Thursday, February 14, 2013

Irony + Sentiment = ?

There's a great moment in Daniel Clowes's Ghost World (1993-1997, published in 1998) where Enid and Rebecca visit Cavetown USA, a corny, low-rent kids amusement park. Enid's back home visiting from college, and the two now-distancing friends make the trip to Cavetown, where Enid claims her "only happy childhood memory" occurred.
The girls head to Cavetown armed with irony and contempt—let's make fun of how lame we were in childhood, how lame childhood was—but when they arrive, Enid's disarmed by genuine feelings of loss that derision is too weak to swat away:


I love the friction that Clowes explores here, the surprising sparks that fly when irony rubs against sentiment. Enid's a great character: she's too smart to adopt irony simply as a pose; she'll see right through that in herself, as she does in others. So the irony with which she comes equipped at Cavetown is genuine: "We're hurtling back in time to a SAVAGE ERA where DINOSAURS RULE THE EARTH!" she says sarcastically to Rebecca before they head out, well aware that she's outgrown her naive and historically inaccurate past where children are duped in the name of cheap entertainment. They drive to the park in a hearse.

But when she gets to Cavetown, she succumbs to what we all do when our ironic facade is invaded by overpowering sentiment. Her satanic ritual fears giving way to her "semi-religious experience" takes her, without warning, to a place for which she's unprepared, and where parody is impotent. What she wasn't planning on was the jarring that comes with loss—not the hoped-for loss of childish unsophistication and gullibility, but the loss of the capacity for wonder and amusement. Her surprise is moving, and, smartly, Clowes simply evokes it, he doesn't name it. Something speechless occurs to Enid because she wasn't expecting what she encountered, and so had little language for it except more ironic distance, which is rapidly closing on to something else entirely. The crack in her facade is small, and she's careful (as is Clowes) not to linger in this disorienting place for too long. But I think that her mood's affected permanently.

What happens when irony and sentiment meet? Firmly (permanently) ensconced as we are in Post Irony, I wonder how genuine sentiment can be treated anymore, especially in autobiographical writing that explores moments like Enid's. If all we have is distance, how can we see that, up close and affectionate, nostalgia can transcend itself and become something valuable: an opportunity to weigh the distance between wonder and jadedness.

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