Book Reviews

Jedediah the Ironist


For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today, by Jedediah Purdy, New York: Knopf, 226 pages, $20.00

Meet Jedediah Purdy: author, young philosopher, and this moment's media darling. He has been profiled in The New York Times Magazine and in Time, which labeled him "eloquent beyond his years." His tomelet For Common Things has been reviewed almost everywhere, sometimes rapturously; The Christian Science Monitor has called it "the kind of book one finds oneself recommending unreservedly to friends, colleagues, and neighbors." Bill Moyers has reputedly said it's the best book he's read in 10 years.

And indeed, For Common Things is, in its presumptuous and pretentious way, a small masterpiece: Not just bad, it is richly bad, a book that undermines itself so intricately and thoroughly that one simply can't take it at face value. It announces that "responsible thought must resist obscuring abstractions," yet it is filled with abstract, meaningless word clots. It spends a chapter moaning that the word public has been drained of meaning, yet never, in trying to restore the term, does it distinguish the public sector from the public sphere. "We have it all in the back of our minds that our behavior is subject to psychologizing interpretation," it complains, psychologizing an entire society in the process.

There is an artfulness to this awfulness, and part of me suspects that Purdy doesn't actually exist. This manifesto against irony feels like the work of a master ironist—journalist cum fabulist Stephen Glass, perhaps, returning from retirement to spin his most amusing lie yet. Even Purdy's improbable name, part Old Testament thunder and part Deliverance twang, feels Glassian.

And if there really is a Jedediah Purdy? Then his book is a long, failed argument for itself: an earnest defense of earnestness that serves instead as an advertisement for irony. For Common Things reads like a long and dreadful college application essay, gracelessly shifting from personal reflections to Big Ideas, the latter carefully attached to names that certify the author as Well-Read.

Purdy's allusions are clumsily ostentatious: Not content simply to mention the Romantic poets, for instance, he refers to "Percy Bysshe Shelley's Romantics," as though anyone who needed to be told who the Romantics were would nod at Shelley's name. At least that reference is brief. Pages are devoted to summarizing the ideas of Tocqueville, Emerson, and other weighty names, not because Purdy has a novel interpretation to offer or because they add substantially to his thesis, but because…well, I'm not sure why. Perhaps Purdy really liked that composition he wrote about Marx back at Exeter and figured he might as well drop it into his book.

Purdy dismisses the idea that human beings can transcend their limits, but is himself addicted to writing in the first-person plural. Few authors use the words our and we more frequently, and few make so little effort to justify their generalizations. "Awash in wealth," he declares, "we worry that we are required to collect our share. Our idea of success is an almost unworldly prosperity and security, our idea of failure the unextraordinary existence that most of us actually lead. We are constantly in motion, and we can scarcely be satisfied." Speak for yourself, Jed!

Where did Purdy get this impression of "our" ideas? Just 25 years old, he was raised by homesteaders in West Virginia, then left at age 14 for stints at Exeter, Harvard, and now Yale Law School. He constantly contrasts life in West Virginia with the detached materialism he sees in the rest of the country, little suspecting that there might be better barometers for the national mood than the state of the preps and the Ivy League.

For Common Things combines communitarian politics with the fashionable backlash against irony, arguing that the rise of the ironic style represents the collapse of larger personal and political dreams. The "ironic temperament," Purdy asserts, "begins from the idea that each of us should be radically independent, should generate ourselves from our own will and imagination. When that ambition disappoints, and his phrases and acts do not glisten with newness, the ironist treats his own derivative behavior with the vague contempt that a selfishly expectant parent might show toward a child who fails to perform. Refusing to take seriously such mundane things as the familiar vocabularies of thought, friendship, and romance, he stops his knowledge of them at a pointedly superficial conversance." Political irony, he adds, works the same way: When disappointed idealists discover that government cannot "change the world," they shy from public life altogether.

Naturally, Purdy never cites any ironists who are supposed to fit this mold. Indeed, while his "culture of irony" has room for figures as earnest as Tom Peters, a business writer who evinces about as much irony as Al Gore, the only actual ironist he discusses is Jerry Seinfeld—not the comedian but the character the comedian played on a television show. The real ironists involved with producing Seinfeld, of course, were its writers, not its characters, and only the most literal-minded viewers could mistake the series for a guide to life. Seinfeld never belittled thought, friendship, or romance, but it did belittle the empty conversations and relationships that often take their place.

The best irony focuses its ire on the "familiar vocabularies" of hot air—not the clichés that express ordinary hopes and pleasures, but the clichés that contain no information at all, phrases used to hide the fact that the speaker has nothing to say. If an ironist sometimes turns this fire on herself—in Purdy's words, "insisting on the inadequacy of her sentences even as she relies on them"—then that is all to the good. It would be pompous indeed to chide others for their moments of ridiculousness while ignoring them in yourself.

Purdy praises the mundane pleasures of everyday life but spends very little time actually writing about them. When, momentarily, he does—when he discusses his rural, homeschooled childhood, or relates his mother's campaign against school consolidation, or reports the damage strip mining has done to the West Virginia landscape—we see hints of another book. This alternate tract espouses a sane conservatism, one that appreciates the limits of politics, dismisses feel-good legislation, and understands both the importance and the contingency of tradition.

But that second book never emerges, and when Purdy offers his own comments on public policy, he rarely has anything interesting to say. His discussion of biotechnology, for instance, is a gaseous summary of points a thousand others have made, notable only for which views he chooses to ignore and for his novel distortions of Kevin Kelly's book Out of Control. Even the section on strip mining—the one chapter where Purdy's numbing abstractions fade into the background—has little value.

Purdy argues that you can't address strip mining, or any issue, with mere "general arguments for efficiency, or property rights, or the growth of the national economy." He's right: Property rights are an important part of justice, abstractly speaking, but one cannot fit them to coal country without paying careful attention to the region's complex, concrete history. In West Virginia, there's more than a century of local texture to bear in mind: fraudulent land transfers, violence against workers, ruptured common-law protections against pollution, and all the evasions of responsibility that bankruptcy law allows. Any a priori proposal that ignores this record is just cant.

But Purdy is making a different point. Discussing a proposed tax on carbon—and, by extension, every incentive-based approach to conservation—he argues that there is an "unreality" to such proposals, because they suggest that "we can become responsible without changing ourselves." Faced with cant, he offers some cant of his own. Oh, the irony.