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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Today: rain. Cool air, gray overcast, and rain on the homebound rush-hour traffic as I type this.

I've just opened a book that arrived in today's mail: Irony by Claire Colebrook. Very good-condition compact paperback from a used-book seller in Pennsylvania. I've entered the data in by Book Inventory in Excel.

I'm trying to remember now what triggered the decision to make this purchase. Someone was talking about irony somewhere--but where? Where, where, where. Was it me? Trying to explain it to someone--like Kimmie? And realizing there's more to it?

I forget. But I've long wanted to educate myself more on this important concept, and Claire Colebrook's book looks just the thing. Irony seems to be one of the main products of the intellectual industry called postmodernism. Since about the 1950s irony has been the flavor of every month, and sincerity in art has been mocked, ridiculed, or declared impossible. Everything's ironic. An artist who deliberately tried to say what he appeared to be saying would be thought naive, retrograde, fascist, or just plain dumb.

That anyway is my impression. It reminds me of the faux wordliness of the adolescent: someone who wants to appear more experienced than he or she is, so affects an attitude of knowingness and boredom.

But it is only that: an attitude, a pose. The ironic pose of the postmodernist is merely an intellectual fashion, one, I hope, that is in its last throes if it is not gone already. It might not be gone, just because, I believe, postmodernism is a syndrome of the Waste Land: the lifeless spiritual landscape of the contemporary world. A picture of the landscape by Joseph Campbell in his Creative Mythology:

In Christian Europe, already in the twelfth century, beliefs no longer universally held were universally enforced. The result was a dissociation of professed from actual existence and that consequent spiritual disaster which, in the imagery of the Grail legend, is symbolized in the Waste Land theme: a landscape of spiritual death, a world waiting, waiting--"Waiting for Godot!"--for the Desired Knight, who would restore its integrity to life and let stream again from infinite depths the lost, forgotten, living waters of the inexhaustible source.

Campbell summarizes the Waste Land as the spiritual location of one for whom there is no divinity either within or without. An aggregate of meaningless but nonetheless sentient atoms--oneself--treads a moonscape of other meaningless but nonsentient atoms. Whence come the atoms? Whence comes the sentience? No one knows. The cool water of such knowledge is nowhere to be found, its very flavor forgotten. From T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land:

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock

As the mind of 20th-century man shriveled from all far-reaching explanations and myths, it turned to postmodernism as a substitute: caressing the dry lifeless husks of ideas known to be unoriginal and useless.

Further in Creative Mythology, this summary by the American thinker John Dewey (1859-1952):

The shock and uncertainty so characteristic of the present marks the discovery that the older ideals themselves are undermined. Instead of science and technology giving us better means for bringing them to pass, they are shaking our confidence in all large and comprehensive beliefs and purposes.

It is psychologically natural that the outcome should be a collapse of faith in all fundamental organizing and directive ideas. Skepticism becomes the mark and even the pose of the educated mind. It is the more influential because it is no longer directed against this and that article of the older creeds but is rather a bias against any kind of far-reaching ideas, and a denial of systematic participation on the part of such ideas in the intelligent direction of affairs.

"Skepticism becomes the mark and even the pose of the educated mind." Those words were published in 1931. Postmodernism had already made a beachhead in the contemporary mind. But according to Campbell, the West had already started its descent into the Waste Land by the 12th century.

From the flap blurb of Claire Colebrook's book:

Irony is both a figure of speech--saying one thing and meaning another--and an attitude to existence, in which the ironic subject adopts a position of skepticism and mistrust in relation to everyday language.

There it is. It's a pose, but like the adolescent's pose, it's taken because people don't know what else to do. They're trying to find out what it feels like to be mature, to have genuine knowledge.

Well. At one level, irony is simply a figure of speech, and a tool of my trade. I look forward to knowing more about it. But I don't plan on striking any poses based on it.


  • Somehow, for some reason, I doubt that beliefs were ever, ever "universally held." Am inclined to think that claim is a historical deceit.

    By Blogger Bernita, at August 31, 2005 5:31 AM  

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