Irony Is a Survival Tactic
As Someone Who Tried to Give Up Irony, I Can Tell You—It Doesn’t Work
Courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery
My attempt to give up irony began and ended with an earnest woman. She lived in a Sacramento suburb that featured rows of meth motels along the freeway. Her car had a non-whimsical, synthetic black bra over the front bumper for the genuine purpose of blocking out bugs and other bumpers. She adored traveling on cruise ships, listening to Jimmy Buffett, and creating Norman Rockwell–imitation holidays. Her most cherished possessions were a collection of commemorative Tinker Bell ornaments. These fragile, fairy-straddled globes reinforced her slightly militant belief that Disneyland really was the happiest place on earth. She said that exact phrase. Often.
I grew up one half day's drive from Disneyland. I hated the place, from the first time my family ditched me at the Swiss Family Treehouse when I was 6. I found them later eating burgers and shakes under the shade of Dumbo. By the time I was a teenager, I saw Disneyland as the epitome of everything false about American culture and about my particular wholesome and equally troubled American family. My perspective had also been twisted by the influence of a black-light poster popular in head shops in the 1970s. The poster depicted Disney characters having porn sex in various forest nooks. From the moment I first saw that darker version of Disney happiness, my fascination steered more toward the catacombs and prison cells beneath Disneyland than toward the bright perfection of its facades.
My earnest woman inspired me to reconsider my foreclosed biases. She had a sense of optimism and enthusiasm about things that I would normally dread, like potlucks, wedding showers, and shopping at Costco. And she shared with kids a sense of magic and awe. I anticipated that she could navigate me toward reclaiming childlike innocence—what might be called the "redemptive version" of a middle-aged crisis.
At first, my girlfriend's all-American aesthetic and positive attitude seemed refreshing. She dove into each day with the blazing bright affect of a beauty-pageant princess, which, in fact, she had been. She had lovely dark-brown locks, wore '80s blue eye shadow, tanned every other day, and believed in human cleanliness as a benchmark of morality. I didn't notice until later that beneath her candy-lacquered surfaces pooled a simmering reservoir of anger and disappointment.
But until that anger surfaced, I remained her curious masochist, joining in daily rituals of sincerity. I filled her garden-fairy fountain with water. I stopped making disparaging remarks about Disneyland and Walmart. I tended six squares of a Facebook farm, exchanging cows, shrubbery, and bags of fertilizer with her extended family. I watched hundreds of hours of romantic comedies, tried to memorize lines from Will Ferrell movies, and played video games with her nieces and nephews. The games usually went fine until one of the kids expressed boredom, at which time they were publicly shamed. In a truly earnest family, ennui is a venal sin. Children don't whine. Empty hours are enemies.
Another enemy for the earnest woman: films or TV shows depicting the slow unfolding of ambiguous scenes or else inescapable realities. I'm not talking about the standard reality shows, which are often fragmented, manic, and random. I'm talking about bleak, rhythm-of-daily-life films or foreign films. My girlfriend's aversion to stark reality became clear when I brought her and one of her nieces to see a Mickey Rourke film, The Wrestler. By the end of the film, the two of them were ready to bolt, filled with hot blame and resentment. "That was horrible," they said in unison.
Horrible? I tried to explain the appeal of watching a slice of raw life, especially how the film resembled Rourke's own life as a boxer. Months later, I visited the girlfriend's two-bucket hometown near Sacramento. The town had more churches than bars. More rusted cars than sidewalks. Restaurants were buffets. Shades were drawn in most of the houses. I had a despairing sensation in my stomach when we stopped across the street from the tattered, boarded-up house where she grew up. There was a river levee nearby, which had been her playground. She recalled that one time the river had flooded; the roiling waters dragged away the family dog. In general, she focused on the idyllic aspects of a rural childhood, but sometimes she lapsed like that, letting glimpses of crueler under-stories and deprivations slip.
I had been detached enough to watch The Wrestler as a piece of art that cinematically framed a familiar neurotic fear of failing. For the girlfriend, The Wrestler brushed against the edges of real experiences. She preferred to renovate such dark narratives into new wholesome stories, swirled in cotton candy.
When I talk about an urge to abandon irony, I mean that I wanted to stop engaging in meta-dialogues in which people's true attractions and aversions (including my own) were deeply buried under carefully acquired pretend-tastes. I was so good at irony, I had become boxed in by it by then, exhausted by deconstructing endless layers of absurdities, and from living in the wreckage of a world I had made uninhabitable. Mostly I was just sick of myself.
