Will We Ever Get Over Irony?

So when did it hit you that the 20th century might be maxed out on irony? Just this fall, when Fox TV put on a quiz show called "Greed"? This past spring, when Kurt Andersen's novel, "Turn of the Century," presented characters whose deviousness takes the form of "jolly candor about every mixed motive"? Last year, when in the final episode of "Seinfeld" the characters end up in a jail cell re-enacting the show's first episode? Then again, maybe it was when you read "The Sun Also Rises," where Nick and his buddy Bill riff over breakfast about "irony and pity"--a phrase from a review of what was then the novel du jour, "The Great Gatsby." " 'Ask her if she's got any jam,' Bill said. 'Be ironical with her.' 'Have you got any jam?' 'That's not ironical... And you claim to be a writer, too'.'' If Hemingway's Gen-L expatriates could make ironic in-jokes about irony as early as 1926, the culture must have been heading into a feedback loop of knowingness before most of us were even born. Anyhow, we're there now.

And some of the rising generation--types you'd expect to revel in smarty-pants paradox--just hate it. This year 24-year-old Yale grad student Jedediah Purdy had his 15 minutes of oversimplification with a book called "For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today," in which he says we live in a "cultural echo chamber," where "everything we encounter is a re-release, a ripoff or a rerun." Hence our ironic distance from a shopworn world--even from our shopworn selves--although it only makes the world "more likely to be worthy of despair." The novelist David Foster Wallace, now 37, anticipated Purdy's argument in a 1993 essay on TV and serious fiction. He calls irony and ridicule "agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture," though unlike Purdy, he sees what fun they are: he admits his delight in how "travel is depicted on The Flintstones by having the exact same cut-rate cartoon tree, rock, and house go by four times." Wallace's concern is irony's deadening effect on the arts, in which he predicts a resurgence of "reverence and conviction." Tomorrow's "anti-rebels," he says, will brave "the rolled eyes" of ironic dismissal.

And sure enough, we're now seeing some certifiably hip yet notably earnest artists: the singer Ani DiFranco, the novelist and poet Sapphire, the filmmaker Lars Von Triers ("Breaking the Waves"), the agitprop rockers Rage Against the Machine, Wallace himself. But is irony just some decadent late-capitalist blip, or a human constant? W. H. Auden, in his poem "Musee des Beaux Arts," notes that even the old masters knew human suffering takes place while "someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along" and "the torturer's horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree." Before we even had the adjective ironic (first known use: 1630) we had "Hamlet," as well as the ironic juxtapositions of Japan's roughly contemporaneous haiku poetry: "Very soon they die--but of that there is no sign in the locust-cry." Want to go way back? The Babylonian epic "Gilgamesh" (circa 2000 B.C.) describes the hero's hovering over the body of his dead companion Enkidu "as a lioness does over her brood"--a bitter incongruity that still works after 4,000 years.

The earliest known use in English of "irony" as a noun (in 1502) deems it sinful: "Such synne is named yronye... by the whiche a man sayth one [thing] & gyueth to understande the contrarye." This is irony in its simplest form: using "groovy," say, to mean "contemptible." What it shares with more elaborate ironies is some sort of displacement and recontextualizing; the word "groovy" is lifted out of the '60s and dropped into the present where it's an Austin Powers-like relic, hardly needing a recontextualizing roll of the eyes to subvert its meaning. The Notorious B.I.G.'s "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)"--the concluding track of his definitive 1997 "Life After Death" CD--prefaces a violent specimen of gangsta rap with the Twenty-third Psalm. One of these elements is clearly out of place, yet there they both are, each endlessly recontextualizing the other--in more or less the way tennis racquets recontextualize a tennis ball.

Such juxtapositional ironies flourish in the 20th century's most characteristic artistic mode: call it collage, assemblage, bricolage, pastiche or (to be less Frenchified and more au courant) sampling. A Donald Barthelme short story may graft a passage from a biography of Sinclair Lewis onto the plot of a "Batman" comic. Barthelme learned his moves from the century's most influential poet; in "The Waste Land" (1922), T. S. Eliot stitches together fragments of Wagner, Dante, Baudelaire, Hindu Scripture and popular songs. The century's other most influential poet, Bob Dylan, mines old blues and folk songs: "Lay Lady Lay" gets its memorable "big brass bed" from a Blind Willie McTell record; "Highlands" lifts a guitar hook from Charlie Patton--and a refrain from Robert Burns. With hip-hop music, something like Eliot's mandarin modernism now dominates mass-market culture: rapper Jay-Z's gritty 1998 hit single "Hard Knock Life" appropriates an incongruously perky sample from the original cast album of "Annie."

