Ironic Enlightenment? Voltaire, Fussell, and the Neverending End of the Age of Irony

Harvesting_beans_(5762966966)Readers of this blog may have noted a certain slackening of activity. The explanation is simple enough: September arrived and, with it, the opening of the fall term (or, as one of my more jaded friends likes to call it, “the resumption of hostilities”). In other lines of work the end of summer signals the beginning of the harvest season, and something akin to that has been slowing my posting as well.

I began this blog in January with three purposes in mind. First, I saw it as a place where I could force myself to confront various stumbling blocks that needed to be dealt with in order for me to finish off some of the things I’m working on (that was the point of my series on Foucault and Habermas). Second, I thought it might serve as a convenient place to deal with provocations having to do with the topics on which I work that turn up in other venues (e.g., annoying commencement addresses by literary editors of certain New York magazines). Finally, I figured I could use it to rid myself of some work that I’d done that wasn’t going anywhere else (for example, my attempt to figure out whether Thomas Mann actually wrote a review of Dialectic of Enlightenment for the New York Times). The blog has been surprisingly effective in fulfilling my first and second aims and, as a result, has yielded quite a few half-baked ideas that I am in the process of revising for publication  — which, to mix the metaphors, means that I, too, have some harvesting to do.

For the past week I’ve been kicking around various topics, but finding little that was coming together quickly enough to justify my spending further time on it given the press of other commitments. Then, a few days ago, a colleague (for reasons I don’t quite understand) posted a link to a year-old article from the New York Times by Christy Wampole, a professor of French at Princeton University on “How to Live without Irony.” I should know better than to rise to the bait, especially when the bait is now over a year old, but coincidentally (though, it bears emphasizing, not at all ironically) Wampole’s article dangled before my eyes at the very moment when as I was teaching Paul Fussell’s Great War and Modern Memory in my course on “Catastrophe and Memory” and also finishing up a discussion of Voltaire in my course on the European Enlightenment. This was more than enough to get me thinking about (1) why the New York Times has such an affection for discussions (in most cases, critical) of irony, (2) the place of irony in Voltaire and, more generally, in the Enlightenment, and (3) Paul Fussell. In short: I was hooked.

On the Eternal Return of the End of the Age of Irony

In the immediate aftermath of September 11 attacks, Roger Rosenblatt published an essay in Time magazine arguing that the one good thing that might emerge from the  attacks was the “end of the age of irony.” Shortly thereafter the New York Times published one of the smarter rejoinders: Michiko Kakutani’s October 9, 2001 reflections on the role of irony in public life. Writing barely a month after the attacks  Kakutani noted that irony was still with us and, appealing to Fussell’s discussion of the role of irony, reminded readers that this might not be a bad thing: irony, he noted, had long served as “a potent weapon for delineating a fractured and frightening world.”

One of the good things about reading Wampole’s account of the virtues of living without irony roughly a year after it initially appeared is the slackening the outrage reflex that attacks on irony seem to trigger in those of us who, for better or worse, find the need to say good things about a bad attitude. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but cold bile is about as appetizing as year-old bait. In my case, the urge to argue with Wampole’s piece was quickly (but, unfortunately, temporarilty) supplanted by a curiosity about how often the Times had found it necessary to deal with “irony.” That question was easily answered: according to the ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database it appears in the title of 575 articles.

And what a peculiar lot of articles they are!  A fair number not only defended irony, but practiced it in their title:  see, for example, Andy Newman’s “Irony is Dead. Again. Yeah, Right” (Novemeber 23, 2008) and Meghan O’Rouke, “The End of Irony” (August 27, 2006), a review of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (“a masterly comedy of manners — an astute and poignant evocation of hobnobbing glitterati in the months before and immediately following Sept. 11”).

