The Long Arm of Childhood

December 9, 2017

1000

 

I don’t know whether you share with me the trait whereby characteristics of your parents increasingly emerge from you unexpectedly and unbidden, but that’s certainly true with me, and I find it endlessly fascinating. This morning, an English acquaintance passed me in a café and asked the routine “How are you?” not expecting, I’m sure, the answer that he got: “Not bad for an old man.”

His eyes expressed surprise, and I didn’t detain him to explain that, from the time when my father was in his forties, perhaps, that was a stock answer of his. I’m sure I have never given it two seconds of conscious thought in my life, and if you had asked me if my father had any habitual answers to such a greeting, I’d have come up with nothing. But there it was on my lips—another person’s voice coming out of my mouth. And this is not just a sentimental invention: my mind’s eye saw him smiling. The subconscious is a marvelous thing, and results of its nurture in the far past can be fascinatingly mysterious.

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, both in the media and in personal comments—always from citizens of a close sister-nation that is often called our mother-country—that “Americans can’t do irony.” That’s meant as a putdown, but it’s actually a compliment that I wish we deserved more than we actually do. Verbal irony is a negative and often cruel thing. It establishes distance from its object and allows us then to tear the object apart from that safe distance. It simultaneously undoes the thing criticized and raises up the one doing the criticizing. I’d say we have more than enough irony and that when we boast about excelling at it we might profit from some self-examination of our motives.