Tuesday, February 26, 2008

To Infinity and Beyond

Toy Story has entered into an almost daily rotation around here lately, a schedule that has afforded me ample opportunity to observe its central conflict between Woody, the ironic postmodern cowboy, and Buzz Lightyear, the blazingly pre-ironic astronaut. Woody is genial and sincerely devoted to Andy, his little-boy owner, but there is a certain detachment to his performance: when Andy enters the room, Woody freezes, assuming a convincingly inanimate posture, but he knows, deep down, that he's no cowboy. That's a reality Buzz Lightyear refuses to acknowledge: even when he sees an army of his clones on a television commercial (all labeled with the ominous words, "Not a Flying Toy"), he clings to the belief that he is a space ranger in search of a ship, someone whose life has cosmic meaning.

Equally deluded are the three-eyed aliens at Pizza Planet, trapped inside a coin-op machine and subject to the whims of the giant claw that plucks them unpredictably from their cozy home. "You have been chosen," they chant robotically when Woody tries to tug Buzz away from the claw's reach. "Stop it you zealots!" Woody responds, his words a not-so-subtle reminder of the religious conviction underlying the aliens' superstitious world view.

Woody is an atheist surrounded by believers, toys who lack his experience, his mobility, or simply his interpretive framework. Buzz, like the aliens, is earnestly committed to a belief system that the viewer recognizes as appealing but false. There is no being; there is only performing.

Lionel Shriver addresses similar ideas in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Her narrator, Eva Katchadourian, identifies irony as "an undercurrent of snideness, a distancing in all those fifties diners with chrome stools and oversized root-beer floats." Irony is the art of having it both ways: of pushing away with one hand what we grasp with the other. "We had friends whose apartments were completely tricked out in sardonic kitsch," Eva writes, "- pickaninny dolls, framed advertisements for Kellogg's cornflakes from the twenties ('Look at the bowlfuls go!') - who owned nothing that wasn't a joke."

Irony isn't really something you can choose to cast off. It's more like Lasik eye surgery, purportedly revealing the world as it really is, but leaving you with a bit of a headache and sketchy night vision. Most of us, of course, don't even want to cast it off - we enjoy irony's heady cocktail of self-deprecation and smugness. And the only available alternative right now, in the U.S. especially, is a black-and-white dualism that would be less dangerous if it were more consciously cynical.

At church on Sunday the pastor thanked God for allowing us to "approach the throne of grace." Something about that old-fashioned turn of phrase, uttered in his thick Scottish burr, gave me a sudden glimpse of families huddled at the fire, clutching bowls of gruel in hands hardened by lye soap. For them, the throne of grace was as real and important as the rain on which they depended for food or the moon which provided the only light in their unpolluted sky. Compared to theirs, my faith is weak: it can be assailed by something as trivial as the sudden suspicion that God must be as annoyed as I am by the unfortunate predilection of His people for alliterative catch-phrases. It's not that my eyes have been opened by knowledge: rather, I've been blinded by science, dazzled by the technologies that block out my view of the stars.

38 comments:

Hairline Fracture said...

Love this post. I think there is too much smug, hip irony out there, or if that's not the approach, bleakness and unbelief is. (You said this better in the post, but oh well...) That's why I have to read old-fashioned books every so often, to enjoy myself without irony.

Do you recommend We Need to Talk About Kevin? I've had it on my list for a long time, but it seems so depressing.

the new girl said...

Bea,
You always make me think. And that's no small feat these days.

And I'm so not being ironic.

Bea said...

HF - I'm only on p. 38 (the page on which that passage I quoted appears), but so far I'm finding it totally gripping - in part because Eva's voice reminds me so strongly of Niobe's (another blogger - all the books I read lately are populated by characters who remind me of bloggers - all the good ones, anyway).

Amy said...

Great post. Irony seems the easy way these days to appear smart; a false intellectual projection blended with a large dose of jaded humor = Smartasses everywhere!

Beck said...

I noticed the other day that without trying, I have suddenly been surrounded by cheerfully pragatic and utterly unironic people, this sudden refreshing lack of sneering and it feels GOOD. My own irony - my own detachment from my faith, my family - wearies me.
GREAT post.

Beck said...

"Pragatic"? PRAGMATIC. Me no spell good now.

painted maypole said...

my hubby cannot get past the fact that they are named
WOODY
and BUZZ.

As he would say "after a hard on, and being drunk. who writes these "Children's" stories?"

Swistle said...

Neat post!

Mad Hatter said...

Mmmm. I just wrote a post with an alliterative title. Now I worry that I am a wedge between you and your faith.

For me, faith is something that I have in other people, a secular faith as it were. Irony is what I employ to protect me from other people. It's a give and take, always with the desire for real contact and real belief in humankind.

Oh, and I CAN fly.

slouching mom said...

It's more like Lasik eye surgery, purportedly revealing the world as it really is, but leaving you with a bit of a headache and sketchy night vision.

best comparison ever, you clever girl.

Omaha Mama said...

Do you guys watch Toy Story 2? Because I want a sequel to this post. The one where you discuss the change in Woody's beliefs when he finds the meaning of it all. Get on that.

Karen said...

Cynical eyes living in the US - especially in suburbia - has proven a recipe for social loneliness time and again for me. We are transplanting to a small liberal town next summer. What will happen next?

