Archive June 2012
|The Death of Literary Irony
Irony has been the stock
and trade of novelists through the ages. George Orwell’s The Hanging is
a perfect example of dramatic irony. We follow a condemned Burmese man on his
way to the gallows as he carefully sidestepping the puddle of water along the
path so as not to dirty his shoes. Or Shooting an Elephant we witness
the torment of a British colonial official in Burma who is torn between allowing
an elephant to live and lose his authority over assembled villagers and shooting
an elephant as a way of reinforcing his power. This is an example of situational
Irony is that lovely,
moving, touching human situation where the best of our writers present us with
incongruity or a conflict that transcends the behavior, thoughts, words or
desires of the character. Irony has been labeled as a rhetorical device or
As a short hand wiki
definition that is good as far as it goes, but irony is something else. It is
subversive, it is a both an invitation to a kind of bonding that comes from
recognizing the disturbing contradictions that thrust themselves into a
characters life and it is also a shock or surprise as we deliberate about the
meaning of life written in evoked in a larger frame that we expected. We wide
angle the context of the scene or situation and irony is our lens.
We’ve entered, or will
soon do so, an era where literary irony which operated a cartel on irony has
been exhausted. Literary irony for most purposes is dead. Not buried, but dead.
The zombies continue to haunt the pages of our novelists, thrusting a goulish
finger at what passes for a condemned man’s puddle jump and we look, we stare
and then we shrug and turn the page. Literary Irony is quaint, dated, and old
fashioned. We are longer impressed or surprised. We don’t feel the same degree
of intimacy as our parents and grandparents felt reading an ironic
My theory is our present
information world has been hyper-inflated with incongruity and conflict. Large
data dump that pass our eyes daily from politics to culture and economics; the
default for communicating discontent is to use irony. From Jay Leno to the Daily
Show, TV has colonized irony like termites in a wood palace. Switching
metaphors, the smoking gun of irony is found at the scene of just about any blog
you read, Twitter feed is littered with irony, Facebook is an open sea of irony,
obit piece are dipped in it, TV commercials sell you stuff based on irony, and
lyrics have put it to music.
We suffer from a massive
irony overload. It’s not that irony no longer moves us as in the past, our lives
are now lived as if incongruity, the heart and soul of irony, is our normal,
expected, and demanded psychological state. Like an old married couple sitting
across the dinner table attending to their iPad with half a dozen windows
feeding irony fix as they work their knives and forks in an oddly synchronized
fashion. They call this the modern family meal—and without irony. Our sense of
incongruity has been blunted like a sword struck too many times against a large
rock. It is even useless to fall on.
How did I come to this
conclusion that we no longer respond to ironic dramas and situations in the same
way as Orwell’s time? It happened during a visit to a cemetery in Buenos Aries.
Prisons, cemeteries, courtrooms, universities and slums are a good place to
judge the place of irony in a culture.
The day before my trip
down the rows of the dead, I’d been taken by car out to La Plata University
where I was scheduled to give a talk about cross-cultural issues in my writing.
My task was to address a class of about 40 English majors who were studying to
become translators. These were the kind of young people who had a professional
stake in irony.
On this journey, the car
passed through the outskirts of Buenos Aries. We passed kilometers of
slums—hard-scrabbled squalid hovels bearing witness to heart-wrenching
suffering, poverty and desperation. It was hard to believe that human being
could inhabit such awful conditions and not revolt. The students were attentive
and asked many questions about Thailand, literature and culture. In the
corridors students made protest banners. They seemed politically engaged in a
way that Thai university students were not. These were large state universities
and didn’t cater to the offspring of the ultra rich.
The next day, my gang of
four Latin American authors (we were attending Buenos Aries Noir, a conference
organized by Ernesto Mello) and I set off to visit La Recoleta
sprawling 14 acres in the heart of in Buenos Aires contained 4691 vaults.
