. . . Irony Watch

. . .

Shtick as Muse:

"Satir, narr technique: Can usually be expressed in the formula: 'Pretend to be stupid.'"
-- Robert Musil, Diaries
Who's pretending? With few exceptions (movie stars, rock musicians...), any action or expression will be stupider than the theoretical limits of the intelligence responsible for taking or making it.
"Americans project irony onto the world.... The subject has lost the battle. He knows that he lacks either the individuality or the reason to defend himself against his opponent.... The subject no longer speaks; he is spoken, cursed by an uncontrollable and parodying tic."
-- Delphine Perret, "Irony," Poetics Journal
(Don't mind me; I spent all weekend writing JavaScript....)

. . .

Juliet Clark initiates Hotsy Totsy's Irony Watch with the following, overheard on Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, California, August 18, 1999:

"Yeah, there have been an awful lot of yellowjackets around this summer. July and August are the big months for them. Ironically, all of the times I've been bitten by yellowjackets have been in July or August."

. . .

Irony Watch: Cholly and his lovely chaffeuse spent their first night in Los Angeles at a Douglas Sirk double feature. This being L.A. and all, there was a Special Live Guest: a German actress who had studied with pre-cinema Sirk in the 1930s and who had appeared in Sirk's best-known theatrical production: The Silver Lake, by Georg Kaiser and Kurt Weill, which opened a month after the Nazis took power and closed after thirty noisy performances.

Wandering past the concession stand between shows, Cholly found the Special Live Guest engaged with a couple of audience members and quickly took pen and pad in hand. After all, how many chances do you get nowadays to talk to an actor from the Weimar Republic?

Alas, we all get plenty of chances nowadays to talk to boring blowhards, and the audience member who held the floor (fittingly, an architect by trade) was determined to keep it by demonstrating, over and over again, his astonishing command of film history and style. And alas again, Cholly was much too befuddled by fatigue to figure out a way to reposition the conversational spotlight, finally giving up and returning to Tarnished Angels when the architect informed the actress that Quentin Tarantino admired Douglas Sirk's style and then began explaining who Quentin Tarantino was.

Earlier, the architect had explained that Sirk's Universal pictures were worth watching because of their "irony," and graciously invited Cholly to agree with his opinion. A last alas, for, although the "happy ending" of All I Desire and the cold-blooded spiritual vampires of Magnificent Obsession positively glow with irony, irony is not the principal achievement of Sirk's weepies: Sirk doesn't exactly approve of movie romance, but neither does he keep his distance. What he finds of interest in romantic melodrama is its unique ability to diagram the inevitable misunderstandings and failures resulting from the human need to connect: the clashes of familial, social, and sexual duties; the unresolvable conflict between the abjection of neediness and the desire to be worthy of love; the cocoons that digest their inhabitants. And he diagrams those tangles full-out with every aspect of the film from narrative structure through set design to composition of individual frames -- although, OK, not so successfully with the soundtrack music, but that's always been the curse of post-1939 Hollywood production....

. . .

Reuters brings us this uniquely reassuring analysis:

Russian authorities have said the vast nation will not suffer computer chaos after the clock strikes midnight on December 31, promising that citizens would experience only small changes in their lives.

"Russia already lives in a situation which Western experts have described as the most deplorable results of the 'Problem 2000'," Andrei Barkin, project manager at the Y2K resource center of government agency USAID, told a news conference.

Many Russians already battle with an unreliable telephone system in which calls often fail, while power cuts and hot water shortages are common in some far-flung regions.

These are the type of problems which many other governments are trying to prevent after December 31 when the millennium bug might strike, scrambling systems that cannot read the two final zeros [sic] when the date changes to 2000.

"Y2K is a civilized problem, meaning that if a country is more civilized it poses more of a problem," Barkin said.

. . .

Irony Watch

Chris Ware - art = Dave Eggers ?
'Cause I remember that comic Eggers did for the SF Weekly, and -- hoo boy, he sure ain't Chris Ware!

Among other equations derivable from San-Francisco-to-New-York transformation functions (well, more like Berkeley-to-Brooklyn, but you'd hardly expect a bohemian spokesperson nowadays to admit to being from Berkeley, would you?), we find that old favorite:

Snob + hypocrisy = Times rock critic

. . .

In (guarded) praise of irony

A couple months back, a reviewer of that Dave Eggers book wrote something about how she'd never seen such emotional material treated ironically.

That's very sad (sad ha-ha, not sad strange), because the only possible excuse for irony is emotion, and too much of it. "The world is a comedy to those who think; a tragedy to those who feel"; and irony's all that's been left to the softhearted analytical human being since Socrates at the latest. That's why stupid irony is exactly the same thing as unfeeling irony.

:) I regretfully admit that there's plenty of stupid irony around these days, probably because irony is the easiest thing to fake, its "Oh, I didn't really mean that" an easy refuge for the cowardly fool.

But beware, brother, beware: to don a suit of armor when you're just planning to wash dishes or go shopping is to invite great expense. If not injury. If not both (e.g., "Seinfeld"). Use only as a last resort; believe me, you'll get to the last resort soon enough.

I also admit that at first (or at disgusted and exhausted) glance, irony seems utterly antithetical to art ("art" being best described as "No, I meant to do that").

The trick is to stand firmly behind your transparently hollow words and (except of course when evading legal action) cheerfully admit to fully believing each and every empty idiocy you've recorded.

If you can call that a trick.