At some point in my voyage backward though the database I decided it might be more interesting to start from the other end and skipped to the oldest article: a correction dating from the May 22, 1861 (bless the Times, it’s been owning up to its mistakes for as long as it’s been making them) cautioning readers that “irony and badinage are the most hazardous of weapons for promiscuous use.”  As if to confirm the article’s warning that, while such devices may “gratify and amuse a few, they confound many, and to the larger number they are as unintelligible as the Vedas,” the third oldest item (“Is it Irony?”,  July 28, 1873),  struggled to make sense of  an piece in a “Georgia Democratic journal” welcoming the emigration from the North (“We want Yankee skill, Yankee ingenuity, money and muscle”) while at the same expressing some reservations about the suitability of  the “politics,” “religion,” and “civilization” of the welcomed emigrants.   All of this is enough to suggest that, the arc of history of irony is, indeed, long (in the case of the struggle between Times and ironists it runs from unreconstructed Georgia Democrats to Brooklyn hipsters) and it bends towards snark.

Welcome to the Desert of the Ironical!

The reception to Wampole’s advice on how to live without irony more or less confirmed her thesis that we are living in a ruthlessly ironic age: lots of people posted lots of snarky comments about it (and, sometimes, her: hipsters don’t take kindly to be criticized by academics). Indeed, when I started reading her piece I found it difficult to shake the feeling that the whole thing was itself an example of the disease it sought to battle. Consider the opening:

If irony is the ethos of our age — and it is — then the hipster is our archetype of ironic living.

It is as if having initially written “If irony is the ethos of our age, then the hipster is our 220px-Jonathan_Katz_1archetype of ironic living,” the author chose to disguise the familiar comp-lit tease of smuggling arguments into a text by disguising  them as conditionals: note the strategically inserted validity claim (“and it is”) assuing readers of the truth of the supposition and the veracity of the speaker. I’m sure that echt Habermasians can do a better job than me of sorting out what is going on here, but it reminded me of the opening of one of the comedian Jonathan Katz’s more complex (and riskier) jokes: “A young polar bear came home from school — true story — and …”

One of the peculiar features of discussions of “the end of the age of irony” is that everyone appears convinced that theirs is a particularly, if not uniquely, ironical age. For example, Wampole writes,

Born in 1977, at the tail end of Generation X, I came of age in the 1990s, a decade that, bracketed neatly by two architectural crumblings — of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Twin Towers in 2001 — now seems relatively irony-free.

Much, I suppose, hangs on “relatively,” but it bears remembering that the “age of irony” whose end Roger Rosenblatt announced in September 2001 was the very same age that Wampole characterizes as “relatively irony-free”: Rosenblatt took some solace in the prospect that the 9-11 attacks ended the reign of Seinfeld and, presumably, promised to choke off Curb Your Enthusiasm after a single season. But, though every recent season of Curb seems as if it will be the last, it somehow manages to keep on going. The same would seem to be true for both “Age of Irony” and the attempt to end it.

Searching for examples of individuals who live nonironic lives, Wampole offered the following:

Nonironic models include very young children, elderly people, deeply religious people, people with severe mental or physical disabilities, people who have suffered, and those from economically or politically challenged places where seriousness is the governing state of mind. My friend Robert Pogue Harrison put it this way in a recent conversation: “Wherever the real imposes itself, it tends to dissipate the fogs of irony.”

Since I am coming late to this game, I suspect that her proposed models have, by now, been snarkily criticized. But the claim Wampole attributes to Harrison, which views irony as a rhetorical device destined to be burned away with the ascent of “the real” (or, as the Lacanians like to say, “the Real”), is worth questioning.

As everyone knows, the term “ironic” (or, as they liked to say in the eighteenth century, “ironical”) can be used to characterize both speech acts and situations. This suggests that designating something an “Age of Irony” could either mean that the age was dominated by a particular form of rhetoric (i.e., the “Age of Irony” would be an “Age of Snark”) or an age distinguished by situations that regularly turn out otherwise (and generally worse) than expected. For Wampole, the particular curse of our ironic age is that the rhetorical form has increasingly come to structure the ways in which people interact.

