consumer of cultural journalism in the mainstream news media, indeed, if you have even scanned, in passing, a recent book or film review in your favorite big-city newspaper, then you will already know about the fierce battle underway between the scheming agents of irony--infidels all--and those honest souls in the arts who practice "earnestness." That is, a cultural war pitting crusaders of Truth and Beauty versus the dark forces of Deconstruction and Moral Relativism.

The battle lines were drawn most plainly with the publication of Jedediah Purdy's essay collection For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today (1999), and while the arguments in Purdy's book have largely been refuted, his fallacious definition of "irony" has since been adopted by commentators across the political spectrum. All that is good and true in American life--or so the argument goes--is being corroded by a solvent that is sometimes cynicism, sometimes parody, sometimes sarcasm, and sometimes plain old vice. This conflation of terminology, aside from providing an easy answer to an intricate set of problems, has lead to unending attacks on a cultural enemy that bears little resemblance to actual irony--which is, after all, nothing more than a literary device (from the Greek eiron, the wily user of understatement in Classical comedy). In a recent New York Times article about the declining fortunes of Mad magazine, a reporter states our cultural predicament this way:

Parody is the way many television viewers get the news, irony has become the language of sincerity and those that were once the butt of Mad's humor, the big corporations and political leaders, have adopted Mad's approach to sell themselves.

And what to do about this sorry state of affairs? Presumably one should agitate for bringing Walter Cronkite out of retirement, lobby Congress to pass a ban on the ironic gesture, and boycott any product sold to consumers via glib, self-referential ad campaigns. (As for the political candidates, once public-opinion has been forcefully established, they'll fall neatly into place.) Do away with irony and hope will return to America; let it fester, and the country's moral stature will continue to degenerate.

The problem with the prevailing formulation--"irony" vs. "honesty" (see also "earnestness" and "sincerity")--is more than just a matter of semantics; it goes to the heart of America's infatuation with the trappings of "authenticity," whether it be in art, literature, film, or politics. Think of George W. Bush's very public retreat to his ranch during the post-election campaign, his swapping of the politician's uniform of gray suit and red tie for jeans, a flannel shirt, a Carhartt jacket, and a cowboy hat. Was this an "honest" change of image? Did it make him a more "authentic" president-elect?

Purdy stage-managed a similar neat reversal in Common Things by contrasting his childhood on an Appalachian farm ("West Virginia was not an ironic place") with the Sodom of the Harvard campus, lousy with ironists, where he first began to fear that America had become a "cultural echo chamber" where nothing was "real, true or ours." More recently, a New York Times feature on the playwright and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan ("Finding The Drama In Real Life") featured a photograph of the author--conspicuously barefoot--sitting at the bottom of a wooden staircase at his home, looking to all the world like a guileless, overgrown teenager who had been lured downstairs from his attic hideaway by the promise of a sandwich. Are barefoot authors more attuned to "real life" than authors who wear shoes around the house (or even furry slippers)? Would Lonergan's film You Can Count on Me be any less of an achievement if he dressed like a stock broker? Would an ironic gesture, like going barefoot to the Academy Awards, say, have increased or diminished his authority?

It's a mistake to take the media's definition of the world at face value, particularly where cultural matters are concerned, both life and art having proved themselves, over time, to be infinitely more difficult, subtle, and interesting than their depictions in the news (journalism being another form of artifice). But sometimes, as is the case with the current irony scare, the terms of the discussion are so off-base, the false assumptions so widespread--and the result the denigration of a legitimate and even vital literary practice --that standing on the sidelines with a pained expression is simply not an option for the thinking person. In the interest of distinguishing irony from the cheap subtitutes for which it often plays the "patsy," a list of the core beliefs behind the media's anti-irony campaign follows:

