BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 13 AUG 14
Featured in
Issue 165


In defence of irony

BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 13 AUG 14

Nayland Blake and Lynne Tillman, Stop me if you’ve heard this one before ..., 2013. Courtesy: the artists, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, and Rockypoint Press, Los Angeles

Now it’s ‘the bump’ – the pregnancy bump that film stars show off, the bump in public opinion that shows in the polls. Not the corpse on the floor like a bump in the rug, or those nasty things that go bump in the night.

I was musing about this word’s prevalence when I walked past a poster for Mel Bochner’s exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York: ‘Blah Blah Blah ...’ The handwritten words covered the poster. Cynicism has its place. Tragic civil wars, religious and ethnic terrorism, moronic politicians and news of corruption so ordinary that eyebrows scarcely lift – or Botox has fixed them in place. Even optimists feel beaten down. Few look askance, and there’s no emoticon for it.

Hope can feel hopeless. I tend toward a pragmatic optimism, believing things can get worse, that people’s incomprehensible acts will continue, and likely become more cruel. The optimist in me says: still, we’re nothing compared to Heliogabalus, the outrageously sadistic third-century Roman emperor.

My definition of a jaded person is one who lives at a sophisticated distance from joy. I see the jaded at clubs and bars, drink in hand, leaning against the wall. They tug at their hair, grimacing or prettily sulking, and masochists flock to them. Though detached, many have narcissistic tendencies and need others’ attachment. The effective narcissist knows how to turn on the charm and attract new admirers, fresh blood, to hear their self-reports.

Art follows, imitates and shapes life, and vice versa. So, vampirism rules the waves, TV, internet, movies, bestseller lists. A certain neediness is creeping like ground cover. Now that protease inhibitors have turned AIDS into a chronic illness, not a death sentence (for those who can afford the cocktail), blood sucking looks sexy. Give me your life, please. Heroin, a vampirish drug, has made a comeback in the US, at least on the East Coast. High schoolers – future chemists? – had been crushing over-the-counter pills into killer mixes; now, new laws mean pharmacies don’t shelve them; so they can’t.

Heroin, cheap and plentiful, has taken up the slack. Meth, apparently, still rules the heartlands, where people like to do their own cooking; but New Yorkers eat out a lot. It’s a city that will eat anything once.

A novel fast food is the one- or two-meatball plate served through a trendy hole in the wall. On the street, hundreds of legal food trucks even sell vegan fare. Food vendors once were looked upon warily; now, they add variety to a hungry-for-anything city. Europeans regularly complain that the portions here are too big (they are), yet everyone is on some kind of a diet. (Gluten-free is very popular.) The very best restaurants serve much smaller portions, sometimes minuscule, though always designed beautifully on a large plate. The only reason New Yorkers are, on average, six pounds lighter than the rest of the country is that they walk – to work, school and up and down many subway stairs at least twice a day. An irresistible T-shirt reads: ‘Welcome to NYC. Walk Faster.’ That can’t be said in any other US city.

Medicinal marijuana has become legal in several states, and more are opening that door. A stoned US populace will arise soon. Happily, marijuana users are not generally bellicose, but slower and sometimes dopier, often giving to binge eating ‘munchies’. US roads will become crazier as drivers roar with laughter while shoving food down their throats. And sending texts such as: ‘I’m driving.’ CRASH. BOOM. This must be the reason robot-driven cars will soon be on the market. It’s that yin-yang magic of capitalism.

I’m not a cynic. I prefer irony, which depends on the ability to hold contradictory ideas, which probably springs from ambivalence. People confuse and conflate irony with insincerity and dishonesty; they believe an ironist isn’t serious. But saying the opposite of what is meant allows for at least two meanings to fly. Irony couples and uncouples statements, while revealing the hidden agendas of language and its conventions.

Still, defending irony is self-defeating and oxymoronic. To mount an attack on anti-ironists would deny me the pleasure of pointing without being pointed. Earnestness does have its place. (President Obama’s new press secretary is named Earnest.) But to be earnest treads the line of righteousness and, worse, self-righteousness. It is often said of an earnest speaker that he or she means well. ‘Meaning well’ implies the speaker has used platitudes. Irony refuses platitudes, and hopes to undo them.

I fear the earnest for they can, under the cover of sincerity, be relentless and heartless. ‘It’s all good,’ people will say here, after a disaster, to demonstrate their spirit and resolve. Really? I think. Really? It’s all good. I’m never more serious than when I’m ironic.

Lynne Tillman is a writer. Her most recent title is Mothercare (Soft Skull Press, 2022). In 2025, Soft Skull Press is publishing a book of her selected stories titled Thrilled to Death.