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Giving Irony a Bad Name

November 07, 2001|JOHN BALZAR

Culture mavens baffle me. They are always impatient to find the next trend so they can get ahead of it. By the time the trend arrives, these people have moved on. That way they can look back with glowing superiority and say things like, "Irony used to matter, but now everyone's into it, so it's passe."

The "irony culture," you may remember, was one of the casualties of Sept. 11. Then we were told that, oops, irony may have survived after all. Since then, we are reminded that the half-life of trend forecasting is even more ephemeral than a trend itself, so the whole conversation has become passe.

Which is a shame. Because it is a rare moment when we have honest reason to pause and ponder meaning in our entertainments, our arts, our interests, our attitudes--that is, those things that comprise our culture.

The fact is that irony, in the hands of skillful practitioners, is the attainment of culture, not a cultural trend. Irony is the sleight of hand that wraps a sharp barb in the ribbons of a compliment--a way to deflate pretension without becoming presumptuous. Not only would we be diminished at its loss, the very idea is absurd.

What we need is more irony. More of it in the form of, say, Mark Twain, who rebuked a heavy-handed editor by remarking: "How often we recall, with regret, that Napoleon once shot at a magazine editor and missed him and killed a publisher. But we remember with charity that his intentions were good."

Irony is an adult refinement of expression--calm, eloquent and penetrating. It reduces our blood pressure and raises our standards of fluency. By contrast, adolescents and their kindred spirits on Madison Avenue cannot get much further with irony than using "hot" and "cool" as interchangeable words to describe something desirable.

Actually, before our social conversation dies away in search of something new and hip to chew over, we should remind ourselves that the irony culture is not about irony at all. I won't claim to be an expert on fleeting trends, but I think it refers to the smirk on our faces. Or, as I've read lately, "the ultra-hip, ironic, wise-guy culture ... parody and ridicule ... the mold that grows on old things."

To that dreary social conformity, I say good riddance. I hope it dies away without further discussion. But please leave the good word "irony" alone. We're going to need it. In the autumn of 2001, culture has big holes to fill in our lives, and we can be thankful for the chance to rebalance the scales.

One advertising agency conducted focus groups and found Americans newly hungry for nostalgia. Which, in measured portions, sounds like a good thing. If the irony culture is the sum of our accumulated indifference, then we might wish for a little more old-fashioned hope. To trust your neighbor may get you burned. But to trust no one is to forgo the joy of discovering the best in people, including yourself.

I heard that earnestness and sentimentality, the polar opposites of irony, may be making a comeback too. I'm all for it, so long as we don't get carried away with ourselves. As I said, restoring our balance is a good thing, and we can appreciate that Norman Rockwell's America was no more false than David Lynch's.

Humility might also be on the rebound. The devotion to duty by New York's firefighters is a far finer thing than the self-aggrandizement that we've had to suffer from the get-rich-quick crowd.

But before we get too lost in our crystal balls, let's recognize that cultural change does not necessarily answer to decree. We may have fresh hopes for our country now, but we still travel down paths grooved by old habits. The World Trade Center was brought down in mere hours, but culture, like pearls, builds by thin layers.

We'll know if we really have reached a turning point when we can look back and see how many of us turned and in what direction. As for the impatient trendsetters, it's better that they go back to worrying about how we should dress and groom now that we're at war. When I last tuned in, they were discussing whether young men who had adapted the "sleek" look by shaving their chests and bodies should now let it grow out and emulate the fashionably rugged image of the fireman. I wonder if that qualifies as ironic?

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