My wife’s copy of Pride and Prejudice falls open naturally (that is, by a second nature in which its reader has thoroughly trained it) to a certain page near the middle of the book, in Chapter 35. This pivotal chapter consists almost entirely of a letter from Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet, in which he explains the motives of his actions in such a way that Elizabeth’s judgment of him is overturned–along with her judgment of herself. All along she has prided herself on her keen and unperturbed insight, on commanding a clear view of the hearts of men. The letter from Darcy is a letter of introduction, which introduces Elizabeth to two men she thought she knew. But more than that it introduces her to herself. Her reflections on the letter culminate with the astonishing exclamation, “Till this moment, I never knew myself.”
Reading Darcy, Elizabeth discovers herself. And reading Chapter 35, we in turn discover ourselves; for the typical reader of Pride and Prejudice will go along with Elizabeth’s self-understanding throughout the first half, all the while maintaining a confidence in his own ability to interpret the character. The discovery of Elizabeth’s failure to read herself is at the same time an indictment of the reader’s failure to read. This indictment is part of exactly what makes the book worth reading, and why adaptations and sentimental evaluations of it are doomed to rob it of its treasure.
But there is a puzzle wrapped up in this central passage of self-discovery (a puzzle I will leave as an open question to conclude this post). It is undeniably the crucial event of the novel, and as the broken spine of many a copy attests, it is eminently re-readable. So what could be stranger than declaring that it would better be destroyed and forgotten? But that is exactly what Mr. Darcy advises towards the end of the novel. Elizabeth consents, indicating that the letter itself is an empty document, and at another point even says that her former feelings were best forgotten. The letter of introduction has done its work, and now that Darcy and Elizabeth have by its mediation come to know themselves and each other, there remains no need for it.
Yet the letter does remain, and even constitutes the most impressive passage of an impressive book. To be sure, the letter is preserved for readers of the book rather than for Elizabeth. But if, as I claim, the letter introduces us to ourselves as much as it Elizabeth to herself, why do we still need it once we have learned the lesson? Should we stop reminding ourselves of what we were like before we read it? Is there ever a time when we stop re-reading Chapter 35 of Pride and Prejudice?
(A version of this post originally appeared on August 23, 2008)
If you’ve seen The Lego Movie, you know that its tone is playful, self-deprecating, and whimsical. It has themes, but refuses to be ponderous about them. When the Master Builder Vitruvius states the moral message of the film in so many words (something along the lines of “You are special if you believe you are”), he follows up right away with a disclaimer: “I know it sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true.”
Of course, this disclaimer draws a laugh if you happen to be thinking exactly that before he says it. But the joke is also supposed to be cathartic. If you’re given permission to laugh at the silliness of the theme, maybe you can move past derision and also accept the message.
What is it about a platitude that makes us gag? Do we just think it’s wrong? Then all we need is to be reminded that truisms are true, and the nausea will subside. But that isn’t enough, is it? We also need to be able to laugh it off. Because a platitude is worse than false–it’s ridiculous. Innocent of all worldly wisdom, radiating naïveté, it is a sitting duck for mockery. If you are ever on the internet (apparently, you are), you’ve probably digested enough mockery that when you hear something high and empty sounding, you can already hear its ironic echoes resounding through the feeds and streams. It’s as inevitable as the closing bars of a song, that smug moral pronouncements will soon be reduced to sneering travesties.
Call it bathetic cadence.
Now if you want to repeat a platitude in an atmosphere like this, what do you do? You inoculate it, by mocking it yourself. There’s no satisfaction for mockers in taking you down if you’ve done it yourself in advance. Where I come from, we call that an “apotropaism.”
*laughes at all my haters* lol the jokes on u. theres no way u can hate me mor than i hate myselbf
— jomny sun (@jonnysun) April 5, 2014
This is exactly what Vitruvius does when he delivers the message of the movie. (Frozen makes a similar move by having its moral not intoned by a weathered sage but casually dropped by a confirmed idiot.) Children don’t need such apologies, but their parents do, because we’ve grown up in an age of irony. If we want to share an earnest moment with our children, it has to be post-ironic. It has to give us permission to laugh it to scorn even as we take it in.
What do these post-ironic apotropaisms (consider this your take-away phrase to sound impressive when you are describing this article to your friends) mean? Calling them “post-“ironic implies that we’ve made some progress. Irony must have been a step in the right direction or we’d be trying to get back to the “pre-” ironic. Getting past irony must be even better.
But where have we gotten? A platitude in brackets is still a platitude. If receiving it from a self-deprecating source keeps us from rejecting it, maybe we were rejecting it for the wrong reasons. We should reject platitudes not because they are ridiculous or even because they are false, but because the problems they solve are always inconsequential. Wanting to feel special, for instance, is a distraction from actually doing something that matters, whether it gives you a sense of fulfillment or not. If we simply override our disgust at platitudes, then we are losing the benefit of an ironic sensibility that protects us from such self-satisfied affirmations.
What we need is a post-post-ironic sensibility that is not just a return to irony but an improvement on the whole fruitless back-and-forth between irony and sincerity. Irony can and should be charitable and edifying instead of cynical and destructive. Sincerity does not have to be naive and trite. It can be literate and profound.
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