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Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


Thoughts on Irony and Sincerity

I am an ironic person. I've been resorting to sarcasm and dry humour ever since I can remember. I suspect it has something to do with my having always been the shortest and least athletic boy in elementary school- one learns certain methods of equalizing one's circumstances. That includes making insults. I suppose I discovered at some point that I could insult some people with sarcastic remarks and they wouldn't pick them up. Which precluded them from retaliating, as one must be aware of the strike to retaliate.

In being ironic and sarcastic, I am quite in conjunction with contemporary culture. One needn't look far to find the sense that for many, there is nothing left to do in the postmodern world but make fun of things and go around being ironic and self-referential. This comes perhaps as a defensive reflex in the face of a world that ceases to possess meaning or value. If the world is without actual meaning or value then the natural reaction is one of loss and emptiness. As a defense we make fun of the meaningless world in all its manifestations- many of which are admittedly very easy to make fun of. But in order to shield ourselves from the entirety of the world we must launch sarcastic assaults on everthing, from birth to death to everything and everyone in between. Hence the proliferation of endlessly sarcastic and ironic culture and art.

And so we go on using irony and sarcasm as a sort of defensive measure, a 'coping' device, whether in the face of personal setbacks and struggles or a breakdown of worldview (or all of the above together). Which is perfectly understandable. The problematic bit comes in when we are reduced to nothing buy making fun of things, when sincerity is completely stripped and the world becomes a house of mirrors of ironic discourse on one item after another, with no base of meaning or value in sight. I don't go quite that far, but I find myself indulging in sarcasm when it's not appropriate- and again, often as way of getting in insults.

So what is the place of sarcasm and irony? Well, one of the first things to be noted is the place of irony and dry humour in the Bible. It's all over the place, from St. Paul telling some of his oppononents to go castrate themselves to the abundance of dryly humoured puns in the Old Testament. We may extract the virtue of irony, sarcasm, satire and such here: they are best used on the offensive, not the defensive. Evil should be mocked- laugh at the devil, said Martin Luther. But in order for irony and such to be virtuous and truly effective, they must have something behind them. They must have a solidly placed sincerity, grounded in meaning and value.

There are signs of hope, of return to sincerity, in contemporary culture and art. The recently-released indie film Little Miss Sunshine, for example, while quite funny and laced with plenty of irony and satire, is remarkably sincere at heart. The film deals with a dysfunctional family, which is a classic send-up for sarcasm and satire. Yet in the end the family is affirmed and retains a sincere core, even managing to ask- and refrain from subsequently lampooning- serious questions about life and meaning.

The- sort of- resurgence in interest in folk music, bluegrass, and that sort of thing, is, I think, another manifestation of a desire to return to sincerity. The increased popularity of indie folk-pop musician Sufjan Stevens, among many, is evidence of a desire for art that has meaning and refuses to simply deliver endless sendups of life and being. Sufjan's ongoing project to record albums for all fifty states is a good example. There is something ironic in talking about recording that many albums, and there is irony and self-referential material in Sufjan, but the core is sincerity, particular in the material concerning the states he's covered so far. Instead of mocking rural places or decaying cities or suburbs his music seeks to draw out the meaning and beauty in those things- not tear them apart for entertainment value.

I could relate other examples in various aspects of art and culture: not necesarily 'mainstream' culture, as defined by what gets played on cable and (most) radio, but what is out there and being listened to, read, and viewed, by at least some people in contemporary culture. Those of us who look upon the (seemingly) prevailing currents of culture should not lose hope; nor should we ourselves retreat behind the same sorts of barriers- which is something I struggle with. St. Augustine said many centuries ago, 'You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.' This remains true: people sense behind their claims of emptiness and endless mirrors the existence of something or maybe even Someone. It is the job of those who know that Someone to provide sincere and authentic expressions of Him to culture. And in so doing there is nothing wrong with the careful, offensive use of irony and satire, so long as it has grounding in sincerity and meaning.


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