I was eighteen when I first picked up a copy of For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today, written by twenty-four year old Jedediah Purdy. It was assigned for a composition class. Chosen, with a number of other works (including books like Bomb the Suburbs and The Tempest, graphic novels like the Sand Man and Transmetropolitan, Sonnets from Shakespeare, and movies like Office Space, Fight Club, and Brazil) to give us something to write about – maybe in the hopes that something would pique our interest enough to get us to write with some sense of purpose and maybe even some passion.
I think I understood the book when I read it as a college freshman. At least, to the extent that I could understand anything. I had highlighted some things that were meaningful, along with some things that…maybe were not too profound. I probably used a few lines (some from the front of the book, and some from the back to demonstrate how thoroughly I had read the book…though I’m sure I skipped most of the middle) in one of my papers for the class. I was, perhaps, a bit bitter when I read the book. Not about anything in particular, but maybe just in general. I was, no doubt, a cynic. I got excited about few things and preferred to crack jokes and observe life from the sidelines. By doing this, I could usually make others on the sidelines (which was a lot of people) laugh and did not have to risk making a fool of myself.
So, when I read Purdy’s words, speaking about the culture of irony – a culture that saw life only from the vantage point of the sidelines -, bolstered by examples drawn from Seinfeld and Wired magazine, I understood what he was talking about. And, from my place on the sidelines, it made sense. There was a culture of irony. Purdy was right, though I too probably could have written a book about it.
Fast forward to yesterday, as I read through the book again for the first time since my freshman year of college. Again, I think I understood the book, though maybe at a different level. I think I recognized, not only that Purdy’s analysis of culture has a lot of truth to it, but also how much I have contributed and participated in that culture of irony and cynicism. Particularly during the time when I read the book for the first time, I missed that the book was written not just about a nebulous and intangible ‘culture’ that surrounds us but about me and my attitude.
I don’t know if I’m quite as ironic or cynical as I was when I first picked up the book. I hope that I’ve found, in the increasing complexity of life, more to think about – more to care about – and more to be hopeful about. But reading the book again made me realize that I still have a propensity for the sidelines. It is still (as it always has been) easier to keep myself removed from situations and environments just enough that I can escape from being identified or labeled. I can know enough to talk shop, but can just as easily plead ignorance. Similar to Peter’s denial of Christ (yeah, I sound just like the guy, you may have even seen me there when he was doing miracles…but, trust me, I’m not one of them).
Reading Purdy again was an encouragement to keep moving from the sidelines toward the center. To stay engaged and keep engaging. To offer a voice of hope and optimism and not simply irony and skepticism.
Here’s a quote that I appreciated (though the clean and crisp page I found this on yesterday indicates I may have missed it my first time through):
In valuing any good thing, we also, if we are consistent, value the many good things on which it relies. If we value something in honesty, we recognize a certain responsibility for it beyond our pleasure in its momentary availability. Just by living in the world, just by caring for things, we take on a responsibility for the world’s well-being. This is not meant to be that elusive philosopher’s goal, the irresistible argument for moral behavior. I mean simply that the ironic reluctance to rest much hope on people, relationships, or institutions may be founded on a mistaken idea: that it is possible to decide whether or not to place such hope. In fact, so far as we care for anything at all, we must hope for a great deal from a great number of people, institutions, and relationships in which the question is not whether to hope, but whether to acknowledge our hope, to make it our own. And hope and responsibility are the same here. In both, we tie our success or failure to the state of something outside us, which we cannot entirely control. We can refuse responsibility, but we cannot decide against its existence.
Jedediah Purdy, For Common Things, 92.