Throughout history, irony has served useful purposes, like providing a rhetorical outlet for unspoken societal tensions. But our contemporary ironic mode is somehow deeper; it has leaked from the realm of rhetoric into life itself.

But while Wampole focuses on the leakage of rhetoric into life, it might be worth considering whether, for at least the last century, the flow has been moving in the other direction.

War as Ironic Action

Near the start of The Great War and Modern Memory Paul Fussell observes,Paul-Fussell

Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends.

Here, in two sentences, we find much of what makes The Great War and Modern Memory so problematic — e.g., Fussell’s tendency towards rash generalizations, backed up by little more than the force of his writing — along with what, in spite of its problems, makes the book so compelling: while we know how to pick its nits, we also suspect that, in the end, the book is stronger than we are.

A colleague of mine who works on colonial American history once responded to a proposal that we inaugurate a program in “twentieth-century studies” by explaining, at some length and at an increasing volume, that the twentieth was the most overrated century in history. He closed by asking: “What was it good at aside from killing people?” (I was tempted to suggest “string quartets,” but decided against it). He had a point: the short twentieth century ultimately boiled down to two periods of slaughter interrupted by pauses devoted to the preparation for even greater slaughter. After four decades of preparing for a war that, by eliminating the human species, would ironically fulfill the boast of the “war to end all wars” that launched the century,  an escape route opened.

Picking his way through the wreckage of its opening engagements, Fussell produced a powerful account of what this thug of a century was up to. It is hardly surprising that, when discussing Fussell’s work with students, I inevitably find myself invoking Walter Benjamin’s account of the angel of history. Rubble  was already accumulating at the angel’s feet long before August 1914, but events like the Battle of the Somme accelerated its grown exponentially. And far from marking the “end of the age of irony,” the additional rubble that arrived on September 11, 2001 might better be seen as its continuation through the novel means of box cutters and airliners.  For who, aside from the terrorists, could have known that the established procedures for dealing with hijackers — namely, assuming that they would, at some point, attempt to land the planes and, at that point and only at that point, could attempts to extricate the hostages begin — would be so utterly inadequate to the demands of the situation?.

Siegfried_Sassoon_by_George_Charles_Beresford_(1915)One of the lessons of The Great War and Modern Memory is that, far from being a bit of fog destined to be burned away by the blazing light of “the Real,” the irony that permeates the works of the poets who fought in the Great War was a response to a reality that was nothing if not flamboyantly ironic (for an example, see Fussell’s stunning summary of the opening of the Battle of the Somme). This may explain why Fussell is at his best with ironists like Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, but is less successful in his discussion of Wilfred Owen, a chapter that is further weakened by his need to drawn lines that lead from the literature of the Great War to the literature of his own war (in this case, the blood-drenched bathing scene in Catch-22).

As an example of how Sassoon went about the work of responding to the irony of the situations into which he had been thrown, consider “Fight to a Finish”:

The boys came back. Bands played and flags were flying,
And Yellow-Pressmen thronged the sunlit street
To cheer the soldiers who’d refrained from dying,
And hear the music of returning feet.
“Of all the thrills and ardours War has brought,
This moment is the finest.” (So they thought.)

Snapping their bayonets on to charge the mob,
Grim Fusiliers broke ranks with glint of steel.
At last the boys had found a cushy job.

* * * * *

I heard the Yellow-Pressmen grunt and squeal;
And with my trusty bombers turned and went
To clear those Junkers out of Parliament.

Here, in response to a “real” that was presenting him with any number of ironic and unwelcome twists, Sassoon took his revenge by imagining another set of circumstances that also take an ironic turn: a parade to welcome home the heroes that veers off in an unexpected direction when the heroes decide it is time to settle some scores.

