David Foster Wallace on the Limits of Irony

GROSS: Yeah, well, I think it’s – I think it’s just, like, very perceptive of you to put your finger on the limitations of, like, the need for irony but at the same time, the limitations of irony.

WALLACE: Irony, as far as I could see – and, you know, you can take college courses for three years on just what irony is, so there’s something – I guess I’m going to assume that everybody kind of knows – when David Letterman comes out and draws himself up to his full height and says what a fine crows, you know, echoing the Arthur Godfrey of decades past, that’s the kind of thing that I mean. Irony and sarcasm and all that stuff are fantastic for exploding hypocrisy and exposing what’s wrong in extent values. As far as I can see, they’re notably less good at erecting replacement values or coming any closer to the truth. And the thing about it is they’re a terrific tool and they were used really well. We’re just still using it, it seems to me, as a culture, 35, 40 years after it really had some use.nd the thing about it is they’re a terrific tool and they were used really well. We’re just still using it, it seems to me, as a culture, 35, 40 years after it really had some use.

Fresh Air interview, 1997.

Almost 20 years after this interview, it seems to me that DFW is even more right about irony and its exhausted limitations today.

“We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth…”

1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.

2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

-The first two paragraphs from Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home by Pope Francis. I waited for the the hard copy to be published, but you can find the entire encyclical letter online.

“…we avoid labels and try to bury our emotions.”

But now, more than three years after our first kiss and more than a year after our first time, I’m still not over the possibility of him, the possibility of us. And he has no idea.

I’m told my generation will be remembered for our callous commitments and rudimentary romances. We hook up. We sext. We swipe right.

All the while, we avoid labels and try to bury our emotions. We aren’t supposed to want anything serious; not now, anyway. But a void is created when we refrain from telling it like it is, from allowing ourselves to feel how we feel. And in that unoccupied space, we’re dangerously free to create our own realities.

Jordana Narin. “No Labels, No Drama, Right?” The New York Times, May 2015.

“…we will be sitting on a powder keg all summer.”

James Baldwin’s report on the “occupied territory” of Harlem in 1966 came to mind tonight as I read the reports from Baltimore.

The children, having seen the spectacular defeat of their fathers—having seen what happens to any bad nigger and, still more, what happens to the good ones—cannot listen to their fathers and certainly will not listen to the society which is responsible for their orphaned condition. What to do in the face of this deep and dangerous estrangement? It seemed to me—I would say, sipping coffee and trying to be calm—that the principle of what had to be done was extremely simple; but before anything could be done, the principle had to be grasped. The principle on which one had to operate was that the government which can force me to pay my taxes and force me to fight in its defense anywhere in the world does not have the authority to say that it cannot protect my right to vote or my right to earn a living or my right to live anywhere I choose. Furthermore, no nation, wishing to call itself free, can possibly survive so massive a defection. What to do? Well, there is a real estate lobby in Albany, for example, and this lobby, which was able to rebuild all of New York, downtown, and for money, in less than twenty years, is also responsible for Harlem and the condition of the people there, and the condition of the schools there, and the future of the children there. What to do? Why is it not possible to attack the power of this lobby? Are their profits more important than the health of our children? What to do? Are textbooks printed in order to teach children, or are the contents of these textbooks to be controlled by the Southern oligarchy and the commercial health of publishing houses? What to do? Why are Negroes and Puerto Ricans virtually the only people pushing trucks in the garment center, and what union has the right to trap and victimize Negroes and Puerto Ricans in this way? None of these things (I would say) could possibly be done without the consent, in fact, of the government, and we in Harlem know this even if some of you profess not to know how such a hideous state of affairs came about. If some of these things are not begun—I would say—then, of course, we will be sitting on a powder keg all summer. Of course, the powder keg may blow up; it will be a miracle if it doesn’t.

“What we believe on the inside can never be removed from what we do on the outside.”

Yesterday evening I attended a poster show hosted by Iraq Veterans Against the War. I went with a friend who is a veteran and who has worked with this group for a long time. The posters were well done but this particular one caught my eye.

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Close-up of a poster from a show hosted by Iraq Veterans Against the War.

A portion at the bottom of the poster read:

Joshua was trained as an Aribic translator and worked as an interrogator at Abu Grahib prison from June 2004 to January 2005. During an interrogation in Abu Grahib, a 22-year old self proclaimed jihadist suggested that Casteel was not following his own Christian faith. “He said I wasn’t fulfilling the call to turn the other cheek, to love one’s enemies. When posed with that kind of challenge, I had nothing I could say to him. I absolutely agreed with him. My position as a U.S. Army interrogator contradicted my calling simply as a Christian.”

Joshua Casteel died from lung cancer a few years ago, likely from his exposure to chemicals at burn sites during the war. I am grateful for his costly witness to Jesus.

“The bonus of being white in Ferguson…”

The bonus of being white in Ferguson meant nigh-immunity from plunder. The bane of being black in Ferguson meant nigh-inevitable subjugation under plunder. Plunder is neither abstract nor theoretical. Plunder injures, maims, and destroys. Indeed the very same people who were calling on protestors to remain nonviolent were, every hour, partner to brutality committed under the color of law.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Justice Department’s investigation in Ferguson.

“…the invisible nimbus of utter gratuity.”

I may be speaking of something that escapes exact definition here, but it seems to me that the special delight experienced in the encounter with beauty is an immediate sense of the utterly unnecessary thereness, so to speak, of a thing, the simple gratuity with which it shows itself, or (better) gives itself. Apart from this, even the most perfectly executed work of art would be only a display of artisanal proficiency or of pure technique, exciting our admiration but not that strange rapture that marks the most intense of aesthetic experiences. What transforms the merely accomplished into the revelatory is the invisible nimbus of utter gratuity. Rather than commanding our attention with the force of necessity, or oppressing us with with the triteness of something inevitable, or recommending itself to us by its utility or its purposiveness, the beautiful presents itself to us as an entirely unwarranted, unnecessary, and yet marvelously fitting gift.

David Bentely Hart, The Experience of God.

The goodness of beauty lies in its unnecessariness. Now there’s a lovely and deep though worth considering.