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Dead in the Water

The Age of Irony won’t grow up

Aug 9, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 44 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Martin Amis’s most recent novel told a story about the summer of 1970 from a modern standpoint. Strange fact: The Pregnant Widow revealed, without exactly meaning to, that cultural attitudes have gone virtually nowhere in the last 40 years. 

Dead in the Water

Martin Amis, Tina Brown at the London launch of ‘The Diana Chronicles’ (2007)

It’s not one of Amis’s best, but Widow (reviewed here by Ted Gioia in April) is a memorable and striking book. It is also a case study despite itself. The story is about sex, money, and religion (mainly sex) in the minds of European young adults four decades ago. Through the varied translucent colors of the characters we see the cultural background of 1970—which is strikingly familiar. Feminism, victimism, contempt for the West and especially America, hostility to religion, indifference to art. The intellectuals, academics, reporters, and the other culture leaders who have seats in the choir of Western civilization have been at this dirge for nearly half-a-century. If they seem testy at times, who can blame them? The song is tired, but it’s the only one they know. If hell is other people, it is also a song that repeats forever.

One of the most important characteristics of this postmodern age is so familiar we often miss it: It doesn’t move. We are stuck. Imagine a novelist in 1970 writing about the world of 1930—or for that matter, of 1950: The changes in educated attitudes, in ways of talking and thinking, would have been large and obvious. The word “postmodernism” itself is a sign of our stuckness and refusal to think. Postmodern tells us what we used to be, not what we are.

It’s easy to account for this stuckness once we have bothered to notice it. This postmodern era is the Age of Irony. Irony implies detachment. Detachment is invaluable, up to a point. But when irony tyrannizes your thinking, you are in danger of being detached from everything—of being a barge adrift, with nothing to tug or push you forward. You are going nowhere (nothing moves you) and are passionate about nothing (nothing moves you). You have shot the albatross; you are dead in the water. Self-love and self-hate are the only emotions that thrive. That is postmodernism, the age of irony: going nowhere, moved by nothing.

You see the deadness of today’s educated worldview in, for example, our own special brand of environmentalism. Love of nature is a recurring theme in Western history, but it has nearly always been associated with a thrill of sublimity. The beauty and power of nature and the ocean-swell of emotion it creates leads to thoughts of God, or at any rate of man’s more-than-natural nature (frogs and chickens don’t go into transports when contemplating waterfalls) and of our spiritual duties and possibilities: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; / what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Psalm 8:3-4).

But today’s environmentalism is hard and dry—like so much else that was young in the 1960s. It tells us only how small man is, not how large he could be, and generates scalding steam clouds of apocalyptic press releases and naggings and scoldings in lieu of great literature. This is the Sterile Age. We need to awaken from this age as desperately as Coleridge’s becalmed and dying mariner needed wind in his sails.

There is an (appropriately ironic) demonstration of our sterile stuckness in Amis’s fine new novel, especially if we consider it alongside two related novels by other authors.

In the summer of 1970, as Amis reports it, art has become an ironic joke. Religion has become an ironic joke. Love has become an ironic joke. The hero is a budding poet who spends the summer reading doggedly through a pile of major English novels, inspired by none and moved by none. These grim young people are spending the summer at a lavishly modernized Italian castle belonging to the family of one of the girls, somewhere between Naples and Rome; but art means nothing to them. Music means nothing. In reality, summer-of-’70 conversation among mainly English young people would almost surely have been full of the Beatles—who had just released their last album and disintegrated—and other rock bands. But Amis makes a point of omitting such talk, as if, on reflection, it had meant nothing after all.

Religion figures as a plot gimmick designed, like a mustache inked onto a photo, to make it look ridiculous. In other respects Amis keeps his hero at arm’s length: They have characteristics in common but are clearly distinct; only in their shared clownish view of religion do they melt together. An important sexual event is ruined when the hero jokes about religion, and two of the main girls turn out to be religious. Later, their supposed faith is exposed in both cases as a shallow façade; and the religion joke, for that matter, isn’t even the real reason why the event was cancelled. One mask hides another and another.

Political attitudinizing hasn’t changed much in the meantime. When Vietnam comes up in 1970, the dominant attitude is about the same as the hero’s in later, epilogal years on the topic of Iraq: “American presidents, in wartime, are always re-elected. There would be regime change in Baghdad, in 2003, so that there would be no regime change in Washington, in 2004.” That long-ago Italian summer was stiff with lust but wholly innocent of passion. Amis makes the point by showing us young men whose desires focus not so much on particular girls as on particular anatomical strong points of particular girls. Love is an ironic joke. In the epilogue, the hero marries, but the attraction between husband and wife was “just love,” and so the marriage never had a chance.

Widow shows us that nihilism, like swamp gas, had stolen into the air of 1970 and smothered everything passionate, genuine, and serious. To these sad young adults, the cultural revolution of the late 1960s was Vesuvius exploding in a fog of killer irony. And Amis’s characters, according to the longish epilogue, stay trapped in these same attitudes decade after decade, like living mummies. And as for today’s young adults: On the whole they are indistinguishable from Amis’s 1970 models. The novel rarely even bothers with the incidentals that distinguish then from now. The hero smokes, and that’s about all. 

