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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.

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