On Irony

Today I started reading a book of cultural commentary that came recommended to me from a wise and literary friend. The book was written in 1999 by Jedidiah Purdy who was in his mid-twenties when he wrote it. The book is titled For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today.

In the preface Purdy begins:

This book is a pleas for the value of declaring hopes that we know to be fragile. It is an argument that those hopes are no less necessary for their fragility, and that permitting ourselves to neglect them is both reckless and impoverishing. My purpose in writing is to take our inhibition seriously, and to ask what would be required to overcome it, to speak earnestly of uncertain hopes.

To do so requires understanding today’s ironic manner. There is something fearful in this irony. It is a fear of betrayal, disappointment, and humiliation, and a suspicion that believing, hoping, or caring too much will open us to these. Irony is a way of refusing to rely on such treacherous things. 

Later he goes on to describe irony as an “attitude that never invites disappointment” and a kind of security, “[but] it is the negative security of perpetual suspicion.”

I find these reflections quite interesting and insightful, particularly for how he describes having arrived to them at his young age. In his upbringing that involved growing up homeschooled in rural West Virginia, Purdy recalls being filled with “perfect confidence in the reality of things” and how trust, loyalty, and rootedness were bound up in so many unspoken daily occurrences of his life.

It’s interesting to consider how irony is used as a defensive mechanism against disappointment and how the ironic manner is a form of guardedness against betraying sincerity, insecurities, and vulnerabilities, but also hopes and aspirations. It’s safe detachment rather than noble detachment. It’s disinterestedness with an added personal divestment for good measure, but it is not so withdrawn as to be cynical; it is still involved.

In later chapters of the book, Purdy will draw some distinctions and nuance the meaning and evolution of irony. (He notes his criticism is intended to centre on the irony in contemporary culture whereby reality is trivialized and human responses to reality are devoid of sincerity and depth.) 

Of course irony can also be employed humorously and philosophically. Oftentimes, however, it’s a way to skirt saying what we mean and betrays the insecurity of modern restless souls.

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