When my discomfort reached a tipping point in 2008, I invented a theory. I decided that irony would implode from so many bloated years of overuse, and in its wake would come the return of American earnestness. For evidence to support my thesis, I used the economy tanking and the "transparency" slogans of the Obama campaign.
The idea of irony going out of fashion wasn't original. The term "New Sincerity" had been volleyed around cultural arenas throughout the '80s. A return to sincerity was initially a reaction to punk rock, but later it was a future survival strategy suggested by several philosophers, musicians, and writers. In a 1993 essay, "E Unibus Pluram," David Foster Wallace cautioned writers about the fatal cul-de-sacs of irony and overanalyzing. He focused on the prevalence of TV-saturated perspectives wherein we could comment on ourselves watching ourselves having experiences, all of which were being mediated and conditioned by expanding technologies. Since Wallace wrote that piece, the possibilities of self-conscious experience that media allows us have metastasized—we can now watch ourselves tweeting with, say, Sean Penn, while simultaneously watching news clips broadcast live from the gallery of the Texas senate floor and writing clever comments about it on a personal blog and showing people what we're eating for dinner on Facebook.
My strategy for redemption from irony involved diving into the most intimately archetypal form of American earnestness: the fantasy of happiness. In other words, I was attempting to return home. When I was a child, my parents emphasized the sacred importance of cheerfulness, as a first defense against the darkness that introspection might invite. Just smile, hon. Thinking will wrinkle your forehead.
At night, we would stare together at the TV after exchanging sarcastic banter at dinner. Our most intimate dialogues—the ones about TV characters—were shared in the brief, slogan-dense spaces commercials offered. When, at 13, I announced that I was giving TV up because I had weird feelings about becoming closer to Edith and Archie Bunker than to my siblings, my family said in unison, "That's crazy."
They were right. The core of our family life was the TV. Without it, we would have actually had to be emotionally "there" with each other. We needed the Bunkers to express the resentments, fears, and disappointments that were too dangerous and awkward to articulate. Giving up TV was a chance for me to start exploring a multitude of unspoken things. But it also helped seal (along with other, later choices like living abroad and marrying someone from a different country) a structural sense of otherness, an extra layer of remove, in my psyche. I was always on the outside of watching others watching. Gradually, I became adept at adding layer after layer of remove—the more extra layers, the better.
Along the way, there were also a number of experiences that irony helped me survive. My ex-husband's divorce lawyer asking me out on a date is one example. He was bragging about catching the stuffed marlin he was sitting directly under while I was signing legal papers. Or there's the nun who called me a disgrace to Catholicism right before she ran off with my friend's father. Or being diagnosed with cancer—which was brought on in part, one doctor told me, from a previous job of mine, spraying poisons on an organic herb farm. Having some perspective and distance has sometimes been a great source of comfort.
On the other hand, adding too many layers kept taking me further and further from my familiar roots. Thus, joining with the earnest woman and deciding to abandon the ironic distance I was so good at creating was also an attempt to return home to the illusion of American normalcy.
Nothing says American normalcy like being inside media together with loved ones.
My girlfriend was a convert to television, and almost dogmatic about the happiness it promised. Her mother had been a stalwart hippie first-wave feminist who believed TV was evil. When my girlfriend emancipated and bought her own TV, she was ecstatic to be offered passageway into the mainstream American culture she craved. Andy of Mayberry and Captain Kirk were like benevolent uncles. She dreamed of finding her own Mayberry to live in one day. Her fantasy town looked pretty much like the town where I grew up. Her fantasy family, gathering each evening around a glowing TV, resembled my TV-centric parents and siblings.
If I hadn't been blinded by the desperation of my own redemptive quest, I might have noticed that our different reactions to The Wrestler were highly symbolic and stubbornly ingrained. My girlfriend and I had radically different desires in relation to fantasy and reality that could not blend, nor could we will a homeopathic healing from tasting one another's poisons. The Wrestler brushed too dangerously close to the edges of the reality she wanted to escape. For me, the film symbolized, like Vegas, the calm of being inside the all-night neon blink of the collective broken fantasies that bolster the American dream.
