By Chris McCaffery
He has the repose of a mind which lives in itself, while it lives in the world, and which has resources for its happiness at home when it cannot go abroad. He has a gift which serves him in public, and supports him in retirement, without which good fortune is but vulgar, and with which failure and disappointment have a charm.
—John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University.
I want to give an account of what irony is because of its prideful place at the heart of so much contemporary living. My claim has been that life in the world today seems to require an abstract way of interacting with society, full of demagoguery, adverts, and an overriding moral norm that is only “the general demand to consume production and therefore to work for the privilege of consuming”. Irony allows her hipster patrons to keep in mind the real virtues of human life, paradoxically, without needing to know what they are, win the culture war, or risk becoming another demagogue, fad, or ad campaign. It is irony’s nature to shun these things.
In the third reflection, I simply want to point out the intimate role that education must play in helping us navigating this complex problem. I don’t intend to go on about liberal education as such, a topic about which we have a near-endless supply of editorials, lectures, classes, and essays in The Hillsdale Forum. I merely wish to clarify what it means for us to have been liberally educated, and how the drama that I have outlined between the life of the mass man and the ironist can inform the way we interact with society and culture today. For Hillsdale students, understanding this tension of embrace and rejection is the real, practical benefit of an education “which makes men free”. We, having been so often among the great “democracy of the dead” who have taught us what is, must live among a rather more tyrannical democracy of the living, without rejecting them, without embracing them, without finding ourselves adrift either way.
Through all of the preceding reflections on irony and contemporary culture, the stance we take towards the world has been central to my argument. The first model is the uncritical but unrestful, unfulfilled bourgeois, the man Barthelme’s ironist lashes out at in his rented chalet overflowing with play equipment. In him we have what José Ortega y Gasset identified as “the mass man,” easily manipulated by the abstractions of ideology into conformity with external interests. We can see the mass man in the constant appeals to national political bodies to solve or resolve issues as diverse as poverty, racial discrimination, labor rights, and healthcare. The mass man wants freedom and security above all other goods, because they are what allow him to live an impulsive life detached from the responsibilities of religion, community, and economy. In a certain sense, the more the state can give him, the freer he is, because he does not rely on anything but the faceless, impersonal laws of the state for his life of empty convenience. This does not, however, create true freedom to live a good life arranged around some values; rather, it simply makes one more and more a slave to the rule of the stronger, easily manipulated by ideologies and a baseless mass culture.
His opposite is the ironist who, by the way of negation, removes himself from the typical world of mass culture in order to seek authenticity, creating the space outside of “the striking degree of boredom” he fears, a space where the moment might become “real” because it is no longer taken at face value. He finds his freedom in negating all those things through which the mass man mistakenly attempted to find his own freedom. But, as I noted in Part Two, the space creating the potential for something more authentic remains essentially empty, trading one kind of vacuum for another. It is purely a negative liberty, created by criticizing and undermining whatever seems obviously false, because so many peers are unreflective travellers with consumerism. From the perspective of the institutional voice in Barthelme, “He has given away his gaiety, and now has nothing.” Nothing, yes, but as the foregoing argument has it, a nothing like the “nothing” of G.K. Chesterton’s open mind, which has as its object “to shut again on something solid.” There remains only a little more to be said on the topic of shutting our minds—of, as I indicated, “teaching the ironist to live with his irony.”
It is obvious what is necessary: a “third way” that can harness the initial ironic flight from the “world” as it presents itself in the “worldly asceticism” of contemporary society while denying it the final word on this relationship. What unites both the empty existence offered in mass society and the ironism of the hipster is their disconnectedness. They are unsatisfying because in different ways they attempt to find happiness in an ultimately solipsistic mode. The first, what Kerouac called “middleclass non-identity,” pursues what is desired simply because it is desired in uncritical acceptance of “the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming.” The second escapes by finding nothing of value left to pursue besides the escape itself. Both privilege their own mindset over the actual world they encounter (or fail to).
Over both of these paths I hold what Josef Pieper identifies as the ability “to celebrate a feast in a truly festive fashion.” The “true existential lack” of this ability results in the “destitute times” of contemporary America: “To do just this requires, as everybody knows, that the reality of our life and our world be first wholeheartedly accepted and that this acceptance, then, on special occasions, be expressed and lived out in exceptional ritual: this indeed is what it means to ‘celebrate a feast’!” This is just what the bourgeois and the ironist lack. Pieper moves the reflections on culture from the abstract question of for-or-against the world to that relationship’s definite height, the “true riches” of human existence that it is ours to affirm if we desire to escape the hold of what Friedrich Hölderlin called our “barren times.”
The question seems to be decided in favor of the world and its riches, indeed in favor of the play equipment of the bourgeois that has on the face of it a more festive face than the dour sarcasm and eye rolls of the ironist who has “given away his gaiety.” In fact, we all know that most destructive thing about sarcasm is the inability to celebrate anything! But we shouldn’t be so quick in this judgment. After all, it was the first point of this essay to show the way in which irony allows for greater, more genuine and fulfilling celebration of human riches than the culture of simulacra it rejects. We only need to think of Socrates, the man who seemed to live to put everything to the grindstone of questioning, but who said that the philosophical life he pursued would allow the soul to “enjoy its own pleasures, the best pleasures, and to the greatest possible extent, the truest pleasures.” We’ll need to hold both pieces together, bind our ironic rejection to the real good of life in order to achieve this celebration, and the only way to learn to do that is through a liberal education, which, as Dr. David Whalen often insists, is pursued as a training in recognizing reality for what it is.
What is true of art, as discussed in Part Two, is true of all our studies, insofar as in submitting to them we transform our vision into a tool of penetration, able to order the things around us and put them in their proper relation to the whole. Pieper accuses modern man of losing “the ability to see”: “We do not mean here, of course, the physiological sensitivity of the human eye. We mean the spiritual capacity to perceive the visible reality as it truly is.” D.C. Schindler concurrently complains that “it is no doubt the case that the almost maniacal multiplication of images in the technological explosion of the twentieth century has done nothing to nourish the imagination, but instead has fed it with unwholesome food.” On different paths, these diagnoses arrive at the same prescription for our blindness: a restoration of the ideas of reality and truth that will allow “a deeper and more receptive vision, a more intense awareness, a sharper and more discerning understanding, a more patient openness for all things quiet and inconspicuous, an eye for things previously overlooked.”
The attention to reality that orders our studies is the only real point of contact between acceptance and rejection, between the mass man and the ironist. The only “third way” is that of the life educated in living concretely in the world. The life that, because it has been trained to care for and trained to recognize reality beyond the obvious, knows from its training which things to reject and which to cling to without making either technique the only law of life. This represents the enduring value of an education in reality: as Newman put it, the liberally educated man “is at home in any society, he has common ground with every class; he knows when to speak and when to be silent.” If we believe this, we should believe it of our own society too, and have faith that our education trains us in seeing when to speak, and when to be silent; when to love, and when to scorn; when to embrace, and when to flee from those simulacra only disguising themselves for the reality we have grown to love.
Chris McCaffery is a senior studying English. He is a member of the Dow Journalism Program.