Irenic vs Ironic.
Hipsters devour everything. If there’s no meaning to life, then there is nothing that can’t be devoured in the name of cool posturing.
I grew up a Christian, in the Episcopal Church. I’ve had my troubles with Christianity in general, and with my church in particular, but I’ve never been able to view the question as unimportant. Even in raging against Christianity as a young man, I took it very seriously.
Sure, I’m just as capable of dismissive, ugly, and snarky remarks as the next thirty-something. It’s my generation’s primary mode of communication, after all. But I always sensed there were some things that, while they might induce mirth, joy, and laughter, were far too sublime for derision.
As I communicated once to a friend via email, there have always been other things which I simply can’t feel ironic about. Shakespeare dominated my consciousness for a long time, and he still does to a lesser extent. As had and does Mahler (click that link, let it play while you read the rest of this post). Nietzsche (that grand ironist). Tolkien (that grand anti-ironist). Lewis, Melville, Burne-Jones, Lawrence, Dogen, Augustine, Sebald, Kerouac. From some perspectives, these men have very little in common. Indeed, some of them are at war with one another. Lawrence and Augustine don’t see eye to eye (though I suspect neither would object to breaking bread with the other). Kerouac thinks he represents Dogen, but Dogen would laugh at Kerouac’s total lack of discipline. Lewis and Nietzsche are poles apart (though they both respect Wagner). But I can’t be ironic about any of these men.
I wear a silver cross around my neck sometimes. It’s not for show, it’s for myself. Once, I dressed quickly to run out to the store in the evening. I was wearing a v-neck shirt at home, and just threw on some boots and my peacoat before heading out the door. I didn’t realize I was wearing my silver cross, and that it was quite visible against my skin under my open coat, with my low-V shirt. In fact, in retrospect, I realize it was almost ostentatious.
I ran into a friend outside the local bar between my house and the grocery store. He was having a cigarette on the sidewalk with a pal. We exchanged chummy hellos, and then he asked, pointing to my breast, “What’s with that? Are you trying to look tough?”
“Oh this?” I said. I intuitively sensed his hostility, and not wishing a confrontation, I smiled and said, “Oh this is some ancient Middle-Eastern religious cult thing. You don’t want to know about it.”
“Oh I know it,” said he, declining the chance to let the confrontation pass.
“Yeah, it’s an old one, but a good one.”
“It’s old,” said he, “but I don’t know about good.”
He then suggested I read some thing called “The True History of the Devil” or some such. I haven’t bothered to look it up. I’m sure it explains why religion, and specifically Christianity, is all some dark conspiracy to keep people under the thumb of vile and hypocritical popes.
But why did he ask if I was “trying to look tough”? It’s because a lot of gang-members in the US these days like to show off crosses as some kind of fashion statement. And not just gang-members. Up until this point, it’s been strictly limited to black people, Mexicans, and other such people who are already culturally immune to being accused as oppressors. (White, straight men wearing crosses = uncomfortably sincere. Female mixed-race rappers wearing crosses = delightfully transgressive.) It’s a kind of edgy-cool thing to do. I’m not sure I get it totally, but my intuition is that the people who wear it are combining some kind of (not altogether contemptible) memory of early-life belief with a brash defiance of those who wish to judge them. As in, “You wanna judge me? Judge this!”
Well that’s not my cultural milieu, so I might be wrong. In any case, my (newly hostile) friend recognized the cross as something that someone probably wears to “look tough.” I let a few awkward moments pass to signify that I found his need to lecture me on “the true history of the devil” rather outré, but I did not push the issue. Really, I was just running to the store.
But upon further reflection, I realized some prescience on this issue. If people were already recognizing a cross around the neck as a symbol of something other than Christianity, it was only a matter of time before white hipsters would pick up on the trend.
Well, sure enough, today I went into the coffee shop on my block (about 40 yards from where I saw my friend smoking), and the young girl behind the counter was wearing a HUGE wooden cross around her neck. It was about four inches top to bottom, and half an inch thick, and bright purple. She was wearing all kinds of other bangles and pendants around it.
It was a joke. It wasn’t a sincere expression of faith. Perhaps she feels, as I do, an affinity with family and tradition, but she’s wearing it ostentatiously. As in, “Isn’t it funny, the idea of someone as worldly and chic as me believing in something so stupid? Ha ha! Everyone behold the ironic detachment! I’m so unique!”
I just google image-searched “hipster girl wearing cross” and got basically nothing. I predict that within three months I will get plenty of hits. These things happen quickly. Fads always do.
If only there were something that outlasted fashionable, ironically-detached trends. Gee, I can’t think what that could possibly be. Help me here, people…
I suppose it’s to your credit that the friend–though initially suspicious of the signal you were trying to convey–seemed to presume the sincerity behind your wearing a cross.
I can only imagine that white hipsters must live lives of quiet desperation. They seem motivated to transgress in order to display their superiority, but then their transgressions seem so cowardly, as though from a position of guaranteed comfort. Undermine the certainty of that comfort, and suddenly the transgression has real cost, as it should. For instance, if after approaching the counter, you earnestly–albeit gently–told the girl, “You know, the Bible admonishes believers not to be overly ostentatious in their devotions,” I imagine she would have wilted. The joke loses its appeal.
Perhaps this is the way to deal with hipsters more generally: initiate conversation with them on the apparent presumption that their adornments and affectations are sincere. Require them to explain the joke. What could be less funny?
Sometimes one does this without realizing it. Once I sat next to a spindly, bewhiskered, pale hipster at a bar and noticed his old-school “Cleveland Browns” t-shirt. I started asking him cheerful questions about the team. “Are they still going to war with McCoy at QB this year, or are they going and try to sign a free agent?”
Of course, the man was not a fan of the Browns, or any other team. Because, *of course* he couldn’t possibly be associated with something so dreadfully uncool. I will admit I got a kick out of seeing him squirm at the phrase “McCoy at QB,” which much have sounded so uncomfortably … earnest.
Are you sure it was a hipster thing, and not a sincere expression of the girl’s faith, or as you said maybe an expression of her family/tradition, ect. Or maybe it was some goofy ‘spiritual’ thing. For example, my brother once had a girl friend who was born Catholic but abandoned it to become buddhist, and by buddhist I mean the fake kind only unserious westerners practice. Well she still kept rosary beads in her bedroom for protection against evil spirits. When my brother asked her why she did not get rid of it, and just keep her buddhist charms instead, she insisted that different faith charms kept away different evil spirits. Go figure.