The incongruity is part of the point, but so is winking at the cognoscenti: the three sampled words "Get on up" on an old-school hip-hop record are enough to evoke James Brown's "Sex Machine." Yet another aim is to undercut our sense of the work's originality and credibility. From Barthelme's meta- fictions, which won't let us suspend our disbelief, to Roy Lichtenstein's comic-strip paintings with their huge Benday dots, 20th-century art works keep reminding us of their artifice. On the Beatles' "Abbey Road," the hypnotically repeated guitar figure in "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" is suddenly, arbitrarily cut off, jolting us into the embarrassed awareness that we've let a mere recording carry us away. (This is now a cliche--which may be why it's still done.) In fact, the much-sampled godfather of soul himself interrupts such hot-and-heavy sex anthems as "Cold Sweat" (1967) in the midst of a trademark orgasmic scream, to cue his band: "When you kiss me--Yaaaaaaah!--Keep it right there." Is "Cold Sweat" a song about sexual passion, or a song about a control-freak bandleader singing a song about sexual passion? Well... yeah.

That distanced, displaced, divided, self-referential sensibility has been with us from "Hamlet" through Letterman and Seinfeld; and our current disapproval isn't going to make it vanish. Irony thrives on disapproval, and recent works by such people as the filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, the singer-songwriter Beck and the fiction writer Lorrie Moore suggest that it's still rich with possibilities, especially if you're knowing enough not to take irony too seriously.

Beck's 1996 single "Where It's At" seems to belie its title: could a song work any harder to establish distance? The CD cut begins with the sound of a needle hitting vinyl and a crackle of retro surface noise. Then there's the self-conscious asides: sampled voices saying "That was a good drum break" (after a not- especially-good drum break) and "That's beautiful, Dad." And that patently feeble and out-of-tune guitar solo--an auditory eyeroll at head-tossing guitar heroism. So what made this piece of postmodern perversity a pop hit? Nothing more mysterious than a funky, rolling groove, a catchy electric-piano hook and Beck's "get-fresh flow" of rhyme and metaphor. The thing was fun. "Where It's At" is music about the love of music--and if that's too gnarly and self-reflexive, so is Beethoven's recontextualization of Schiller's "Ode to Joy."

When Lorrie Moore's story "People Like That Are the Only People Here" appeared in The New Yorker in 1997, even those who knew her work thought it was a headsnapper. A Moore-like fiction writer ("I can do quasi-amusing phone dialogue... I can do screwball outings with the family pet"), called the Mother, learns that her young son (the Baby) has cancer, and compulsively wisecracks through the crisis. " 'Really,' the Oncologist is saying, 'of all the cancers he could get, this is probably the best.' 'We win,' says the Mother." Her husband (the Husband) urges her to take notes and write about it; they need the money. She says she can't. "Sweetie, darling, I'm not that good... This is irony at its most gaudy and careless." But she does. "There are the notes," the story ends. "Now where is the money?" It's an impeccably ironic critique--it's meta-fictional! it depersonalizes its characters! it deliberately overuses exclamation points!--of irony itself, and of its ultimate inability to do what it's supposed to do: distance and protect us. It's hard to imagine ironists of the future pushing paradox further than this, but it's something to shoot for.

And finally, a word about "Pulp Fiction." How could an essay about irony have gotten this far without it? Since it came out in 1994, it's been the most imitated American film, and from its self-reflexive and self-deprecating title to its done-to-death tropes (the hit men, the moll, the rigged boxing match) it could be mistaken for an empty exercise in stylization. But Tarantino quickly moves away from arid postmodernism in two directions at once: into surreally energetic comedy (Uma Thurman's bride-of-Frankenstein scream after getting that shot of adrenaline) and into unironic tenderness. Somewhere into all the lurid, cartoonish violence Tarantino has tucked a sweet and chaste love story (Thurman and John Travolta), plus a pair of interracial buddy movies (the Travolta-Samuel L. Jackson subplot and the Ving Rhames-Bruce Willis subplot). This undercurrent of optimism about the human capacity for justice, loyalty and decency would make Frank Capra blush. But Tarantino's neither a sentimentalist in pomo drag nor a smirking cynic throwing in a little cheesy uplift for the groundlings. The Mobius-strip narrative of "Pulp Fiction" creates a closed universe in which nothing stays uppermost for long, and in which comedy and tragedy, cruelty and kindness, irony and earnestness, each make the other seem absurd. Like the universe we live in.

So now what? It's always possible--if we don't get those nukes under control--that the 21st century's dominant artistic mode will be the cave painting. But if we catch a break, we'll develop some hard-to-imagine new electronic media, as rudimentary now as moving pictures and recordings were in 1899, and still produce new masters of the old genres: the novel, the play, the lyric poem, the song, the symphony, the oil painting. And sure, some of these masters may turn out to be the post-ironic anti-rebels Wallace predicts. But if irony isn't literally wired into the human brain, it seems an inevitable response to the human condition. The original ironic juxtaposition, after all, is the spirit plunked down in the material world--a brief sample of the eternal popped into the mechanical drum track of time. Unless somebody figures out how to get comfortable with that, irony's going to be with us until the whole mess comes crashing down. Oh, well. At least we get the last laugh.