Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Living in the Age of Irony

Postmodernism stinks!

Living in the present age of irony, I find consolation in possessing the capacity to live as a hermit. The largely solitary nature of my day-to-day existence is not the plan I signed up for. It is not the script I would have written. But, after a long and painful struggle against it, I have gradually begun to make peace with solitude.

Albert Einstein is credited with lots of wise statements that he might not have ever made. Einstein is purported to have observed that "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Whoever said it, the statement is catchy. In retrospect, I was manifesting a form of insanity by returning again and again to the wellsprings of the age of irony, when they invariably failed to provide the refreshment I sought.

What do I mean by "age of irony?"

Here's one succinct definition I found:

...a period of cynicism in society in which extreme beliefs or emotions are not taken seriously or dismissed altogether, typically through vehicles such as black comedy, satire, sarcasm, or absurdity. Some suggest that this reaction, particularly in western society, stems from a sense of invulnerability to the extremities of horror and chaos experienced in other parts of the world. Conversely, others theorize that the sense of detachment which characterizes the Age of Irony arose as a defense mechanism to cope with feelings of extreme vulnerability.

I could speculate about that paragraph all day, but I won't, at least not now.

Instead, I'll admit my discomfort with the ironic age and, I'll admit more than a little nostalgia for earlier eras of American life when virtues and values were so taken for granted that taking them seriously wasn't at question. Don't get me wrong: I am not blind to the evils of the good old days. I am not too young to remember separate drinking fountains for whites and coloreds, and, bad as it was, that was small stuff compared to the uglier transgressions of the golden days of yesteryear.

The contrast between then and now, between sincerity and snark, jumped out at me as I began exploring some of the efforts to bring the classics of western culture to the American masses. From the vantage point of the postmodernist present, they seem almost as anachronistic as chautauqua camps and temperence societies.

First was The Harvard Classics, originally known as Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf, a 51-volume anthology of classic works from world literature, compiled and edited by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot and first published in 1909. Eliot asserted that the elements of a liberal education could be acquired by spending 15 minutes a day reading from a collection of books that could fit on a five-foot shelf.

An episode of The Waltons, the 1970s television show so devoid of irony as to be unimaginable today, devoted an entire episode to "The Five Foot Shelf" and the family's reluctant sacrifice to purchase a set of books that promised new horizons for the children of the clan.

A competitor to The Harvard Classics debuted in 1952 with Encyclopædia Britannica's Great Books of the Western World series, 54 volumes presenting the western canon. The collection was an outgrowth of a course by University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins in collaboration with Mortimer Adler. Like The Harvard Classics, Great Books celebrated the virtues of exposure to the classics. In his introductory essay to the Great Books collection, Dr. Hutchins wrote of the Great Conversation that would elevate humanity:

The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day. Whatever the merits of other civilizations in other respects, no civilization is like that of the West in this respect. No other civilization can claim that its defining characteristic is a dialogue of this sort. No dialogue in any other civilization can compare with that of the West in the number of great works of the mind that have contributed to this dialogue. The goal toward which Western society moves is the Civilization of the Dialogue. The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry. Its dominant element is the Logos. Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined. The exchange of ideas is held to be the path to the realization of the potentialities of the race.

Despite the lofty talk, an element of hucksterism accompanied the marketing of Great Books. Alex Beam explores this in his 2009 book, A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books:

Before the dawn of the television age, in an ambitious effort to enlighten the masses via door-to-door sales, Encyclopedia Britannica and the University of Chicago launched the Great Books of Western Civilization, "all fifty-four volumes of them... purporting to encompass all of Western knowledge from Homer to Freud." Led by the "intellectual Mutt 'n' Jeff act" of former University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins and his sidekick Mortimer Adler, the Great Books briefly, and improbably, caught the nation's imagination. In his discussion, Boston Globe columnist Beam looks at how and why this multi-year project took shape, what it managed to accomplish (or not), and the lasting effects it had on college curricula (in the familiar form of Dead White Males). Beam (Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospital) describes meetings endured by the selection committee, and countless debates over Euripedes, Herodotus, Shakespeare, Melville, Dickens and Whitman ("When it comes to Great Books, no one is without an opinion."), but tells it like it is regarding the Syntopicon they devised-at "3,000 subtopics and 163,000 separate entries, not exactly a user-friendly compendium"-and the resulting volumes, labeling them "icons of unreadability-32,000 pages of tiny, double-column, eye-straining type." By lauding the intent and intelligently critiquing the outcome, Beam offers an insightful, accessible and fair narrative on the Great Books, its time, and its surprisingly significant legacy.

OK, so I tend to exaggerate the virues of "a simpler time." By romanticizing the past, I long for something that never really existed. Have I fallen for what was a cynical marketing scheme even sixty years ago? Am I misguided to think that I should be learning to read Homer, when there are so many other things I could do to engage with society more effectively? People's eyes already glaze over whenever I open my mouth, so why do something to become even more inscrutable? Maybe I should learn to Tweet instead. Maybe I should practice card tricks that I could perform to amuse others. Why bother to read a bunch of books that hardly anyone would ever want to hear about, much less discuss?

I guess I'm beyond the point of being deterred by valid questions like those.

Later, a quick comparison of The Harvard Classics and Great Books and their enduring (though perhaps unwarranted) appeal to ambitious readers of today.


Irony is Dead, by David Beers

For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today, by Jedediah Purdy

The Big Book of Irony, by Joe Winokur

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