A Manifesto Against Irony
Photograph by Kelly O
I'm so sick of irony. I'm sick of nihilism and meaninglessness and everything that's hipper than thou or smarter than thou or oh boo-hoo my poor brilliant life has no meaning (whose fault is that?) and oh boo-hoo language can't be trusted anymore. It can, damn it. And if you don't trust it, then shut up and do something else. Talk to someone whose stick isn't up their rear as far as yours is. Talk to someone who isn't impressed with your fascinating mind. Talk to someone who things mean something to, who needs things, including stories and poems and words, to mean something. Or better yet, listen to someone. Listen to someone who doesn't even think about language because they are thinking about how to feed themselves or their kids or find a job or love or not wanting to die.
What I am trying to say is that language can work, it can be trusted and it can save your life.
It can say things you want and things that can make you think and feel like maybe you're not entirely alone, that maybe somebody else is sort of like you and maybe decided not to blow their brains out but stayed alive so maybe you can too. Language can also say things that are hilarious, that make you laugh till you double over and realize that even if things are awful, sometimes they're also awfully funny. It can say things about um... Beauty and Truth and Hope and... um... er... Love... and even um... er... Redemption.
I want to read books I need to read. I want to read books that feed me, that go in my mouth and throat and down in my guts and nourish me or mess me up but feed me that way too. I want to read books a writer had to write, could not not write or she'd go effing nuts. I want a book that will make me think or feel, even if it makes me feel shitty or like I want to go out and smash things like mirrors and windows and people's skulls or maybe instead do something decent or kind, or thank someone. Or smoke and drink and have sex with people I shouldn't have sex with or maybe even apologize for things I did to someone long ago.
When I start a book and it seems like, Oh, look at how fascinating I am, I'm like, Get over yourself. I'm like, Shut up.
Of course, words can't be all you want. Of course, words fail sometimes. What doesn't? Nothing. Nothing never fails.
Nothing can bring back the dead. Not even words. I mean, not really. Not really alive like breathing and with their body and voice and hands so they could hold you again and you them too. Words can only try to do that, and even though they fail at it—despite the failures that most words are, despite all the things words cannot do—they are, at least, a little more than nothing.
Words are what you do to hold your grief.
Words can't express what it is to need. They cannot say how much you want. Or make the person you want to love you love you.
Life is full of suffering, loss and death, etc.
You are not the first one who has known or tried to say this. You have tried and you've needed to. There was a time before you thought you wanted to give up.
Do not give up.
Words have also, always, known their limits.
You also aren't the first one to know this.
Everybody knows that words aren't flesh. Everybody knows that our bodies end (just as love ends, our minds end, etc.).
Will you not know because you're arrogant? Afraid?
I also mean, of course, language can lie, of course it does sometimes. But whose fault is that?
Words don't pretend what they are not; they know they're only gruntings, groanings, groanings inexpressible. A line in the dirt someone made with a stick. Not things themselves. Unreal, abstract, mere standers-in-for, pointers-toward that which our flesh would touch that can't be touched.
Words also are, however, in their own dumb way, sort of things: the blur of the breath sucked over the tongue, the press of tongue to the back of the tooth, the back of the cave of the mouth, the slur. The consonant's click, the susurrus. The fricative slide, the uvular trill, the drawn-out vowel of ooooh, the pull of the breath inside then down, the throat, the wanting throat. The moist and warm and wet of it, the wait. The top of the back of the roof of the mouth, the palate, the tang, the tongue. The pulse of the vein on the side of the neck, the oil, salt, the saltiness, the cup at the top of the bone, the beating vein. The blue and the pulse of the vein of the neck. The rise of the chest, the release of air, the hand on the sternum, the bone above the heart, the heart. The mouth and the tongue and the hand. The moving hand. The slip and the pliability. The catch of the breath, the cry. The cry as if surprised, though not. No, this was not surprise. It had been longed for if not uttered, had been in some way said, Oh, make me effable!
The story of Babel is everyone talking to nobody understanding.
The story of the Pentecost is everyone talking to everyone understanding.
The Word is the spirit arriving within and among. Each one breathing alone, apart, and also part of all of us and one.
The word isn't it but says there is.
It points toward what is.
Words mean what we are trying to say. Words mean what we are trying to believe.
Books mean so too. Or should.
If you want to write something that doesn't mean, but is indifferent, indulgent, superior, snotty, or whines, don't waste our time. Please, do not waste our time: Shut up.
Leave trying to say we believe we mean to the rest of imperfect us.
Rebecca Brown is the author of many excellent books, including The End of Youth, which has a paragraph that covers so much ground, it’s a novel. She’s also the recipient of a Stranger Genius Award.