From the results trendwatchers often get when taking the national temperature, they must be using a rectal thermometer.
For a while we were told we were in the grip of Gen-X's jaded immunity to advertising. We were bombarded with so much anti-marketing marketing, so many sullen kids looking like Ignorance and Want in Calvin Kleins, that it made the untrammeled bullshit of Donna Reed look like a great big dessert you want all over your face.
So we went retro.
Swing music was regurgitated so violently that it splattered onto Burger King ads. But our constitution proved too delicate for the return of martinis, cigars and Joey Bishop. Retro petered out and went back where it belonged.
Now we are ... ready?
You may not have realized we were ironic at all. You may have thought we were just snotty. Our ironic period, if you trust my ideological archeology (say that before you've had coffee), seems to have begun with our '80s cynicism and the smug king who delivered its nightly addresses, David Letterman. Where the smirk got knocked off our faces is hard to say.
Of course, it could have been Ethan Hawke's fault. Couldn't everything?
Purdy far out
In the 1994 movie "Reality Bites," the cryptic, sarcasm-spewing hippie played by Hawke was a priceless jackass compared to his dumb-but-sincere rival, Ben Stiller. But irony's Waterloo in the movie is a scene where artsy-smarsty Winona Ryder, who is being wooed by both, is asked to define the word and, ironically, can't. There is a quantum moment in the lives of all things when they see themselves for what they are and are never the same again, and for irony, this was it.
Now the raised "get it?" eyebrow, the sarcastic pantomimed quotation marks, the Dennis Miller snicker are all going to be run out of town, at least if you believe the latest profilings of America by a new army of Joe Plainfolks who are so humble and homespun they make Garrison Keillor look like Lenny Bruce.
Backlash is an ugly thing. So is irony. It's "less than a scourge, but no better than a blight," according to Jedediah Purdy (real name), a young 'un from West Virginia recently profiled in the New York Times Magazine as the Carrie Nation of this new philosophical temperance movement. Indeed, the article makes Purdy sound like he wrote his first book, "For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today," by candlelight in a log cabin while his stove-pipe hat was out being blocked.
"The ironic sensibility inhibits the act of remembering how to value what you value," Purdy says in the article, and believes that the world, having become too jaded, should turn back to looking at things more simply, that we are missing out on our possibilities because we are too cynical to see them. The problem is that trying to pull America back to a simpler method of thinking is a little like wishing your cat was still a kitten: Maybe it used to be sweeter, but you'd better get used to the spoiled, nasty, independent thing because it's not going to shrink back into what it was any time soon.
Big yang theory
Yes, irony is cold and dismissive ... if you only look at its surface. It's the world-weary amusement we get every time we hear Kurt Cobain sing "No, I don't have a gun." It's the silliness of Oscar Wilde's last words being, "Either that wallpaper goes or I do."
But it's also a graceful, complex and resonant principle of life. It's in the tiny truths, like if you change lanes the other lane will start moving, or the fact that psychics are rarely rich. It's in the giant truths, like how love finds you when you stop looking and how your life didn't turn out like you thought it would.
"The meek shall inherit the earth" is a pretty ironic notion, as is a virgin birth and a working-class messiah. Karma -- your own actions coming back to you -- is the ultimate irony. The yin yang is a picture of opposites joined, like "I can resist anything but temptation." Irony, then, is really a very high spiritual ideal ... masquerading as an immature smirk.
People might not automatically see smart-assism as deep. That's OK. They didn't think Michael Keaton would make a good Batman, either. Backlashes occur against inarguable ideals, like equality or drinking, and there always will be people to jump on the bandwagon, no matter how rickety. My favorite of the new more-sincere-than-thou crowd is Steve Martin, quoted in the Times story as saying irony is "a virus." Well, excuuuuuuuse me. It's amazing how high-handed people can get when they start making deep films like "Father of the Bride II."
How ... I'm not going to say it. But I bet Alanis Morissette would.
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