David Foster Wallace and the Joy of Irony
“I want to convince you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting-edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird, pretty hand has my generation by the throat. I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule… The post David Foster Wallace and the Joy of Irony appeared first on VoegelinView.

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“I want to convince you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting-edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird, pretty hand has my generation by the throat. I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that, at the same time, they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture, and that, for aspiring fictionists, they pose terrifically vexing problems.” – David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing
“The problem with making yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.” – C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew
My meditations on irony began with two pieces from David Foster Wallace. The first was his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” written in 1990 and published in 1993. The second was an interview of Wallace conducted by a German television station in 2003. While these are by no means considered Wallace’s most prominent creative products, they are central to Wallace’s philosophy and I will refer to them throughout the course of this essay.
Wallace died by suicide in 2008, supposedly as a result of being removed from his antidepressant medications. But we do a disservice to Wallace’s intellectual struggles if we simply conclude that he “died of depression.” In his 2003 interview, Wallace explained his inspiration for Infinite Jest began with a much deeper problem than his own mental health condition:
“For the upper middle-class in the U.S., particularly younger people, things are often materially very comfortable, and there’s also often a great sadness and emptiness…I started [Infinite Jest] after a couple of people, not close friends, but people I knew, who were my age [and] had committed suicide. It just became obvious that something was going on. And I know that that impulse was part of starting the book.”[1]
Wallace was interested in what had driven people of his generation to suicide, and in some sense Infinite Jest was an investigation of that question. But the reader who was not familiar with Wallace himself may not have been aware that he was conducting such an investigation. To quote Wallace,
“I’m not often all aware of stuff that’s really funny in the book…I set out to write a sad book. And when people liked it and told me that the thing they liked about was that it was so funny, it was just very surprising.”
Jennifer Frey, professor of philosophy at USC, describes Wallace as someone who “wanted to be Charles Dickens and couldn’t.”[2] Frey’s assessment of Wallace is not to say that Wallace had delusions of grandeur—quite the contrary. If the duty of the novelist is to identify and provide answers to the particular cultural malaise of his own time in accessible and contemporary language, no one took this duty more seriously than Wallace. The undertaking of such a project was what defined the success of Dickens, Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the like. It just so happens that today’s cultural malaise is apparently in some state can only be described as an addiction to postmodern irony, and this poses an especially pressing problem for artists.
The use of postmodern irony originally began not as a philosophical movement but with the “metafiction” of elite avant-garde novelists.  But by the time of the 80s and 90s, postmodern irony had become so mainstream that it was appearing on the David Letterman Show and Pepsi commercials. How can novelists provide an anecdote to postmodern irony when the novelists themselves were responsible for developing it? Wallace saw that there was a serious (if not insurmountable) challenge in using fiction to solve a problem which the whole genre of fiction had itself embraced. He wanted to answer what Dostoevsky called “the desperate questions of existence.” But to truly seek the answer, to ask the question as if you really wanted the answer, would be received by modern audiences merely as moralistic finger-wagging. It is now considered banal and unsophisticated to say what you really mean or claim that what you are saying is actually true. This is the way the universe ends, not with a bang, not even with a whimper, but with a perfunctory roar of canned laughter from Saturday Night Live.
One might say that the solution to this problem is simply to ignore the cultural riffraff and return to a more classical state of mind. Maybe Wallace’s problems are merely the product of his own vanity. He wanted to say what he meant and still be considered a relevant turn-of-the-century novelist. But it is not so simple to escape an addiction to a certain habit of thinking. Wallace knew that if he simply adopted some higher, more classical form of language, he would risk being branded as another Alan Bloom type and dismissed as yet another conservative doomsday prophet. The effects of postmodern irony are so ubiquitous that it could almost be described as cancerous on a cellular level, and no one is immune to it, not even conservatives.
Indeed, the modern disease of cancer is a very appropriate analogy. Cancer cells are not harmful when they work for us. They only become a disease when they turn against us. When rationality turns against us, the soul is at civil war. You may try criticizing the disease of postmodern irony, but you cannot wield the critical mind against postmodernism any more than you can run to the police for aid if you are being chased by them. Criticism itself is the thing that has gone wrong. Our present situation cannot be resolved by returning to classical irony. A more serious operation is at hand.
Wallace felt that his audiences were so addicted to these habits of thought that there was no other way of writing fiction except in the language of postmodern irony. By most measurements, this project was a failure, and Wallace knew it. Wallace’s suicide was not just manic depression. One cannot read his work without being haunted by the sobering suspicion that the cause of his suicide was directly related to the fact that he could not resolve the problems he identified in his writing. Assuming that Wallace’s critiques of U.S. literature are legitimate and not simply the obsessive pessimism of a disgruntled manic depressant, it is incumbent upon us to wrestle with these critiques as if our life depended on them, because for Wallace, it did.

