In these difficult days in which we live-- these times when it sometimes does seem as though "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 a Princeton professor named Christy Wampole, one person who ranks as the supreme symbol of all that is wrong with our age and with our culture-- indeed, who represents that which is most wrong with the current state of Western civilization.
Not Islamic terrorist or corporate raider. Not Barrack Hussein Obama or Mitt Romney or even Donald Trump. It’s not even Simon Cowell.
No, according to Professor Wampole, writing recently in the New York Times, the real enemy of truth, justice, and the American way (so to speak) is none other than a smaller-than-life figure known as “The Hipster”:
“The hipster haunts every city street and university town,” Wampole writes. “Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone). 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.”
In Wampole’s estimation, “The Hipster”—great symbol of our times—is the great archetype of the omnipresent irony which infects our age. Irony has become the overriding ethos of the dispirited and debilitated times in which we are living. Because of our current fixation on the ironic, the professor believes, we have become so much less (as a culture, as a nation, as a people) than we could be. “Irony is the most self-defensive mode,” she writes, “as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices… To live ironically is to hide in public.”
Directness—sincerity—earnestness—have become unbearable to us. We flee from them, through the escape toward irony. To be ironic—to live ironically—is to be in step with the times. To strive to live earnestly, to express oneself directly and sincerely, is to be hopelessly out of step, to cling to an age and a way of human living that is already dead and gone.
In the ironic, hipster worldview, we have become so 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 and society, the attitude of the ironist is to go along with the culture, to subvert it, to accommodate to it, reap its material rewards, while all the time inwardly loathing everything for which the world (ostensibly) stands.
In short, we’ve become like the main character in Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, who ultimately laments:
Nothing really matters,
anyone can see…
Nothing really matters
While all along, of course, the world does matter. It matters greatly. Extreme irony would have us shrug our shoulders and disengage from the world. While all along, more sinister forces are still full of “passionate intensity”.
Now, to Professor Wampole, of course, “The Hipster” is the primary symbol of the current age. But Hipsters, or people like them, aren’t new, of course. In late-19th century Britain, such flamboyant anti-establishment types were known as “Dandies”. In post World War Two America, they were known as “Beatniks”. A little later, they were known as “Hippies”. (“Hipsters”, I suppose, are a debased and ironicized [I think I just made up that word] species of Hippies, I guess.)
But the species goes back even further in history. A couple of hundred years ago, in the aftermath of the French Revolution that had bloodied French society for a generation, well-to-do young men called Incroyables took to dressing in a fashion that sounds kind of like that of today’s Hipsters: they wore tight pants, thick glasses, bright green coats with exaggerated high collars and loud, bright neck ties. Their female counterparts, called Merveilleuses (“the marvelous ones”) wore different colored wigs, weird and elaborate headdresses, and semi-transparent tunics of gauze or linen that left very little to the imagination. (Sounds sort of like Lady Gaga, I guess.)
These Parisian young people sought to parody the fashion and politics of their day and both to amuse and shock the people around them. They would roam the streets, drinking, smoking, carrying on—and even bopping old-guard revolutionaries with wooden clubs. The older generation was shocked, and thought the world was going to hell.
Well, the world survived the Incroyables and the Merveilleuses. It survived the Dandies and the Beatniks and the Hippies of the 1960s and 1970s. It will probably survive the Hipsters, too. But what of the debilitating effects of irony? Has it so deeply affected our culture, and rendered us unable to respond sincerely and forthrightly to the challenges of our times, the challenges we face in our own lives?
According to Wampole and other members of the new “Irony Police” (as they are sometimes labeled) the all-too-pervasive influence of irony in our culture does run these risks. Irony makes cynics of us all, and lessens our willingness to engage actively in the world—to change the world, to fight its battles, to confront its evil and injustice. In our time, they would say, mockery has become a way of life. Irony is elitist and undemocratic, too, some would claim. In the words of one commentator, “[Irony] depends on double meaning and a double audience, divided into those who understand and those who don’t. It corrodes honest speech and honest feeling, while encouraging greed and cruelty. Irony, its enemies say, is private, selfish, and indifferent, while earnestness is public, generous, and concerned.” Irony is “crippling the youth of America,” the editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune adds. (Next thing we know, the President will be appointing Joe Biden to lead a commission to study the effects of irony on the American economy!)
