Classical Literature as an Antidote to Modern Thought
When the movie Les Misérables came out last year, my wife and I went to see it with several of our adult children, none of whom are fans of musicals. I don’t know how this happened.
My daughter was the only one who would even consent to sit down and watch The Sound of Music with me. But their reaction to Les Misérables was interesting: There they were, sitting there, loving the movie. In fact, one of my sons declared that it was one of the best movies he had ever seen.
Somewhere in their youth or childhood, I must have done something well.
In the case of Les Misérables, I expected that my children would be the movie’s harshest critics. But they weren’t. The harshest critics, as it turned out, were the critics.
Although my children gave the movie a thumbs up, many highbrow reviewers didn’t like it at all. Not one bit.
A week or so after the movie came out, Stanley Fish, on his blog at The New York Times, reacted to the hostility of many of these reviewers by going and seeing the movie himself—twice: “The first time I liked it,” he said. “The second time I loved it.”
So what was the problem with the critics? Fish said he found his answer in an interview with Les Mis director Tom Hooper in USA Today. “The time we live in,” said Hooper, “is a postmodern age where a certain amount of irony is expected. This film is made without irony.”
Fish goes on to explain what irony does:
Irony is a stance of distance that pays a compliment to both its producer and consumer. The ironist knows what other, more naïve, observers do not: that surfaces are deceptive, that the real story is not what presents itself, that conventional pieties are sentimental fictions.
The artist who deploys irony tests the sophistication of his audience and divides it into two parts, those in the know and those who live in a fool’s paradise. Irony creates a privileged vantage point from which you can frame and stand aloof from a world you are too savvy to take at face value. Irony is the essence of the critical attitude, of the observer’s cool gaze; every reviewer who is not just a bourgeois cheerleader (and no reviewer will admit to being that) is an ironist.
This explains not just why critics didn’t like particular movies, but why so much of modern art, particularly film and literature, are the way they are and why we react to them the way we do.
The irony that Fish alludes to is a form of cynicism—and of arrogance. Critics are guilty of it, but we—not just critics and authors and filmmakers, but we the audience—respond to it. It is the attitude by which we both make and view narrative art today. We are invited by the director or author to deconstruct a story and its characters, to tear them down, to subvert them—an invitation to which we readily respond.
I have long wondered why my students are at first put off by older literature in which the conflict involves a morally upright hero and in which the conflict is extrinsic—between the hero and some evil force or person (rather than the intrinsic psychological dramas of today). It is not as if they have never come across such a tale. They have read plenty of children’s stories in their time.
The problem is that, while they will read them, their inclination is not to believe them. They consider them idealistic. These works don’t seem to speak to life as it really is. Students bring a cynical attitude toward what we have them read. They are not critics (at least not yet), but they are full-fledged ironists.
We are trained to be this way by the culture around us. If you look at modern film and our entertainment culture in general, you see irony everywhere.
One recent evening, I turned on the television and landed on a channel that was playing The Lone Ranger. I had not seen it in the theater, so here was my chance.
Being in my mid-50s now, I am of the generation that saw my share of reruns of the original television show. So I was curious as to what Hollywood would do with it (or to it).
In the old television show, the Lone Ranger was a serious character, as was Tonto, his Indian companion. They were strong and good and they fought the bad guys, who were not good and definitely not as strong (partly, as it used to be thought, because they were not good). It was a serious show: There was a moral earnestness to it that characterized most of the shows on television and at the movie theaters of that time. When it came to chasing and capturing the bad guys, there wasn’t any joking around.
I imagine that if I watched the show today, I would find it fairly shallow and boring.
The movie, I found, was very different. There was the pretension of good—the evil railroad owner was desecrating Indian land (not to mention just being an all-around jerk) and the Lone Ranger and Tonto were trying to foil his plans—but at the same time neither character was a traditional hero.
Unlike the old television series, Tonto was the real leader and he basically had to drag the less-than-enthusiastic Lone Ranger (who was portrayed as something of a wimp) along with him on his quest. In addition, Tonto provided the comic relief. Much of his dialogue consisted of wisecracks. Neither of them were what we would call role models. The Lone Ranger was not a drama. The good guys had become comic figures. The movie was far more interesting and entertaining than the television show, I have to admit. And yet I didn’t like it very much. It had other kinds of problems that any mediocre movie has, but there was something else about it that bothered me.
What I realized after I thought about it a bit was that it too had been ironized. In fact, the very purpose of the movie was clearly to take the original idea of the show, which had a kind of nobility, and to deconstruct it. At almost every point, the movie is a complete inversion of the original.
In the TV series, you never knew who the Lone Ranger really was, but in the movie, we are allowed to see behind the mask, and behind the mask is no hero at all, but a figure mostly comic.
This impulse to unmask the conventional is all over our culture. It affects our sports and entertainment media, as well as the news.
Gone are the days when Mickey Mantle could come to the plate stone drunk and have no one know about it but the other players—and the sportswriters, who kept it a secret. (Mantle admitted to it later on, saying he would see three balls coming at him. “I just hit the middle one,” he said.)
And how many times have we seen the media swarm around a movie star or famous musician who has fallen from grace and who is then the subject of about a week’s worth of coverage on CNN, whose producers are well aware of our lust to know what these people are really like underneath all that makeup and pretension? What a comfort it is to the rest of us to know that they’re really no better than we are.
One recent event was a telling measure of how far irony has taken root in our public discourse. When David Letterman recently retired from NBC’s The Late Show, he was replaced by Stephen Colbert. Letterman was a more straightforward comedian, but Colbert is an arch-ironist.