Fussell’s cavalier use of the Imperial War Museum Archives to expand his account beyond the group of soldier poets whose works he had mastered has its critics. As Leonard Smith noted in a 2001 History and Theory article,

In a disarmingly candid explanation of his methodology provided in the Afterword to the 2000 edition of The Great War and Modern Memory, Fussell united his evidence and experience as combatant and as scholar. He referred to his summer of work in the records of the Imperial War Museum, which figured so little in the book itself, but so prominently in how he remembered writing it. If we take this memory at face value, Fussell knew what he was looking for before he read a single document:

“I was searching for displays of language that might help define the similarity of infantry experience in the two world wars and the problem of containing it within words. While reading through this collection I was struck repeatedly by the similarity (almost the identity, for the ground forces) of the two wars.”
Experience provided evidence that he went to the archives simply to confirm. Archival research became a wonderfully self-fulfilling prophecy. With such assurance as to the truthfulness of the form of the story he wanted to tell, all he needed was some additional content.1

Smith is right to suggest that there was a good deal of projection going on in The Great War and Modern Memory, especially in its handling of archival materials. Fussell would later explain how his experiences as an infantryman in the France during the even worse war sired by the Great War taught him to write — “about Walt Whitman or Samuel Johnson, about the theory of comparative literature or the problems facing the literary biographer” — with the voice “of the pissed-off infantryman, disguised as a literary and cultural commentator.” Working his way through the letters from soldiers in the IWM, this pissed-off infantryman latched onto the ones written by kindred spirits from an earlier time and ignored those that didn’t provide what he sought to find. “Military memory,” as he explained in the book’s final section, has been carefully trained to focus on the mission at hand.

But an afternoon clicking through the collection of manuscripts available on Oxford University’s digital archive of Great War poets suggests that this is more than enough material in the archives that confirm the insights that Fussell arrive at through his more reckless approach. Consider one of Sassoon’s less successful efforts: “The Redeemer.”

Darkness: the rain sluiced down; the mire was deep;
It was past twelve on a mid-winter night,
When peaceful folk in beds lay snug asleep;
There, with much work to do before the light,
We lugged our clay-sucked boots as best we might
Along the trench; sometimes a bullet sang,
And droning shells burst with a hollow bang;
We were soaked, chilled and wretched, every one;
Darkness; the distant wink of a huge gun.

I turned in the black ditch, loathing the storm;
A rocket fizzed and burned with blanching flare,
And lit the face of what had been a form
Floundering in mirk. He stood before me there;
I say that He was Christ; stiff in the glare,
And leaning forward from His burdening task,
Both arms supporting it; His eyes on mine
Stared from the woeful head that seemed a mask
Of mortal pain in Hell’s unholy shine.

No thorny crown, only a woollen cap
He wore — an English soldier, white and strong,
Who loved his time like any simple chap,
Good days of work and sport and homely song;
Now he has learned that nights are very long,
And dawn a watching of the windowed sky.
But to the end, unjudging, he’ll endure
Horror and pain, not uncontent to die
That Lancaster on Lune may stand secure.

He faced me, reeling in his weariness,
Shouldering his load of planks, so hard to bear.
I say that He was Christ, who wrought to bless
All groping things with freedom bright as air,
And with His mercy washed and made them fair.
Then the flame sank, and all grew black as pitch,
While we began to struggle along the ditch;
And someone flung his burden in the muck,
Mumbling: ‘O Christ Almighty, now I’m stuck!’

The famous Sassoonian irony is once again on display here, though at a more leisurely pace: the long account of a vision of Christ in the trenches, appearing in the guise of an innocent country chap (perhaps a lad rather like the young, horsey Sassoon?) is shattered in those final lines when “someone” throws down his (or His?) particular cross and takes the Lord’s name in vain.  It works, but lines like “not uncontent to die” seem rather strained: Sassoon, after all, had put something similar (“refrained from dying”) in the mouths of the soon to be gored yellow-pressmen of “Fight to a Finish.”

