Hipsters and Hamlet: Escaping the Ironic Mode

[Last of Wedding Crashers series] This post is about the ironic mode, one of the four modes of story-telling identified by Northrop Frye and one which you’ve probably never heard of.

Ok, so Frye didn’t exactly mean that kind of “ironic” when he named this mode. But actually, the stereotype of the modern day “hipster” isn’t a bad place to start.

In case you aren’t familiar with the term “hipster,” this meme sums it up pretty well. (It’s a screenshot of Kenneth Branagh playing Hamlet, with a hipster twist on Shakespeare’s original line.)

Consider the characteristics we associate with the hipster stereotype: “so over” everything mainstream; misunderstood; independent; reluctant to show real emotion but ready to be sarcastic; often scornful of traditional values, culture, etc.

In many ways, the characteristics of the hipster stereotype also fit what Frye calls the ironic mode. While the comic mode celebrates the integration of the individual into society, the ironic mode shows the individual as ultimately isolated from society, and usually it’s a society that’s decaying or devoid of meaning. Integration in the comic mode requires humility, love for neighbor, and personal sacrifice; in the ironic mode, these values are scorned or lost or simply absent. The central characters turn their gaze inwards, away from their fellow men, away from objective reality, and so tend towards madness. As G.K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, “Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot. Every man who will not have a softening of the heart must at last have a softening of the brain.”

The absence of true communion gives stories told in the ironic mode a sense of loss, but it differs from the loss felt in the tragic mode. Everything in the ironic mode is reduced to a sort of “meh”—a pitiful little monosyllable—so without the drama of good and evil and right and wrong, events in the ironic move don’t move our hearts in the way that tragedies do. Like winter, the season associated with the ironic mode, a sense of numbness pervades.

The most dominant feature of the ironic mode is ineffective action. In a world without value and virtue, life becomes pointless and individuals powerless. Characters spin their wheels in the muck and get nowhere. Infertility and impotence appear often in this mode because we tend to associate the inability to conceive with the inability to fully participate in the ongoing life of society—infertility suggests something broken or missing or not quite right in the natural order. Stories in the ironic mode also often involve suicide, as that is the ultimate instance of an individual cutting themselves off from society.

A perfect example of the ironic mode and its consequences occurs in the movie Wedding Crashers, when John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) is exposed for lying about his identity and cut off from the woman he loves (Claire/Rachel McAdams). The sad sequence of events that follows has all the hallmarks of the ironic mode: the loss of meaning, the breaking of significant social bonds, the trap of ineffective action, and the temptation to just call it quits:

John, Jeremy, and Claire are isolated. Jeremy calls John and knocks on his door, but John ignores these attempts. John appears increasingly unkempt. Surrounded by empty alcohol bottles, he slumps in front of the television and listens while his voicemail plays: “This is John. Uhhhhhh. Whatever.” We see John try to crash weddings like the old days, but he crashes and burns instead. His table cloth trick doesn’t work. He trips over the band’s drum set. He toasts one couple by asking “Anyone ever feel like they’re just disappearing? I feel so much like giving up.” He tells a group of little children that “love doesn’t exist. That’s what I’m trying to tell you guys. And I’m not picking on love because I don’t think friendship exists either.” Later, John tells us he’s been reading “don’t kill myself books.” He’s sunk pretty near rock bottom. And then he visits Chaz Reinhold.

Here’s John’s first encounter with Chaz, who epitomizes the ironic mode’s anti-hero:

Chaz Reinhold is crass, irreverent, sarcastic, self-absorbed, self-serving, without honor, without scruples of any kind. His life is one big cycle of ineffective action. He lives at his mother’s.  In a house-robe. Watching cartoons. Yelling for meatloaf. Picking up vulnerable women at funerals. Joking about the deaths he takes advantage of. He’s not going to marry any of these women. He’s not going to father children. He’s not going to contribute to society in any way. And he doesn’t seem to care. John shows initial hesitancy and even disgust when he first meets Chaz; Chaz’s flippancy and degeneracy are shocking. But then John stifles this reaction. He forces himself to laugh with Chaz. It’s uncomfortable to watch—like someone gulping down a nasty drug they don’t really want. But that’s what happens in the ironic mode. You try to deaden your natural sense of right and wrong and good and evil. You try not to empathize with anyone. You numb yourself. You try not to care—maybe because it’s too painful to care. As C.S. Lewis has pointed out, we tend to become what we pretend to be, for good or for ill. Chaz has lost his sense of decency and shame, he has become someone who doesn’t care, who doesn’t suffer, but who also does not know joy. His is a mean and empty existence.

