‘I’m afraid I only take ironic pleasure,’ Darrell begins, signaling a shift from communal to personal frame in the course of multi-angled reply here a couple of weeks ago. He’s talking about what we were talking about there, the musics of our youths in church, but let’s strip away the impending specifying phrase and cut him off in mid sentence. It’ll do, truncated like so, for calling up a fear, or a lurking problem, that I’m starting to reckon with — a problem I’m no doubt late in coming around to, and that smart folks will no doubt think uninteresting as I express it, but that I figure I might begin to try to draw into the light a bit in this space. What I mean to get at is the difficulty of owning my own tastes as I get older, and particularly as my view of the historical situation I belong to changes.
It’s a difficulty reflected, though not with much clarity, in my confession to my sister (recorded in the post Darrell’s replying to), ‘most of this stuff [that I’m saying I love] is trash.’ If it looks at this point like I’m about to announce some embarrassment at being (to whatever degree I am) ‘lowbrow,’ we can dismiss that. I’m not embarrassed. (And hope I’m not so tedious as to announce it, if I were.) On the other hand, I’m not unsettled or upset at recognizing that there’s frequently irony, open or veiled, in what I may have to say these days about many or most of my aesthetic interests and attachments, either. But where does irony stop? That’s the difficulty — though boiled down further than a really incisive self-examination would allow, probably.
Here I’m not interested in big-culture, big-ethics troubles about irony. I have yet to grasp entirely what the matter was when the word was much in the air a few years ago. What’s on my mind right now is a personal problem, it seems to me, not so much a society thing. It’s not clear to me how far ‘irony’ goes for this purpose, for that matter; but it’s a place to start, anyhow.
Somewhat in the foreground, not in focus for the moment, is a dual turn in my life to be made some sense of with time. My work has taken a fairly drastic new direction recently, so that I’m caught up (not to say necessarily enraptured) with ‘creative’ concerns in ways I hadn’t been for a number of years. More profoundly, though, I’m bothered by history in a new way — or have new sensitivity, rather, to long-working ferment in my view of it.
But back to the thing demanding attention further out, further back: Can I keep reconciling doubtfully grounded affections by way of a negotiation we’ll call (for lack of a better word, for the time being) irony? I’m a pretty resiliently un-cynical person, to my own mind, but might I be on a sort of methodological path that rarely ends other than in death or conversion to cynicism? If so, is that fine as long as I make it to death first?
I don’t want to seem to say that it’s a problem that gives me no rest. I’m sleeping at night. But I’m also living with a constant awareness of contradiction, and of gaps where, when younger, I could believe with relative ease that things strung together, somehow, behind what I felt right about (which is perhaps closer to what I think, uneducatedly, aesthetic experience comes to than to say ‘what I took pleasure in’). I still ‘feel right’ about the things I always have, broadly speaking — about the sound and the sights that come together in jazz in the second- and third-hand forms I know it by, say, and its part in the appeal of Americanness, but also about still much less uncontroversial things: the instruments and manners and popular culture of warfare and violence, to choose an example of no small import. I skate over whether that felt rightness has any reliable basis, however, with a lot more consciousness of what can only be taken for granted and, more acutely, of what’s in jeopardy in concrete terms — terms of being able to live with people, of being able to work — should what’s taken for granted be revealed to be nothing, than I did only a few years ago.