For those who have been made self-conscious of hubris in the mere act of expression, irony is pert near unavoidable. Thus, most of the women writers on my shelves are masters of the form in all its moods, from Behn and Austen through Bowles and Barnes to Russ and Fowler, criminy, Brontë & Brontë & Brontë & Olive Moore & Patricia Highsmith & Flannery O'Connor & Edith Wharton, it gets kind of creepy, doesn't it? Thus also the tactic's popularity with such resigned-to-failure types as Stendhal and Flaubert, Romantic rapscallions like Byron and Pushkin, and most sane twenty-somethings.

Here, for example, we actually witness the most beautiful of Nature's tender miracles, the birth of an ironist:

"It is wonderful -- stupendous to consider, how a man who in his own mind is cool, witty, unaffected and high-toned, will disgust and mortify himself by every word he utters or act he does, when he steps out of his skin defenses." -- Henry Adams, age 25
So don't let anyone tell you that irony isn't hip anymore. It's as hip as it ever was.

. . .

And as still more encouragement to the Future Scholars of America: There's something left undone about this compare-and-contrast of Thelonious Monk and Henry Adams (for instance, comparisons and contrasts), but it's nice to see some acknowledgment of the place of ironic distance in the "popular arts" and in instrumental music....

. . .

And none other than David Chess managed to entangle us in actual sincere dialog while we were helpless in bed with the flu, the brute:

CK: I have to disagree with you that "Something said in earnest is not ironic." Irony is point-of-view; earnestness is action -- they're just as often twinned as they are opposed. Or, to paraphrase someone famous, "Irony takes its origin from emotion recollected in a not-very-convincing attempt at tranquility."

DC: But if you're there standing behind your words, they ain't hollow, having a you-filling inside, eh?

CK: No, I'm behind them, not in them; you see me because they're transparent, even if I'd rather you didn't. Words are usually intended as some sort of disguise (even, or especially, when they're intended to be sincere), but the interesting thing about them is that they reveal us, despite their inability to embody us.

DC: So the words are "transparently hollow" and "empty idiocy" only in the sense that you call them that to yourself and (internally?) cast an ironic eye upon them?

CK: And in the sense that everyone else (I hope) has the good sense to call and cast them similarly.

DC: So that you use irony for detachment, but still carry out, or live, or seriously intend to carry out or live, the words' meanings? Something like that? So you still count as "in earnest", because you believe and intend to live the words, but you count as "ironic" because of the internal emotional distance you're maintaining between the words and yourself?

CK: Yeah, that's pretty close to what my clumsy maneuvering was getting at, except that it's an emotional-intellectual distance, and it's not so much between "words" and "self" as between "expression" and "intent," and it's not so much "maintained" as "acknowledged." As far as I can see (and these are admittedly muddy waters), most of us compulsively ironic types compulsively notice that irreparable distance and decide that we have no choice, if we're going to survive and keep talking, except to openly deal with it.

Ironists often start out as over-the-top Romantic types till, thanks to their similarly over-the-top analytical impulses, they realize just how dumb they look. (I mostly think about verbal art in this regard, but I assume that many other people have to deal with similar problems -- cartoonists, politicians, doctors....)

At that point, they have a choice: a) Dumb down intellectually, b) Dumb down emotionally, or c) Use irony's admission of dumbness as a way to maintain both impulse and analysis. (That's too crude a formula, because it unrealistically separates "intellectual" and "emotional" -- there's nothing sillier looking than someone trying to be completely detached -- but maybe it's close enough for email....)

Of course the danger is the temptation to use this delightful crutch in place of impulse or analysis (rather than as a support for impulse and analysis), and thus become a self-made emotional-intellectual invalid.

. . .

Continuing our schedule of Irony Supplements ("Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman"), we happened to intercept a note being passed along the unruly back rows:

"Irony is a way for [a weirdo] to put himself down without it looking like he's putting himself down."
Biographically that's insightful, but it might make for misleading critical generalizations. Irony is a narrative approach applicable to many different types of story. It just so happens that the stories I'm most comfortable telling are more-or-less first person.

The imagination of egocentric drama queens like Stendhal or Byron rarely strays far from the self-as-hero, and so their irony is worn form-fitting and pointy-side-in, whereas a less self-obsessed sort like Karen Joy Fowler is apt to seem much less masochistic about the whole venture.

. . .

Randolph Bourne (via [sub]culture; re irony cf.):

"With how many of the acceptors of war has it been mostly a dread of intellectual suspense? It is a mistake to suppose that intellectuality necessarily makes for suspended judgments. The intellect craves certitude. It takes effort to keep it supple and pliable."

. . .

Consumption Blues, cont.

A conversation with artist-historian Juliet Clark brought up these further points:

  1. The extent to which the sentimental can be distinguished from the profound may be arguable, but it deserves mention: in contemporary usage "profound" usually marks a (purported) weightiness of both emotion and intellect, mutually reinforcing rather than in conflict.

  2. What interferes with an art historian's (or a literary scholar's) emotional expression is less likely to be education than career. In scholarly research (and in academic advancement), the direct emotional experience of an artifact can be a distraction from other aspects of the piece, and at the very least has to be detached from them for the discipline to get anywhere at all. This doesn't mean that knowledge interferes with emotion; it just means that one has to leave the frozen moment of absorption if one is to learn anything outside that experience itself -- and that it's considered bad form to cry in the workplace.

  3. The Everly Brothers aside, to fill with love is not always to fill with tears.

  4. "Have you ever sneezed in front of a work of art?"
  I Want Some Cookies

. . .

Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Stench

Humanist satire is a sharp blade with no handle. Its opponents may be dull but they keep their fingers.


Ah, I see you've been reading Newgarden. Big noses indeed.

Last night I brought Mark Newgarden's We All Die Alone to bed with me!

And it saved my sex life!

For some other night!

Possibly for retirement!

Even a little death We All Die Alone, but we can all buy together!


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.