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The Spirit of Irony

My real problem isn't with sincerity so much as the expression of sincerity.
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #51, October 2000

I have a hard time with sincerity. I know when I'm expected to take things seriously. And I can do a pretty good job of simulating earnestness. But I feel like somebody else when I'm doing it. Does this mean that I'm a heartless automaton? Not at all. I feel things intensely, so much so that I've sometimes wondered whether I suffer from a mild case of manic depression. My real problem isn't with sincerity so much as the expression of sincerity. Even when I want to share my feelings, something holds me back. Unless my circumstances are truly dire, I filter my experiences through a nearly constant ironic commentary on the world around me. Ironically, it is in the process of making this commentary that I feel myself to be most sincere, as if the real me was necessarily double.

I suspect that a lot of people share this strange conviction, particularly those who share my middle-class privilege. The evidence is all around us. It's in the commercials on television, which are almost as likely to make fun of themselves as they are to make a point. It's all over the Internet. And it has been an integral part of my generation's preferred cultural artifacts, from films to popular music to zines. Like many self-styled "literati," I've been paying a lot of attention lately to McSweeney's, a literary magazine that frequently makes irony serve as both form and content. The attitude of McSweeney's is exemplified in the first book by its mastermind Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: Based on a True Story, which maintains an ironic detachment even when recounting the nearly simultaneous deaths of its author's parents.

In the improbably long preface to the story itself, Eggers provides ironic commentary on his preference for ironic commentary:

While the author is self-conscious about being self-referential, he is also knowing about that self-conscious self-referentiality. Further, and if you're one of those people who can tell what's going to happen before it actually happens, you've predicted the next element here: he also plans to be clearly, obviously aware of his knowingness about his self-consciousness of self-referentiality. Further, he is fully cognizant, way ahead of you, in terms of knowing about and fully admitting the gimmickry inherent in all this, and will preempt your claim of the book's irrelevance due to said gimmickry by saying that the gimmickry is simply a device, a defense, to obscure the black, blinding, murderous rage and sorrow at the core of this whole story, which is both too black and blinding to look at.

For those of you out there — I hope not too many of you — who have spent long hours poring over the works of nineteenth-century German philosophers, the perversely convoluted prose in this passage will be familiar. The difference here, of course, is that Eggers is making fun of that prose style, even as he uses it to make a serious point.

I'm sure some of the book's readers, particularly older ones, are horrified by its seeming irreverence. But I found it strangely refreshing, largely because I recognized myself in its narrator's approach. For all of its potentially annoying artifice, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: Based on a True Story shows us that irony does not necessarily represent the death of human feeling. On the contrary, it demonstrates that irony may be the only way for some of us to express our feelings sincerely. Or, at least that's what I got out of the book, along with some heady laughs. It made me want to reconsider my own problem with sincerity. Why is it so hard for people like me to communicate our feelings directly? Does our compulsion to filter our experiences through ironic commentary indicate a failure of our human spirit? Or is it, rather, a sign that our spirit is surviving the only way it knows how?

square dancing cigarettes

I recently had an opportunity to ponder these questions more concretely. Music means a lot to me, not just because I love it, but because it helps me to contemplate how I love. A few months ago, I had dinner with a good friend before going to see a Wilco concert at the Fillmore. I was really looking forward to the show. It was to be my last concert before moving away from the San Francisco Bay Area. And I had consciously picked Wilco for my "last time." I'd only seen the band live once before, but their three albums had become an integral part of the soundtrack for my home life in the year and a half since my daughter was born. Skylar liked Wilco's music — and the music of band leader Jeff Tweedy's first band Uncle Tupelo — from the moment that she started understanding what music was. When you're primary caregiver for a baby, you frequently find yourself listening to the same album on auto-repeat for hours at a time, too busy or exhausted to select a new record. As a consequence, I became intimately familiar with the minutest details of Wilco's records, finding that, unlike lots of music, they continued to grow on me with each listen.