The Oxford archive has an earlier draft of the poem that offers some hints as to why the poem may not hold together.2 Originally, the last seven lines read:

I say that He was Christ, who wrought to bless
All groping things with one evangel sweet,
Choosing a terrible path for his young feet.
Then the flame there died, and all grew black as pitch,
And we began to struggle along the ditch;
But in my heart I knew that I had seen
The suffering spirit of a world washed clean.

To the very end the vision of the Christ of the trenches remains intact. No irony here: the soldier/Christ’s suffering holds out a promise of redemption, echoing the words of the dead German soldier in Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting”

Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

This is not the sort of thing that, at least at this point in his life (I don’t know the poetry that he wrote, late in his life, after he embraced Catholicism), Sassoon was able to pull off. It is as if Sassoon found himself trying to write the sort of poetry that Owen would go on to write — poetry that provided Benjamin Britten with words he could seamlessly intertwine into the text of the Latin Mass for Dead. But then, like his soldier chap, Sassoon threw off this burden, cursed, and decided to write a poem of a different sort.

From Theodicy to Irony

When teaching my course on Catastrophe and Memory, I start the discussion of the Battle of the Somme with Edmund Blunden’s “Report on Experience”:

I have been young, and now am not too old;
And I have seen the righteous forsaken,
His health, his honour and his quality taken.
This is not what we were formerly told.

I have seen a green country, useful to the race,
Knocked silly with guns and mines, its villages vanished,
Even the last rat and the last kestrel banished –
God bless us all, this was peculiar grace.

I knew Seraphina; Nature gave her hue,
Glance, sympathy, note, like one from Eden.
I saw her smile warp, heard her lyric deaden;
She turned to harlotry; – this I took to be new.

Say what you will, our God sees how they run.
These disillussionments are His curious proving
That He loves humanity and will go on loving;
Over there are faith, life, virtue in the sun.

Blunden’s poem serves two purposes: it gives the students a first taste of the irony that would move to center stage when we turn to Fussell’s book and it provides them a glimpse of that great (and seemingly) nonironic trope : theodicy.

I started teaching versions of the course during the Spring term of 2005 and, since that year marked the 250th anniversary of the Lisbon Earthquake, I thought I would begin the course with travelers’ reports on the earthquake and British sermons trying to make sense of it before moving on to Candide. As I was cleaning up the syllabus at the end of December 2004, the Indian Ocean Tsunami struck and, in its wake, an outpouring of articles in the New York Times and elsewhere debating the question of theodicy. History, as Samuel Clemens may or may not have said, “does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

Classes also sometimes manage to rhyme: this term I went from teaching Fussell in the Atelier_de_Nicolas_de_Largillière,_portrait_de_Voltaire,_détail_(musée_Carnavalet)_-002morning to discussing Voltaire in the afternoon. I typically begin that discussion with the Largillière portrait and with accounts of his face by contemporaries: Friedrich Melchior Grimm’s description of his witty, caustic expression and his sparkling mischievous eyes, John Morgan’s observation that he had “a very sagacious but at the same time a comical look. Something satirical and very lively in his action …, ” the Paris police dossier that reports that he looked “like a satyr” and — of greatest relevance for this discussion — John More’s comment that “an air of irony never entirely forsakes his face, but may always be observed lurking in his features.”

Voltaire, of course, was no hipster, but he was hardly unschooled in the art of irony. I’ve written, in an earlier post, of my admiration for David Wootton’s introduction to his Candide translation. The same goes for Wootton’s article in the autumn 2000 History Workshop Journal “Unhappy Voltaire, or ‘I Shall Never Get over It as Long as I Live'”, an unflinching examination of the reasonable, but somehow overlooked, possibility that when Voltaire (then are 32) attributed his poor physical condition to his having, as a boy, been “buggered” by his Jesuit teachers “to such a degree that I shall never get over it as long as I live,” his explanation was not, as René Pomeau supposed, a clever comment  aimed at “horrifying an elderly English gentlewoman.” Fussell, like Sassoon before him, learned irony in the army. Voltaire learned it from his teachers at Louis le Grande, put it to good use in Candide and, when necessary, was quite capable of turning it off (cf. the opening of the Treatise on Toleration).

