“Irony”, Stanley Fish told us in the New York Times (January 28) “is a stance of distance that pays a compliment to both its producer and consumer. The ironist knows what other, more naïve, observers do not: that surfaces are deceptive, that the real story is not what presents itself, that conventional pieties are sentimental fictions.” Fish is taking his fellow critics to task for their love of irony and their mauling of the new movie version of the stage musical version of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, “Les Misérables”. The movie, like the musical, is devoid of irony.
This is a thought-provoking piece – not so much along the lines of his thoughts as along other, perhaps opposing, lines. Fish is essentially defending the musical and particularly its recent cinematic incarnation against nearly all the “serious” critics of the world. Let us leave Victor Hugo’s novel on which the musical is based out of this. The novel is an indisputable masterpiece. The musical bears but the most tenuous connection to it – as any examination of its very extraordinary genesis will reveal.
What Fish has to say about the musical is interesting enough but what is really interesting is what he has to say about irony and the great divide between a life examined through an ironic prism (or is it prison) and a life which is devoid of this sense. Life in the former mode is presented as one in which we encounter and deal with anguish, doubt, uncertainty; life in the latter mode is one of simplicity, certainty and untrammelled feeling. But is it as simple as that? What worried me not a little was the thought that the two main authorities whom Fish quoted in support of the unexamined raw emotional life, Mark Rothko and David Foster Wallace, both tragically took their own lives as their ultimate response to the vision of the world which they embraced. Fish makes no mention of this.
Post-modern irony seems to me an excessive and misguided expression of a very real perception of the fact that there is much more to the world and the human condition than meets the eye. In some way it seems to mock our folly in not seeing what we should see – but does not want to do anything about it. However, a genuine ironic stance is no more than an approach we take to getting beyond the surface of appearances to the reality underlying them.
The common cultural mode today is one in which we respond with enthusiasm and abandon to the superficial emotionalism of popular entertainment. This is typified by our consumption of pop music, Hollywood film and television, musicals since the 1970s – when Andrew Lloyd Weber and the likes of ‘Les Misérables’ became the cultural phenomenon of the late 20th century. The parallel emergence of the multi-billion spectator-sport industry is another of its manifestations. All this consumption is devoid of that vital question-mark which distinguishes the response of the thinking creature from the unthinking creature. We either feel good or bad about something. That is all there is to it. Sentiment is put above all else and when that happens sentimentalism becomes the core value of our ideology. Sentimentalism is, as D.H.Lawrence defined it, the working off on yourself of feelings you haven’t really got. That is the ultimate destructive self-deception.
Since the consumers of these products are in fact creatures destined to think and not just to feel, when they are deprived of the challenge to do so they will not then bother to think. Their culture deprives them of the opportunity to develop that vital habit of being which is necessary for the fulfilment of their true nature. Ultimately this will leave them with a vision of their existence which will appear meaningless. The consequences of that may be the response of Rothko and Wallace, and so many others who have taken the same nihilistic path for the same nihilistic reason.
Does all this help explain in part the apparent readiness of Western societies to embrace euthanasia, abortion, and many other life choices which only make sense when perception itself is limited to the surface appearances of our existence? Does this explain the appalling superficiality of Barack Obama’s presidency and in particular the content of his second inaugural address. His appeal to the superficial and the emotional is relentless. The speech, as fork-tongued as it was banal, paid lip-service to the ideals of the Founding Fathers but the connections between his sentimental politics and their real-life politics were remote. He gushed:
“The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few, or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people. Entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed. And for more than 200 years we have. Through blood drawn by lash, and blood drawn by sword, we noted that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half slave, and half free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together… For we have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges, that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”
OK, it is just a speech, but as Janet Daly reflected in her article in The Daily Telegraph last weekend, it is a speech which chillingly betrays a fundamental change in the very nature of our democracy. While it was superficial and trite it was no less significant for that – indeed, that its trite message could pass for real political thought and be a harbinger for a new political reality was what was frighteningly historic about it in her eyes. For her it was a coming to America of the same trite political thought which New Labour brought to British politics in 1997.
“The core message was pounded home relentlessly: American government”, she wrote, “is now in the redistribution and welfare-provision business, and this is not (contrary to appearances) at variance with the founding fathers’ conception of a nation that is inherently opposed to state interference and domination over the individual. This is the new credo of American nationhood: the government, not the community or the household, will be the moral arbiter of social virtue. The traditional suspicion of the overweening power of the state is now a thing of the past. Democracy is about electing a government that will be there to protect you from hardship, shelter you from the storm and absolve you from sin. Well, no, maybe not that last one – but the concept of the state as moral saviour is not so remote from this, is it?”
And what has this to do with Stanley Fish? Perhaps this: nurture our society on superficial sentimentalism and feed it nothing more demanding than emotional highs and lows and you will take away our capacity for irony. With our sense of irony gone, and with it the capacity to see beyond superficial appearances, we will have to live with the spectre of a world in which we are represented by people who think in the way Obama thinks. We will see no hope beyond the quagmire of superficial emotionalism and sentimentalism in which they are threatening to engulf us. Our sense of irony at least gives us a gateway to a deeper and truer reading of our condition and some prospect of redemption.