The Man in the Irony Mask


Although the forces of cant and triviality are legion in our culture, it is not every day that one encounters a book as foolish, misguided, and supremely irrelevant as this one. Within its torturous pages, R. Jay Magill Jr.’s Chic Ironic Bitterness succeeds in gathering together the whole bouquet of human stupidity. By an incredible feat, Magill manages to be both glib and ponderous, simplistic and opaque, lumpen and condescending. Never has a book so short gone on for so long.

This is a shame, for Magill’s subject is one of very great moment. His thesis: After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, various members of the punditocracy took it upon themselves to proclaim the End of the Age of Irony. At last, as Roger Rosenblatt put it in Time magazine, people would stop “prancing around in an air of vain stupidity” and start taking life seriously (i.e., stop asking questions and get behind our president). Of course, since politicians and other shadowy elites have been known to use means other than telling the truth to establish the legitimacy of their actions, irony is not mere frivolity: It is a form of dissent, a suspicion of motive, a way of being in the world.

Unfortunately, our author is not up to the task of carrying his argument through. While claiming to abhor the rigid outlook that unthinkingly pits the ironic against the serious, Magill repeatedly shows himself incapable of recognizing how the two may symbiotically co-exist. On the one hand, Magill invests The Onion and Steven Colbert with a kind of totemic authority, a reverence as uncomplicated as that of any yokel’s for the Stars and Stripes. On the other, Hegel is childishly referred to as “that German philosopher/stringy-haired obligatory reference,” and anything that Magill fears might strike the gentle reader as dry and bookish (such as the history of Western civilization) is apologized for as “somewhat somnolent but necessary” and treated with a levity patronizing to both the subject and the reader.

It’s not surprising, then, to come across statements as incorrigibly simpleminded as: “For the ironist, the one assumption that goes without questioning is that the mass of ‘Middle America’ lives with its own delusions of life, that it does not ‘get’ what is going on in the world. . . . ” It apparently does not occur to Magill that this Manichean view of society serves no one so well as the conservatives and robber barons he believes himself to be attacking, who rely upon an alienated and apathetic populace that no longer takes seriously the values of solidarity and political action.

If these were the only problems, the book would be merely bad; it is the style in which it’s written that makes it unbearable. Magill’s insufferable garrulousness is evident from the very beginning. In the exhaustive acknowledgments section, for example, he tips his cap to a seemingly endless phalanx of benefactors, including “the guys and gals at Oh! Bryon’s for some truly great afternoons,” his sister’s newly born baby (“Welcome to the world, nephew”), and his “keen and hilarious” editor. Somewhere along the line, however, it would appear that the manuscript fell into the hands of a rogue editor who has seen to it that no sentence in Chic Ironic Bitterness reaches its conclusion without some grammatical mishap, randomly italicized word, or stylistic infelicity.

To take an example pretty much at random: “Ironic awareness always supersedes attempts to ‘read it,’ even when a rule of ‘no interpretation of irony’ is laid down. A nonimmediate interpretation of an ironic remark can be done ironically, as if one does not get it. The ironist plays the fool—only to a fellow ironist, the one initially remarking—who does not know that the original remark was ironic.” Unlike the post-structuralist academicians whom he is so slavishly mimicking, Magill doesn’t even sound as though he knows what he’s talking about. Even the most straightforward and workaday of locutions cannot escape his passion for verbosity. Not satisfied with “Interestingly” or “Of note,” Magill goes for broke and gives us “Of interesting note.” Or again, sensing that the humble and unassuming “problem” fails to convey the gravity of our situation, we get the hideous “a problematic.”

Chic Ironic Bitterness, we are told, began life as a postgraduate dissertation, and if it can be said to possess any redeeming feature at all, it’s in the way it so embarrassingly gives the lie to the idea upon which the postgraduate industry is founded: that if you spend long enough reading and thinking about something, you will end up knowing more (or anything) about it. Nietzsche has an aphorism that is rather apropos: “I regard profound problems as I do a cold bath—quick in, quick out.” Would that R. Jay Magill Jr.’s bath time had been as brisk.