Conan the Cimmerian vs. Irony

I find myself in the grips of an existential crisis, which I am embarrassed to admit has been prompted by my recent fascination with Conan the Barbarian — the series of short stories by Robert Howard that was later made into a pair of movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and remade recently into a critically-loathed mess starring Jason Momoa.

I haven’t seen the new Momoa flick, but I’ve been reading the original pulp fiction from Howard and I rewatched first movie when it was on cable a week ago. Strange as it may sound, the tales of that perpetually shirtless barbarian have prompted me to think a lot about story-telling, and how the abandonment of earnestness for the sake of irony has hurt our culture.

What I enjoy most about Conan, especially in reading the stories, is that there’s none of the sarcasm, irony or apologetic self-reference that pervades much of the art I consume. Yes, Conan is little more than a reversion to an arche-type — a strong-willed, suspiciously muscular, curiously lucky barbarian who probably speaks more to Robert Howard’s latent homosexuality than a larger understanding of the human condition.

It’s precisely this naive honesty in his telling that makes Howards’ prose so compelling to me. It’s uncomplicated, it’s honest, it’s evocative, it conveys a clear vision of who is right and who is wrong. It’s staggering to me to realize that these qualities are so rare in the entertainment I enjoy.

To be honest, I didn’t really think about any of this until I read an essay in David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, wherein Wallace ruminates:

[I]rony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I’m saying.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.” Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.

How perfectly he describes the crises that have colored my adulthood. Heck, my childhood. I remembering watching Fight Club for the first time as a teenager, feeling affected by the anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist message of Chuck Palahniuk’s phantom protagonist, only to have it dashed by the conclusion of the story by the ironic twist that encapsulated Edward Norton’s character.

I’m convinced that the continued popularity of that film stems largely from the fact that many people refuse to reconcile what Tyler Durden says with Palahniuk’s conceit, which is that to have such conviction in the moral and economic freedom of men of the lower middle class is crazy. It is literally the product of the mind of a schizophrenic individual. I’ve never been able to tell if Palahniuk is trying to mask his true feelings in the veil of irony or if he’s trying to mock his reader/viewer for feeling the stirrings of conviction. I suspect the latter, because that seems to be the mark of the celebrated artist these days, and none of his other prose has ever struck me as rising above the muck of irony.

This struggle goes beyond art, and that, I believe, is where the prison of irony has grown most problematic. Ever since I attended Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s March for Sanity, I’ve been ruminating on what such a gathering really means for the political attitudes of people of my generation.

To wit, that was by far the largest turn-out in my age group for for any political event… well, probably in my lifetime.

This is, I think, what that rally was all about. It was an release valve for the thousands of disgruntled young people to vent their discontent with the system in a way that rendered them free from ridicule. Since the whole event was cloaked in Jon Stewart’s pervading sense of irony, people could express sincere feelings and know that others knew that their sincerity was couched with a knowing smile. In other words, it’s OK to be angry at the political process, but only if you make it clear that you know the process is stupid anyway. It assuages the ego, but it does very little for political activism.

So where to go from here? Will I strive to distance myself from irony in my life? Will I swear off David Lynch’s films for the rest of my day? I’d like to think that eventually intellectual culture will strive to redeem the horrors illuminated by irony instead of mocking them, but that may well be something we have to live before we can see it conveyed in art.

And I’m not sure how possible that is. I think that will be the challenge of my generation. I think.

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