Friday, August 12, 2011

Literary Interlude, "Irony and Pity" Edition


As I [Jake Barnes] went down-stairs I heard Bill [Gorton] singing, "Irony and Pity. When you're feeling . . . Oh, Give them Irony and Give them Pity. Oh, give them Irony. When they're feeling . . . Just a little irony. Just a little pity . . ." He kept on singing until he came down-stairs. The tune was: "The Bells are Ringing for Me and my Gal." I was reading a week-old Spanish paper.

"What's all this irony and pity?"

"What? Don't you know about Irony and Pity?"

"No. Who got it up?"

"Everybody. They're mad about it in New York. It's just like the Fratellinis used to be."

The girl came in with the coffee and buttered toast. Or, rather, it was bread toasted and buttered.

"Ask her if she's got any jam," Bill said. "Be ironical with her."

"Have you got any jam?"

"That's not ironical. I wish I could talk Spanish."

The coffee was good and we drank it out of big bowls. The girl brought in a glass dish of raspberry jam.

"Thank you."

"Hey! that's not the way," Bill said. "Say something ironical. Make some crack about Primo de Rivera."

"I could ask her what kind of a jam they think they've gotten into in the Riff."

"Poor," said Bill. "Very poor. You can't do it. That's all. You don't understand irony. You have no pity. Say something pitiful."

"Robert Cohn."

"Not so bad. That's better. Now why is Cohn pitiful? Be ironic."

He took a big gulp of coffee.

"Aw, hell!" I said. "It's too early in the morning."

"There you go. And you claim you want to be a writer, too. You're only a newspaper man. An expatriated newspaper man. You ought to be ironical the minute you get out of bed. You ought to wake up with your mouth full of pity."

"Go on," I said. "Who did you get this stuff from?"

"Everybody. Don't you read? Don't you ever see anybody? You know what you are? You're an expatriate. Why don't you live in New York? Then you'd know these things. What do you want me to do? Come over here and tell you every year?"

—Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926)

If "irony and pity" are what it takes to be a great writer, well...

I'd like to think I have a reasonable amount of "pity," if by "pity" one means a sense of humanity and empathy. I'm not sure any artist worth serious consideration doesn't have that quality, to a certain extent. "Irony," though...I dunno. These days, I feel like there's quite possibly too much irony out there, and too much of the distance, emotional or otherwise, that that kind of snark and sarcasm suggests. Sincerity almost seems undervalued these days. You have to be serious about something, not just crack wise about everything!

Maybe "detachment" is what Bill Gorton really meant? (But, of course, "irony and pity" as a phrase certainly rolls off the tongue easier.)

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