#49 On irony

Dear Mat,

Thinking The Bible perfectly good or perfectly bad is wrong. Reading my criticism of it as saying it is perfectly wrong is, ironically, the same kind of wrong. Here’s my imperfect heuristic: what was written by a bunch of uneducated dudes who were trying to lay claim to the ultimate truth, between 1900 and 2900 years ago, is probably quite wrong. And where it happens to be right, we will have better equivalents now anyway. So we can safely junk it.

Were I to apply this only to holy texts, you could accuse me of being ideologically anti-religious. But of course I apply this to all texts pre-1500. Doesn’t matter if it’s Socrates, Seneca or Saint Paul, they don’t know shit from Shinola about a lot of things. Even Lucretius, the least wrong ancient writer, beloved by scientists and atheists everywhere, is wrong as fuck about heaps of things. And even with post-1500 texts, I start a sliding scale of credulity as we approach the present. It’s not the fault of the authors of the past — it doesn’t even matter if they’re anonymous — they’re victims of the forward arrow of time. Later authors can incorporate earlier ones and not vice versa.

I’m glad you mentioned Shakespeare. He’s my rough starting point for modernity and it doesn’t matter if the conspiracy theorists are right about his identity either. Shakespeare scholars study some of the best works of his contemporaries and don’t study Shakespeare’s shittiest plays. Quality over reputation — my whole thing. Because we have such limited time, we prioritise our reading based on some better criterion than reputation or popularity.

Were Shakespeare to have written, “Take no thought for the morrow” I would not have been surprised. I would of course read it as ironical, as it would only be put into the mouth of a naive character, perhaps in a play like All’s Well that Ends Well (an ironic title, it seems somewhat snarky to point out).

But irony is also central to The Bible: it has none.* Another part of my reading strategy has been to comb texts for irony as I think it’s one of the best inventions of modern Homo sapiens. The absence of irony is a mark against the text and a reason to distrust the prescriptions of un-ironic ideologues like David, Daniel, Jesus, Matthew and John of fucking Patmos. It’s one of many reasons why The Bible is worse than Shakespeare’s good plays, assessed on grounds of quality alone.

Our wills and fates do so contrary run

That our devices still are overthrown;

Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

Shakespeare’s dialogue (Hamlet 3.2 198–200) for a character within the play-within-the-play that is presented as having been written by the character Hamlet. It’s a speech about acting, saying two things at once, having one’s motives concealed even from oneself and being manipulated by others and it’s written by someone writing this into a character who’s struggling with identity and trying to rewrite himself. Now that’s irony.

Today we can do even better than Shakespeare! He thought that people’s fates, although discernible, were still just out of their grasp. This was only the dimmest awakening of the modern mind and personal agency couldn’t really flourish. We have to wait until as recently as the nineteenth century to have characters whose inner lives are fully integrated with the vast impersonal forces around them and for whom the conditions of modernity have come together enough to be able to genuinely determine their own fates.

I just read Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now and Peterson’s new book 12 Rules for Life. Both are of “a mingled yarn, good and ill together” of course. But one has a lot more going for it than the other. Namely, Pinker has incorporated newfound knowledge from the last 50 years, whereas Peterson prefers to cap knowledge for some things at 10,000BC, some things at 50AD and the rest whenever Nietzsche died. Pinker shows — with evidence, not myth — that life is better because of new knowledge and that for those living in the remote past life was worse in almost every way imaginable and less free: they could not take thought for the morrow, their ends were not their own.

Sincerely and ironically,


PS Regarding your graph, I think I’m on the same page. But surely you mean power is inversely proportional to reach? And in a democracy aren’t there a few individuals who have outsize power and sway (lobbyists, politicians, etc.). But I can see that democracy is still closest to this distribution than any other system. Have I got this right? Also I don’t think it’s nitpicking to say that a city actually is fuzzy at the edges (which suburbs count as the metro area, etc.) kind of like an ethnic group. Most people are unambiguously classified as, say African American, by themselves and those outside the group who label them. Isn’t that the problem with identity politics, that an identity is as much (sometimes even more so) projected onto a group as it is asserted by them? And although I try and avoid the news this story crept into a podcast I heard. Still, I totally agree that something like income or IQ is a much more measurable characteristic.

*Job’s often considered the most literary. There’s possibly a bit there, I admit. But again, just read Faust instead. And I think I detect a bit in that zany gospel of John’s, maybe 21:25 which has always fascinated me.

Also published on Medium.