Irony, Comedy, and the Devil

I am both a drama teacher and a debate coach, which comes as a surprise to many people who see rhetoric and theatrical arts to be as different as apples and oranges. Debate is rational, analytical, left-brained (they say) while drama is artistic, creative, visual, spatial, right-brained. In many ways, drama and debate are closer cousins than they appear, but the strangest common attribute they share is the constant recurring character of the Devil. The phrase “devil’s advocate” (advocatus diaboli) has its origins in the Catholic Church, but the methodology itself is part of an older tradition rooted in the Socratic method (διαλεκτική). If we note the Latin and Greek origins of “devil” and “dialectic”, we see their kinship on more obvious display. The word for Devil is diabolos, meaning “to tear through.” “Dialectic” or “dialogue” comes from dialektike, or “to speak through.” One must not forget, however, that playing “devil’s advocate” is just that: playing. It is an ironic stance. The devil’s advocate pretends to believe the opposite of what he really believes in the service of the thesis, with the intention of sharpening and narrowing the interlocutor’s conclusion. But playing the devil is playing with fire, and things do have a way of getting out of control.
In the arts, particularly in comedy, there is a similar attraction to “playing the Devil.” The comedic opportunities are obvious. There is nothing particularly funny about saying, for example, “I love Beyonce,” but put on devil’s horns and say the exact same thing, and it becomes a joke (about which Beyonce happens to be the unfortunate victim). The word Satan means “accuser” and comedians generate laughter by doing precisely that: accusing. The Devil calls black “white” and white “black”—anything the Devil condones is, at the same time, a damning indictment. For a comedian, playing the devil is a goldmine for comedy. Comedy, like rhetoric, thrives on reductio ad absurdum—a tactic which reveals the ridiculous by seeing the world through the devil’s perspective. Rationality, dialectic, comedy, and the devil are all devices in the ironist’s toolkit.
Of course, I am not saying that comedy is a satanic profession (or am I? Ha ha, just kidding.) But the comedian’s reputation for being (secretly and ironically) the most depressed person in the room is so well-known now that it is almost a cliché to point it out. The “sad clown” has become a stereotype. It is easy to see why. The ironic stance is liberating and, at the same time, dangerously addictive. It was Wallace who pointed out that the original meaning of addict, addicere, meant religious devotion. He continually emphasized the importance of human beings needing to be able to worship something. What was worthy of our worship, however, Wallace did not know.

Humor and Violence

It is a given that much of comedy depends on making a jab at another’s expense. There is an implicit violence in comedy which is revealed in our language by the very fact that we call the ironic twist the “punchline.” In film, visual humor is often referred to as a “gag.” Being the “butt-end” of a joke calls to mind the picture of being bludgeoned by the end of a spear. When a joke is funny enough you can even say that it “kills you” or that you “died laughing.” I used to write comedy sketches as a teenager and stumbled across this comedic maxim independently of any professional tutelage: Pain is funny. This raised for me a rather uncomfortable question. Is the postmodern claim true that all language is simply masked violence?
We are taught as children that happy people laugh, and sad people cry. But if it is true that all humor depends on some form of violence or cruelty, then the true makeup of the human psyche is much more malevolent than we supposed. In fact, it is entirely malevolence, and the postmodern claim that all speech is violence is true. There is no difference between “wholesome” comedy and “black” comedy—there is only mildly violent and more violent, and your taste for either depends entirely on your tolerance for pain.
It is true that we tend to idealize the innocence of children and gloss over certain acts of childhood cruelty which, without discipline, will later develop into undisguised malevolence. An honest interrogation of human nature will reveal to us the unpleasant truth of our own darkness. The same spirit which drives a mean child to pull the wings of a moth may be the same spirit which drives him to torture political prisoners in an internment camp. Should we assume that this malevolent spirit composes the whole of the human spirit?
Many would naturally respond to this accusation by insisting upon the inherent innocence of children. But the cynic can easily blockade any attempt to return to such a paradisal state of mind by dismissing it as sentimentalism. Once the accusatory stance has been assumed, it difficult, perhaps even impossible, to go back. Irony is caustic: once the punchline has been delivered, the previous perspective dissolves in the light of the (superior) ironic perspective. Once the accuser has spoken, we see our nakedness, and are ashamed.

