On a lighter note. (Lighter than what? What could be lighter than Andrew Ross? Okay not lighter then, just different.) I have a staggering piece of news for everyone. Are you sitting down? Because this is a real shocker, and so new and fresh and unfamiliar – you just can’t think how new. Ready? Okay here it is.
Americans don’t get irony.
You didn’t know that, did you. You’ve never ever heard that before, have you. That’s not a stupid boring worn-out stale dull flat endlessly-recycled tedious cliché, is it! No indeed. No, you only hear that some three times in every BBC arts programme, that’s all.
I do beg your pardon. How unbecoming. And unironic. But there it is, you see – I don’t get irony. Never have. It’s a closed book to me. Comes of being born in New York, you see, that well-known haven of flat-footed wide-eyed literalness and naiveté.
No it’s just that I heard that particular gem of folk wisdom three times in one day last week. It’s just that it’s gotten so I can hear it coming, and prepare to roll my eyes. The minute one of the boffins on ‘Front Row’ or ‘Saturday Review’ comments on a certain sentimentality or fatuity in a new American movie, I know the next sentence is going to be the one about how Americans don’t do irony. Followed by a Tweedle-dum-Tweedledee-esque group hug. ‘Aren’t we cool, aren’t we great, aren’t we swell, we get irony and those poor pathetic dweebs across the pond don’t, not one of them, they’re all Biblical literalists and every other kind of literalists to boot.’
Gross exaggeration, I know. Well that’s what I do instead of irony, you see – hyperbole. I always do that. (And, I have to admit, a lifelong habit of doing that has revealed to me that some Americans do indeed not get irony, in the sense that I have had people of that nationality owlishly correct or question obvious hyperbole. ‘Was he really ten feet tall?’ Uh – no.) But if other people are allowed to do irony, then I’m allowed to do hyperbole. There’s a law on the books about it. I’d show you but I’m too busy.
One of the funny (possibly even ironic) things about the three in one day is that one of them was so very old. Two were from ‘Saturday Review’ but the other was from an ancient Morse I happened to watch on tv – one from 1991. Some guy tells Morse he’s going back to Princeton and it will be so nice and restful because Americans don’t do irony. Oh really! Princeton’s an irony-free zone, is it! Well I grew up there, and that’s news to me. In fact it’s bollocks.
To be fair, one of the two mentions on ‘Saturday Review’ was saying the same thing. Good old Tom Sutcliffe pointed out that it’s not that there’s no irony in the US, it’s just that it’s not evenly distributed. It may be a bit scarce in Nebraska, he said mildly, but there’s a lot of it on the coasts. Well exactly.
I’ve been slightly touchy about this for years – decades in fact. Ever since reading a long windy pompous self-congratulatory novel by John Fowles, Daniel Martin, which went on and on and on about how Americansdon’tdoirony. Even the clever ones, even the clever and funny ones, even the very clever and funny ones – even they don’t do irony. Whereas, apparently, all Ukanians, however dim and unfunny, do irony like polecats. I hadn’t a clue what he meant by it, which I thought might possibly indicate that it was true and that I too did not do irony. That it was like those notes that only dogs can hear, or sonic thingies that only dolphins can detect – that I simply couldn’t even recognize it, let alone appreciate it or smile at it or deploy it myself.
Well. That was a long time ago, and I’ve long since realized that Fowles was talking self-flattering crap. (And after that review of his diaries in the LRB the other month, I have serious doubts about his talent in the irony department, frankly.) Yes, granted, of course, a lot of our movies are full of sentimental bilge, but I’m such an ironist that I don’t go see them, so they don’t implicate the whole population, now do they. And granted our presidential campaigns are full of even more sentimental and utterly irrelevant bilge (Vote for me, I have a dog!), but – um – well never mind what. But we can too so do irony. We just don’t always happen to feel like it.