Saturday, 12 April 2014

Irony and a warning from Zbigniew

I'm not sure about irony. I'm addicted to it, being a middle-class sort of Brit well into those retirement years during which fewer and fewer of us actually do or can completely retire. 

It's certainly useful as a distancer in social and interpersonal contexts, and as a way of trying to hang on to what's left of the idea of personal privacy and cultural restraint.

But: it's easily misunderstood, especially in emails, blogs, forums - in fact, through any quickly-written and hastily read electronic output (i.e. a lot of it.)

It can be mistaken for coldness, now that everything is awesomely wonderfully marvellously lots of lovely so brilliantly done (even if it's really, just ok) but many kinds of restraint can seem cold in whatseems to me like an age of linguistic emotional inflation.

Here's a prose poem from a survivor of Eastern European totalitarianism, the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert,

by way of a warning:

"Prose Mythology

First there was a god of night and tempest, a black idol without eyes, before whom they leaped, naked and smeared with blood. Later on, in the times of the republic, there were many gods with wives, children, creaking beds, and harmlessly exploding thunderbolts. At the end, only superstitious neurotics carried in their pockets little statues of salt, representing the god of irony. There was no greater god at that time.

Then came the barbarians. They too valued highly the little god of irony. They would crush it under their heels and add it to their dishes."

(translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Swift)

Until the barbarians arrive, I'll continue to carry the little statue in my superstitious neurotics' pocket. 

Or: maybe the barbarians are already here, but instead of stamping on my precious little statue, they are eroding it away bit by bit with the tears of an easy emotionalism. It's easier to shed such tears than to take the full weight of the suffering of our times. Zbigniew knew that - he fought the Nazis and resisted the Stalinists, and one of his weapons, alongside his surrealistic imagination, was irony.

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