Costly Irony: What Flannery O'Connor Can Teach the Hipster Generation

Michael Hammond

Irony is everywhere. Or so we would be led to believe by advertisements, clothing, trendy foods, music, and every part of our culture. This defining ethos of the 21st century requires a cheap version of irony that is really cynicism at its core…and there is a difference between the two. What we often term irony is really a self-defensive cynicism.

In the past few weeks, two of my friends—both United States historians with research interests in religion—sent me links to a new collection of art featuring the quaint country cottages of Thomas Kinkade under attack by Star Wars battleships and Stormtroopers. These pictures by artist Jeff Bennett started with the finished canvas of original Kinkade paintings such as “Moonlight Lane” and “Sweetheart Cottage III” and brought the full fury of the Sith Lord’s Empire on them.

These pictures reminded me of many lively conversations with my students on Christian marketing and religious products, which often end with recognition of their ironic attitudes toward this subculture. This common citing of irony is often attributed to hipster culture, which has been described in articles that were critical, investigative, confused, meta-critical, welcoming, or defensive. A good example is “How to Live Without Irony,” published just about one year ago in The New York Times by Princeton professor Christy Wampole.

Wampole describes irony as a “shield against criticism;” a coping mechanism for a world marked by disappointment. For those afraid of committing or believing in anything, the realm of sarcasm and ironic humor offers safe space marked with long beards, oversized glasses, fixed gear bicycles, and Dora the Explorer backpacks. Even for those who don’t adopt hipster fashion, it has become the defining aspect of culture today. Like many other observers, Wampole believes that this is different today than in previous eras, perhaps due to technological changes, and a new geopolitical landscape. Despite the cultural popularity of photobombs and ironic product T-shirts, It is not always clear that students have learned how to use irony in their work. A self-defensive outlook that is cynical and distrusting is not something that was dreamed up in Park Slope or Williamsburg in the 21st Century. Everyone who has “been had” vows to not get fooled again (perhaps that is why there are so many cynics in New York City). The natural inclination is to avoid belief, commitment, and trust.

The article also raised an important question for all scholars of American religion: Is religious belief out of step with irony? Wampole suggested that irony permeates the culture, but is lost only on “very young children, elderly people, deeply religious people, people with severe mental or physical disabilities, people who have suffered, and those from economically or politically challenged places where seriousness is the governing state of mind.” The list includes the innocence of youth, the acceptance of old age, and the trials of suffering. Why does devout religion belong on this list? And if religious subjects—or scholars who are personally religious—are not in step with irony, will they not be limited in their academic research?

Not to quarrel with the use of words, but what many of these writers are calling “hipster irony” may be more accurately labeled “hipster cynicism.” The distinction is important, and preserves a higher bar for identifying irony. That distinction brings a new challenge for scholars of faith who also happen to be studying religious subjects. Is it true that sincere religious beliefs are largely incompatible with irony? If so, then scholars who are personally religious and even those who give their subjects some benefit of earnestness may miss out on a powerful interpretive theme in their work.  Does a fear of commitment to something that will fail prevent scholars from sincerely committing to religious faith? Academic study of religion, valuing “skepticism over assertion” is a much safer commitment in hipster culture than a life of faith. Perhaps this means that studying the complex and ironic themes of religion in historical interpretation “requires not faith, but empathy” as was recently argued by Oxford theology student Tara Isabella Burton. Maybe the best religious scholars are those who have the least religious beliefs.

To address these questions, all of us shaped by cynicism and hipster culture would do well to examine the life and work of Flannery O’Connor, whose use of irony was not a shield against religion, but demonstrated the earnest reality of her devout Catholic faith. A new collection of her written prayers offers insight on the questions and spiritual longing she faced while participating in the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop in 1946 at age 21. Titled A Prayer Journal, these writings demonstrate a sense of frailty that would be expanded later in life as she wrote in the midst of physical suffering.  The journal collection goes on sale tomorrow, but is excerpted here (subscription required).  Some of the most moving passages include these excerpts:

“What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that—make a mystic out of cheeses. But why should He do it for an ingrate slothful & dirty creature like me. I can’t stay in the church to say a Thanksgiving even and as for preparing for Communion the night before—thoughts all elsewhere.”
“Dear Lord, please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want You when I think about You but to want You all the time, to think about You all the time, to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be the Fulfillment.”
“My mind is in a little box, dear God, down inside other boxes inside other boxes and on and on. There is very little air in my box. Dear God, please give me as much air as it is not presumptuous to ask for. Please let some light shine out of all the things around me so that I can.”

Flannery O’Connor wrote with a sharp wit and sense of irony in many of her stories such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Yet her prayer journal shows that she had little use for a cynical shield that would protect her from the pain of disappointment with God.  Her sharpest criticism was reserved for herself. It’s hard to imagine her as a hipster today, if that culture requires protecting the soul with a jaded and cynical cycle of ridicule and defensiveness.

These writings provide readers of the hipster culture with a model of true faith that demanded risk, pain, and work. Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journals provide a beautiful glimpse into a vulnerable soul open to the rigor of life, confident that God would use trials to shape and press her into something more. Those prayers were answered through O’Connor’s life of fighting disease and practicing her craft of writing. Her strong irony did not lead her to doubt that God was with her.

The model of Flannery O’Connor challenges the prevailing ideas of modern life and challenges us to personally assess how we reconcile our own beliefs with our scholarship and use of irony. O’Connor wielded irony as an effective weapon in her writings. Her prayer journals demonstrate her ability to harness the power of irony without allowing it to define her soul. Such an approach today would be threatening to the culture of cheap irony that surrounds us.


Kathy said…
I have found O'Connor hard to read because of her harsh, if honest view of poverty and ignorance. It is interesting to get a glimpse of her heart. Thanks for sharing.
Unknown said…
While I am very keen on Flannery O'Connor's work, I have some heartburn about the publication of something so personal as her "prayer journal." I wonder why the O'Connor estate went ahead with this publication. And I wonder if O'Connor would approve. After all, she chose to let her faith speak through her fiction and her daily personal (emphasis on personal) life.
Unknown said…
You say, perhaps ironically, or is it cynically, "Maybe the best religious scholars are those who have the least religious beliefs." Isn't this a bit like saying the best teachers of physics think Newton was wrong? Or is it like saying teachers of literature (myself included) think neither prose fiction nor poetry have any value to human beings? Hey, I'm just asking. I look forward to your response.
Michael Hammond said…
R.T.--Thanks for your comments! I found that point about religious scholars to be ironic, but it is not the point I was making. It was an observation from reading the article (that I linked just before that) by Tara Isabella Burton. She promotes the study of theology as a benefit for scholars who may not be personally religious, but are empathetic. Your point about the publication of the journal is a good one. But I was glad to read it and found it earnest and encouraging.
Unknown said…
I confess! In spite of my objections to the ethics of the journal's publication, I am eager to read it. As someone who did his master's thesis on O'Connor's Wise Blood, O'Connor's works continue to haunt me. Like Hazel Motes who was relentlessly pursued by Christ, I feel as though O'Connor pursues me still.

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