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9/11 and the Rebirth of Irony

After first period, everyone started going to a particular hallway on my high school’s third floor, which had one of the few east-facing windows outside a classroom. From there we could see the towers burning. Then everyone went to their homerooms. No one knew what was going on yet, and the teachers didn’t know if they had to do anything, so they just turned on the TVs. Then the usual flow of school time came unmoored as the second plane hit and we realized we were witnessing an intentional attack. We kept watching TV with a mixture of confusion, listlessness, and the slight frisson one gets when events interrupt daily schedules and routines. Without any announcement, everyone kind of understood we weren’t going to second period on time.

Then the first tower fell. We watched an enormous cloud of smoke, ash, and what we later learned were toxic particulates envelop Lower Manhattan. The low murmur of chitchat stopped completely. Then one kid piped up, an incorrigible smartass a year younger than me: “Damn, it looks like a whole city full of Snoop Dogg!”

I shot him a dirty look — we all knew thousands of people had just died. But part of me wanted to laugh. Part of me wished I’d come up with the line. Two decades after the fact, I kept coming back to instances like this one where my peers and I tried to free ourselves from the binds that began to restrain us so swiftly the morning of September 11: in hours it seemed America had adopted a structure of feeling that was po-faced, literal-minded, sanctimonious, and terrifyingly assured that a new sense of “moral clarity” gave warrant to all the grasping, destructive impulses that we should have been working to overcome.

To pay respect, to honor in state-approved fashion the dead and the troops fighting in their name, meant surrendering one’s ability to think and reflect. So to hang on to those intellectual and indeed moral capacities seemed to demand a commitment not to respect the funereal, wrathful national mood, to in fact disrespect it, to ironize it, to make its absurdity legible and speakable.

We were all told that the irony that had defined the post-Cold War moment died on 9/11. Yet the event and the culture of the War on Terror seemed to give new life to the ironic impulse. It was the only way to say what we really thought.

I’m not saying this necessarily occurred to the 9th grader in my homeroom at the moment that the towers fell. And yet literally immediately afterward, before the publication of essays in now-irrelevant magazines by now-forgotten men that irony was out and certainty was in, before I’d even had lunch, I grasped what America would become as a result of that attack.

After eventually leaving home room, I went to my US history class. To give you some idea of the place where I grew up, we were assigned Zinn’s People’s History as summer reading. Our teacher Mr. DeBiasse dispensed with the lesson plan to wax paranoiac about the attack. It would be our Gulf of Tonkin, he said — the confused moment that escalated our long-running involvement in the Middle East into a proper imperial war.

It sounded absurd to me. The dust was still billowing and we had no idea who had done this. Besides, and last November hadn’t we just elected a dumb, milquetoast “compassionate conservative” who every adult in my life treated like a harmless punch line?

Yet in a corner of my mind, absurdity rang true. In 9th grade I’d discovered The Onion, which had just published “Our Dumb Century,” a book of mock-up front pages covering the 20th century. I got turned onto history by  “Our Dumb Century” as much as anything else I read in those years, if only because I wanted to get the jokes. It seemed like The Onion nailed America better than the more serious books I read that took public figures at their word. There was always a gap between, on the one hand, mainstream political culture, conventional wisdom, our national self-understanding; and on the other, the reality revealed by our actions. The gap seemed to yawn to a chasm at times when our leaders insisted there was no gap at all. When leaders turned to popular truisms like American exceptionalism, one should look elsewhere for truth.

My irreverent smart-ass streak developed in tandem with my political and moral commitments. When my friends and I played ping-pong, we went out of our way to make the score nine serving eleven. We decided the perfect universal excuse for missed homework, tardiness, skipped family commitments, and whatever teenage impulse we indulged was that the world had changed since the tragic events of September 11th. I joked that "Missions Accomplished" was what one should say following sex, or a dump. My college comedy group did a sketch that the CIA had finally discovered proof of an Al Qaeda-Iraq connection: Afghanistan had just been added to Facebook, and Osama had “poked” Saddam (remember “pokes” ?).  But at the same time that we all admitted that the War on Terror was a joke, we knew its consequences were not: we all went to anti-war protests, joined the ACLU, registered people to vote in the 2004 election, and worried about getting drafted to go fight Iran, as seemed inevitable at times during Bush’s second term.

When I think about the ironic impulse, I’m reminded of a passage from “Some Hope,” the third novel in Edward St. Aubyn’s not-so-semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose series. Melrose, the St. Aubyn stand-in, tries to reemerge into social life after getting clean from a terrifying hard drug addiction. He’d turned to cocaine and heroin to escape the trauma of his late aristocratic father’s years of monstrous abuse, but of course it hadn’t worked. Then again, to what world was he returning? The same upper-class British circle that had practically applauded his father’s cruelty so long as it was witty and kept things from getting boring, untroubled in their conviction that their mores were the height of refinement:

Perhaps all his problems arose from using the wrong vocabulary, he thought, with a brief flush of excitement that enabled him to throw aside the bedcovers and contemplate getting up. He moved in a world in which the word ‘charity,’ like a beautiful woman shadowed by her jealous husband, was invariably qualified by the words ‘lunch,’ ‘committee,’ or ‘ball.’ ‘Compassion’ nobody had any time for, whereas ‘leniency’ made frequent appearances in the form of complaints about short prison sentences. Still, he knew his difficulties were more fundamental than that.
He was worn out by his lifelong need to be in two places at once: in his body and out of his body, on the bed and on the curtain pole, in the vein and in the barrel, one eye behind the eyepatch and one eye looking at the eyepatch, trying to stop observing by becoming unconscious, and then forced to observe the fringes of the unconscious and make darkness visible; cancelling every effort, but spoiling apathy with restlessness; drawn to puns but repelled by the virus of ambiguity; inclined to divide sentences in half, pivoting on the qualification of a ‘but,’ but longing to unwind his coiled tongue like a gecko’s and catch a distant fly with unwavering skill; desperate to escape the self subversion of irony and say what he really meant, but really meaning only what irony could convey.

When Roger Rosenblatt declared irony dead in his famous Time Magazine essay published two weeks after the attack, he characterized the irony dominant pre-9/11 as the attitude that “Nothing was real. With a giggle and a smirk, our chattering classes--our columnists and pop culture makers--declared that detachment and personal whimsy were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life.” But irony is not a mere pose, an attitude of condescension to the earnest rubes who believe in eternal truths: it’s a means of protecting oneself from people with power who lie all the time and expect everyone to go along with it, be it Melrose’s abusive father, the triumphalist market revolutionaries of the 1990s, or the Bush administration marching to war.

Often that ironic impulse is escapist, but sometimes life needs escaping. And even irony’s inevitable failure to truly provide escape can be productive. You have to see that a situation is intolerable in the face of claims by those with power that everything is fine and necessary to mount  a critique. Of course there’s no guarantee that an ironic sense of unease and disorientation with present reality will lead one to conceive of a better world. Irony can just as easily curdle into miserablism and nihilism. But as St. Aubyn wrote, it’s the dissonance between how we’re told to understand the world and what we can see in front of our eyes that one feels compelled to express, “really meaning only what irony could convey.”