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Roger Ebert has just made himself the patron saint of every writer — God knows I’m one — who ever petulantly protested that readers didn’t realize he was kidding.
Of course, it’s not only wordsmiths too droll by half for the hoi polloi who defend themselves this way. So do — and in vastly greater numbers — the sly bullies of the world. And also the teeming hordes whose wit eludes their companions because they lack, through no fault of their own, an actual sense of humor.
What Ebert did was post on his Web site a few days ago a Q&A, “Creationism: Your Questions Answered.” Consternation then reigned on the Internet, and on Tuesday Ebert came clean, explaining he’d posted the Q&A in order “to discuss the gradual decay of our sense of irony and instinct for satire, and our growing credulity.”
Irony interests me. You might recall that 9-11 was supposed to blow irony out of the water. We heard this from commentators who believed irony was no more than an indulgence of the self-indulgent, a patois of flip egoists that could never survive such a ruthless eruption of reality. Yet irony survived nicely. After all, it comes down to us from World War I, a cataclysm infinitely more traumatic than 9-11 that for millions made the conventional expression of conventional sentiments impossible. If it remains occasionally necessary for ironists to say “I love you” or “I am a patriot” — and it is, for ironists do and ironists are — they know how to say it by not saying it. Irony, in short, is more than a style; it’s an intricate language that in times of turmoil and mendacity remains more necessary than ever.
Ebert thinks it’s in decay. Perhaps. And he thinks the response to his Q&A — “Many of the comments I’ve seen believe I have converted to Creationism. Others conclude I have lost my mind because of age and illness” — demonstrates that decay.
I wonder. “To sense the irony, you have to sense the invisible quotation marks,” he writes. True enough. “Were there invisible quotation marks about my Creationism article? Of course there were. How could you be expected to see them? In a sense, I didn’t want you to. I wrote it straight. The quotation marks would have been supplied by the instincts of the ironic reader.”
Then Ebert compares his exercise to “A Modest Proposal,” and recalls that in his English class back in high school “we all got it.” Why? “First, consider the source,” Ebert explains. “Jonathan Swift was not a noted cannibal.”
In short, “A Modest Proposal” could be identified as satire because Swift wrote it; similarly “Creationism: Your Questions Answered” could be identified as satire because Ebert wrote it. But now I’m thinking of the guy who stands squinting at an oil in the Art Institute, and when his wife asks if he likes it replies, “I don’t know. Who’s the painter?”
Swift proposed that the Irish sate their empty bellies by eating babies. I’m guessing the outlandishness of this idea made it easy for Ebert’s old English class to conclude Swift was making fun of something even if they weren’t sure exactly what. Nobody really believed the Irish should eat their babies! they guessed — and they were right. But Ebert allows that the ideas presented in his Q&A “accurately reflected Creationist beliefs.” It’s malarkey that apparently becomes irony because Ebert publishes it under his name. It’s like found art — a hunk of whatever relocated in a gallery.
Ebert is worried about credulity (also about ignorance). For instance — the example’s his — a McCain ad accuses Obama of championing “comprehensive sex education” for kindergartners and people buy it. OK, but what does credulity have to do with irony? That sex ed ad isn’t ironic — it’s dishonest. Ebert could be flirting here with an interesting and possibly valid idea — that proficiency in the language of irony is necessary if a modern American is to withstand the lies, distortions, and vulgar appeals that accost us daily. The danger is that masters of this language might therefore think better of themselves, and less of everyone else — like the scholars of old who believed they thought finer thoughts because they thought them in Latin.