In my years of adolescent angst, I listened to a lot of songs that were emotionally intense, but sounded as though they might be just joking. I liked, for instance, the Magnetic Fields, whose lead singer Stephin Merritt writes lyrics of desolation and misery—but who has said that “Sincerity has no place in popular music.” (But then, did he really mean it?)
Irony comes naturally to teenagers, who are vulnerable to humiliation and sometimes need to cover their tracks. It’s more concerning when a culture’s art and politics wear the same uneasy smirk. Ours is the age of the Balenciaga Platform Crocs, which leave it unclear whether the joke is on the designer or the wearer; the age of Richard Umbers, the bishop of memes; the age of the Lego Movie franchise, a tissue of in-jokes of which the biggest is that a series of movies about the heroic little guy battling against Leviathan are also gigantic advertising campaigns for a worldwide brand. None of this has to be condemned out of hand—the Lego Movies are hilarious, and perhaps Bishop Umbers’s collages are only memes to a greater end—but irony has its dangers, too.
Those dangers were eloquently described nearly twenty-five years ago, in David Foster Wallace’s celebrated essay on American TV and its jokey, self-referential smartness. Irony, Wallace pointed out, is “almost exclusively negative”—useful, on occasion, for stripping away nonsense, but not for making sense of things. It prevents discussion, by silently implying: “How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.” It dulls our awareness that we are being manipulated: Advertising campaigns tease open our wallets by getting us “in on the joke” that we are being sold a product. Irony has—Wallace quoted Lewis Hyde—“only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.”
In a gripping passage of Infinite Jest, one character observes that for recovering alcoholics, pathetically unironic and gauche expressions like “one day at a time” can make the difference between life and death. In his secular sermon This Is Water, Wallace advised: “The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness,” even when that truth has become a cliché which “we all know.”
It was the ironic stance in television and in literature, especially fiction, that preoccupied Wallace. But in the nine years since his death, irony has acquired an ever stronger political arm. Commentators on current affairs must now share a platform with comedians—a development that signifies not just the decline of comedy, but also a general preference for political argument that sounds as though it might all be a big joke. Even socialism, which has made a notable contribution to the history of humorlessness, now takes its cue from “irony bros.”
Wallace also wrote without having seen the full impact of social media, where the most enviable virtue is to be ahead of the game. Much of the art of Twitter consists in appearing to put forward a position while giving the impression that you might be kidding. (“How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.”) The cult account that towers above the rest, the mysterious @dril, exploits this brilliantly: @dril’s inspired errors in spelling, logic, and decorum can only be produced by a clever creator, but the creator never lets the mask slip. Half the joke is our joint awareness of @dril’s lack of self-awareness.
Wallace hadn’t seen, either, the equal and opposite reaction—the triumph of the utterly unironic. While artists and thinkers watch themselves for sincerity, the field is left open for those to whom it never occurs that what they say could be ridiculous. When Donald Trump tells an interviewer, “I think I’m much more humble than you would understand,” or an “antifa” campaigner instructs a subordinate, “You’re still white . . . you’re inherently racist—it’s in your blood, it’s in your DNA!,” it’s past time to learn that irony, like shame, is no defense against those who don’t recognize it. To adapt a much-quoted line of poetry, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate sincerity.
Yeats, who wrote the original line, was relatively untroubled by irony, and if that sometimes meant he sounded absurd, it also made possible his many unforgettable lines. The poets who came of age after the modernist revolution, on the other hand, have been more cautious, second-guessing, self-conscious; and as a contemporary poet has complained, one result of modernism is that “generation after generation of poets have had confidence in their place undermined. They therefore lose authority and feel they can say less and less until they say so little that no one wants to listen to them at all.”
You can see this even in so confident a writer as the late Geoffrey Hill. He borrowed a resonant phrase from James Thomson's translation of Leopardi: “What / ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad / and angry consolation.” But then the fear of being banal took over:
ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad
and angry consolation. What is
the poem? What figures? Say,
a sad and angry consolation. That’s
beautiful. Once more? A sad and angry
Hill does not want to abandon the reader to sentimentality, which is fine. But he is so determined to anticipate our reaction—I could just tell, he seems to say, that someone like you would think it was beautiful—that we end up feeling a little foolish. So be it. Some things are beautiful, and consoling—and it is worth affirming that for as long as it is slightly embarrassing to do so.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.
An earlier version of this essay described Leopardi's phrase as Hill's invention. We regret the error.
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