Friday, February 17, 2006

Subtlety, irony - and how the Twain did eventually meet

Have you noticed how WORD does not like ‘emigrated’? Probably not – it’s not a word you use every day – but if you try to, you’ll get the dreaded wavy green line. When you ask WORD why, it tells you you meant ‘immigrated’ – when of course you did not. We’re talking your latest ‘International’ version of WORD here, by the way, not the ‘homespun all-American’ one. I think of this whenever I see Gates has given another $57 million (ie an hour’s pay) to some deserving cause.
I don’t want to make a big thing of this. Why am I then? Well, it’s a metaphor, you see.
In case you don’t, here’s another, less subtle one: in my early days as an accounting machine salesman selling American machines in the UK, we had a big shot come over from our Philadelphia HQ to visit us. He outlined the corporate policy – in the Financial Times no less – as ‘Think globally and act locally, but without going native’. (Sound like Rumpsfeld?) He then asked us why we weren’t selling 1004’s. Ah yes, we said, great machine, but we’ve already pointed out to the marketing people in Philly that you can’t sell accounting machines in the UK without a £ (pound) sign. The top banana’s reply was: ‘Why the hell can’t they use the dollar sign?’
It lacks the irony of the first example, but the point is the same: if Americans don’t need it, it isn’t necessary. Nobody emigrates from the US.
No, this is not one of those clichéd ‘Yankee Go Home’ banners. Now you might ask why I always take a ball-breakingly long time to get to the point and finish up having to say what the blog is not about. I’ve wondered about that, and I think it’s because Alistair Cook got away with it for best part of a century and I was one of his greatest fans.
I’ll come to the point: it’s about irony. (Phew – collective sigh of relief - at last!)
It all arose from a Sunday Times review of a new biography of Mark Twain, in which it said, ‘Irony was a European invention’. How’s that for a truism? Irony is as old as literature, and didn’t western literature come from Europe? Still, it made me think, so can’t be all bad.
Early European immigrants to the US – look, no wavy green line! – were bucolic illiterates, so, apart from the family Bible, did not take literature with them. And in the age of Enlightenment, when Voltaire, Gibbon, Diderot and the like were ladling out irony like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, dour America was busy writing declarations of independence. Thomas Jefferson was never in his lifetime accused of having written a single ironic word.
But my claim for Twain (while mainly on the wane?) is that he was the 19th century writer most responsible for the introduction of irony to AmeriLit. – the man who brought ambiguity to the West. And the fact that he spent most of his life hating all things non-American is the biggest irony of all.
The many Euros who think that irony isn’t appreciated in the US are usually comparing the wrong centuries. Like the hoary old jokes about French plumbing, it’s one of those clichés that, while it had some credibility in the past, is now way past its sell-by date. You should not try to compare 19th century clods like Fennimore Cooper and Longfellow with Beckett and Pinter. But try it with John Updike, Truman Capote, Toni Morrison or The Simpsons and you might get somewhere.
I could finish with a succinct phrase that sums up the whole blog, but Alistair never did – and he was the best blogger there ever was, even if he never knew the word.

2 comments:

infinitemuppets said...

‘Think globally and act locally, but without going native’...was he clumsily alluding to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, or, more likely, Apocalypse Now?

They like a nice military/literary allusion, yer corporate yank.

I was actually thinking about the 'TGAL' line earlier this evening, and nearly posted this:

"Think global act local," said the chap on Radio 4.

"Well I'm glad I'm not stupid enough to live in New Orleans, or Bangladesh," I thought to myself, turning off the radio and putting on a CD of 'World Music', as I drove to Tesco in the Freelander.

"One can't be expected to walk to the shops these days," I thought, turning up the aircon, damned weather's getting so bloody unpredictable.

riviera writer said...

Thanks - but strange photo for a City fan - I thought it was the red-shirted TAAG (Think and Act Global) mob who were the Cyclopeans. Good luck to the Local team.