I was thinking recently, as a friend was posting her thoughts about Prometheus on Facebook while watching that movie, that I wonder if we have forgotten how to like things because they’re good.
I’ve been watching the British version of Sherlock lately, which is, in my opinion, startlingly good: the acting is spotless, the dialogue intelligent and funny, the visuals modern and hip. It is not unbelievable, transcendent art, but it is good.
And it’s struck me that there is so little that is.
But then – the hipster that still resides in me scoffs at my old-age earnestness. There is plenty of good art being made, all over the place. Still, we decide to like certain things for their badness, don’t we? I am tired of liking bad things because I’m supposed to: the Coen Brothers, for instance, leave me cold. So does Tarantino. In another time, they both would have been considered second-rate, but now, they are icons — all because they are masters of post-modern irony.
There’s a passage in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which I recently had the pleasure of teaching, where she cites two pre-war poems in all their idyllic sweetness and wonders if it’s possible that anyone could ever hum such things and mean them. And since she is the Grand Dame of Irony, I wonder if these sweeps in the ironic, the nihilistic, aren’t just a moment in time, and that perhaps we can get back to earnestness, and commitment, and creating beautiful things to be beautiful, and not as some statement about how full of crap beautiful things can be.
And they can be. I’m a punk still at heart, and deeply suspicious of what is handed to us as culture, and the canon even moreso.
But it wasn’t until reading this piece by Christy Wampole that located what I find most problematic about irony, and it’s its privilege. It’s smelly, snarky, all too diffident privilege:
Where can we find other examples of nonironic living? What does it look like? Nonironic models include very young children, elderly people, deeply religious people, people with severe mental or physical disabilities, people who have suffered, and those from economically or politically challenged places where seriousness is the governing state of mind. My friend Robert Pogue Harrison put it this way in a recent conversation: “Wherever the real imposes itself, it tends to dissipate the fogs of irony.”
First world problem, in a nutshell. For people who have enough, or maybe who have too much.
I have often joked that I am only ever misunderstood by people who don’t seem to understand how earnest I am; for a long time I have had difficulty communicating with some people because they don’t seem to speak without irony, or hear without it.
But Wampole has asked what I think are a good set of questions for anyone who intends to live with more actual earnestness, with enthusiasm and – dare I say it? – meaning.
What would it take to overcome the cultural pull of irony? Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.
Here is a start: Look around your living space. Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd? Listen to your own speech. Ask yourself: Do I communicate primarily through inside jokes and pop culture references? What percentage of my speech is meaningful? How much hyperbolic language do I use? Do I feign indifference? Look at your clothes. What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype (the secretary, the hobo, the flapper, yourself as a child)? In other words, do your clothes refer to something else or only to themselves? Do you attempt to look intentionally nerdy, awkward or ugly? In other words, is your style an anti-style? The most important question: How would it feel to change yourself quietly, offline, without public display, from within?
And now I know, at least, in which direction my New Year’s resolutions will be pointing. Unironically, of course.