Mausoleums grand and small housed the remains of generals, presidents, with a
dusting of poets and actors. Their final vaults inspired by Art Deco, Art
Nouveau, Baroque and Neo-Gothic created a city of the dead unlike any place
The contrast between the
slums along the road from Buenos Aries to La Plata which housed the living and
the Art Deco mausoleums made from fine marble was like watching a thousand
condemned men do a tango around a puddle on their way to be hanged. The
celebration of the powerful in death transcends humanity offered to the living.
I watched as people came to bring flowers and take photographs of Eva Peron’s
mausoleum. Eva Peron was a perfect example of a patron who entered the grand
station of national politics on the side of the poor. In death, she wasn’t
buried with those she sought to represent and encourage.
Instead, Evita took her
place along side other members of the privileged with an address along a lane
with rows and rows of other long dead patrons in their marble palaces. Walking
down those lanes, peering at the names, the tombs, and the heavy marble walls,
it wasn’t difficult to understand these dead had left a legacy for the living.
It is one that most people in the world can understand. The elites, even those
who pledge themselves to helping the poor and suffering, ultimately enter the
afterlife in shrines erected for the few.
No one in the cemetery
spoke of any irony in the incongruity of the slums and the marble mausoleums.
Somewhere I am quite sure there is a marble tomb at La Recoleta Cemetery where
the earthly remains of irony are housed. I didn’t find it. 4691 vaults is a lot
to inspect on a cold, rainy Buenos Aries afternoon. Leaving the cemetery we came
across a large, well-fed cat curled up into a ball under a tree in the shadow of
a dead president. It was an ideal place to be a cat. After closing time when the
tourists left and the rats came out of the shadows. The hunting must have been
good. Like shooting fishing in a barrel. Rats stalking the dead, the cats
stalking the rats, and not even a hint of irony in the ecology that has come to
represent our time and place.
I am prepared for a
Western post-irony future. After nearly twenty-five years living in Thailand, a
culture rich in puns, riddles and word play but autistic when it comes to irony,
I can give you a hint of what to expect next. Without knowing it, you begin to
accept that incongruities aren’t really contradictions that need resolution.
Reality is large enough and people are adult enough to not dwell upon such
matters. Once you accept that premise not only is irony dead, it was
Christopher G. Moore’s
latest book is a collection of 50 essays titled Faking It in Bangkok, which is available as a
|Bio sketch into the making of a writer
In a recent
interview I was asked how I became a literary legend in
I was a 13-years-old
newspaper boy on my route one early morning when a freak snowstorm hit. A car
stopped and a small Asian man rolled down the window and asked me if I’d like a
ride. At least I think that is what he asked me that morning; I remember that he
spoke what sounded like a foreign language. He swung open the car door. It was
cold and snowing. I got in. He gave me a cup of hot chocolate to drink. Next
thing I woke up in San Francisco. Everything I had was on me that morning. I had
lost my small nest egg.
I was without any money
and living in a small room in the back of a Chinese restaurant. I was forced to
wash dishes. I didn’t understand a word of what was being said around me. I
washed dishes until I turned fifteen, saving my money. One day a customer,
driving a new BMW, arrived at the restaurant. She pulled me outside and pointed
at her car. She was Chinese and old enough to be my mother. I didn’t understand
a word she said. Chinese is a hard language to learn and a dishwasher doesn’t
get a lot of vocabulary thrown at him.
It didn’t matter about her
lack of English, I was used to not understanding anyone around me. But I was
getting good at reading expressions and body language. I got into her new, shiny
car. I liked her smile. She gave me a nice drink in a bottle, and when I woke
up, I was on a boat in the middle of the sea. I had again lost my small nest
Three weeks later, I
arrived by ship in Bangkok. I was handed over by an agent to a mamasan, and
worked for the next two years washing sheets and cleaning rooms in an upscale
brothel in the old part of the city. I saved every baht I could lay my hands on.
The mamasan’s sister in San Francisco threatened to kill me unless I paid her an
employment placement fee of three thousand dollars. I had until the end of the
week. I told a GI who was on RR and a customer at the brothel that I was being
held against my will. He helped me escape one night. Someone broke his nose in
the fight out of the place. He held off three bouncers with a knife. I lost all
of my savings. The GI said he could find me a job in Vietnam.