But Wilco remains something of a guilty pleasure. Despite the fact that I've been listening to music seriously for two decades, I still feel a little insecure around folks who confidently pronounce bands to be good or bad. So when I'm around my college radio friends, I usually restrict my conversation to those artists who are likely to meet with their approval. Because Wilco has always been on a major label and gets airtime on the radio stations that SUV-driving Baby Boomers prefer — KFOG in the Bay Area — the band suffers from a low hipness quotient. And so I talk about bands on independent labels like Kill Rock Stars, Thrill Jockey, and Merge, not only because I like them but because I'm not risking my friends' scorn in doing so.

There was a time in my life when I would publicly deny my affection for things I really love. At least I've outgrown that extreme form of insecurity. I will freely admit my affection for Wilco. But I still find it necessary to qualify my statement of devotion, making it clear that I recognize why my taste for the band may seem problematic. My standard defense goes something like this: "I know they play Wilco on KFOG, yet I can't help but like them. They appeal to my nostalgia for Jeffersonian rural life. Or southern rock of the 1970s. Which is the same thing, when you think about it." Yes, it makes me cringe too, when I put it down on paper like that. Unfortunately, my purpose here requires me to be painfully honest. I set out to write something positive about irony. But I can't do that in good conscience without acknowledging irony's ugly side. As the example above makes clear, irony is a refuge for the insecure.

We retreat into our irony cages when we feel threatened by our difference from other people. Finding out that you're not like everybody else is hard. Yet the hurt that accompanies this revelation decreases if that revelation stays private. So long as we do not see other people seeing us as "different," we can sustain the semblance of belonging. When I reveal my tastes under the sign of irony, I leave open the possibility that I'm not being serious, that I'm only pretending to have those tastes. If I sense that the people I'm talking to will accept my fondness for Wilco, World War II movies, or cheese soup, then I can gradually make it clear that I'm making a serious declaration of taste. On the other hand, if I don't sense that their acceptance is forthcoming, I can move on to another topic, knowing that I have, strictly speaking, told the truth. From this perspective, irony functions like those escape routes that governments devise for their leaders. It gives you an "out," but only when you need it.

square dancing cigarettes

I didn't ask anybody to go see Wilco with me, because I didn't want to worry about somebody else's taste. Sometimes I enjoy going to a show with a group of people, particularly when I merely like the act we're seeing. Then I don't worry so much about what the other members of our party are thinking. But if I love a band, I only want to go with people who also love it. And I couldn't think of anybody who would fit the bill for Wilco.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the friend I was having dinner with had become a big fan of the band's music. I learned this right after purchasing my ticket, only to discover that she would be going the night before I was. From a musical standpoint, her tastes diverge pretty sharply from my own. She tends to like bands precisely because they have attained mainstream popularity. And, unlike me, she seems to have few anxieties about the scrutiny of college radio fans. If anything, I would have thought that Wilco's music was a little too rough-edged for her sensibility. So it was interesting to talk to her about our affection for the band. She explained that she had started listening to a lot of rootsy rock and roll after breaking up with her partner. What she liked about Wilco was the band's implicit populism, the fact that you didn't need years of musical education to appreciate their songs. She particularly liked the words to their songs or, to be more exact, the way Jeff Tweedy sings them.

I agreed with her. Even on paper, the words are impressive. Although they don't hit you over the head with their brilliance, their modest beauty contrasts favorably with the lyrics of bands lauded for their intellect. But it's when those words are given voice that they really stand out. Tweedy's voice is not perfect. It hesitates, blurs, breaks. Yet it is in that very imperfection that it realizes the promise of his words. It makes its mark by missing it. As blasphemous as it may sound to an opera fan, his voice has the same quality that people hear in the voice of Maria Callas, a texture indissociable from the text it communicates, what the French literary critic Roland Barthes called the "grain of the voice."

