Why the 1990s are a dangerous, laugh-free zone Irony: Without it, there can be only rigid certainty, which is the source of most great evils.

Watching the movie "Apollo 13" on TV the other night, I noted with bewilderment the way the camera lingered on the cigarettes, pipes and overflowing ashtrays of the nicotine-loving NASA technicians who were laboring to bring Tom Hanks and his crew back to Earth in one piece each.

What, I wondered, was the point? Was Ron Howard, the director, trying to cast an anachronistic shadow of doubt on the uprightness of the home team? And if so, how did that square with the overall tone of the script, which was more or less worshipful? Then, all at once, the answer came to me: He thinks he's being ironic.


What now passes for irony in America, as this example suggests, bears as much resemblance to the real thing as does Forrest Gump to La Rochefoucauld. True irony draws blood, which is why it is the characteristic mode of expression of this bloody century: Modernity has shoved it down our throats.

If he lives long enough, every ironist sooner or later sees his worst dreams come true. "Progress makes purses out of human skin," said the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus - an aphorism lethal enough at first glance, but whose muzzle velocity is doubled by the knowledge that Kraus said it in 1909, fully three decades before the Nazis went into the skin trade.


That's irony.

Even scientists have been forced to admit irony into their tightly wound systems, in the form of anarchic formulations ranging from Murphy's Law to the Law of Unintended Consequences. (My favorite is Rossi's Iron Law: "The expected value for any measured effect of a social program is zero.")

Such axioms, like the aphorisms of Kraus and La Rochefoucauld, help us come to terms with the vanity of human wishes, and for the sane and honest man, there is no doing without them. Kierkegaard, who devoted a whole book to the subject of irony, said flatly that "[h]e who does not understand irony and has no ear for its whispering lacks eo ipso what might be called the beginning of the personal life."

Small wonder, then, that the principal enemy of irony in our time is the political-correctness movement, whose members believe devoutly that the personal is political, and thus nonexistent.

Such folk are ever and always humorless, and of all forms of humor, it is irony they despise most. "Remember, Razumov," says Sophia Antonovna in Conrad's "Under Western Eyes," "that women, children, and revolutionists hate Irony, which is the negation of all saving instincts, of all faith, of all devotion, of all action."

Hence such latter-day triumphs of the revolutionary will as the case of the unhappy Harvard Law School professor who, lecturing on contracts one day, made so bold as to recall for his class the stanza from Byron's "Don Juan" which ends, "A little still she strove, and much repented,/And whispering 'I will ne'er consent' - consented."

For his pains, he was publicly accused of sexism in an open letter by the student head of the Harvard Women's Law Association (who thoughtfully sent copies to various administrators, noting that it might prove relevant were Harvard so insensitive as to consider him for tenure).

Somebody should have warned the poor soul that in the world of PC, there are no laughing matters, least of all sexual ones.


Needless to say, this is nothing new. Twice before in the 20th century, American intellectuals collectively foresook the ironic stance, choosing instead to devote their energies to the creation by political means of an earthly paradise.

Such a goal cannot be seriously contemplated by anyone with the least glimmer of wit or self-knowledge, which explains much about life in the 1930s and 1960s. It's hard to say which decade was less amusing, though I incline toward the latter, having survived it. At least in the 1930s, our popular culture retained its meringue-light touch.

Was there anything funny about being young in the 1960s? Did anyone ever smile at the sound of Grace Slick's chilly voice? Or Jimi Hendrix whining about how "manic depression is a frustrating mess"? (Actually, that was pretty funny, but Hendrix didn't mean it to be, which is the point.)

Irony, in short, has found itself under siege at regular intervals in American history, and one inevitably wonders why. Could it be that there is something in our national character which is fundamentally inimical to irony?

This is, after all, a country in which, as the Seabees say, "we do the difficult immediately - the impossible takes a little longer." (The German composer Paul Hindemith put it even better when he called the United States, about which he had decidedly mixed feelings, the "land of limited impossibilities.")

We are an earnest people, bred in the bone to believe that nothing is beyond our powers. It stands to reason that the telling of tall tales should be our indigenous style of humor, and that irony, which exists to belittle, should be regarded by many Americans as - well, un-American.


To be sure, there have always been ironists among us, though they have tended in the past to belong to beleaguered minorities. Stand-up comedy, for instance, is virtually a Jewish invention, while camp, irony's nihilistic cousin, is homosexual through and through. And what could be more ironic than the blues?

No Greek playwright summed up the ironic sense of life more compactly than did the anonymous bluesman who wrote the couplet Big Joe Turner sings in "Roll 'Em, Pete": "You so beautiful, but you got to die someday/All I want's a little lovin' just before you pass away." "Memento mori, indeed.

But it is sincerity, not irony, which leads to mass popularity in America. Rodgers and Hart were successful; Rodgers and Hammerstein were iconic. And many members of the very same minorities that once reveled in irony are now among those yelping most loudly for its abolition. There is no harsher indictment of the 1990s than the oft-told feminist lightbulb joke:

L Q. How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A. That's not funny.

The commissars of sensitivity have done their job so well that a whole generation of otherwise literate Americans is growing up afraid of, or, worse yet, unacquainted with, true irony. Instead, we get Irony Lite, guaranteed inoffensive or your money back.


Today's postmodern pseudo-irony, lukewarm and toothless, offers the outward form of irony unmoored from its scalding moral content, a martini consisting solely of vermouth and an olive (and served, more often than not, in a paper cup). A century that began with the bang of Karl Kraus now seems on the verge of ending with the whimper of David Letterman's top-10 lists.

There is, of course, a legitimate case to be made against irony. It is implicit in a remark Fairfield Porter made about the Italian non-objective painters of the 1950s, in whom he noticed "a common sense of humor that prevents them from taking their art seriously enough. They are like wise clowns inhibited by a knowledge of the vanity of all human effort."

It is the wholly sincere who dream the biggest dreams, and do the biggest things. Alas, bigger is not the same as better, and big bad things are exponentially worse than small bad ones: Only a creature utterly incapable of irony could have conceived the Holocaust, much less brought it off.

In this sense, irony is like a vitamin which helps us maintain our spiritual balance in a world full of horror and temptation. If we take too much, it paralyzes us; if we try to do without it, we run amok, erecting guillotines in the name of humanitarianism.

Perhaps the soundest advice on irony came, appropriately enough, from that ironist's ironist, Henry James. When Edmund Gosse sent him a copy of "A Problem in Modern Ethics," John Addington Symonds' painfully earnest apologia for homosexuality, James' response was exquisitely balanced: "I think one ought to wish him more humour - it is really the saving salt. But the great reformers never have it - and he is the Gladstone of the affair."

Which says it quite nicely: You don't have to take everything with a grain of salt, but unless you contemplate adding a fifth President to Mount Rushmore, or curing the common cold, don't go on a salt-free diet without consulting your doctor first.


Terry Teachout is the music critic of Commentary. His books include, "Beyond the Boom: New Voices on American Life, Culture and Politics," and "City Limits: Memories of a Small Town Boy." He is writing "H. L. Mencken: A Life."

Pub Date: 06/23/96