Able to leap cynicism in a single bound
BOSTON — Faster than a speeding insult. More lacerating than barbed wit. Able to quote 16th-century essayists with a single breath.
No, it's not Superman - nor is it author Jedediah Purdy.
The caricature with a giant S over his heart is Mr. Purdy's "alter ego," created by the media to do battle with the forces of irony. Call him Sincerity Man.
A combination "corn pone prophet" and humorless cipher, Purdy's alter ego "hates irony," says the mild-mannered Yale law student. "And he's getting some attacks about that, because he has some rather crude ideas about it. He thinks that irony is the reason we're skeptical about politics. He thinks that irony is ruining the moral fabric of the country and ought to be purged. No wonder he's getting so much abuse," laughs the author of "For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today." (See Monitor review Sept.16.)
Purdy's first book, a call for a renewed sense of purpose and public engagement in the United States, has provoked some unusually vituperative scorn from the East Coast elite. In fact, Purdy-pounding has become something of a favorite pastime among critics - in addition to the "corn pone" crack, he's been compared to Dickens's Uriah Heep and called "insufferably smug." The New York Observer dismissed his book as "garbage," and warned, "get ready for a gassy, sanctimonious, post-ironic age." One critic even suggested it was a shame Purdy hadn't been beaten by his peers at a young age.
The irony of it all is that there's only one chapter on irony in "For Common Things." The genesis for the book came when he was confronted with the "poignant" question everyone faces at some point: "What am I going to do with my life? And why?"
It was while trying to answer those questions for himself, he says, that he noticed a sense of "deep ambivalence" in American culture - especially among young adults, himself included. A feeling of betrayal, isolation, and exhaustion camouflaged with a hyper-aware brand of ironic indifference on the one hand and "glib pretensions to empathy, intense feeling, or spiritual connectedness" on the other. It's both types of easy philosophy and moral relativism that his book takes issue with.
The book's combination of guilelessness and pure analytical thought seems to come directly from Purdy's character. Despite his public beatings in the press, he will wholeheartedly and thoughtfully answer any question - no matter how inane. But he's developed enough public self-awareness to toss in an "I reckon" and an apologetic smile lest he seem pompous.
In a world that's traded "Calvin and Hobbes" for "Dilbert," Purdy is a bit of an oddity - a person who'd rather be sincere than savvy. Someone who can discuss everything from strip mining to "Walden" (which he calls "laugh-out-loud funny"), but has no idea who Celine Dion is.
But he's not alone in his diagnosis of pervasive irony as sapping America. Authors as varied as Steve Martin and David Foster Wallace have expressed their contempt for the terminally ironic attitude Purdy describes in his book. And pop culture shows signs of moving beyond self-parody as well - with almost painfully earnest TV shows like "Providence" and "Seventh Heaven" and unabashedly romantic music from teen faves like the Backstreet Boys. Jerry Seinfeld, whom Purdy calls "irony incarnate," is no longer top comic; Adam Sandler is.
Not, as Purdy and others point out, that vulgarity and over-earnestness are an improvement. In fact, "For Common Things" spends almost as much time decrying glib sincerity as ennui and the "false sophistication" that regards selling out as the "honest" choice.
Much has been made of Purdy's upbringing in rural West Virginia, where he was homeschooled on his family's farm until he was 13. But the graduate of Harvard and Exeter is hardly the mountaintop hermit-philosopher that articles - and his book jacket - make him out to be.
"They make it sound like I came down out of the woods, found my first piece of paper, and started scribbling on it," says Purdy, who, despite a decidedly unmodern familiarity with French essayist Michel de Montaigne, wears the universal college uniform of sweater, jeans, and a backpack.
Despite its focus on the importance of public life, "For Common Things" is notably lacking in concrete examples - aside from the pro-democracy activists of Eastern Europe and Purdy's mother's run for the school board. That's not because he doesn't admire modern politicians. But he says politics has been so sullied in recent years that he believes Americans must begin reclaiming public life on a local scale - serving on school boards, raising children, doing volunteer work. "Public politics seems to need to prove itself on a smaller scale on its way to a larger sense of acceptance."
Purdy says he's more than a bit baffled by all the fuss, but, "I feel less personally affected by all the notoriety and the noise than I would have imagined."
Although he acknowledges his alter ego does have a "curious static-cling effect" on his identity, Purdy says that because he is busy with classes and trying to figure out which environmental law firm he wants to work at this summer, the criticisms hurt less. "For instance, today I opened up Time magazine and found that my public alter ego had taken it on the chin.... But it had very little actually to do with anything in my day or in the way anybody I actually saw face to face responded to me. Or with anything in the book, as it happens."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society