The End of Irony
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 26, 2000
In these difficult days in which we live-- these times when it sometimes does seem (in Yeats' words) that "the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity"-- these times when our culture seems debased and our politics degraded-- there is, in the opinion of Jedediah Purdy, one man who ranks as the supreme symbol of all that is wrong with our age, with our nation-- indeed, all that is wrong with the state of Western civilization.
According to Jedediah Purdy, the person who best exemplifies our culture's "betrayal, disappointment, and humiliation", its lack of "believing, hoping, or caring" is none other than... Jerry Seinfeld!
Yeah-- that's right-- blame Jerry-- blame Seinfeld-- for everything that's wrong with America today!
Well, to be fair, Purdy doesn't actually "blame" Seinfeld for the bankruptcy of our culture. He doesn't think that it's Seinfeld who has done these terrible things to America, or has caused them to happen. But he does see Seinfeld as the (perhaps) preeminent personality who brings together the "convictions, aspirations, and misgivings of [our] era".
The main shortcoming of our era, Purdy believes, is its deep-seated attitude of irony, as best exemplified by Seinfeld, the NBC comedy series that was perhaps the top ranked television program until it left the air (amid great fanfare) in 1998. Purdy writes:
"[Seinfeld] is irony incarnate. Autonomous by virtue of his detachments, disloyal in a manner too vague to be mistaken for treachery, he is matchless in discerning the surfaces whose creature he is. The point of irony is a quiet refusal to believe in the depth of relationships, the sincerity of motivation, or the truth of speech-- especially earnest speech. In the place of the romantic idea that each of us harbors a true self struggling for expression, the ironist offers the suspicion that we are just [small] selves-- all spin, all the way down."
This deep-seated irony ("There is some of [Seinfeld] in all of us," Jedediah tells us.) is deeply ingrained in contemporary popular culture, we are to believe-- especially in the culture of media-savvy young people. This ironic sense has had a debilitating effect on our culture as a whole:
"Irony is not just something we watch; it is something we do," Purdy continues. "The ironic individual is a bit like Seinfeld without a script: at ease in banter, versed in allusion, and almost debilitatingly self-aware. The implications of his words are always present to him."
And what are these implications?
"...that our feelings, even those we would like to think are most intimate, are somehow trite before we express them... Irony is powered by a suspicion that everything is derivative. [That everything is, in fact, phony and false.] It generates a way of passing judgment-- or placing bets-- on what kinds of hope the world will support.
Jerry Seinfeld's stance resists disappointment or failure by refusing to identify strongly with any project, relationship, or aspiration. An ironic attitude toward politics and public life never invites disappointment by a movement's decline or a leader's philandering. There is a kind of security here, but it is the negative security of perpetual suspicion."
In short, we have become like the main character in the song "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen, who ultimately laments:
We have grown so jaded and suspicious of the "phoniness" of the world, that we don't really believe in anything any more. But unlike the cynic whose attitude is to withdraw from the world-- from society-- from the culture-- in order to criticize it, the attitude of the ironist is to go along with the culture, accommodate to it, reap its material rewards, while all the time loathing everything for which the world (ostensibly) stands.
There is much that I like about Jedediah Purdy's book For Common Things. For one thing, it's refreshing and hopeful to read such well-considered and polished ideas emerging from the mind of one so young: Purdy is only 24 years old, and has a most fascinating life story. He was raised on a farm in rural West Virginia, by a father and mother who were refugees from demands of the Northeastern corporate and academic rat race. He was homeschooled until adolescence, then shipped off to the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire; then to Harvard; now, he's doing graduate work at Yale. So, we are led to believe (by his publicist at least), he is a wondrously "well rounded" young man, with one foot planted in the fields of the West Virginia hills, and the other in Harvard Yard. The fact that both of those environments are foreign territory to the vast majority of Purdy's fellow countrymen might lead us to take some of his pronouncements on what "we want" or "we need" or "we aspire to" or "we believe" (and he does write like that sometimes) with more than a few grains of salt.
But intelligent people do even come from Harvard, and Purdy has a right to his background (and the lessons he has learned from it), as do we all. He is certainly brilliant, a real Wunderkind-- and I expect we will hear more from him as years go by, though his writing style is not always easy or lucid, and his way of expressing ideas through long, dense, intricately constructed sentences are not always in-sync with our culture's sound byte mentality. (I tell you, my sermons read like a David Letterman monologue compared to this book!)
Indeed, I thought that parts of For Common Things read more like a paper for a college class in sociology or philosophy than like a popular manifesto meant to influence public opinion. (And how much influence critical thinkers like Purdy actually have is a very good question. In preparing for this sermon, I did a web search on Alta Vista and found 128 web pages dealing with Jedediah Purdy. Then I punched in "Seinfeld" and found a rather amazing 76,735 pages! So, perhaps one way of thinking of Jedediah is as an intellectual David against the Goliath of mindlessness that seems to infect our society.)
But I am here to praise Jedediah Purdy, not to bury him, and so, let's look a little more closely at some of the provocative ideas he presents.
We've already talked about his views of the corrosive effects of irony. But irony is not the only problem, in Jedediah's estimation. There is another harmful virus wrecking havoc in our popular culture as well, Purdy believes, and this is a mindless optimism that believes that hoping for good things is enough to bring them about. It is interesting to note, Purdy points out, that for many of the weeks in which Seinfeld was the #1 television program in America, the #2 spot was occupied by the CBS program Touched By An Angel-- a show which Purdy derides a "sappily sentimental", and which in many ways, couldn't be more different than that featuring Seinfeld and his cohorts.
Whereas irony says that "nothing matters", angelolotry says that "everything matters", and that the universe is not indifferent to our existence. There is an answer to all of our problems-- all of our distress-- all of our emotional instability-- and all we have to is "hand it over to the angels" for everything to be all right.