The problem with this laudatory description is that it displays the same rough-edges as the voice it seeks to describe. I praise that "special something" that distinguishes Jeff Tweedy's voice from other voices, without actually being able to specify what that something is. I'm left with the same unsatisfying divide that confronts all true believers. You see the bleeding stone or you don't. You trust that the price of a stock corresponds to a corporation's "performance," or you don't. You hear it or you don't. And, as my own fears about revealing my fondness for Wilco imply, a lot of my acquaintances are deaf to what impresses me most about the band's songs.

square dancing cigarettes

These meditations on the "special something" in art that eludes description take me back a decade, to the time when I met my wife Kim. Shortly after we met, we realized that our different backgrounds presented problems as well as pleasure. Although we were hitting it off extremely well in bed, our less intimate moments were complicated by a sizable communication gap. As the child of white-collar professionals or, to be more precise, "science nerds," I had accumulated an impressive reservoir of random knowledge. But I didn't have a wide range of life experiences. And my social skills were limited. By contrast, my partner was the product of a troubled working-class household. Like her brothers before her, she had left home long before reaching the age of eighteen. Unlike her brothers, she had found a way to live rather successfully on the edge, eventually extricating herself from a sex-and-drugs underworld that most people, particularly women, never escape.

We needed to find common ground outside of the bedroom. Some of it we found simply by sharing our life stories. However more was needed. The result was a process of mutual education, rooted principally in the arts. We watched a ton of movies and talked about them afterwards. We went to art shows and talked about them afterwards. And we traveled around the San Francisco Bay Area, aestheticizing the landscape as we went. But it wasn't enough to merely experience culture as a couple. We also needed some common reference points for processing our experience. Our education project also had to include some reeducation. To put it bluntly, we both had some catching up to do.

This realization prompted us to give each other informal assignments. A month after we met, she invited me to spend Thanksgiving weekend with her. She rented a VCR in order to show me three films that were touchstones for her worldview: Sunset Boulevard, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and Night of the Living Dead. Around the same time, I made her a jogging tape comprised of my most treasured songs by The Cure. The night before I was to travel home for Christmas, she gave me Sam Shepard's micro-prose musings in The Motel Chronicles over a green chartreuse at Vesuvio's. I returned the favor with Rainer Maria Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and made her see Wings of Desire because it made me feel the same way that book did (although she loved the book and hated the film).

At one point, we even decided to form a "reading group." It only lasted one session. We met at a neutral location — Denny's in Pleasant Hill, of all places — in order to keep our minds on the task at hand. But it felt a little forced, so we opted for something less formal in the future. Nevertheless, we both recall the experience fondly. It represented an intellectual commitment to each other, which would prove crucial in our decision to become partners for life. The readings themselves provided a different sort of common ground for our conversations about culture. I assigned her Roland Barthes's piece "From Work to Text," because I wanted her to have a better understanding of the cultural theory I read for pleasure. And she assigned me Federico García Lorca's famous essay "Play and Theory of the Duende," so I would see where she had acquired her mode of evaluating art.

We had already had intense debates about the relative merit of art that is self-consciously intellectual. As my investment in irony implies, I have always had a soft spot for that kind of art. She had nothing against art that makes you think, but insisted that it should also make you feel. Abstract art was fine, provided that it wasn't deploying abstraction as way of sidestepping the intensity of lived experience. It had to have "duende." That's the word she would use, as we were standing in front of a painting or listening to a song. From her perspective, a lot of theory-minded art that I liked was lacking in this critical area.

Although I had a pretty good idea what she meant by this term even before she assigned me Lorca's essay, reading it proved instructive. Lorca makes it clear that the concept of "duende" stands in direct opposition to the critical language of the academy. It belongs, first and foremost, to the people who use it in their daily lives. And it derives much of its force from the fact that it is wildly, necessarily imprecise. Art has "duende" — the literal meaning of the word is "spirit" — or it doesn't. The determination is in the eye — or ear — of the beholder. But the term isn't completely subjective. The word resonates with enough folk wisdom to steer interpretation in a particular direction. It implies the presence of a dark power that the intellect can never fully comprehend:

These "black sounds" are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore, the fertile silt that gives us the very substance of art. "Black sounds," said that man of the people, concurring with Goethe, who defined the duende while speaking of Paganini: "A mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains." The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought.

Lorca takes pains to inform us that this noun is not something that can be reduced to a thing. It reflects not the deed, but the doer. It is not the dead artifact, but the life which speaks through it.

