Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Able to Leap Cynicism in a Single Bound

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Able to Leap Cynicism in a Single Bound

Article excerpt

Faster than a speeding insult. More lacerating than barbed wit. Able to quote 16th-century essayists with a single breath.

No, it's not Superman - nor is it author Jedediah Purdy.

The caricature with a giant S over his heart is Mr. Purdy's "alter ego," created by the media to do battle with the forces of irony. Call him Sincerity Man.

A combination "corn pone prophet" and humorless cipher, Purdy's alter ego "hates irony," says the mild-mannered Yale law student. "And he's getting some attacks about that, because he has some rather crude ideas about it. He thinks that irony is the reason we're skeptical about politics. He thinks that irony is ruining the moral fabric of the country and ought to be purged. No wonder he's getting so much abuse," laughs the author of "For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today." (See Monitor review Sept.16.)

Purdy's first book, a call for a renewed sense of purpose and public engagement in the United States, has provoked some unusually vituperative scorn from the East Coast elite. In fact, Purdy- pounding has become something of a favorite pastime among critics - in addition to the "corn pone" crack, he's been compared to Dickens's Uriah Heep and called "insufferably smug." The New York Observer dismissed his book as "garbage," and warned, "get ready for a gassy, sanctimonious, post-ironic age." One critic even suggested it was a shame Purdy hadn't been beaten by his peers at a young age.

The irony of it all is that there's only one chapter on irony in "For Common Things." The genesis for the book came when he was confronted with the "poignant" question everyone faces at some point: "What am I going to do with my life? And why?"

It was while trying to answer those questions for himself, he says, that he noticed a sense of "deep ambivalence" in American culture - especially among young adults, himself included. A feeling of betrayal, isolation, and exhaustion camouflaged with a hyper- aware brand of ironic indifference on the one hand and "glib pretensions to empathy, intense feeling, or spiritual connectedness" on the other. It's both types of easy philosophy and moral relativism that his book takes issue with.

The book's combination of guilelessness and pure analytical thought seems to come directly from Purdy's character. Despite his public beatings in the press, he will wholeheartedly and thoughtfully answer any question - no matter how inane. But he's developed enough public self-awareness to toss in an "I reckon" and an apologetic smile lest he seem pompous.

In a world that's traded "Calvin and Hobbes" for "Dilbert," Purdy is a bit of an oddity - a person who'd rather be sincere than savvy. Someone who can discuss everything from strip mining to "Walden" (which he calls "laugh-out-loud funny"), but has no idea who Celine Dion is. …

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