Yesterday, I could have gone to the mob and told them that Nero burned Rome. I could have offered them a new emperor in General Galba, and so set my seal upon the times. But I did not … because out of force of long habit, I’ve become content only to be an amused cynic … leaving others to shape the world.
—Petronius, Quo Vadis (1951)
Here’s an article that resonated with me, at Cracked, titled “I Can’t Tell if the World Is Being Serious Anymore,” by Daniel O’Brien. O’Brien is a very talented humorist and a sharp observer, the kind of guy I’d love to have a beer with.
He observes that there are more and more cases where you can’t tell satirical stupidity from actual stupidity. More and more, the world is forcing us to choose between cynical, self-conscious irony, and incompetence. But like me, O’Brien is starving for things he can take seriously.
The article is from 2011, but it’s current for me because I’ve been painting similar themes in florid color here. We live in a cultural so barren that a lot of us don’t even know what originality and depth look like. Many would run from it if they ever had to face it.
O’Brien wants to face it:
This confused version of irony can be fun and all but, at the end of the day, the history books will describe us as a people who loved Fast Five, who seriously covered a potential Trump candidacy and who spent over $40 million on Shake Weights. And I guess I’m saying I’d rather that not be the case. Someone needs to take something seriously, right? For the history books? And the aliens? It can’t be me. I photoshopped a picture of a robot jerking off to a Shake Weight ad, for my job.
But someone else is on this, right? So we don’t get lost in a meaningless blur of detached pseudo-irony? Someone will make sure that doesn’t happen, right? Guys?
All I can do is bow to this.
Right now this blog is going through an identity crisis that O’Brien would surely understand. I began it as a humor blog, but somewhere along the way I started having things to say, and I published some serious pieces. I had a chance to attack the emptiness and dishonesty that are all around us, so I went at them as hard as I could. Then my pace slowed to almost nothing, because it’s damn hard to go back to humor after you’ve posted articles that reach down to the bottom of your soul. It’s also damn hard to sustain that level of gravity and meaning. Besides, deep down, I really prefer this blog to be humorous, and I want to write as if all the important questions have already been answered.
But at the end of the day, to any Daniel O’Briens out there who are still searching, I can say I’ve been someone who took something seriously. You’ve seen some of it here, my last three posts for instance. And reading Daniel’s plea makes me proud of it.
Because it hurts when you erupt in flames and nobody gets why you would want to. Having something to say, and meaning it, isn’t for its own sake. It’s a challenge to the world. That means you need readers who can be challenged. You need readers who are ready to meet you at your level. O’Brien says “It can’t be me,” but he has thrown down a challenge. And the comments section suggests that it wasn’t accepted.
Laughter is the right response to a lot of the lunacy around us. But there are different kinds of laughter. If you’re someone who really tries — if you’re pursuing that self-fulfillment that tragically few of us know, and you’re burning with desire to create the very best that you can, pushing yourself into more and more demanding projects — then it’s hard, so hard, to find any comfort within the sea of cynical irony that’s rising around us. It can be terribly demoralizing.
I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve greatness in what I create. What I am certain of is that greatness will never come from anyone who does not work obsessively for it. And the self-conscious irony we’re soaking in sends a very clear message, saying: “Don’t try.” It’s getting hard to find people who even recognize the tragedy of a culture that’s being swamped in self-parody. It’s getting hard to find people who try.
Finally, to my readers who no longer know what kind of a blog I’m running here: I sincerely apologize, because the truth is that I don’t know either anymore. Sometimes it’s light-hearted enjoyment, and sometimes it’s scorched earth. The best I can say is, it’s an honest blog, and it’s one that’ll always try not to bore you.