I thought of The Wrestler again when my earnest woman's niece's boyfriend went on a heroin binge around the holidays. The boyfriend, let's call him Victor, had recently been released from prison after seven years on drug-possession charges. Victor was a nice enough guy, kind of shy. He came home one night around Christmas so brain-soaked from opiates that he took a crap in a plastic dog dish. I discovered it by mistake the next morning when I attempted to feed the dogs. My girlfriend did not want to talk about how repulsive the situation was. She wanted to pretend that it didn't happen so it wouldn't ruin the yuletide mood. She suggested we watch DVDs from her Star Trek box set.
On Christmas Day, the poop-in-the-bowl guy wouldn't come out of his room for shame, and the niece who loved him was in a funk from his disappearance. Intending to offer comfort to the young woman who was crying in the kitchen, I said, "Christmas has equal potential to be the unhappiest day of the year."
"Why are you telling my niece that," my girlfriend yelled from the living room where she was watching Star Trek. "Don't ruin her Christmas."
I thought she was kidding, so I continued.
"I mean it," she interrupted. "Shut the hell up. In this house, Christmas is magical."
Her niece was 25 at the time. It was then, standing in my girlfriend's joy-littered kitchen, that I realized her earnestness kept a guard dog with bared teeth posted at its gate, ready to attack any intrusion, even the limb of a thought that veered toward negativity or irony. If painful events were ignored, they might just disappear back down the driveway by which they arrived.
On this particular occasion, however, the "just act as if" survival formula didn't prevent the staging of act II of what can only be called The Heroin Holidays. Just like with all the other personal details in this story, I have changed a couple of the details to protect people's privacy, but the gist of it is: On New Year's Eve, Victor brought home the bouncer from the neighborhood bar. It wasn't clear whether he was drunk or high or both that night; my girlfriend and I were sunning in San Diego for New Year's, so we only heard the ensuing story secondhand, a week later. It was messy, like every other hell-bent tale of self-implosion. Apparently, Victor tried to persuade the bouncer to engage in a fight-club-style rumble in the basement. Victor threw the first punch, while calling the bouncer a "fag." What followed was high-volume chaos in which two of the nieces tried to drag the fighters apart, while the bouncer pretty much beat the boyfriend until his face was bruised and bloody. The bouncer was apologetic and stayed to help the nieces clean up the blood. Both nieces claimed that Victor had seemed possessed, almost sinister, that night. In the context of that incident, The Wrestler had become more like a prescient scene of real life than a Hollywood film. I realized that my girlfriend's family had already enacted events like the film's slices of brutality several times in real life.
Despite how dark that New Year's Eve had turned, and how traumatized her nieces were, my girlfriend preferred to minimize the severity of the incident. When we got home from San Diego, she listened to her nieces tell the story once, then went to bed. Hours later, I was still listening to the nieces restructure the story over and over to make sense of it. Victor was banned from the house. A week later, he was back doing chores. My girlfriend asked that the subject be immediately put to sleep because it was disturbing.
Her version of earnestness was turning out to be just as suffocating as the childhood version I had used irony to escape. There was a stark contrast between my girlfriend's verbal insistence on happiness and the visual, visceral violence of the holidays. Such seediness had been much more secret and insidious in my own all-American family. Earnestness and irony were becoming so entwined that I couldn't thread them apart. But I wasn't ready to surrender my quest until I had sailed my illusion into the jagged straits.
I agreed to go on a vacation to Disneyland. Just the girlfriend and me. No kids.
The first rule was that I wasn't allowed to mention the catacombs under Disneyland or anything equally dark while we were there. The second rule was that I needed to "play along" and walk through the overwrought cartoonish avenues with an open mind. I can't remember what the third rule was. My counter-demand was that I could temper the experience with a drink each day. Unfortunately, the only places to get drinks back then were "off campus," in dumb bars where animals popped cuckoo-clock-style out of cabinets mounted on walls; other animals dropped from the ceiling. There was no peace from cuteness.
Disney day started at 6 a.m. The girlfriend liked to be one of the first guests through the gates so we could jump on all the best rides before the crowds arrived. In the first three hours, we had already gone on Space Mountain, the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I would have been happy if we had left Disneyland right exactly then. Unfortunately, we were just getting started.
We went on a nauseating simulated ride over a giant video stream of American canyons and landscapes. We went on some rides twice. I might have actually felt content if we could have borrowed someone else's little kid, or brought one of my girlfriend's nieces or nephews—someone who might sincerely believe that happiness could be embodied by a stuttering and flummoxed duck. For lunch, we went to the fanciest restaurant in Disneyland (which didn't serve alcohol), overlooking the entrance waters to the Pirates of the Caribbean. It was hard to keep to either rule I had agreed to at that point. I bit my tongue and imagined saving the small, swashbuckling steak to savor later with gin.