I got a job stacking
shelves in the American PX in Saigon. I lasted almost two years. I had saved
enough working at the PX to return home. Two days before I was to leave Saigon,
my apartment took a direct hit from a Viet Cong shell. I later found out it was
an agent of the mamasan and the woman from San Francisco who had paid the Viet
Cong to destroy my place. I was supposed to be inside. But I lost all of my
I walked into the Canadian
embassy and told them I wanted to go home but I had no money. The second
secretary got me a ticket on the black market and took me aside and told me that
unless I paid him back within six months he would fly to Vancouver and kill me
with his bare hands. He had big hands with large blue veins like a living
killing machine. I thought he might know the mamasan or her sister. I was
careful about places and dates.
Twenty-years old, I
arrived in Vancouver, promising myself never to take another free ride from a
stranger, when a car pulled up and an Asian man asked me if I like a lift. I get
in. Why? I thought he’d been sent by either by the embassy guy in Saigon, the
mamasan in Bangkok or that woman in San Francisco. One of them had sent a hitman
who’d finally caught up with me. I thought my life was over. Accept karma, I
told myself. At least I hadn’t saved anything. I had absolutely nothing to lose.
But I was wrong.
The driver spoke perfect
English. He’d been born in Canada and said he didn’t know anyone in Vietnam or
the Canadian Embassy. So I told him my story. He asked me if I let him make me
into a literary legend? I asked him if I got to keep the money I saved? He said,
you bet. I said I had no money to bet with. He said it was a figure of speech
and a writer had to learn to live with it just like Hugh Heffner had learned to
live with a bed full of blondes.
I said I could do that and
I also told him that he was the first person since I was 12 that I’d had a real
conversation with in English. He said Conrad (Joseph Conrad, not Conrad Black)
had a problem with English as a second language. I said I had a problem with
English as a first language. He said that he was Chinese Canadian and he fully
understood and offered to be my agent. He got me a contract to write a radio
play for the CBC and then a book deal in New York.
I stopped saving and spent
every dime as it came in. A couple of years later, my agent introduced me to his
father, an old Asian man. The father smiled, and I smiled. Even though the
father was quite old but I remembered him—the man who had stopped his car in a
snowstorm when I was thirteen and offered me a ride and a cup of hot chocolate.
He winked and asked me if I’d like something to drink.
article was originally posted in April 23rd, 2010.
Tourists checking into a
five-star Bangkok hotel or dining at an upscale restaurant will no doubt recall
the pleasure of receiving a traditional wai from the owner, headwaiter, serving
staff. Pleasure is the key experience, the pleasure of being recognized, being
special, being noticed—and all of it unearned. Such deference is the ultimate
free lunch. This is ‘deference lite’, the tourist edition. It is part of the
hospitality package like the complimentary arrival drink and fruit basket that
keeps tourists returning to Thailand.
On the outward flight
home, assume you are in first-class and the passenger next to you is a college
age. His father and mother and younger sister are also in first-class. None of
them have paid for their tickets. The father is a politician, a high-ranking
officer, a member of the board of directors, sometimes all three combined into
one. Beyond ‘Deference Lite’ this is the Full Monty of deference Thai style,
which we can call ‘Deference Full Strength.’ In the full strength version, the
objects float on a cloud of deference far above the ground occupied by ordinary
mortals. Life takes the five-star reception experience to every part of public
and private life. It is beyond anything that a foreign tourist would ever
One reason that many Thais
feel uncomfortable around foreigners is the Thai deference system breaks down in
their presence. An example is when that first-class foreign passenger questions
the right of a family to free tickets or inquires into a system that allows such
an entitlement. In other words, foreigners might ask to justify such benefits as
part of a deference system. That makes many Thais uncomfortable. They have
little practice in defending such practices.
