For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today , by Jedediah Purdy. Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pages, $20.
I’m trying to write earnestly about the importance of being ironic. Do you think that’s possible? If you do, you’re my kind of ironist. If you don’t, if you think that earnestness and irony can’t cohabitate, you’re either unflinchingly earnest, like a Jehovah’s Witness in solicitation mode, or else you’re the kind of cramped, vulgar ironist Jedediah Purdy accuses, in For Common Things , of more or less wrecking our nation.
Mr. Purdy, who is 24 years old and pumped with youthful certainty, carries out his attack on irony in the service of a worthy cause: the celebration of public life, by which he means life lived in full awareness of all we have, or should have, in common. He hopes to enlist a jaded, apathetic population in the struggle to protect the environment. He hopes to re-engage us all in civic activity. He hopes to reaffirm the commonality of those areas of life we often consider private, and thereby lead us to public action; small steps first, then bold strides. He hopes to make hope look less risky.
That’s all to the good. What’s not good is his confused and ultimately dishonest dissing of irony.
Though I’m an addict from way back, I can see that the meaner manifestations of irony could use radical pruning. Mr. Purdy complains about a general inability to express sincere emotion and also a general refusal to believe in others when they express sincere emotion. If he’s right, that’s bad news on a personal level and bad news on a cultural level, too. Say we are unable to weep at tragedy, weep openly and with abandon; if so, we are the poorer for it, and that’s true whether the tragic events occur on an Off-Broadway stage, a movie screen, or in a cluttered kitchen with the radio playing pop songs in the background. Sorrow and pain will visit all of us–let’s at least feel them fully.
But it’s clear from the start that Mr. Purdy is less interested in pruning irony than in ripping it up by the roots. He writes, “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.” He paints an ugly portrait of the ironist: not just jaded and apathetic but also “exquisitely self-aware,” trapped, lonely, wary, weary and shallow. “For all its ready laughter,” he warns, “the ironic mood is secretly sad.”
Mr. Purdy divides our public life into three “ecological systems,” and warns that irony threatens each of them. The “moral ecology” (“the shared stock of qualities that enable people to live well together”) is undermined by the ironist’s emotional detachment and lack of hope and trust; the “social ecology” of political and civic institutions is undermined by the ironist’s apathy and isolation; and so, in the same way, is the planet’s “natural ecology.”
How does Mr. Purdy define this dreadful scourge? He doesn’t until his last chapter, by which time a five-letter word has morphed into a legion of demons, an insidious, protean peril stalking Western civilization–worse, possibly, than strip mining, to which he devotes a long lament, and genetic engineering, about which he delivers a warning so bloated with bombast that one begins to wish that the gene for pomposity could be extirpated for the sake of future generations. (He worries that change brought about by technology in general and by biotechnology in particular “might fray our sense of common humanity and stanch the sources of our moral concern.” When fray and stanch consort–watch out!)
How did irony take dominion? And when and where and why? Mr. Purdy’s account is vague and contradictory. At first he blames mass culture and the collapse of “Promethean politics.” Later he wags his finger at Freud and creeping relativism. But he also devotes many pages to praising the “political heroes” of Eastern Europe, Polish and Czech dissidents who “developed a rich idea of the moral import of politics” and achieved a world-shaking victory in 1989. Were not those heroes exposed to mass culture? Were they not most keenly aware of the failure of communism’s “Promethean politics”? Mr. Purdy’s plague of irony is a mystery curse without historical origin; it descends on certain populations and spares others. America has it bad.
Before we get to Jedediah Purdy’s definition of irony, let me slip in mine, which begins with the simple idea that the ironist affirms and at the same time qualifies or undercuts. There are other, more complicated expressions of this idea, one of which comes wrapped in symmetrical folds: Irony is the simultaneous affirmation and denial of the existence of opposites. Somewhere between the no-frills version and its origami elaboration there’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim about the test of a first-rate mind being “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Clearly, Fitzgerald was describing an ironist’s double vision; he goes on to say that one should be “able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” For me, this is the essence of irony, that it’s flexible enough to admit, in extreme cases, both passionate conviction and brute nihilism. To go back to the simplest case, the ironist affirms and also undercuts–and the affirmation can be as important as its darker twin. Sign me up with Emerson, who declared: “I accept the clangor and jangle of contrary tendencies.”
Downshift from Ralph Waldo to Jedediah: Five pages from the end of his book, Mr. Purdy at last defines irony–and executes a graceless and exasperating turnaround. “In its textbook sense,” he explains, “irony refers to the presence in a statement or experience of an unexpected meaning, a significance beyond and contrary to the obvious.” He takes a last whack at our “contemporary” irony, which he calls “static,” and which, he claims, “shrugs off, doubts, and reassembles significance to drain words of evocation, beauty, and moral weight.” And then, one page nearer to the end, he invents another, better kind of irony, “ecstatic” irony (“in the etymologically strict sense of drawing us out of our stasis”). This kind picks pearls out of the swine’s muck.
I say, earnestly, with feeling, What garbage! There’s one kind of irony and many kinds of people, some of them cramped, vulgar and mean, some priggish and zealous (imagine a 24-year-old Kenneth Starr), and some just like you and me.
The fact is that Mr. Purdy spends most of his time flailing away at a straw man. Had he addressed honestly the topic at hand, he would have acknowledged irony as the necessary if devious path to “the commons”–that is, to our shared public life. Early on, about a third of the way through his book, Mr. Purdy tips his hat to Montaigne, “the father of the modern form of ironic skepticism.” Why does Mr. Purdy admire this ur-ironist? Because despite his skepticism, Montaigne was politically engaged; “he formed,” according to Mr. Purdy, ” an impassioned ambivalence toward politics.” Montaigne is proof that irony and earnestness can work together; he’s proof, in fact that irony is exactly what we need. But the single-minded Mr. Purdy can’t see it: A few pages later, he’s flailing away again, bemoaning “the ironist’s psychic and emotional independence.”
Is there a horde of anti-ironists on the horizon? Will they all publish portentous tracts in which they announce that their purpose is “to speak earnestly of uncertain hopes”? My uncertain hope is that Jedediah Purdy is no harbinger of things to come. If he is, get ready for a gassy, sanctimonious post-ironic age.