Reading Lorca's words split me in two. I responded instinctively to his description of art's power to move people. I had felt that power: through my headphones in the blackness of my bedroom, in the room full of Rembrants at the National Gallery of Art, and, most intensely of all, in the spoken word events I'd begun attending with Kim. I would watch Julia Vinograd, or David Lerner, or Kathleen Wood, or Kim herself perform their poetry and find myself transported out of my self-reflexive consciousness to a place where I could feel ideas before thinking them. Yet as much as Lorca's account of the "duende" spoke to my own experience of art, I also felt excluded by it. Although I could be transported by the art of others, I found it hard to transport myself. My mind was always on, sifting through my thoughts, measuring them, combining them with the detachment of a chemist conducting an experiment. The ironic commentary that rolled briskly off my tongue may have been a defense mechanism, but it was also more than that, a soundtrack to complement my endless reasoning, a record of what it felt like to be me. It's where I found my edge. But it seemed incompatible with the concept of "duende" as I understood it, born of the air and not the earth.

In the decade since I first read Lorca's essay, I have struggled mightily to ground my ironic consciousness. At first, my efforts were primarily reactive. I tried to limit my expressions of detachment, curbing the impulse to deploy irony at any cost. I was only partially successful. When Kim and I fought, I would inevitably retreat into the safety of my irony cage. I responded to her impassioned words with an icy reserve, conveying a sense of my own superiority that made her even madder. On those infrequent occasions when our arguments became really serious, I sometimes drove her to speechlessness, so emotionally overheated that she was unwilling or unable to communicate. And then I would continue to talk and talk and talk at her, refining my terse delivery to the point where every syllable sliced like a razor. It wasn't a pretty sight.

Nor is it today, on those rare occasions when we still go at it. Having a child to care for has made both of us hold more of our frustrations inside. But sometimes our tension gets the best of us. And when it does, I find myself falling back into my old habits. The irony in this is that my irony masks feelings as intense as Kim's. I'm no more rational than she is when I'm angry. But the detachment I project gives the impression of relative cool-headedness. The "duende" is there, but it gets remade, redirected, repressed.

To my own surprise, however, I have now established something of an irony-free zone in my everyday life. It corresponds to my role as a father. Although I'm perfectly capable of passing ironic commentary on the trials and tribulations of postmodern parenting, I avoid it in my interactions with Skylar. Big deal, you say. It's not like she would understand irony anyway. That's true enough. But irony is so inextricably bound up with my sense of self that I still marvel at my ability to leave it behind in my role as a father. I have never felt even the slightest bit of self-consciousness while showing Skylar that I love her. I hug. I kiss. I'm 100% sincere in both word and deed. It may not have anything to do with the "duende" Lorca had in mind, but I finally feel a connection to the "fertile silt that gives us the substance of art." I'm at one with my spirit.

square dancing cigarettes

Wilco has "duende." Do you see how effectively that one word captures that quality that can't be translated into quantity, the one that only shows up on paper when you read between the lines? That's what I really wanted to tell my friend when we were talking about the band. But we didn't share the necessary language. I particularly regretted this when I met her for dinner before the Wilco show. I asked for her evaluation of the previous night's performance. She had been thoroughly disappointed. In place of the populist revival she had been expecting, she witnessed a show in which Wilco seemed to be going out of its way to reinforce the division between performer and audience. On top of that, she had been surrounded by Dockers-wearing ex-frat boys who seemed to like the band for its musical conservatism only. "And I could have sworn Jeff Tweedy was on heroin," she added.

Because my friend's musical tastes frequently diverge sharply from my own, I did not take her negative review as hard as I otherwise might have. But I did probe her for more details. What took the place of the populism she had wanted to see? Without abandoning her earlier assessment of Jeff Tweedy's performance, she ventured a more complex answer. She felt like the band had been content to show off its rock star moves. Instead of deconstructing the distinction between producer and consumer, they had insisted on maintaining it.