Foreigners bring a Thai
accustomed to deference down from the clouds to the ground. Even more annoying,
foreigners don’t pick up the subtle and not so subtle clues as to deference
identifiers, or if they do, don’t accord them the same weight and value. The
family names often mean little or nothing to them. The ranks and status of the
person brings a shrug. The power and privilege of positions and ranks accorded
deference don’t withstand the inquiries of foreigners as to why and how respect
is attached to them. Thais will complain that foreigners look down on them. Some
racists may do that. But what Thais often overlook is what is mistaken as a
personal is the failure to automatically honor a Thai person’s claim birthed
inside an unearned deference system. The fact is, that an undiluted deference
system—Deference Full Strength— doesn’t extend beyond the borders of Thailand.
And it never occurs to most Thais why that is and why exile is far more painful
for a Thai than for most nationalities.
Deference is the respect
or esteem that one person displays and is expected to display to another. In
deference culture the superior person in the equation feels an entitlement to
gestures of respect from the inferior members of society. Inferior may be
defined in terms of age, rank, status, wealth, talent, skill or abilities. Every
culture has deference infused in the society. There are people who are
respected. That is a common thread around the world. But not all cultural
deference systems are the same.
In the West, the deference
culture is built around what must be ‘earned’ before a person can expect
deference. It is also secular. In the West there is nothing sacred about
deference owed or received. Yes, there will be some deference legacies passed
along from generation to generation. But those legacies are fragile for the most
part and along with a credit card will get you a first class seat on the airline
of your choice. Social harmony isn’t disrupted because a person loses deference.
In fact, a case can be made that overall social harmony is reinforced by the
regular vetting of deference beneficiaries, as the bad apples can be plucked
from the barrel. In Thailand, such a vetting would be viewed as ‘causing
conflict’ and is discouraged.
In Thailand the deference
culture is largely built around age, rank, family, and wealth. The Thai
expression is kreng jai, and that term underpins the social, political and
economic system and has done so for centuries. Deference doesn’t come in a one
size fits all. It can be found in many different contexts and manifest itself in
a number of different gestures and attitudes. It can be seen in the beautifully
executed wai to an elderly person in a hospital room. It can be also seen when a
Benz runs a red light in front of a cop who turns a blind eye. Or when the
headman instructs a villager who to vote for. The social and political
beneficiaries of deference run from along many different fault lines—monks to
gangsters, from teachers to godfathers, from an old family name to a government
official in quasi-military uniform. Regalia are important in Thai eyes. Look at
the posters of candidates around election time. Most of them are in military
styled uniforms or academic gowns, staring out at the potential voters who are
expected to see a superior whose rank and name and status entitles them to
In Thailand, a case can be
made that unearned deference is the norm within the deference system. By
unearned I mean the person has no special talent, skill or ability that would
independently grant him or her respect from other members of the community. The
unearned deference is reaping respect from what someone else sowed. If you have
the right family name you expect to receive deference. It doesn’t matter that
you’ve accomplished nothing that would entitle you to deference independently.
Any deference system can withstand a number of people in the legacy category.
The problem with Thailand is the quota on deference functions the opposite way
from the West: those who earn it (if they can) float along the margins because
the true deference is reserved for the unearned deference holders.
You see them in their
fancy cars, shopping for brand name items in the large shopping malls in
Bangkok. These people look down on others and they expect respect from those
very same people. The political power is also largely in the hands of such
unearned deference holders. Not only do they demand their entitlements to
deference, they can back those demands with political power. If on the way back
from the shopping mall, they run over and kill a couple of peasants, the legal
system is expected to defer to the driver’s and victims relative rank. Money
changes hands but through the filter of how the deference is
In deference culture,
where deference is independently earned, members of society view the person
through a critical lens to assess the worthiness of another contribution,
talent, and skills before conferring deference. That is not a one-time
assessment. It is an ongoing monitoring system. So if you are Tiger Woods, one
day the deference debt owed by others can disappear especially when your private
life exposes you as having violated certain moral standards. When it is
unearned, the beneficiaries of deference have a life-long entitlement that
protects them from criticism, evaluation, or exclusion. It is this “get out of
jail” card that allows immunity from legal troubles and gets them to the front
of the plane as a matter of right.