Later that day, we rode the Disney train, driven by a creepy middle-aged man who talked in a baby voice.
"Finally," I said aloud. "A crack in the snow globe."
"You promised you wouldn't," the girlfriend reminded. We stayed until the fantastical, farcical end, with fireworks culminating in the flight of a holographic Tinker Bell across the front of a color-soaked castle. I was flat-out pretending by then, frontal lobes on overdrive.
Disneyland was not part of my path toward redemption. Being there made me long for Caesars Palace or the dated arcade at the top of the Las Vegas Strip. Vegas is as equally fake and fantastical as Disneyland, but at least it doesn't pretend to excise the intimate darkness, which fuels its bright lights. It occurred to me that I was really seeking a Las Vegas kind of earnestness that indulges in and acknowledges its own absurdity. Las Vegas is serious and intent on making money from exploiting human desire. It offers adults a playground and an empty promise of anonymity. And yet there is a strange innocence in the possibility that one can actually transcend greed through greed. Perhaps likewise, earnestness could be achieved not by abstaining from irony, as David Foster Wallace suggested, but by diving headlong into it, and through it, to the other side.
When the girlfriend wanted to spend another entire dawn-to-dusk day in Disneyland, I knew that I had reached the limits of my capacity. A life without irony no longer seemed appealing. Or remotely possible. Even when I was not actively deconstructing the world around me, the urge toward irreverence and irony persevered. To resist these impulses was brain-numbing and disorienting. I couldn't recognize myself. I seemed like my optimistic cousin who often sent chain letter e-mails and was fascist about avoiding unpleasant topics and events.
The girlfriend's ironclad wholesomeness worked for her as a defense against the unknown and unwanted. In the end, she seemed more dissimulating than earnest. She concealed the threat of the truths she knew were there in order to survive. It was an elegant strategy, really. I survive the unknown, instead, by picking apart and examining the mechanical timing fuses of absurdity and playing with them in order to disarm them.
My experiment was only a half failure. Our long-distance relationship fell apart quickly and just in time, so I didn't take any steps toward a really horrifying mistake like literally moving with her back to my Mayberry hometown. She thought it would have been heaven. I think we both would have been hemmed in by the concentric prison of sincere insincerity.
Increasing conflicts unraveled both of our fantasies. She chose to ignore our differences, hoping for extinction. I found myself wanting to scratch below the surface of all her facades, bent on daylighting her simmering anger. And so I did, and we didn't make it. The final blowup was part of a long-distance phone call. She was back at Disneyland with her adult nieces. Each of the three women had a princess persona I was expected to remember. I was tired of playing along.
The girlfriend said something like: "I guess you just don't get the language of Disney. You're going to need to learn it." Oh God, please no, I thought, and then I must have said those words aloud in addition to swearing off any lingering desire to move to Mayberry with her. In any case, she hung up, and right after that I dropped my phone in the toilet, which was a drag, except that I really enjoyed the symbolism of it.
We went back to our own accustomed ways of coping. She bought new Tinker Bell car mats and hung a new dream catcher from her rearview mirror. I watched a marathon of Lars von Trier films, culminating in Melancholia. From the first unresolved notes of longing in the overture of Tristan und Isolde, blending with the contrapuntal images of an impending planetary collision, I felt at home again on the outside: peering at the world through a brutal, and earnest, lens.
In the end, I came to the realization that irony is useful—sometimes extremely useful. Life is absurd and overwhelming and full of unplanned events, like getting cancer even after you have avoided microwave ovens all your life, or having the house you just bought lose half its value when the economy crashes. Granted, irony never completely saved me from tragedy or disappointment. But neither has earnestness. By the time I went cold turkey on irony, it had become my default coping trick, to the point of almost being like a lifestyle I'd chosen for myself. Since it had become my default, all the layers of distance were starting to cut me off from myself, my history, and my honest emotional reactions to things—even my reason for employing irony in the first place. Now I use irony selectively because it helps me survive and helps me keep a sense of lightness in situations where I have no control. But I don't let it create emotional distance anymore. That was lonely and maybe even more painful than just facing some things.
Trisha Ready is a writer and psychologist in Seattle.