The State of Irony

The State of Irony

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Sept. 21 1999 3:00 AM

The State of Irony




I think we agree on even more than my book has suggested. I'll get to this in a minute, but first I want to concede your dead-to-rights point about the irony of celebrity. My unusual upbringing and (if Time is a reliable judge) cherubic face have had as much to do with the reception of the book as its style and substance. That presents the danger of becoming exactly the kind of public figure I find intensely unattractive: a novelty, a personality, a psychohistory, a face conveniently tagged to a two-dimensional attitude toward culture and politics. There is surely a literary and intellectual analogue to a full-body leather-man, and, while I don't think I'm fated to get there, I could use some cautionary street maps with pull-outs of the meat-packing district.

It won't do to pretend not to know that people out there are being invited to think of me as Brand Jedediah, to borrow a formulation I treat in the book as exemplifying a bad way of thinking about ourselves. Yet joining merrily in my own branding is, as your vivid images suggest, a nasty (and self-undermining) prospect. The only fitting response is to attempt intelligent ambivalence, and to try to draw attention to the argument of the book.

You object that that argument understates our need for intelligent ambivalence generally, that it culminates in diffuse enthusiasm rather than specific insight. Urging people to be good, you point out, runs against history. We need to take account of the essential depravity in human character. I agree. The book is partly a diagnosis of the hangover left by a politics that failed because it thought humans perfectible. I admire Michnik not mainly because he is pure, but because he sees our pervasive impurity so clearly yet doesn't believe that it licenses him to give up on public work. Montaigne is my hero because no one saw more vividly more reasons for despair while still refusing to despair. To put the debate in the religious terms that bequeathed it to us, the idea that we can overcome sin in this world is an old heresy, and I don't side with the heretics.

So, what am I doing in the second part of the book? Above all, I hope, not browbeating. I wrote For Common Things out of a sincere sense of implication in the various cultural troubles it describes. What I mean to do, by evoking the people whose lives and work I have admired, is not to dictate the terms of virtue but to invite other people to reciprocal thoughts about what seems to them to be inescapably good or important, and how to put that into a life. The descriptions are personal because these repositories are always somewhat personal, not because my experience, or my heroes, provide the right standards for everyone else.

I haven't reached your main challenge: to describe the commons, and especially politics, in a credible way given the strictures we agree upon. Tomorrow is another day.