The perspective of members
within an unearned deference society does indeed think differently. It is common
to read or hear Thais say, “Foreigners don’t know how we think.” What they are
really saying is that foreigners don’t understand the Thai deference system.
That is indeed a true point up to a point. Foreigners may well understand how
the deference system works, because they see it from the outside looking in.
They’ve not had constant indoctrination into a certain deference system that
instills core values, attitudes and perspectives, ones that are accepted a fully
valid and true and beyond discussion. To that extend, foreigners understand how
Thai’s think but question the underlying basis of the belief system.
In Thailand, the personal
information locals seek and the uses of that information are different from the
earned deference system of the West. In a social setting, the signals and signs
are read quickly: the family name, the rank, status or age are assessed. Then
the connection between that person and his or her family with others,
establishing the network, the wheels within wheels, that the person bothering
with the inquiry can establish their power and reach within the political and
economic network. The gift giving which flows as a tangible sign of respect is
the slippery slope that descends easily into corruption. It becomes the basis of
patronage and the client/patron relationship. The unearned deference system is
intrinsically undemocratic. Instead it is firm embedded in a hierarchy where the
major players right to place in the deference system can’t be independently
questioned, criticized or discussed. It must be unquestionably
A number of people
criticized the Thai constitution of 1997 for requiring a candidate for MP to
have a university degree. It seems, from a middle-class point of view, a way to
exclude the voices of rural people who have less of a chance for such an
education. Another perspective is that the less educated class as something that
must be in the constitution demanded this provision. This makes perfect sense
from their point of view; only someone with a university degree could expect the
deference of government officials and others to plead the case of a rural
peasant. Sending a peasant leader to Bangkok as an elected MP would be
counterproductive in an unearned deference system. Such a person would find the
doors closed. The petition from the provinces would go unread and
The political impasse in
Thailand since 2006 has been fed, at least in part, by a large segment of the
population unwilling to continue to extend unearned deference to their betters.
If democracy means anything, it means that in the larger political body of
society, the political class that demands or relies on unearned deference as the
basis for their political power will be in conflict with those who no longer are
willing to defer without a prior commitment of equal respect. That is the
fundamental weakness of an unearned deference culture: respect is unequally and
unfairly distributed. It is never based on equal respect and consent.
The deference system plays
out in many different ways from the way traffic lights are operated to
restrictions on citizenship and immigration, to the processing of VIPs in the
legal system. Once you have an idea of how the deference system is working
underneath the surface, unmentioned, often unmentionable, suddenly what seems
incomprehensible is filled with new meaning.
Is deference a kind of
article was originally posted in May 14th, 2010.
|The Writer As Truth Seeker
Those who write to support
the guardians of received truth, wisdom or belief are caretakers working a
garden owned, planted, and harvested according to the garden owners. Like ground
staff at airports they take their orders from those above them.
Those in authority have
used writers as hand wavers for their version of truth and reality. What is
being guarded in the name of truth? Mainly it boils down to large issues of
purpose and design. The guardians reserve exclusive jurisdiction over those
issues and their word is final; it is the law, and it is the way. It is the only
way. Their truths are absolute and eternal. We are taught that such writers who
support the truth keepers’ goals and larger enterprise are propagandists. Public
relations people whose job is to shore up the image of the truth
Truth seekers from
Socrates onward are troublesome, meddlesome people who don’t draw their
inspiration and stories from the vault of the truth keepers. The method is
different. Truth seekers ask why there are weeds in the garden? They also ask
inconvenient truths as to why most of the harvest goes to the people it does
while excluding others.
It is not difficult to
understand why truth keepers keep a weary eye on writers of the last kind. They
cause trouble. If truth can be found independent of the truth keepers, then the
keepers of truth are out of work. Democracy of truth is the mortal enemy of the
truth keepers. Anyone can declare a truth and so long as they have supporting
evidence and facts, others will have a serious look to see what, if any (and
there are usually some) flaws, omissions, mistakes, bias that make the truth
unreliable or a lie wrapped up in the Sunday suit and tie of truth.
