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the great American sarcastics


Although listings of the top 100 novels or authors or movies or albums or whatnot are often contrived and set at large in the world as the most shameless kind of clickbait, we rarely have listings of the one hundred greatest sentences, or lines. I think that one of the greatest and most influential sentences of the twentieth century is the one at the beginning of England Your England: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”

Orwell’s sentence had, I think, a tremendous influence on the whole WWII generation of American writers. In a literal sense, this situation, turned around, is the whole songline of Catch 22. Yossarian very correctly thinks someone is trying to kill him – precisely because he is one of the highly civilized human beings trying to kill other human beings, from civilized to not yet toilet trained, in the cities he is dropping bombs on.

Kurt Vonnegut’s entire style was based on seeing in this alienated way – that is, alienated from the not-seeing required for patriotism, hierarchy and the whole cultural extent of the defence of liberal capitalism. It is a seeing that Carlo Ginzburg, in an essay on the proto-history of estrangement, brought back to a very old stoic discipline – the kind of disenchantment by the real in which Marcus Aurelius instructed himself.

Here's a marvellous bit by Kurt Vonnegut that seems to have dropped out of Orwell’s sentence and landed squarely on American culture in the last half of the twentieth century.

“Reading is such a difficult thing to do that most of our time in school is spent learning how to do that alone. If we had spent as much time at ice skating as we have with reading, we would all be stars with the Hollywood Ice Capades instead of bookworms now.

"As you know, it isn't enough for a reader to pick up the little symbols from a page with his eyes, or, as is the case with a blind person, with his fingertips. Once we get those symbols inside our heads and in the proper order, then we must clothe them in gloom or joy or apathy, in love or hate, in anger or peacefulness, or however the author intended them to be clothed. In order to be good readers, we must even recognize irony—which is when a writer says one thing and really means another, contradicting himself in what he believes to be a beguiling cause.

"We even have to get jokes! God help us if we miss a joke.

"So most people give up on reading.

One of Orwell’s essays is called, self-flatteringly, In front of your nose, as in “seeing what is…” There Orwell speaks of the trouble, the absolute bother, it is to see what is in front of you. Orwell, like anybody raised as he was raised, could see what was in front of his nose as long as he was facing in a certain direction among a certain sort of people – mostly of the masculine flavor. But what he did, at best, was see that this is, exactly, how he saw. It is, in fact, exactly how I see – and must re-see and re-see in order to see at all. There was a rightwing trend, a few years ago, for “stoicism”, with stoicism confused with masculinity, as defined by the Skull and Bones club. That isn’t stoicism at all. Stoicism is for slaves, as Nietzsche saw, and in as much as Marcus Aurelius could become familiar with it, it was a technique that royally dethroned him.

So most people give up on reading, as Vonnegut writes, because it is more work than it looks like. The slave’s inner voice is tuned in to sarcasm – because, as its etymology of “tearing flesh” tells us, the slave sees that the whiphand doesn’t rule because it is right,but because it holds the whip. The stoic see that Jesus’s admonition that we love one another and forgive our enemies elevates us above any God that condemns to the whip – to the “gnashing of teeth”, sarkazein. That God, having forgotten to forgive, has forgotten the essence of divinity, the love without limit. And in the profane world of gnashing of teeth, highly civilized human beings will spend oodles of time and trillions of dollars trying to find ever new ways to kill you.

The great American sarcastics saw that, at least, clearly. In front of their nose.