It is true, of course—absolutely true—that how we choose to live our lives is important. The decisions we make—as private individuals, as public citizens—have consequences. A good society is one in which as many people as possible engage earnestly with the tasks that are before them; a society in which people strive, all in their own ways, to assume their fair share of life’s burdens; to meet unmet needs; to define for themselves a healthy view of who they are and how they relate to the world.
And if we are honest, a true and responsible life requires of us a willingness to sacrifice many things, in extreme cases everything, for the sake of that which gives life meaning.
Truly, the demands which life makes of us could not be more earnest at times. Living life to its depths requires of us that we wake each morning with the willingness in our hearts to sacrifice even our own lives in defense of our highest values. Those are high stakes. And while, thankfully, few of us will be called upon to make that kind of sacrifice, staring life in the face like that can be a frightening prospect. So, it is easy to understand those who retreat from these demands behind the facade of a banal, prosperous, comfortable, irony-laded life.
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 in place of that which it seeks to tear down.
But a life without a deep sense of irony and a profound sense of humor—without an open acknowledgment of the absurd within ourselves and within human existence—can be but a different kind of hell, a dreary place indeed.
Perhaps as far as irony and earnestness are concerned, as in most aspects of life, I suppose, there’s a continuum. Few of us spend all of our time at one end or the other, and that’s probably healthy.
For instance, Lady Gaga, the queen of the ironic, may sometimes wear a dress made out of meat, sure; but she has also led the movement against homophobia in our culture, and has done more than anyone to confront the scourge of bullying in our schools.
Don’t forget, too, that it was some of those same “Hipsters” with their i-pods and their oh-so-ironic t-shirts that gave the world the “Occupy” movement, that might yet manage to change our society and our world.
Are any of you as hooked on “Downton Abbey” as I am? Well, if you are, then you know that we just love the Dowager Countess (the character portrayed by Maggie Smith), and we look forward every episode to her sarcastic, skewing comments. But I also know that I, at least, also greatly admire the somewhat dowdy and boring Cousin Isobel, for her basic middle class decency, and stick-to-it-tiveness, and her insistence on doing the right thing in all circumstances. And the series needs both of them; Downton needs both. Our world needs both kinds of people.
Jane Austen knew that. Shakespeare knew that. So did Charles Dickens.
Anatole France, who won the 1921 Nobel Prize for literature, once said that a world without irony would be like “a forest without birds”: "Irony is the gaiety of meditation and the joy of wisdom," he wrote. There is a deeper irony that keeps us truly human by casting the cold eye of truth on life and death, and reminding us of what we really value, and skewering our present reality in the light of that truth.
The one thing that unites all the really nasty people in the world, Oscar Wilde once said, is their deep sense of earnestness. There are no people more consistently earnest than fanatics of every persuasion. So often, it is through the withering touch of irony that demagogues and would-be tyrants are unmasked and sent packing. For example, there have been few men in modern history as earnest and forthright and honest as Vaclav Havel. Largely through his efforts, the Communist tyranny of his homeland, Czechoslovakia, was brought to its knees and dismantled. It’s striking, then, to remember, that Havel’s career was made as one of the leading playwrights in the literary movement known as the “Theatre of the Absurd”.
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 join with others in our common quest-- then irony can well be the holy gateway to the earnestness we will need to build 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 my theology, God has a great sense of urgency. He wants to get things done. But God has a great sense of humor, as well. If you don’t believe me, just look around.
Some things matter in this world. They matter very deeply. And they ought not to be disparaged, or written off, or be subject to ridicule and marginalization.
Things like our love for one another.
Things like caring for the sick, and the weak, and the old.
And being strong enough to weep, and vulnerable enough to offer to help.
And the innocence of children.
And the wisdom of years.
And remembering where we’ve come from.
And always being thrilled to start a new journey.
And romanticizing neither the past, nor the future, but living fully, right now, in the eternal moment that is before us.
And hearing, amidst the clamor of different tunes, the Spirit’s great song, filling our hearts and illuminating our minds, and leading us down the path which is ours to walk.