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Elon Musk’s favourite book is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He sees it as an instruction to “expand the scope and scale of consciousness”, which is a lot of weight to put on the comic experiment of a Monty Python accomplice. The one lesson from Walter Isaacson’s ceaselessly unenlightening new biography of Musk is that here is a man on whom jokes are forever lost.
But then, on winners, aren’t they often?
Once in a while, an Amazon Prime film crew follows an elite sports team at close quarters over a season. What each seems to have in common is a non-ironic working environment. There are motivational slogans on all large surfaces. (Even the dog at Arsenal is called Win.) There are bonding exercises that would shame a KPMG off-site. Experts are drawn in from other industries or the frothier end of academia to share tenuous “insights”. You keep waiting for the athletes themselves to laugh this David Brent-ery out of the room.
But the cringe never comes. If there is a fractional advantage to be had, they want it. If not, well, nothing is lost in trying. Either way, a fear of seeming earnest, of committing a lapse in taste, doesn’t come into it.
Allow me a third case study, in the form of Burning Man. People chuckled when the festival was rained-out a few weeks ago, and with reason. Its mission statement is vapid and half-literate (“The touchstone of value in our culture will always be immediacy”). Its quest to remake the world through Stoicism, Effective Altruism or whichever whim-of-the-week is sweeping the Santa Clara Valley, is teenage. And just listen to the rising cadence with which regulars say the name of the festival. It sounds as though they are asking if you mind the Nevada heat (“Burning, man?”). I dislike this annual crucible of near-religious earnestness: this bonfire of ironies.
But — a Burner might say — of course I do. I am someone of moderate success in a downwardly mobile profession who never has to put much on the line. People who deal in higher stakes have to insulate themselves from the archness and cynicism of the wider culture. Irony gets nothing done. It is the creed of the passive observer. Not everyone who is incapable of irony is a winner, no. But lots of winners are incapable of irony.
As with individuals, so with nations. Britain’s ironic talent only really flourished when the country ceased to matter in the world. If you think it is an eternal national trait, look at a public building from Victorian times or thereabouts. The sternest, least playful architectural style since the Middle Ages coincided with Britain’s dominion over much of the earth. A nation that commissioned the Viceroy’s House in Delhi can’t claim to have always had a sense of the absurd. No, that came with national decline. That came with the rise of the po-faced Americans, who could be mocked for not being in on the great joke of life. Irony is, or can be, the comfort toy of the also-ran.
On Wednesday night, the Champions League anthem sounded in the Emirates Stadium for the first time since 2017. For those who don’t know, this is a Handel-ish number: a sequence of grandiose choral statements in English, French and German, set to militaristic horns and an orchestral crescendo. You expect to see rococo cherubs floating overhead with gold-leaf harps. Even the protocol around the anthem is severe: Uefa apparently insists that no other music is played after it. Fans have been known to drown it out with boos. It is the most pompous spectacle in all sport. It is immodest and vainglorious. I love it.
Or at least I am glad that the spirit it represents — that of earnest striving — exists. Irony is a precious adornment to life. It takes the edge off things and puts individuals such as Musk, on whom there are so few checks, in their place once in a while. But it can never be the main force, not if you want to do anything of worth as a person or nation. Ils sont les meilleurs. Sie sind die besten. These are the champions. Look at their unsmirking faces.
Email Janan at firstname.lastname@example.org
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