(1) Irony is a national disease. While the textbook definition of "irony" found in M.H. Abrams' A Glossary of Literary Terms runs about five pages, a working definition can be boiled down to three varieties: verbal irony (when a character says one thing and means something else), dramatic irony (when the audience is given more information than the characters), and structural irony (when a narrative device sustains "duplex meaning" throughout a work, i.e. the use of an unreliable narrator). While America is, in fact, afflicted with a number of unreliable narrators in public life--any politician who touts the effectiveness of a missile defense shield, for example--structural irony is not to blame for spinelessness in Washington. Sarcasm (the use of verbal irony for crude ends), cynicism (the adoption of a permanent "ironic" stance), and the lesser art of parody are indeed endemic to the national "discussion," particularly in the for-profit sectors of the media; but they are at best the wayward cousins of irony in the Classical sense. Indeed, the current irony scare, if anything, proves that America lacks a collective sense of irony--that rare and exquisite ability to step back from life and recognize the absurdity of human endeavor, and in so doing, honor the fragile beauty therein. Irony sees through bluster, neutralizes "spin," and routinely eludes the ham-handed efforts of institutional censors. If Thomas Paine had thought himself above the use of irony when he wrote Common Sense (1776), there might never have been a War of Independence.

(2) Irony and honesty (also "earnestness" or "sincerity") are mutually exclusive. Irony is not dishonest by definition; it can be used by the most earnest of practitioners and with the utmost of sincerity. The eiron of Greek comedy used deliberately pointed language to skewer the alazon--a figure representing official hypocrisy. In a thoughtful artist's hands, irony can produce a stunning frisson that deepens our understanding of a given subject: think of Philip Roth's first Zuckerman novel The Ghost Writer and Nathan's absurd fantasy of bringing Anne Frank home to meet his parents. "Heedless of Jewish feeling?" Roth writes of the charges leveled against his narrator. "Indifferent to Jewish survival? ... Who dares to accuse of such unthinking crimes the husband of Anne Frank!" In one imaginative gesture, the pieties of Zuckerman's accusers are shown to be self-serving and harmful to the very cause they would support: the well-being of Jewish Americans (and one Jewish-American writer in particular).

(3) The value of honesty is absolute. It's not enough that contemporary art should be called upon to imitate life; now, in the age of the memoir and so-called "reality TV," art is expected to incorporate life in all its torpor and banality. A belief in the absolute value of confession, no matter how private, useless, or damaging the revelation, has flooded the airwaves, bookstores, and art galleries with work based on personal "experience"--stylized to suit the preferences of a target audience. Metaphor, a figurative use of language that is literally untrue, has gone the way of the ungainly zeppelin; irony, which requires deep engagement from its practitioner, is replaced by sarcasm, cynicism, and parody (the three wayward cousins again), which exist at a remove from actual art-making. A successful work of art is "true to life," rather than being true to an aesthetic tradition or any other larger set of values. And the circle closes when the pundits, laptops humming away, name "irony" as the cause for America's cultural predicament when the futile search for "honesty" in artifice is actually to blame.

There is no cure, of course, for this foolish addiction to what seems "authentic," and there are certainly more pressing problems in the world than the rampant misuse of a literary term--particularly in a country that lacks an extensive ironic tradition. (The ironic reversal is an integral element of the Blues, as in Robert Johnson's classic lyric She's a kindhearted woman/she studies evil all the time/She's a kindhearted woman/but she studies evil all the time/You well's to kill me baby/as to have it on your mind.) The case against irony is best made by those who use the term correctly, like Thomas Mann, who included this warning in his 1924 novel The Magic Mountain: "When [irony] is not employed as an honest device of classical rhetoric, the purpose of which no healthy mind can doubt for a moment, it becomes a source of depravity, a barrier to civilization, a squalid flirtation with inertia, nihilism, and vice."

Sound familiar? Reverse the charges, however, and an equally valid argument can be made for honesty's "squalid flirtation" with the same dark forces (if the Fox program "Cops" isn't an agent of "inertia, nihilism, and vice," I don't know what is), aided and abetted by a pundit-class too inattentive, or lazy, to get their terms right in the first place. It isn't irony itself that brings squalor to the national discussion, after all, but those who would use the ironic stance--and the honest stance--to feed off existing culture rather than make their own contribution, which is risky. What's next for the Cassandras of cultural journalism--the plague of neologisms? A wave of degenerate simile? The time has come to put all spurious definitions of "irony" to bed and return to the business of protecting our cultural heritage from the next great onslaught: hyperbole.


BENJAMIN ANASTAS's second novel, The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor's Disappearance, is published this month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.