"The contemporary angel is not the agent of a jealous or even particularly zealous God," Purdy writes, "but rather as kind of therapist-cum-advocate and celestial valet." [Sort of the cosmic equivalent of Ed McMahon showing up on your doorstep with a check for 10 million dollars, I suppose.]
Neither ironists nor angelists really engage this world or seek to transform it, Purdy believes. Ironists just pretend to go along for their own advancement; angelists (and other mystics) live in the world, but look beyond it for enchantment-- for meaning-- for affirmation.
Now, as someone who would be very comfortable characterizing myself as an "ironic mystic", I am somewhat troubled by much of Purdy's analysis. (Though I am wholeheartedly in agreement with other aspects of it: For instance, his analysis of world politics in which he points out that much of the malaise in which we now find ourselves in the result of the abject, tragic, monstrous failures of the 20th century's two great Promethian experiments-- that is, fascism and Communism-- to remake the world. Purdy is also right on target [in my never-to-be-humble opinion] when he criticizes trends in globalization, or the terrible human costs of a [seemingly] triumphant free market detached from all ethical underpinnings, or when he urges us to become concerned consumers and to factor in the "human costs" of our purchases before we buy [and in deciding from whom we will buy]. His analysis of the deep questions involved in genetic engineering also shows deep perception and no little wisdom, it seems to me. Purdy also quotes Vaclav Havel no less than eighttimes, so, obviously, this book can't be all bad.)
For you see, even though this dense little book is not very long (about 200 pages), it covers a big piece of intellectual territory. The section on Seinfeld (which got all the attention in various journals and publications) is relatively brief and concentrated at the very beginning of the book. The rest of way through, Purdy's mind races from connection to connection (Strip mining in Appalachia reminds him of integrity which reminds him of Czeslaw Milosz's essays on Communist intellectuals which reminds him of neighborhoods which reminds him of "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost which reminds him of Emerson...)
His ultimate answer to our malaise is that we should tear down the barrier between our "public" lives and our "private" and understand that all of our decisions have consequences. He writes:
"Our private lives-- our work, our families, our circles of friends-- are pervasively affected by things that can never be private: law and political institutions, economics and culture. We ignore these essentially public matters at the risk of misunderstanding our own well-being. And that misunderstanding invites us to neglect private concerns in ways that impoverish the public realm and, in time, erode the underpinnings of good private lives. Indeed, the interdependence of public and private is so great that speaking of them as separate is often misleading."
We need to engage the world in order to change it- not in great movements that seek to "save the world" at the cost of losing ourselves, but in small, common ways-- common both in their down-to-earthness and in their palpable reality, and in the fact that we hold them in common-- small, common ways that seek to make the lives we lead (and that those who come after us will lead) more humane, more equitable, more just-- in a word, better.
When Jedediah writes "The full response to despair is not just to invoke hope, but to generate it," his words resonate within me. He goes on to write: "Everything good in us has lived before, and nearly all is a direct gift from people who, often quietly, taught it to us as one might teach a craft, a dance, or the knowledge of a place: by permitting us to participate in it with them."-- his words resonate within me.
If we are lucky, we will have from time to time those moments when there appears before our eyes, as real as day, that amazing parade of precious souls who have touched our lives during our pilgrimage upon this earth; those who have guided our hearts and minds and spirits toward a deeper knowing of who we are and why we are here; who have encouraged within us that deeper communion with the twin mysteries of Love and Live.
We are blessed to share this common life-- these common things-- with one another. And the ways in which we live our lives is how we pay back the debts we owe to those who have come before us and have blessed us.
But living our lives to the full-- engaging life-- seeking to change the world-- precludes neither irony nor mystery. It is possible to laugh along with Seinfeld-- or with The Simpsons-- and even with South Park (as depraved as it is); it's possible to weep along with the sentimentality and saccharine of Touched By An Angel, too-- and still get up when the program's over and get to work on some project of public betterment.
Irony can be destructive if it ends with itself. If it offers no word of encouragement, no hope, no suggestion for how to build something new in place of that which has been torn down.
But if irony opens our eyes to the absurdity of our times and our human predicament-- if it gets us to let go of our self-righteousness and self-seriousness and our perfectionism, so that we can be able to join with others in our common quest-- then irony can be the Blessed Summoner, a holy gateway to a better world. Our sense of the ironic can remind us that none of us is the center of the universe, and that if we worship at the altar of our own little selves-- or the limited vision of our vacuous culture-- then we're worshipping at a mighty small altar indeed.
In a strange way, irony can be a gateway to the angels. It can be a gateway to those messengers of hope and promise that remind us that there are always "divine things well enveloped" as Walt Whitman wrote-- that there is always room-- right here in these common as dirt, everyday lives we lead-- for surprise, for wonder, for serendipity-- there's always room for "just a little more" in this amazing world of ours. The same God who created us able to laugh at ourselves made us able to love one another (and work for justice) as well.
Every moment we live is a yes or no to life,
a let it be, or let it be damned,
that we utter from the furthest reaches
of our consciousness
that makes all the difference
in how holy (and how whole) our lives will be.
Every time we cross another blessed soul
we choose to love, or to choose to hate--
to connect souls or build a wall--
see a comrade-in-arms or a robber in disguise--
we choose whether or not
we will greet God's love with a kiss of new life.
This little speck of energy we each are
created no vast galaxies or whirling constellations:
yet we are light from light and spirit from spirit
and hold within our souls the power
to create so many little worlds--
worlds of each moment, each day, each love;
worlds in their own ways empires
of our immortal, eternal souls--
worlds we create (or destroy)
in every choice we make
about all the little, common things
that make us human.