In Defense of Earnestness

In my room I have a desk where I work. And on the wall above that desk I have tacked a What’s Up Yukon article dated December 11, 2008. Titled “Worked Hard, Still Working,” it is about Roger Thorlakson, who settled here in 1964.

I wrote it — it’s the first in my Yukon Icon series, in which I profiled indispensable Yukoners of all shapes and sizes over the following two years.

Aside from narcissism (which I’m clearly not immune to), there are at least two reasons I’ve posted this particular piece at eye-level.

It was the first thing I’d published after I made one of those genuine fork-in-the-road decisions in my life. About a month before the article showed in What’s Up I moved back to Whitehorse from Edmonton with the newly vowed commitment to live by the written word, or die trying. So to cast a glance at this article on my wall is to be reminded of a promise I made to myself nearly half a decade ago.

The second, and more important reason to keep this story in my sightline is to remind myself of the reason why living by the written word is a noble objective in the first place: at its best it allows you to communicate meaningfully with others.

From the masthead photo of myself — where I’m caught innocently beaming at the camera — to the last sentence, my article-on-the-wall is completely devoid of irony, much like the rest of the Yukon Icon canon.

At one point in the article I wrote, “Thorlakson is the type of person who has earned the right to be himself, and as a result he has a quiet self-confident manner.”

Undoubtedly true, but also very earnest.

Earnestness can be embarrassing — a sign of naivety, or worse. But Dostoevsky was earnest; and so was Roberto Bolaño. In fact, I’ve come to believe that most of those who truly have words worth putting on paper hold sincerity close to their hearts, and keep irony at arm’s length.

Which is not to say that irony cannot be a powerfully subversive tool. One of the great quotes in cinema comes from Dr. Strangelove, when the President shouts, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room.”

I, myself, occasionally enjoy the caustic thrill of an ironic tirade. But to make irony a personal default-setting, the natural lens through which to view reality, is to admit defeat.

David Foster Wallace once described irony as the song of a bird that has come to love its cage. As such, it’s a faux-protest; a refusal to engage squarely with the world; a fast-talking cowardice.

Ironists are clever people, but cleverness for its own sake brings to mind a fashion mannequin with an impressive exterior but a hollow core.

To be earnest is to risk public ridicule, but it also shows guts.

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