The perennial slander against the Enlightenment has been that it was marked by a shallow rationalism that was unable to comprehend those depths of human experience that would eventually be plumbed by the Romantics and the various other deep and, of course, serious thinkers that followed in their wake. Wootton’s discussion of Voltaire’s achievement suggests a different way of thinking about what has annoyed so many people for so long about the Enlightenment and also what may have eluded those of us who fancy ourselves friends of the Enlightenment: though the eighteenth century could not match the achievements of the twentieth in mass slaughter, it was a rough time. The most successful of its survivors mastered a way of responding to it that found ways of miming its horrors and, in that way, sought to break their hold. Candide recounts catastrophes that would be unbearable were they not turned into a running joke about the failings of this best of all possible worlds.  Perhaps it matters that, prior to applying the irony that he learned in the army to the experiences of soldier poets in the Great War, Fussell schooled himself in eighteenth-century English literature. There are worse places to learn how to marshall the resources of verbal irony against the situational irony that would seem to be our fate. Which suggests some advice for those who find the need to complain about irony: get serious about it.


  1. Leonard V. Smith, “Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory: Twenty-Five Years Later,” History and Theory 40, no. 2 (May 2001): 254.
  2. I assume that this draft is well-known among Sassoon scholars (this isn’t my field, so I don’t know), but Fussell appears to have been unaware of it [added 2014-12-10: it turns out, however, that Jay Winter was — see J. M Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 218] 

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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2 Responses to Ironic Enlightenment? Voltaire, Fussell, and the Neverending End of the Age of Irony

  1. anonymous says:

    As a student in your undergraduate Enlightenment course on September 11 of 2001, you read a passage from the Encyclopedia about “fanatics” to the class. I can’t recite the passage but I remember thinking how knowledge, truth, etc. seemed to combat the dangers of fanatical belief. I also remember saying to myself that while the philosophes never witnessed air travel or radical Islam, they dealt with their own fears, dangers and forms of violence. Witty and ironic as they were, those eighteenth-century intellectuals led very “real” lives.

    Thanks for keeping the lesson going so many years later.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Andrew. That was a hard class to forget. What I recalled reading was the entry on “Fanaticism” from Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary:

      “Fanaticism is to superstition what delirium is to fever, and what fury is to anger. The man who has ecstasies and visions, who takes dreams for realities, and his imaginings for prophecies, is an enthusiast. The man who backs his madness with murder is a fanatic….”

      “There is no other remedy for this epidemic illness than the spirit of free thought, which, spreading little by little, finally softens men’s customs, and prevents the renewal of the disease. … Laws and religion do not suffice against the pest of the soul. Religion, far from being a beneficial food in such cases, turns into poison in infected brains. … Laws also are quite impotent against these attacks of fury: it is as if you read a cabinet decree to a lunatic. …”

      But what I remember most about the day was how I learned of the attacks, which has something to do with the concerns of your blog. I’d been working all morning at home getting ready for classes and knew nothing of the attacks until I turned on the radio as I was driving into the university (around 10:30 or so) and caught the end of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” on WHRB’s morning jazz show. I hadn’t heard it in a few years and was knocked out by the power of Coltrane’s playing in those final minutes. Then an announcer came on — obviously upset — and gave a summary of what had happened. At that point I tuned the radio to one of the NPR stations to find out more. In the years since I’ve thought a lot about the choice the announcer made: working at a college radio station, getting the news of the attacks, but with little or nothing in the way of a news staff around to cover the story, she bought herself some time to think by playing music that she must have felt was strong enough to deal with the madness: “A Love Supreme.” A lot of bad decisions would be made in the wake of the attacks. Hers wasn’t one of them.

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