A love of irony is a sign of health; everything absolute belongs to pathology
Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.
Language is an urgent political affair.
This year I have written posts from the battle lines of the language frontier:
- Eminent speakers were silenced by self-righteous university student moralists;
- Cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were shot for writing satire;
- Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play The Witch of Walkern was pulled because its language offended;
- Petitions to Parliament tried to make various human behaviour (and speech) criminal acts;
- The Holocaust was asserted to be too reverent a subject for the language of comedy.
- Writings of the sociologist Emile Durkheim were excluded from the A-level syllabus for fear it could trigger harmful reactions in student readers;
The silencing of speech, and the suppression of the printed word, is an instinctive strategy of the authoritarian mind. It is a method favoured by some politicians, sanctimonious left wing moralists, priggish right wing moralists, religious leaders and other lovers of ideas that tend to fanaticism. Preventing opponents from expressing themselves avoids the nuisance of having to counter their ideas. My posts have been a plea in support of free expression, against the impoverishment of language and for the promotion of dialogue.
The other strategy of the authoritarian mind is the attempt to control language. We know George Orwell’s warnings about the use and abuse of the English language by the powerful: double talk, tautology, clichéd phrases, doctrinaire pomposity, pseudoscientific jargon etc. It is a deadening way of speaking that avoids any need to communicate or learn or imagine anything. Orwell famously prescribed plain words and common sense to counter this self-serving obfuscation. But even plain language can be deployed in ways that render challenge difficult. I propose that we should be suspicious of dogmatic position-taking, strident assertions of finality, strictly linear argument, self-proving phrases and the bid to have the final word. Listen, if you can bear it, to the sentence constructions of Donald Trump, President Putin, military strategists, electioneering politicians and other public figures. They are alway in a state of concluding. Roland Barthes (somewhat provocatively) said: “language is neither reactionary nor progressive; it is quite simply fascist.” The assertive method seeks not only to render counter-argument impossible, but to shrink the world to the speaker’s terms. It is an arrogant form of language, never open to a reply, imposed by those who have authority and who want to render dialogue impossible. I propose that we should be highly suspicious of ideas offered as true and complete. But what should be our response?
I have written posts this year (again) on irony and absurdity:
- The use of nonsense in Alice in Wonderland;
- The dark, absurdist film The Lobster, (Lanthimos dir.) released this year.
- Bulgakov’s 1930s novel The Master and the Margarita;
- Why I am an Absurdist;
- The grotesque, comic sensibility of Rabelais;
- The surreal art and writing of Leonora Carrington.
The comedic spirit is ambivalent, ambiguous and provisional. Irony is the language, not of the pure, but of the mongrel. The ironic mode subverts all tendencies to system and power. It proposes assertions that are no more than provisional, in prose of self-correction. Instead of making assertions of finality that attempts to win ground, irony concedes it. So, in the straight fight between irony and the absolute, irony always loses.
The charge against the comic spirit therefore is this: rather than laugh at the world why not go out and put the world to rights? It is a fair accusation. One argument against striding out to put the world to rights is it would require the adoption of the language I have proposed we discard. The answer to the charge is difficult to give, but I will attempt it this way. The comic-epic hero opposes the universe with all he has, but given it is not much, merely free will and love, his defeat is inevitable. But his defeat always contains the seed of a victory the universe is not equipped to understand. It is the victory of the stoic who knows that, although the Gods crush him, his values are right and theirs are wrong. The Gods’ victory is thus pyrrhic. To meet an argument deployed by an authoritarian mind with irony evades polarisation by collapsing it. Irony is not a way to change the world because it does not assert power, it is resigned acceptance of the world but in a way that is both passive and active. Instead of defeating argument the comic spirit (irony and absurdity and satire) dismantles discourse.
In 2013 and 2014 I wrote a series of satirical letters to the Lord Chancellor, Mr Chris Grayling MP – theintrigant. As head of the Ministry of Justice Mr Grayling was busy successfully using his authority to impose, with relative ease, the following: book bans in prison, cuts to legal aid, hiked court fees to curtail legitimate legal actions, the outsourcing to private firms roles within the criminal justice system, the reduction in the number of criminal legal aid solicitors firms, the curtailing of judicial review, the abolishing of legal fees repaid to acquitted defendants at the conclusion of their trial, the removal of a the right of a defendant to choose their lawyer, the privatisation of the probation service, and other acts. My comic letters purported to be from his most loyal supporter and enthusiastically embraced his unpopular strategy. The letters over-emphatically supported each new policy change by identifying and rejoicing in the absurdity and harm of their impact. They pounced excitedly on his ponderous words and phrases in Parliament and extravagantly praised them. The letters were a playful and gruesome response to his assertions of authority. To oppose assertions of finality with strident assertions of finality of one’s own is to already make a concession. At the very least it is to fight on the opponent’s own linguistic territory and, it could be said, in some way permit them to continue asserting their authority. Many of the policies Mr Grayling successfully implemented during his tenure have been reversed, or ameliorated, by his successor in the post of Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove.
Orwell wrote in a 1946 essay Why I Write: “every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against totalitarianism.” When I first read those lines twenty years ago I thought it was his political response to the dark times in which he lived and wrote. But now I prefer to think his words have a different meaning: that it is because he was a real writer. Barthes divides writers into those who write something and the real writers who do not write something, but rather write. Barthes does not mean by this, I think, that there must be only form and no substance. Anything written, in an essay or a blog, has to be about something. I take it to mean writing is what happens after ambiguousness and analysis have fought over the same ground and is what remains when you remove ideas that are complete. The more I write this blog the more diffuse I find my arguments becoming, the more my ideas mutate. Writing should win out over analysis by the making of assertions that are no more than provisional. In this way it subverts the very idea of assertion. Writing is not the commitment to something outside itself, a moral or political or social goal, but is the use of language that is itself excessive, playful, subtle – a gratuitous, free activity. Where meaning is profuse, and where the writer dismantles his own authority, writing may find itself becoming, incidentally, an instrument of opposition and subversion.