Angela said...

There is actually a lot to think about when you watch these kids movies
As a child I didn't understand it as an adult I am finally

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I lost all my irony when I had kids.

I like how you describe irony -- as a simultaneous grasping and a pushing away. I think people adopt an ironic stance so as not to get hurt. Or embarrassed. Well, I didn't REALLY care about that, I was only joking...

Occidental Girl said...

Yes, I know what you mean.

Plato lamented the times in which he lived as being chaotic. Where are we now? Not much better in some ways, much better in others, still the same. Eh. And now we have YouTube!

It's human nature, and hard to fight.

Grilled Pizza said...

My friend has just lent me her copy of "We need to talk about Kevin", i had never heard of it, take it it's worth a read?
GP x

Bea said...

Mad - Well, as long as your title wasn't something like "Let go and let God" or "Name it and claim it" (that one rhymes, but I couldn't figure out a way to get rhyme AND alliteration into that sentence) then I think we're okay. Perhaps I should have said something about reducing the mysteries of faith to bumper-sticker slogans?

Kyla said...

Like Slouching Mom, I really enjoyed that comparison.

Suz said...

Occasionally, I press my face against the glass of an unironic world view and gaze eagerly, but always, eventually, turn away under the burden of suspected truth.

Lisa b said...

What Beck Said..
I have grown tired of being cynical. I am trying to surround myself with more positive people, or at least people who aren't working to keep themselves miserable.

The first time Julia's doctor told me he was going to pray for her I was a little concerned. Now I realise this is one of his greatest strengths.

Cyndi said...

I think science points to God, as much as scientists try to disprove him. The more that is known of our universe, the more powerful and diverse is our God.

Bea said...

Cyndi - Real science, sure. But the kind of science (technology, really) that invents endless gadgety things to take up our time and space? Not so much.

Kelly @ Love Well said...

Beautiful post. I will never look at Buzz and Woody in the same way.

I always wonder -- doesn't the ironic, sarcastic life-view get old after a while? I mean, when you're 18, it's practically required. But eventually....

Life would seem so very meaningless if nothing is ever taken seriously.

motherbumper said...

Oh now I have to read that book (it's been on my list for a while). I'm glad I'm not the only one who has watched Toy Story more times than recommended safe for human consumption. But I must say that the entire scene at Pizza Planet is brilliant and really ties all the issues presented in the film together.

kgirl said...

To paraphrase a line from one of my fav movies (yes, I am a product of my generation):

I can't really describe irony, but I know it when I see it!

Clearly, you have no such problem, my genius friend.

Heather said...

I often find myself praying for faith. It's so hard to hold on to in this world of science and technology.

edj said...

Well everyone else said what I was going to say. (which is why I usually don't read other's comments first ;) I enjoyed this post, and I know what you mean about irony in the church--it's a natural, even healthy, reaction to bumper-sticker theology. But I grow weary of cynicism, even when I can't let it go and retain my brain (rhyme!) at the same time. Sometimes it's a protection, sure, but not always--sometimes it's a realistic response to some wild, invalid claim that can't be seen even with eyes of faith. (I'm thinking of overseas work here)

Bea said...

Kgirl - Reality Bites, right? I always think of that scene when I teach "A Modest Proposal."

susiej said...

I think we are so afraid of looking inside our hearts, as a culture, that irony is the only way we even bother communicating sometimes. It takes courage to be on -- without the shield of irony.

Luisa Perkins said...

This is lovely.

Have you read Jedediah Purdy's For Common Things? Astonishing, especially when one considers he wrote it at the age of 24.

a. beaverhausen said...

Hmmph. I never saw Woody as an atheist or Buzz as a possessor of faith. But...

Jenifer said...

No more sneering? Kidding. I loved this post.

Susanne said...

Wow! I especially love "Irony is the art of having it both ways".

I still haven't seen Toy Story though.

Jenn said...

"rather, I've been blinded by science, dazzled by the technologies that block out my view of the stars"....

And what lies beyond them.

Amen.

Lori said...

The danger of our smugly post-modern worldview.

Just beautiful. Truly.

Gwen said...

Still, too little irony can be cloying, too. Sometimes the distance it provides indicates that one doesn't take oneself too seriously, and that is a trait I admire in people, the ability to put themselves in perspective.

However. I am most sarcastic when I'm nervous and socially uncomfortable, so what does that tell you?

Mimi said...

What is fundamentally enraging about irony, for me, is that it's all negative: irony points out the flaws and the ridiculous in everything, but puts nothing up of its own, commits to nothing.

Technically, irony is marked by a mismatch between proposition and belief: I say one thing, but mean, actually, something different. The obverse of irony's outright 'lie' is supposed to be an underlying 'true', but it seems to me that irony in the real world is all about, "I am saying something I don't believe" without their being an obverse, underlying, core of something real that is worth committing to.

Sue said...

What a wonderful post. I'm left speechless, as usual. I do get tired of sarcasm and cynicism - especially when I'm the one throwing it out there.

You know, I think if I was you for about fifteen minutes, thinking all these deep, kind thoughts, I would probably be a better person. I mean, my head would certainly almost immediately explode from my complete inability to think such deep thoughts, but while my head remained intact and non-exploded, I'd be a better person.