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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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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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