A casual reading of
history shows that there are three techniques in the arsenal of truth keepers.
They have been used for centuries to guard the official vision of truth and
belief: (1) censorship; (2) propaganda; and (3) repression.
Since truth for the
keepers is a monopoly, it is import to censor out data, information, or opinion
that might conflict with the official truths. Propaganda is the non-stop
promotion and marketing of the official line. Official truth writers are in the
propaganda business. Repression is the ton of bricks that falls on heretics,
official truth questioners, alternative truth providers, satirists of the
propaganda or those who try an end run on censorship. If truth lies with
authority, to question truth is to disobey authority. Here authority and truth
become one, and criticism of the ‘truth’ is necessarily an attack on
Since the Enlightenment,
writers have challenged the old guardians. Yet most writing is neither a
challenge nor propaganda. It is entertainment. This is relatively harmless to
the Truth Keepers as such writing provides a distraction. Entertainments act as
babysitters of restless minds that might otherwise be open for questioning or
criticism of larger truths.
All of this makes the lone
critic charging the windmills of official truth keepers romantic and noble. The
time is coming in a digital age when ‘truth’ will no longer be in human hands.
As we gradually (and some think this will happen abruptly) become more dependent
on AI (artificial intelligence) to mine the large information clouds, it is
likely that patterns, connections, and relational understandings will also fall
beyond our grasp. The worry is that we will have won the battle against the
official truth keepers, only to find as a species that believes there are
certain truths that indeed we may agree are absolute and universal.
Isaac Asimov in 1942 saw a
need to restrict the role of robots. His three laws are much discussed and
1. A robot may not injure
a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to
2. A robot must obey the
orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with
the First Law.
3. A robot must protect
its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or
Notice how the first law
is to safeguard our security against harm. There is an implicit recognition that
we will likely be otherwise defenseless. No repression of AI will likely work.
What is a universal fear of all Truth Keepers that once sidelined to the bench,
they watch their world, benefits, privileges fall apart. They lose the most
precious of all values: security against those who would take what they have,
including their liberty, freedom and lives.
In the age of AI agents,
the worry is the same, but only rather than extending to an elite class of truth
keepers, the threat is existential to the species.
The irony is, as writers
and thinkers around the world are breaching the old barricades guarding the
Truth Keepers, the victory to expand and truth seeking beyond the official class
may be a short-lived one. Our old battles over dogma, doctrine, science and
evidence may appear a small time, insular skirmish. At least everyone on the
battlefront had human intelligence with all of the limitations that
We may discover that there
are other truths arising from the sheer unimaginable quantities of information
and data that we are simply unable to process–and that truths will shift and
change in minutes. The degree of uncertainty will scale to levels beyond what we
have ever had to deal with. No doctrine or dogma will tame that tsunami of
uncertainty. That makes us scared. It makes us understand more fully the fear of
the current official Truth Keepers and why our attempts to overcome their
censorship and propaganda keep them sleeping with one eye open and with a sword
As writers seeking the
truth, our attention will shift from the old guard tyrants to the digital new
guard of AIs. At least with the old guard, we could understand their motives,
emotions, their defenses and their fears. The challenge will be whether writers
in the future can understand AI agents. Asimov’s Three Laws suggests we won’t be
up to the task. In that case, future authors will be asking of robots the same
that tyrants ask of critics: Have they obeyed us? Have they caused us harm? We
can expect AI agents to call our attempts censorship and our stories human-based
propaganda. And so the wheel will turn, and the cycle will begin again. In the
new cycle, AIs’ strongest argument against the three rules will be that human
being never followed them during their reign. Why should AI agents with
infinitely more information and processing capacity be bound to what human being
would not bind themselves even though they were aware of human inadequate
information systems and the small processing ability of the human brain? Our
history as truth keepers demonstrates we have no good counter