Happy Warriors & Not-so-Happy Ones

Long before I returned to my conservative roots, I loved the humor of a Buckley – the right seemed to have more fun with ideas. Great satire points out the foibles of the disproportionate. Jane Austen understood that. It is the sharp recognition of a truth about human nature that makes us smile, albeit ruefully. Even with the rather meager set of social values Seinfeld embodied, his friends, in their superficiality and greed and general laziness, made us laugh. We laughed because they didn’t recognize what we owe to others, what living with others requires of us – say, not sleeping under the desk or sharing bathroom tissue. The writer’s sense of the variety & density of our cultural restraints and our own impulses permeated that series.

We enjoyed Seinfeld and his friends because they loved words but also because we took a certain pleasure in their violation of good manners that restrained us: we wouldn’t make their choices, but we would be tempted. We restrained those impulses (or hid them) because we understood they violated not just gentility but morality. The last episode made that clear to us: in the real world, we would have felt contempt (or guilt) – but watching them, we could laugh. That wasn’t a funny episode; it was an arresting conclusion.

4 Weddings and a Funeral opened with the characters repeatedly shouting f*** as if it were, of itself, funny. I soon realized we’d stepped into a pretty lame movie. I had no delightful sense of shock as the single expletive rolled from their tongues time after time; that is customary among some people at some ages. I waited for wit. But it was a sad movie, representing a tired, indeed, an immature, culture; it preened itself on its transgressive nature but was about as transgressive as junior high jokes. It had no sense it was the façade – pretending to be transgressive but with no sense of what it was transgressing. Such humor is centerless.

Jane Austen takes the stance of the conservative: ironic and witty, she describes the foibles of her society – absurd because we recognize what isn’t absurd, but appropriate, thoughtful, proportional, and, often, moral. With the Brontes that standard is lost. We may read them with certain breathlessness, but we don’t consider them proportionate. The Romantic hero’s heroism is disproportionate in what he does, what he risks. And disproportion without understanding proportion isn’t so funny: it sure wasn’t on Air America.

A second problem with the left’s inability to laugh is that it relies upon two reflexive modes of thought. The first is the anecdotal. All politicians do that; indeed, Reagan’s use was famous. But the left is more willing to raze an institution. If we keep our horizons narrow, we are more likely to make bad laws from hard cases. It is that sympathy that leads the left to think it cares. The right tends to let them think that, despite the fact the programs of the left have pretty much screwed over any country caught in its path. And despite its hubris. Vanity ignores history and sets about rediscovering the wheel. If conservatives are too slow to redesign it, perhaps to contemplative, that is a failing – but at least we still have the wheel.

Secondly and because the truth is that the more systems have leaned toward state solutions, the more they have denied liberty and, in the end, material well being to their chattels, those on the left live in remarkable cognitive dissonance. Academics may seem foolish but they aren’t fools. To maintain such thinking requires effort. Irony and self-consciousness endanger its precarious balance. Projection can be a ploy (though often to fool one’s self). Those uncomfortable thoughts so likely to pop up are surely what the “other” feels always, all the time. Those “others” must, so much more than we, think in racist tropes, turn to violence, hate others. What we hate is often what tempts us. Surely if Grayson thought for a moment he’d realize he isn’t the appropriate critic of the right’s verbal violence. It isn’t all that convoluted, but old human nature. And so, as in the previous post, Goldstein’s critic fears seeing Obama as rapist will inspire violence while seeing Bush as vampire will not (because, well, the “other” is more prone to violence).

The South produced little art before Reconstruction and much after – the sense of the tragic comes hard, but frees us to grow. Faulkner makes that argument repeatedly. Growth is learning to accept fallibility, paradox. Facing the fact that consequences are more complex than we had hoped is bracing; not facing it doesn’t mean our guts forget it. Acknowledging the depths of dissonance means coming to terms. For the academic, it requires recognizing theirs was the position complicit with Walter Duranty, with the thugs of On the Waterfront, with those who sent the boat people to sea, with those decreeing the cultural revolution, with those bribed by Oil for Food money – indeed, with those who believed wearing a Che shirt was a sign they identified with the oppressed and not the oppressor. The pre-war South had but one major writer, that outlier Poe, whose works were wisest about a subconscious that would not remain buried. Many modern writers, trained in the kinds of writing programs over which Goldstein’s old teacher presides, concentrate less often on truths because so much effort is expended burying the obvious.