Yet Chaz’s life tempts John as a way to escape the pain of losing Claire—and it tempts us all. If you look around, you will find that many works in our modern culture operate in the ironic mode. Think about Jersey Shore: the cast lives in a house they didn’t work for, they fool around at a job of sorts, drink themselves into oblivion almost every night, and engage in lots of meaningless, selfish hook-ups. Think of all the “House Wives” shows: the women don’t appear to do much, they start silly fights because dysfunction is good for ratings, they complain endlessly, and they waste a lot of their time and talents and money. Or think of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Now, Charlie’s antics can make me laugh as much as the next person, but can you think of a single show where the gang does something worthwhile? They’re always scheming to get something for nothing; in one episode Frank leaves a stripper dead in his apartment (and we’re supposed to laugh at this?); they’re always in their dim dive of a bar, and nothing meaningful ever happens. And the list goes on. And we’re expected to laugh and not take any of this too seriously. In fact, we’re not supposed to take anything too seriously.

This is why I think the theory of the four modes is so helpful; it helps us to recognize different approaches to life and recognize where they lead. One professor suggested that each mode is like one quarter of the truth of our existence, and a person needs a balanced awareness of all four to get at the full truth. If we’re surrounded by too many works in the ironic mode, our imaginations tend to become skewed and our lives unbalanced. When we go to solve problems or deal with suffering or perhaps even find ourselves attracted to someone, if we only have stories told in the ironic mode to draw on for inspiration or advice about how to act, then we’re in a pretty bad way.

How do we escape the ironic mode’s cycle of ineffective action? Wedding Crashers shows us a way out, and I think this is what makes the movie more worth watching than the typical throw-away rom-com.

The first major step is to recover and honor significant bonds. For John, it’s his friendship with Jeremy.  Jeremy goes out of his way to draw John out of his depression, and he keeps trying even though John initially rejects him. Jeremy risks a visit to John and asks him to be his best man. It appears to go badly, but Jeremy’s appeal to the bond of friendship doesn’t quite fall on deaf ears. His request weighs on John’s mind, it weighs on his heart, and it later prompts John to take action.

To escape the ironic mode, characters must also escape the numbness they’ve fallen in to. Often, it requires deep suffering to recover a sense of value and meaning. When this suffering to restore meaning involves a significant shedding of blood, it’s called sparagmos (an ancient Greek term that has to do with ritual sacrifices to placate the gods and the demands of justice). Christ’s crucifixion is an example of sparagmos, and there are many others throughout history and literature. Wedding Crashers doesn’t have an instance of sparagmos per se, but John’s experience at the funeral with Chaz comes close.

John goes with the intent to “crash” the funeral as he has crashed weddings in the past. But as he later recounts:

. . . and I see this widow and she’s a wreck. She’s just lost the person she loves most in this world. And I realize we’re all going to lose the people we love. But not me. Not right now.

The widow’s suffering awakens compassion in John. He goes from telling little kids that “love doesn’t exist” to admitting that love is at the core of our existence. John doesn’t escape the ironic mode by putting on rose-colored glasses and pretending that everything is peachy. He recognizes that we will lose the people we love and that the separation of death is real. Yet he recovers the conviction that life and love have meaning in spite of this. Crashing funerals with Chaz and “cleaning up” with empty hook-ups isn’t what he wants. He wants to be his best friend’s best man. And he wants to love Claire.

This brings John to the final break from the ironic mode. Through intense suffering, he realizes what he truly values in life. He honors the bond of friendship with Jeremy and makes it to the wedding just in time. And then, in front of the crowd, he speaks truthfully in his own voice. This is something he has not been able to do throughout the entire movie. He’s always hidden his true self behind one pretense or another. Now he humbles himself and puts his true self out there (for all the shocked wedding guests to see). Taking effective action requires speaking the truth—anything else is like building a house on sand. (As a side note, I think this is why the reunion with Claire can’t happen earlier at the engagement party, which John tries to sneak into as a server. He isn’t being his true self. He isn’t yet courageous or convicted enough to do that. And so his action remains ineffective.)

There is an element of sacrifice in John’s speech to Claire. He tells her “I’m not standing here asking you to marry me. I’m just asking you not to marry him.” The “him” referred to is Claire’s fiancé Zach (played by Bradley Cooper) and, at this point, we know Zach is the wrong person for Claire. We get to see that he’s impatient with her, disrespectful, and unfaithful. John’s plea is probably supposed to be funny, but it also shows that he values what is best for Claire above all, which means that he truly loves her.

As Wedding Crashers and other works will show you, the way to escape the ironic mode and the cycle of ineffective action and despair is to honor significant bonds and speak the truth. We live in a fallen world, and so this often requires great suffering. But if we look to the stories that surround us, past and present, we find a recurring conviction that something good lies beyond the suffering, something that makes it worth enduring. And if you don’t know many stories that suggest this, then you haven’t been feeding your imagination a balanced diet. Lay off the irony! Go watch Wedding Crashers. Read The Little Prince. Listen to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor (which is about thanksgiving and recovering from illness).

We might not know for sure what awaits us if we endure the suffering that is an inevitable part of this life. But we do know that living in the ironic mode and giving into despair tends to lead towards Chaz Reinhold’s ma’s house, and I don’t think any of us want to end up there, as tempting as that meatloaf may be.

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