C.S. Lewis and the Devil

C.S. Lewis was a master satirist, and it is not an accident that one of Lewis’ must humorous works consisted in him playing the Devil in The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape, a senior devil instructing his nephew on the ways of damnation, devotes an entire letter to the subject of laughter. Screwtape divides the four kinds of laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. For Screwtape, Joy is the least desirable form of laughter:
You will see [Joy] among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext of Jokes[3] is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What the real cause is we do not know. Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven—a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us. Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell.[4]
Screwtape’s ignorance of Joy is key to Lewis’s work and provides insight into the plight of the comedian: “what the real cause is we do not know.” Lewis, of course, knows about Joy, but he must pretend that he does not know, because he is in the ironic position of the Devil. The Greek root for irony, eironeia, means “feigned ignorance.” If the ironic stance is to play the Devil, such ignorance is necessary for the role, for the Devil knows nothing of Joy. Given the nature of irony as such, it becomes clear where comedians go wrong. If you make a career out of playing the Devil and become too used to seeing the world from his point of view, there may come a day when the “feigned ignorance” is not so feigned. Comedy is cutthroat industry, and the one who wishes to be the king of comedy must be funny all the time. He cannot afford taking off the horns even for a second. If there is no use for Joy in his profession, why keep on pretending? Why not make a Faustian deal and become the Devil himself? The depressed clown is depressed because he pretended to know nothing of Joy until he really didn’t. As Lewis put it in The Magician’s Nephew, “The problem with making yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.”[5]
Fun, says Screwtape, is related to Joy and is therefore also of no interest to him. Any kind of disinterested fun or enjoyment of something, which cannot be proven to really be at anyone’s expense, obviously cannot be very fertile grounds for cultivating vice. The Joke Proper is a “much more promising field” for Screwtape.   Screwtape defines the Joke Proper as the “sudden perception of incongruity” and Lewis is probably referring to the more formal kind of joke-telling which depends on an ironic twist and a punchline (i.e. “a man walks into a bar…”). The Joke Proper is about having a “refined” sense of humor, which I find to be much more characteristic of British than of American comedy. The Joke Proper is the mother of Flippancy, and it is Flippancy which Screwtape holds in highest regard. As an extension of the West, American tends to take British sensibilities to their farthest extremes, and it is not surprising that flippancy has become our primary mode of humor. Screwtape says,
Flippancy is the best of all…only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armor against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and excites no affection between those who practice it.
At the heart of the problem of postmodern irony is demonic flippancy. This is the cardinal sin of postmodernism which David Foster Wallace failed to identify. It is impossible to employ postmodern irony as a means to escape Flippancy and return to Joy. The title of Wallace’s novel, Infinite Jest, meant more than even he realized: it is no accident that Hell is described as a bottomless pit. Insofar as the Western literary tradition has embraced postmodern irony, fiction as an art form is dead. If the novel is to survive, this tradition must be abandoned. Only by a total death of this tradition can our culture resurrect the childlike appreciation of disinterested Joy.

The Rediscovery of Joy

I argued in part 1 of this essay series that the toddler playing peek-a-boo was the “atomic building block” of laughter. The rediscovery of Joy is the most urgent quest of our present age—the “desperate question of our existence.” Our call to action, then, is to look to the child. The toddler plays with a narrative in which the mother does not exist, but only in the interest of celebrating her existence. His “irony,” if we are to call it that, is predicated on Joy, because the punchline depends not on accusing the solidity of her existence, but on affirming her solidity.
Joy is a certain quality of being which, by definition, is opaque to the ironic stance, because it is a thing outside of irony. And it is this quality of being which we must somehow return to. We must become as children to enter the kingdom of heaven. We must be born again. The ironist sees at once that such a thing is impossible. “How can one be born again?” asks the bewildered rationalist thinker Nicodemus. “He cannot enter again into his mother’s womb, can he?” Jesus answers,
That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘you must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.
Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’
Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.’[6]
Christ says that we must be born of the Spirit to inherit the kingdom. Those born of the Spirit evade the accusatory stance of the ironist. The ironist cannot “zoom out” over those born of the Spirit and accuse them, because they are like wind and their origins cannot be identified. Christ as the divine Logos is origin itself. Christ’s statement leaves the final arbiter of Truth in a domain outside of argument, posing problems for both the atheist and the Christian apologist alike. Even if we were proclaim upon the rooftops, “Joy is the final layer of sincerity,” we would not yet have saved ourselves, even if such a statement were true—even if we sincerely say it. Irony—or rather, the rational principle—cannot discover Joy. If the truth cannot be arrived at by argument, our knowledge of Joy depends entirely on revelation. No matter how well the comedian perfects his art, no matter how loud his audience howls and whoops with overtures of approval, he has not come one step closer to creating Joy. Joy must be revealed to us in a divine action of grace, or not at all. What other choice do we have?

 

NOTES:

[1] Wallace, “David Foster Wallace Unedited Interview”, 2003, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGLzWdT7vGc
[2] Jennifer Frey, “The Therapeutic Fiction of David Foster Wallace”, Sacred and Profane Love,  2021, https://sacredandprofanelove.com/podcast-item/ep-32-jon-baskin-on-the-therapeutic-fiction-of-david-foster-wallace/
[3] Lewis deliberately capitalizes the word “Joke” and “Laughter.” I do not know whether this is some British peculiarity or whether Lewis has in mind some idea of a perfect Platonic Joke and therefore capitalizes it for emphasis.
[4] The Screwtape Letters, Ch. XI
[5] Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew
[6] John 3:6-15
* See parts 1 and 2 of Raymond’s essays here and here.

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