This week I’ve been reading the first volume of Volker Ullrich’s new biography Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939. A second volume, which will presumably cover the years from the beginning of World War II to Hitler’s death at his own hand in mid-1945, has not yet been published.
One of the distinctive features of Ullrich's biography is its focus on the personality of Adolf Hitler, rather than the sociopolitical context of his rise. Ullrich tries to trace out a path between a quasi-hagiographical account of Hitler as the political monster/genius whose persona created National Socialism, and the purely structural account of the Nazi era in which Hitler was merely a placeholder, the incarnation for German wrath and shame flowing out of Versailles and the ineptitudes of the Weimar regime. In Ullrich's telling, Hitler’s life is the life of a real man: relatively normal in most respects, pathological in some, gifted in others. The humanization of the monster is important because it allows us to better understand the forces (and contingencies) that played into the emergence of Nazism, and the mechanics of Hitler’s political performances and management of power. There is something safe in writing off Hitler and his movement as inscrutable evils, and elevating them to the status of absolutes (something we tend to do, culturally). But the lawlessness, cultural decadence, and brutality of the NSDAP are not inscrutable mysteries. They are not prodigies that stand outside history as the revelation of some supernatural corruption. They are, rather, profoundly—wickedly—human.
Recently, I’ve been on a random essay binge, thanks to Open Culture, a collection of free online resources. I fell down the Open Culture rabbit hole sometime last week, and have been wandering around ever since, making new discoveries and meeting old favorites—George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of a Moth,” and, this side of the Atlantic and the Sixties, David Foster Wallace.
I was reading from his essay collection The Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The second essay in the collection, “E Unibus Pluram,” is a long and rambling discourse on television and self-conscious audience. It was an interesting exercise to mentally dub in “social media” every time Wallace says “television.” But when Wallace writes “Enter irony,” it gets really interesting. His points about irony clinched what I’ve been pondering for a while.
Think, if you will for a moment, of Third World rebels and coups. Rebels are great at exposing and overthrowing corrupt hypocritical regimes, but seem noticeably less great at the mundane, non-negative tasks of then establishing a superior governing alternative. Victorious rebels, in fact, seem best at using their tough cynical rebel skills to avoid being rebelled against themselves—in other words they just become better tyrants.
And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All irony is a variation on a sort of existential poker-face. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don't really mean what I say.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it's impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it's too bad it's impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today's irony ends up saying: “How very banal to ask what I mean.” Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.
It’s nothing new to criticize millennials for their snark, and hipsterism, it has been argued, is a kind of lived irony. And that’s what makes it so lame. If snark was old and tired thirty years ago, it must be utterly exhausted by now.
Irony is a seemingly offensive pose. We use it to go after our opponents, and to wink at our comrades, thus solidifying loyalty in the ranks. In the ironic world, it is deadly important not to be earnest. We put all things in scare quotes, effectively disabling language from doing anything useful. That is, to communicate. Irony is arrogant, uncharitable, and, ultimately, impotent. A recent Baffler article lambasted this trend among young socialists, but I think it could be applied to young commentators all over the political spectrum.
When I think about my grandparents and what they were doing at their age, I am put to shame. My father’s mother eschewed Boston high-society to attend Quaker work camps, and his father, after serving in the Ambulance Corps in Italy during World War II, returned to Italy to work in a home for orphaned boys. My mother’s father was a Conscientious Objector, and my grandmother followed him to North Dakota, where he was interned in Civilian Public Service camp, and taught the children of Swedish immigrants in a chilly one-room schoolhouse. All this by the time they were thirty. In comparison with their lived conviction, my generation’s irony looks like juvenile posturing.
We are fully complicit in the things that we (ironically) rail against: the meritocracy, neo-liberalism . . . And we know it. Beneath the ironist’s facade lurks Mr. Prufrock’s dread.
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
The ironist dare not be pinned down, so he is ever elusive. I’m willing to bet that social media has only exacerbated the problem. Hand-on-heart earnestness does not wear well if it is not accompanied by action. It seems to me that any sort of real commitment, and real action, requires stepping beyond irony.
Enough pontificating. Before I was waylaid by all this snark, I meant to write about Virginia Woolf. So to finish off, a little sampling from “The Modern Essay,” Woolf’s review of an essay anthology. Woolf scans several of her contemporaries, but concludes that, while they are talented enough, they “share the contemporary dilemma—that lack of obstinate conviction which lifts ephemeral sounds through the misty sphere of anybody’s language to the land where there is a perpetual marriage, a perpetual union. Vague as all definitions are, a good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out.”
So here’s a small revolution we can enact. Cut down on the irony, and own the priggish heresy of actually meaning what we say, and thereby hold ourselves accountable for what we say. At the end of the day it is a much stronger stance than the protean squirming of the ironist.
I've been reading Robert Caro’s magisterial biography of LBJ, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Volume one, The Path to Power, covers Johnson’s early life and career from his childhood in the Texas Hill Country to his failed 1941 Senate campaign.
As a scholar and storyteller, Caro is a perfect antidote to the maladies afflicting contemporary history-writing. Most academic historians today have turned away from the Thucydidean narration of great deeds, words, and events toward cultural and intellectual histories that trace the development of ideas and institutions over time. There’s much of value in these new histories, but something is inevitably lost when historians devote their energies to the philosophical task of reenacting past thought, or the sociological task of recreating past institutions, rather than the uniquely historical task of transmitting (in Thucydides’ phrase) “an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future.” Historical knowledge is practical knowledge; acquiring and conveying it requires immersion in the vagaries of empirical cause and effect, in the world of contingent action and human free will.
Lately, journalists and independent researchers have assumed the mantle of narrative historiography where academics abandoned it. Sadly, most of these popular historians lack the skill necessary to draw out universal first principles from the raw materials of the past. But not Caro. With unwavering focus on the particular facts of Johnson’s life and times—entirely without needless theorizing—Caro hones in on the perennial themes of political biography: the ongoing battle between human will and Fortune; the internal conflict between ambition, reason, and desire; the infinite distance separating the old from the new, continuity from disruption, precedent from invention.
Fittingly, it is the classical image of Lady Fortuna that best illustrates Caro’s treatment of Johnson. From childhood, Johnson was a pathological liar, a duplicitous egoist, and a deeply ambitious social climber. If someone caught him in a lie—about his sexual escapades, the price of his clothes, or the wealth of his family—Johnson felt no shame. A reversal of fortune was not to be lamented, but countered with the cold calculus of power and persuasion. For Johnson, fortune was the enemy that, though it cannot be conquered, must be made to stand down.
Drawing on classical biographers and historians like Plutarch and Polybius, Machiavelli once described this unchristian practical philosophy as follows:
Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less. ... I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her.