9 thoughts on “Happy Warriors & Not-so-Happy Ones”

  1. Retro 90s is very trendy, Ginny, very trendy now :)

    I am charmed by your description of the foibles and failings of the Seinfeld crew, although, the last few seasons irritated me. Jumped the shark… .

    I disagree on 4 Weddings and a Funeral, although, I saw it in my early twenties and I’m not as charmed by the characters now as I was then. But I recognize the type, very Gen X and very afraid of commitment in any sense, at least, the stereotype as presented in the media – and it existed, a bit, in real life, too.

    I think the charm of the film lay in the way that the good things, the meaningful things, like friendship and love and devotion sort of snuck into the world of those self-absorbed crew. A recognition of childishness where there ought to be adultness.

    I see a strain of dourness on the right, too, that while valid, is not my cup of tea. John Derbyshire of the National Review comes to mind. While I often agree with his initial assessments on a particular issue, I don’t much like the whole, “we are doomed,” stuff. I guess, even though – again – he has a point regarding the seemingly inexorable growth of the state, it still rankles. We ought not give up so easily.

    How charmed I am by your description of Seinfeld in this post, Ginny! :)

    – Madhu

  2. Okay, what is up with me and charmed? Also, the word lovely. Everything is lovely and charming to me all the time? Now, how can that be? I can’t REALLY mean that?

    – Madhu

  3. And, finally, I always feel I ought to love Jane Austen more than I do. This will start a fight, but I sometimes find Austen cold.

    Let’s see, what do I like? The Brontes, Dickens, Elliot, but somehow, Austen never catches my fancy as much as the others. Oh well, we don’t all have to like the same things.

    – Madhu

  4. Yes it is is pretty blasphemous not to like Jane Austen, but then you are probably at heart a romantic and a good deal younger – certainly the passion of the Brontes has its appeal, too. Just less to me, now.

    And I suspect where you are has a lot to do with reactions to pop culture (probably to high culture, too). For instance, I think I’d been teaching “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” about the time we went to “4 Weddings”. I was not only older and more impatient with these approaches, but also irritated by juxtaposing Porter’s character, who was prideful and clearly a control freak but had been seriously hurt by being jilted all those years ago even though her husband was a better man, and the kind of non-serious way such commitments were treated in the movie. And that I wanted my kids to take their relationships more seriously. If I’d been my kids, I probably would have laughed more. In fact, as I remember, they thought I took it far too seriously and they enjoyed it. And you are right, Seinfeld did prety much jump the shark – probably when the fiancee died and George treated it so superficially. At that point, I think Seinfeld himself said, they figured their audience would accept anything. And the conclusion showed us, I think, that they were a bit embarrassed how far they’d gone.

    But Poe and the buried consciousness of modern academics – there, I’m pretty sure, I will remain serious.

  5. John Derbyshire of the National Review comes to mind. While I often agree with his initial assessments on a particular issue, I don’t much like the whole, “we are doomed,” stuff. I guess, even though – again – he has a point regarding the seemingly inexorable growth of the state, it still rankles. We ought not give up so easily.

    I don’t think Derbyshire is dour at all. He is ironic in a way and he uses humor in a way that may not be understood. I wrote a review of his book, We Are Doomed, and wrote that, at several times, I had tears in my eyes, not from grief but from laughing. There is a type of humor that he exemplifies so well. Maybe it is black humor. In surgery, I have had long experience with that, but it is humor none the less.

  6. To clarify because I was blogging tired, yesterday:

    Ginny: The Seinfeld stuff is inspired. Gorgeously inspired.

    I like Austen, but I always want a little description of the surroundings: how did the meal taste, did it rain, how did the rain look on the window? It’s not romantic notions, but something else entirely that I crave. A sense of the physical world and the character’s reactions to it, perhaps?

    Michael Kennedy: I don’t know why I pick on Derbyshire. I did the same at Althouse once, too, and the truth is, I like NRO and his iconoclastic postings there. I think you are correct – I just don’t “get” the humor intended. Will try and read with that new realization in mind.

    – Madhu

  7. Will try and read with that new realization in mind.

    You really should give “We Are Doomed” a try. It is one of the funnier books I read last year. When he gets to the Kansas City school story, he absolutely takes no prisoners.

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