The one time when I had seen the band perform, I had noticed something similar. Except I had given it a positive reading. It seemed like Wilco's way of dealing with the fact that their music is relatively conservative, palatable to people who have refused to keep pace with the times. Clearly, much of the band's success depends on those people, the ones who listen to stations like KFOG. But its members have more adventurous taste. Before Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar started reinventing country rock in Uncle Tupelo, they bonded over a shared affection for punk rock. Watching the members of Wilco strut their stuff on stage, I had the risqué but strangely appropriate thought that they were in the position of T.S. Eliot, indebted to tradition, but trying to make something that feels new. Eliot didn't want to mimic the poetry of John Donne or Andrew Marvell, but to use it as the inspiration for a self-consciously modern style. And Wilco didn't want to seem like some neighborhood bar band, cranking out Eagles covers. The way I saw it, they weren't just going through the motions of a "traditional" rock and roll band, but exaggerating them. In short, they were providing an ironic commentary on their own position in the musical firmament.

When I told my friend this, she seemed dubious. As she put it, even if Wilco's performance had been deliberately ironic, it would still have represented an attempt to divide the band from its audience. "But what about those ex-Frat Boys?" I asked her, "doesn't it make sense that the band would want to keep its distance from them?" She refused to take the bait. Clearly, her own discomfort at being surrounded by khaki-clad investment bankers getting ploughed on pseudo microbrews was not strong enough for her to let Wilco off the hook. In her eyes, they had betrayed the spirit of their records.

As it turns out, I had a hard time enjoying the concert later that night. Unwilling to push my way to the front, I too found myself surrounded by the sort of people who fill bad sports bars, too pleased with themselves to pay much attention to the music. These chiseled men talked and talked and talked to one another, while their female companions stared blankly into the distressingly weed-free air. It took several beers and much moving around before I was able to secure a spot that made the concert pleasurable. From that moment on, I was finally able to bliss out in the manner I'd envisioned. But it had taken a long time to get there. In the meantime, I had taken solace in the idea that the band shared my revulsion at the anti-fans in the back of the crowd.

square dancing cigarettes

I wonder how much truth there is in my assessment of Wilco's live shows. Maybe they just act like rock stars because it's a lot easier than acting like ordinary people. Because I teach, I realize how hard it is to be on stage. When I first started, I was acutely aware of feeling exposed, a target for everybody's thoughts. Over time, I learned to combat my anxiety by fashioning a teaching persona. I became theatrical. Not surprisingly, my primary tool for this transformation was irony. I mastered a deadpan delivery that makes it possible for me to move seamlessly from a serious point to a humorous aside. And I became increasingly proficient at bending my words back on themselves, burdening them with double and triple meanings. Sometimes, particularly at the beginning of the semester, my students would be baffled by my approach. Yet most of them soon figured out how to read me, paying close attention lest they miss one of my choice rhetorical sallies.

Did this metamorphosis make me a better teacher? To the extent that it calmed my nerves, the answer would have to be yes. I like to think that my deployment of irony does more than that, helping students to become self-reflexive about their own situation in the classroom. But I worry that my ironic pedagogy might also have unintended side effects, such as making students see their education as nothing more than a game. The large, bureaucratic institutions that disseminate knowledge have different priorities than the teachers they employ. Frequently, what matters to those teachers is not what matters to the institution. However that does not mean that the whole educational process is a waste of time. Learning happens, in spite of all the roadblocks it must contend with. While I think it is healthy for students to see that their frustration with school does not necessarily reflect a failure on their part, I don't want them to stop taking their schooling seriously.

My teaching has to have "duende." If it does, my students will perceive my irony as a means and not an end. They will feel the love that motivates me to keep doing something that pays a lot less than it should. The key word here is "love." When I'm making bad use of irony, as I still tend to do in arguments, I convey only anger and fear. Although love lies beyond both of those emotions, it requires tremendous patience to perceive it. And, unfortunately, that sort of patience is increasingly hard to come by in this fast-paced age. Irony need not imply an absence of spirit. But if the spirit of irony is to be revealed, the ironist has to leave the safety of his cage from time to time, the way I just did.

Charlie Bertsch teaches at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He'd love to hear your reaction to this piece. And he would love to have seen the San Francisco Giants make it to the World Series. But the sporting world has let him down again. His next fantasy: watching the men's basketball team at his alma mater Cal defeat the Arizona Wildcats.

Copyright © 2000 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.