The Widow’s story hinges on a single sex act that changes everything. The hero duly notes “the arrival of sexual intercourse, in 1966,” imitating Philip Larkin’s famous report (which Amis quotes) that “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three.” Only it didn’t, and this is a consequential misconception. Sex had been regarded as a satisfying activity, worth pursuing despite technical difficulties, for some time.

Martin Amis’s father was the novelist Kingsley Amis, whose best book appeared in 1960, Take a Girl Like You. Like Widow, it is about the single sex act that changes everything. (Many novels can be described this way: reductively, or simplistically, or ironically.) Take a Girl is nowhere near as brilliant as Widow, nor is Kingsley capable of writing Martin-style—fuming, corrosive prose that smarts and bites. But Take a Girl is a more humane book than Widow. And it is set in a period (circa 1960) that today’s culture leaders have never heard of. Religion, especially in Europe, was a feeble old man, seemingly spent. Sex before marriage was commonplace. And yet many girls did not choose to indulge. Larkin’s famous poem informs us that “Up to then”—before the great discovery of 1963—“there’d only been / A sort of bargaining, / A wrangle for the ring.” (As if a woman’s wish to be married were childish petulance.) But Take a Girl shows us a heroine whose objection to sleeping with her boyfriend is not religious and does not depend, either, on their not being engaged.

Nor does she object because she is too frigidly unliberated to enjoy sex: She wants to sleep with him (she is very clear about this), yet chooses not to. But in the end she does. Why? Because she has fallen in love with him. Even so, she is torn; but ultimately, being in love, she wants to please him.

What happened between Kingsley’s 1960 and Martin’s 1970 to change a young heroine’s opening position from no to yes? From “no unless I love you” to “yes unless I don’t like you”? What happened during the 1960s was not the gorgeous burst-into-blossoming of the sex tree but the collapse, like an astonished building that, having been dynamited, falls suddenly out of the sky, of the complex structure of chivalry, religion, and tradition that used to support and succor the girl who said no. And again, once the big change had taken place, nothing much else changed in the next four decades.

Ordinarily you’d barely notice that, in Take a Girl, the hero’s love of American jazz is part of the story. It’s only noticeable in comparison to Widow and that balmy Italian summer of 1970, where nobody seems to love anything. The circa 1960 idea of love and sex being somehow intertwined in many female minds, of men and women approaching sex in fundamentally different ways—not because women have been warned off sex, or pettishly insist on marriage or an offer first, or have a superstitious reverence for virginity—still less because they are worried about the failure rates of contemporary contraceptives. All this is, ironically, too subtle for modern ironists to understand.

Ada (1969) is Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece, and also asks to be compared to Amis’s Widow. Amis admired Nabokov: Visiting Mrs. Nabokov (1994) is one of his essay collections. Amis’s writing is Nabokov-like in its wit, dazzle, and phosphorescent vividness. At its very best—and no one can sustain this level for long—it has the sheer blazing sunlit brilliance for which Nabokov is famous. But Amis lacks Nabokov’s playfulness—Amis is as playful as a pet shark—and none of his prose has Nabokov’s lyrical depth and beauty. But to say that Amis’s English sometimes recalls Nabokov’s is saying a lot.

Ada, too, is the story of the single sex act that changes everything, although it is a sex act that does not happen. Ada is every bit as sex-soaked as Widow. Unlike other sex-obsessed modern writers, Amis and Nabokov are even capable of writing about sex erotically. But Ada is not only the story of a sexual relationship that lasts from puberty through old age; it is also the story of an all-consuming, lifelong love affair that shapes the lovers’ lives and becomes their world. They live in it and spend their lives discovering it. The heroine’s love of nature, and the literary obsessions hero and heroine share, feed the book’s warmth and passion and make it as exalting as Widow is, ultimately, funereal. 

Where did all the irony come from? What pole sent this glacier that has pinned modern culture under its massive arrogance? Irony asserts implicitly that you are superior to the thing you are ironizing over, or to its maker. Ordinarily it is a useful, important color in our emotional paintboxes. But when we paint everything this color, its character changes. Irony is quintessentially the attitude of someone at a dinner party who wants you to know that he can’t leave but would rather be anyplace else. The educated elite of America and the West has been feeling mighty ironical ever since the cultural revolution: They have denounced and forsworn Western culture but never had any intention of leaving the table while the feed was underway. So they have had to settle for letting everyone know how much smarter they are than the other guests, how little they are enjoying themselves, and how superior they are to the culture they themselves superintend. (Nothing is more characteristic of the Obama administration than its heavy, graceless irony when it is trashing the opposition. But in the end this is no political issue; it is psychological and emotional.) 

What did we accomplish in that great cultural revolution that created the new ice age, the Sterile Age, the Age of Irony? We manfully whacked down virginity and, crashing to earth while we celebrated it, crushed the idea of purity in the mud. And then we toppled art, which fell backwards and smashed sanctity to splinters. And then spitting on our hands we shouldered loveless sex and paraded it in triumph, which had the unplanned consequence of exalting sterility and grinding out passion among the cigarette butts. And our dry ironic laughter, which has always been joyless, has come to sound like labored breathing on a deathbed.

David Gelernter, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is a professor of computer science at Yale and the author, most recently, of Judaism: A Way of Being


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