Colbert’s show, The Colbert Report, differs from The Late Show in that it is almost pure satire. Colbert does not play himself as host of his show … or does he? So wedded is his character to himself in ironical union that his Wikipedia page describes him thusly: “Stephen Colbert is the persona of political satirist Stephen Colbert.”
Colbert’s character is a send-up of various prominent television pundits. As Deborah Solomon at The New York Times has put it, Colbert plays a “well-intentioned, poorly informed high-status idiot.” He is pompous, overly confident in his opinions, and self-obsessed. And we are expected to believe, not what he says, but exactly the opposite.
Colbert’s show, along with John Stewart’s The Daily Show, was conceived as a political humor show, engaged in lampooning the serious shows that serve as the primary news sources for many Americans. But according to one report, for as many as 25 percent of young adults under 30, The Colbert Report and The Daily Show together are now their main source of news.
These shows were designed to be parasitical on the mainstream news shows. But with Colbert now set to occupy Letterman’s chair, we are seeing a complete cultural inversion. Where the serious was once supreme and satire subordinate, irony now rules.
We live under the sun, where we know there is nothing new. Irony existed even in ancient Greece. The comic playwright Aristophanes mercilessly lampooned Socrates. But the comic poets, who employed a destructive kind of irony, were always subordinate to the tragic poets, whose irony was sympathetic. And both of these were subordinate to the epics of Homer, which contained no irony at all.
Modern irony differs from ancient irony in two ways. First, it is almost entirely destructive. The tragic irony of a story like that of Sophocles’ Oedipus led the viewer to sympathize with the hero who is being victimized by fate. The greatest of the Greek playwrights wrote tragedies, but tragedies, like epics, are almost entirely absent from modern literature and film.
Behind the old irony was a recognition, if not an affirmation, of an underlying metaphysical hierarchy with greatness at the top and meanness at the bottom. It was an order in which the hero ranked high. But behind the new irony is a rejection of that order. The belief in a logos—an ordering principle of reality—underlay the old irony; the belief in nothingness underlies the new. The old irony was theological; the new irony is nihilistic.
The Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard praised irony when it was used to allow one to stand above and judge oneself: He called this “mastered” irony. But he condemned the kind of irony that allowed one to stand above and judge the world, as if he were not part of it himself: This was “unmastered” irony. This kind of irony, he said (echoing Hegel), was “infinite absolute negativity.” This is why literary critic Irving Howe once called irony the “gospel of chaos” and why one of Dostoyevsky’s characters in his novel The Possessed termed it “the demon irony.”
But the chief difference between traditional and modern narrative is not that the modern contains irony and the classical does not. The chief difference is that, in modern culture, irony has become the chief literary and critical mode. Satire and cynicism now predominate in an unprecedented way. What are the cultural consequences of a situation in which, for many people, the parasitical has become the primary? How does it affect the way people think when they are saturated in the sarcastic? What happens when parody becomes the primary mode of cultural cognition?
The most obvious consequence of the dominance of modern irony is that there can no longer be a hero. This is why we no longer see epic stories being written today. The only epic hero story of any consequence written in the last 100 years is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and the only reason it exists in the modern world at all is because it is not modern. Although written in the twentieth century, it is of another time—a time in which greatness was acknowledged. It is the same in American films: There are a few exceptions—like Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator―but they are the exception that proves the rule.
And with the hero goes the good guy in general. “All writers,” said Dostoyevsky in a letter to his niece in 1868, “and not only ours, but even all Europeans who have tried to portray the positively good man have always failed.” Dostoyevsky underscored his point about the impossibility of a good character in modern literature by writing his story The Idiot. The protagonist Myshkin is good, but he has to be portrayed as a complete misfit.
“Of the good figures in Christian literature,” said Dostoyevsky, “the most perfect is Don Quixote. But he is good only because at the same time he is ridiculous and succeeds only by virtue of that fact.”
Even the good characters of children’s literature, which one would expect to be the last bastion of innocence, are being assailed by the satirists. In a culture in which many children never read classic children’s stories, books such as Honestly, Red Riding Hood Was Rotten!: The Story of Little Red Riding Hood as Told by the Wolf; and Seriously, Cinderella Is SO Annoying!: The Story of Cinderella as told by the Wicked Stepmother are now common fare.
There are children who have never read the Three Little Pigs who do know The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. I remember going with my family to see the movie Shrek and wondering how many of the children in the theater watching it actually knew the fairy tales which it so gleefully fractured.
But there is a child even in the modern adult, which is perhaps the reason superheroes are so popular at the box office. Despite our cynicism, the hero is still preserved in Superman, Batman, and Iron Man. The superheroes now so common at the theater are heroes, but they are also either historically distant or utterly fantastic. We seem to have driven the hero into our cultural subconscious, and he has turned back up in Metropolis, the Bat Cave, and Stark Tower.
There is nothing wrong with irony as long as it does not become villainous and try to take over the world. But the ironic should always be subordinate to the heroic, which is why classical literature is such a great corrective to modern literature and film. It preserves the hero, and he is primary.
Grounding ourselves and our children in books like the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and The Divine Comedy (as well as classic children’s literature)―unironic stories which portray characters living in a morally ordered world―will not only keep us metaphysically grounded in the True and the Good, but will better equip us to appreciate the ironic when it is appropriate.
One of the disadvantages of putting irony first is that it undermines even irony itself. When everything is satirical, what is there to satirize? Irony encourages us to see through things. But “if you can see through everything,” said C. S. Lewis, “then there is nothing left to see.”
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2014 edition.