It’s really not hard to conjure up an entire place and time with just a few choice words.
Who says “bully-o!” anymore? or “grody”? (Well, I might, once in a while, but then I also persist in eating creamed chip beef, so apparently I am not really all that rooted in the times.) Certain foods, once all the rage, have been banned from decent tables; clothing styles not only come and go, but make us scratch our heads and question the sanity of the wearers; grammar is nothing but a fad; and music that made audiences swoon makes us cover our ears and run for the exits (Ethel Merman, anyone?)
I just read a great defense of Les Mis from a NY Times editorial by Stanley Fish. Great article, and roundly lambasted in the comments by more enlightened viewers, most of whom couldn’t resist being derisive and snarky. Which is ironic, because the whole point of the article was that Les Mis is out of step with the times in its lack of snark. It is not ironic enough for our postmodern critics.
But I think old Fish is on to something. Irony in small doses has of course been around since people learned to crack a joke, but is so prevalent now that I think it is one of those generational tics that will make us instantly identifiable/laughable in years to come. Pull a Generation X or Y quotation out of context in the year 2100 and ask a reader when it came from. Irony will be the giveaway.
Here’s what Fish said: “Irony is a stance of distance that pays a compliment to both its producer and consumer. The ironist knows what other, more naïve, observers do not: that surfaces are deceptive, that the real story is not what presents itself, that conventional pieties are sentimental fictions.
“The artist who deploys irony tests the sophistication of his audience and divides it into two parts, those in the know and those who live in a fool’s paradise. Irony creates a privileged vantage point from which you can frame and stand aloof from a world you are too savvy to take at face value. Irony is the essence of the critical attitude, of the observer’s cool gaze; every reviewer who is not just a bourgeois cheerleader (and no reviewer will admit to being that) is an ironist.”
Ironically, the ironist can’t stand back from his irony and see how commonplace and overdone his smugness really is.
We are trained to be critical, scornful, and haughty. We are too smart to have a simple emotion, too savvy to be taught, and always quite pleased to point out our superiority to the simple peasants who lack our sophistication. For all of our fair-minded, equality-driven lingo, we are a bunch of snobs.
This has to account in hefty degree for the decline of faith in our culture. With the eyebrow always cocked and the smirk never far off, how could we possibly embrace lofty ideals, simple black-and-white moralism, or acceptance of invisible realms and miraculous events? It’s just not possible. Who would willingly throw their lot in with the village idiot?
Well, I would. But then, I’m also the girl who likes a little cheddary cream on my beefy toast. Clearly I have refined opinions.
How’s the climate in publishing? When was the last time you saw a mainstream book that dared to be simple and beautiful, no whine of sarcastic undertone? Oh, it will happen again, like hipster fashions that make the nerdy new. So subversive! And the Chandler Bings of the world will start to seem anachronistic and vain. At least, that’s what we simpletons are banking on. It’s tough to be so far ahead of the times.