How to Live Without Irony [updated]
“A life without passion is not a life - it is merely an existence.”
- Lesley Fieger
“"When a culture is dedicated to the destruction of values - of all values,
of values as such - men's psychological destruction has to follow."
- Ayn Rand
After the carnage of the First World War Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises about a “lost generation” who were outwardly still alive after the cataclysm, but inwardly dead. “Give them irony and give them pity” exhorts one of the novel’s many expatriates who drift idly through Europe, wondering without caring if they might prefer it somewhere else. Or not.
For these characters, irony is a “cultivated aloofness,” “a strategy of containment and a rejection of idealism” after a war that seemed to destroy virtually every human value.
At least those gorgeous bastards had the war as an excuse. These days hipsters cultivate aloofness for no reason at all but fashion. To fit in. To be one of the herd. To “go with the flow.”
“If irony is the ethos of our age—and it is,” observes Christy Wampole in a great op-ed in the New York Times, “then the hipster is our archetype of ironic living.”
The hipster haunts every city street and university town.. .He harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness. Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream. He is a walking citation; his clothes refer to much more than themselves. He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things…
[Today’s hipster] is merely a symptom and the most extreme manifestation of ironic living. For many Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s — members of Generation Y, or Millennials — particularly middle-class Caucasians, irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt.
Where previous generations followed causes, lived with passion, stormed the barricades, this one sits around swapping ironic stories and examining its navel fluff. Being aroused by anything is uncool. Feeling actual passion for things is unwelcome. Not for them the stirring sounds of exhortations “to strive, to seek, to find, but not to yield,” which they might once have felt when younger. Life now, instead, as adults, can be summed up in ironic tweets amounting to “Meh,” LOL, “Whatevers.”
The hipster “goes with the flow,” regardless of where it’s headed; declares that “perception is reality,” synonymous with saying “nothing is real anyway”; affirms that ideals are things “you’ll grow out of,” while not noticing that without them they have become grown-ups who neither know what they are doing nor care.* They live lives in the world while detaching themselves from it, making them dead inside while devaluing everything in the world they touch—made dead and devalued by what amounts to quotidian self-immolation, a steady drip, drip, drip of what was once their passions, values, enthusiasms and loves. Wampole speaks for that generation’s destruction of themselves:
Born in 1977, at the tail end of Generation X, I came of age in the 1990s, a decade that, bracketed neatly by two architectural crumblings — of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Twin Towers in 2001 — now seems relatively irony-free. The grunge movement was serious in its aesthetics and its attitude, with a combative stance against authority, which the punk movement had also embraced. In my perhaps over-nostalgic memory, feminism reached an unprecedented peak, environmentalist concerns gained widespread attention, questions of race were more openly addressed: all of these stirrings contained within them the same electricity and euphoria touching generations that witness a centennial or millennial changeover.
But Y2K came and went without disaster. We were hopeful throughout the ’90s, but hope is such a vulnerable emotion; we needed a self-defense mechanism, for every generation has one. For Gen Xers, it was a kind of diligent apathy. We actively did not care. Our archetype was the slacker who slouched through life in plaid flannel, alone in his room, misunderstood. And when we were bored with not caring, we were vaguely angry and melancholic, eating anti-depressants like they were candy.
FROM this vantage, the ironic clique appears simply too comfortable, too brainlessly compliant. Ironic living is a first-world problem. For the relatively well educated and financially secure, irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back. In other words, the hipster can frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime. He doesn’t own anything he possesses.
Obviously, hipsters (male or female) produce a distinct irritation in me, one that until recently I could not explain. They provoke me, I realized, because they are, despite the distance from which I observe them, an amplified version of me.
Self-awareness is the beginning of self –cure. “The simple act of noticing my self-defensive behavior,” she says, “has made me think deeply about how potentially toxic ironic posturing could be.”
As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least (or, at minimum, a performance of such a competition), it seems we’ve made a collective misstep. Could this be the cause of our emptiness and existential malaise? Or a symptom?
In her Journals, making notes for her upcoming novel, The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand said:
"This may sound naïve. But - is our life ever to have any reality? Are we ever going to live on the level? Or is life always to be something else, something different from what it should be? A real life, simple and sincere, even naïve, is the only life where all the potential grandeur and beauty of human existence can be found. Are there real reasons for accepting the substitute, that which we have today? No one has shown today's life as it really is, with its real meaning and its reasons. I'm going to show it. If it's not a pretty picture - well, what is the alternative?"
In The Fountainhead, of course, she showed us, not just today's life as it really is, but the alternative also. And many years later, writing a weekly newspaper column for the Los Angeles Times, she said:"When people look back at their childhood or youth, their wistfulness comes from the memory, not of what their lives had been in those years, but of what life had then promised to be. The expectation of some undefinable splendor, of the unusual, the exciting, the great, is an attribute of youth - and the process of aging is the process of that expectation's gradual extinction. One does not have to let it happen."
One doesn't - and one shouldn't. To let it happen is to succumb to spiritual death long before one's physical demise - to spend maybe half one's life jaundiced, jaded, cynical, listless, atrophied, desiccated …. Or, in the case of many of today's youth, to spend nearly all one's life like that.
Tragic. The best lack all conviction … and the world is the worse for it. But intense passion is the effect of profound conviction, observes Perigo.
[The hipster however] says that intense passion is improper, unseemly, bad form, or in modern parlance, "uncool." "Hot" is "uncool." "Cool" - neither hot nor cold - is "cool." By implication, the best way to avoid the embarrassment of intense passion is to eschew its cause - profound conviction. So if you find yourself starting to believe in something, abandon it quickly, before you make a fool of yourself.
This is no way to live, is it. Christy Wampole offers her own antidotes to begin making your way back into the world.
What would it take to overcome the cultural pull of irony? Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.
Saying what you mean and meaning what you say.
Considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities.
The cultivation of sincerity.
These are all frightening prospects, right? But they offer an excellent recipe for beginning to find your way back to life.
Take as your fuel for that journey these words by Ayn Rand addressed to the hero within each of you:
"Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not at all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved but have never been able to reach. Check your road, and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it's yours."
[Hat tip Paul Litterick]