“As through this world I travel/ I see lots of funny men”… Truer words never came out of Woody Guthrie’s mouth. As through this world I travel, I also reflect on the funny man I have become. Especially now, as I am the privileged witness – a dad! – to the baby days of another funny man, our Adam. However, as I sit here, filled with a porridge like warmth of love, as another day struggles to drop a little light in the morning streets of Paris, I also worry a bit that I am going to lose my edge, my attitude, my peculiar funniness. As proof, I can look behind me at the veritable pile of cuteness that has accumulated in the room that Adam will eventually be sleeping in. There’s the cute pyjamas with the cute print of bears and giraffes, there’s the cute dolls (among which I should mention a large donkey given to us by our friend Sylvie, which has won my heart, if not Adam’s – I do love donkeys), and I think to myself: am I losing my mind? For cuteness was the one thing that I have always feared, the one thing impervious to edge. Cuteness reverses the terms of irony. It disarms distance. To take an ironic attitude to nouveau-ne pjs is to make irony ridiculous. Which is a problem if, like me, you’ve pledged your soul to irony. That pledge goes back all the way to when I first heard of irony, which must have been in the sixth grade or so. In the Suburban South, you have to surrender your soul to something when you reach adolescence. Either you have to be washed in the blood of the lamb, or you have to figure out how not to be.
My choice was irony. Lesser lights (family, friends, teachers) mistakenly called it sarcasm (and my brother Dan improved upon that word by calling it sour-casm, perhaps the best portmanteau word I’ve ever encountered). Myself, I called it irony, and I loved the very word. I loved the way “iron” is in it. Because of course iron is in stainless steel, and irony, too, has something stainless about it. Once you put on the armor of irony, you can go anywhere, through any flood – for instance, a flood of blood gushing from the Lamb of God – and come through unflecked. What’s not to like about that?
However, it was not only the savior who lurked around the corners of Clarkston, Georgia, waiting to leap out at you – equally powerful was the “cute” and the “darling”. What the passions were to 17th century French moralists, the cute and the darling were to the suburban families of Atlanta – the fundamental grammar on which all style was grounded. This, actually, misstates the entire power of those words – it was not just a question of taste, but a whole orientation of the lifestyle. Once something was ‘cute’, it was lifted beyond aesthetics. It was headed towards being “too cute”. This meant, oddly enough, that it was just cute enough. At one point, apparently, in the noir 40s, too cute was a sort of putdown – that is how it appears in Raymond Chandler novels, where the not so latent homoerotic panic motivates both the private dick and his antagonists, the male buddy police detectives. But too cute lost the pejorative meaning about the time the GI bill came into effect.
All cuteness, in effect, emanates from the baby, perhaps because, holding your own baby, you become a conduit for such an overwhelming rush of emotion that you need to thin it out or it will short circuit your emotional wiring. One thing is for sure: you can’t sit there in your suit of irony, thinking you are sub species aeternitatis about the whole thing. At the moment, I have to confess, I find Adam’s pajamas ‘too cute for words.”
My hope is that we will grow out of this phase. I know at least Adam will. I’m having doubts about myself.