Robert Fulford's column about irony

(Globe and Mail, September 18, 1999)

The first dispatch from the war against irony reached me five months ago in the form of an article in Slate, Microsoft's on-line magazine. It was a poignant little story by Michael Hirschorn about his struggle to achieve freedom from irony. He had come to the mournful conclusion that, in this period of history, irony promotes emotional dishonesty. He was giving it up, the way others give up cigarettes or alcohol. He wrote about trying to achieve sincerity by responding honestly to all questions and by actually enjoying (rather than sneering at) culture and humanity.

This is often called an age of irony, and certainly public life is coloured by what Samuel Johnson defined as: "A mode of speech in which the meaning is contrary to the words." Recent careers have been built on irony, such as David Letterman's and Jerry Seinfeld's. But, of course, irony has been with us since antiquity. Anatole France, who won the 1921 Nobel Prize for literature, claimed that a world without irony would be like a forest without birds: "Irony is the gaiety of meditation and the joy of wisdom." Irony, both a figure of speech and a way of looking at the world, lay beneath Jane Austen's style and gave Socrates his way of teaching. Shakespeare made Mark Antony the theatre's most famous ironist by having him call Julius Caesar's assassins "honourable men," meaning they were dishonourable men. Almost anyone in the United States who says "I believe the president" is an ironist.

That's just the problem, according to the new irony police: It makes cynics of us all. We are irony-oppressed. Mockery has become a way of life (in the Elizabethan era, irony was sometimes called "drye mocke"). It's elitist, too: It depends on double meaning and a double audience, divided into those who understand and those who don't. It corrodes honest speech and honest feeling while encouraging greed and cruelty. Irony, its enemies say, is private, selfish and indifferent, while earnestness is public, generous and concerned. For those who dislike the tone of life as we live it now, irony has become a villain.

Not long ago, a piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune said irony is "crippling" the youth of America. Novelist David Foster Wallace has argued, in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, that irony is an agent of "great despair and stasis in U.S. culture." He blames television: People love or need television, and yet hate it at the same time, so they "try to disinfect themselves . . . by watching TV with weary irony."

The enemies of irony now have acquired a hero and prophet, a 24-year-old Yale law student, Jedediah Purdy, the author of For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today (Knopf). The editors of The New York Times Sunday Magazine obviously think Purdy has touched a nerve: They ran an admiring profile of him on Sept. 5, just before his book's appearance. This week, Time gives him two approving pages, a rare tribute to an intellectual in that celebrity-addled magazine.

Purdy was born in 1974 in West Virginia, the son of back-to-the-land hippies, and he grew up in a house that didn't get an indoor toilet until 1989. He was home-schooled until 13 and later went to Exeter and Harvard. In childhood, he pretty well escaped pop culture and pop irony. As a young adult, he discovered both of them, with horror. At Harvard, it was a custom, in the first week of freshman year, to screen Love Story, a 1970 film about Harvard students in which the beautiful young heroine dies of cancer. Watching it, the students of 1993 jeered, taking every sad line as a joke. Watching them, Purdy was appalled. About then, he began to think of fighting what he calls "unchecked and unchallenged" irony.

For Common Things is nothing less than an attempt to alter the spirit of the times. Irony, says Purdy, makes us incapable of expressing sincere feelings or trusting in the feelings of others: "The point of irony is a quiet refusal to believe in the depths of relationships, the sincerity of motivation, or the truth of speech -- especially earnest speech." Purdy doesn't like Wayne's World or similar TV satire, and he hates Jerry Seinfeld. He says Seinfeld is "irony incarnate," a phrase that suggests he had "the devil incarnate" in mind when writing it. (Apparently an anti-Seinfeld party is assembling. Last Sunday, New York Times foreign-affairs columnist Thomas Friedman deplored the fact that Australian Aborigines watch American TV, particularly Seinfeld, "the worst of America.")

Purdy admires the great ironists, such as Michel de Montaigne (who identified solemn self-righteousness as a major cause of war), Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. But he believes that the prevalent contemporary form of irony cripples us, particularly young people, by draining words of meaning and moral weight. Purdy claims to see what he calls "clusters of cultural backlash" struggling for relief from irony; he cites, for instance, those dedicated to "deep ecology," which he defines as a more or less explicitly religious movement anchored in honouring the natural world.

Purdy believes the current wave of irony originates in fear -- "fear of betrayal, disappointment and humiliation, and a suspicion that believing, hoping, or caring too much will open us to these." He keeps reaching for epigrams, but never quite gets there: "The ironic sensibility inhibits the act of remembering how to value what you value." Still, he makes a few points well. In the individual given to irony, "wariness becomes a mistrust of language itself. He disowns his own words."

Not bad, but it's hard to see Purdy's book (with its stark, don't-think-we-want-to-please-you jacket) attracting legions of followers. He's chosen a tricky subject, and he's not always on target. Linda Hutcheon refers in her fine book, Irony's Edge, to "the unbearable slipperiness of irony," and almost everyone who writes about it says it's all but impossible to describe adequately. For his part, Purdy seems unable to see the difference between irony and cheap cynicism.

Purdy's intentions are honourable, and his perspective promising, but he writes with enough self-importance to give sincerity a bad name. Reading his book, and other anti-irony statements, has made Anatole France's view look even wiser than before. Maybe we need more irony. Great whacks of it would have been a big help in 1997, when much of the world collapsed in a bathetic orgy of sentimentality over the death of the Princess of Wales. And how, except ironically, could we ever deal with Monica Lewinsky's blue dress?

Ironic: Earnest:
Pierre Trudeau Jean Chrétien
Bob Dole Bill Clinton
George W. Bush Al Gore
Ralph Klein Mike Harris
David Macfarlane Rick Salutin
National Post The Toronto Star
Margaret Thatcher Tony Blair
Margaret Atwood Margaret Laurence
Mike Bullard Lloyd Robertson
George Will David Frum
David Letterman Jay Leno
Rex Murphy Peter Mansbridge
Adrienne Clarkson John Ralston Saul

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