Here’s how it goes in David Denby’s short book, Snark. First, he’ll note a snarky remark he’s preserved for your consideration. It’s mean, low-down, and colored by the crudest feelings in the crayon box. Then he bobs toward complexity by saying that, of course, there are times when this level of invective might be justified. The criterion, vague at first but soon clankingly obvious, is whether Denby agrees with the cause. Therefore: Keith Olbermann, yea; Bill O’Reilly, nay. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I snarked along the one Denby approves of. And that has made all the difference.
This double standard is more interesting than anything else in the book. It’s interesting not because it’s a tendency peculiar to Denby, but because we all feel it from time to time. “It is not easy—perhaps not even desirable—to judge other people by a consistent standard,” says a character in Anthony Powell’s novel A Question of Upbringing. “Conduct obnoxious, even unbearable, in one person may be readily tolerated in another.” When Christopher Hitchens turned, or appeared to turn, politically rightward, George Scialabba noted his own reaction and wrote: “All the someone in question has to do is begin thinking differently from me about a few important matters, and in no time I find that his qualities have subtly metamorphosed. His abundance of colorful anecdotes now looks like incessant and ingenious self-promotion. His marvelous copiousness and fluency strike me as mere mellifluous facility and mechanical prolixity.” This is the strange alchemy of bias. Scialabba should have asked, though, whether he was wrong to have appreciated those qualities before.
It’s all reminiscent of kids losing a game and accusing the other side of cheating. The beef here is with losing, but to admit that as an adult is rather uncomfortable. On this rarely acknowledged principle, face-saving intellectuals prefer to complain about their opposition’s unseemly tactics rather than the more troublesome fact that their opposition exists at all.
Because of this slippery understanding of snark, the closest that Denby is able to come to a firm definition of it is to offer this vague scenario:
The platonic ideal of snark is something like this: Two girls are sitting in a high school cafeteria putting down a third, who’s sitting on the other side of the room. What’s peculiar about this event is that the girl on the other side of the room is their best friend. In that scenario, snark is abusive or sarcastic speech that operates like poisoned arrows within a closed space.
What the analogue of “best friend” would be in the wider world of politics and ideas is unclear, and the vagueness of the bad-mouthing makes it easy to condemn. If snark is simply invective one doesn’t like, then every person with an intact personality is against snark. Snark, as it’s used outside of Denby’s book, seems to mean criticism that some party deems too caustic in tone, but anyone who condemns snark in the Denby way, it seems, has to speak as if the whole world shares his preferences for what deserves scorn and praise. This sort of criticism therefore shorts the circuit that criticism is supposed to travel, that is, to convince others of what specific things deserve scorn and praise.
It would be better to leave Denby’s convoluted book behind, and—in drawing the line between the uses and abuses of snark—look at an established classic. Here is a line from a work, which the author described as “an experiment in literary investigation”: “According to the rumors, it was all the work of ex-soldiers (recent ex-soldiers!).”
The author is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who, while advancing west with the Red Army, was arrested by his own government and imprisoned, becoming an “ex-soldier.” When prisoners in one of the camps revolted, government propaganda found it useful to describe the rebels as “ex-soldiers,” implying that they were a ragtag mob of deranged, violent men, long out of the army and lashing out against a reasonable penal system. But these were in fact “recent ex-soldiers,” having been transformed overnight from stalwart defenders of their country into condemned criminals. Ex-soldiers they certainly were—why, just a week ago they were risking their lives for the motherland, and now here they are, being tortured as “fascists”!
But I notice I’m already imitating the tone of the man I’m writing about. It’s a frenetic, contagious style—Solzhenitsyn is the only writer who likes italics and exclamation points more than the editors at Gawker—and it shares with snark the ability to stow an entire worldview between parentheses. (Compression of meaning is something snark also shares with poetry.) Many who have heard of The Gulag Archipelago (1973) but not read it are under the impression that it’s like an encyclopedia with all the light parts cut out and that only a rare surge of piety could make anyone want to read it instead of just gazing at its spine on the shelf. This is a strange reputation for one of the most entertaining books ever written about mass murder to have, but maybe that dour dust-jacket is what’s throwing them off. It couldn’t be the prose, when every other page raises the question of whether, once you’ve found yourself laughing at sarcastic descriptions of torture and brutality, you should feel bad or just go with it.
After some initial frustrations, the Soviet government manages to put down the camp rebellion. Solzhenitsyn, with horrifying specificity, describes just how the military murdered the rebels, and adds:
So busy were they with all this that no one had leisure to open Pravda that day. It had a special theme—a day in the life of our Motherland: the successes of steelworkers; more and more crops harvested by machine. The historian surveying our country as it was that day will have an easy task.
There’s nothing particularly satirical about this style—what it describes isn’t an exaggeration, which is exactly why it holds our attention. It’s sarcastic, snide, irreverent, but most of all, it makes no effort to be objective. It is grounded entirely in the presumption of disdain of the Soviet gulag system. Far from encumbering the prose, the snark illuminates the system’s absurdity. Bereft of its snark, it would read like one of those Associated Press stories that leaves you wondering whether the reporter is withholding something crucial for fear of violating objectivity.
One of the funniest (and snarkiest) passages in the whole book describes how the Tsarist justice system dealt with Lenin before the revolution. After relating, among other things, how under communism entire peasant families were executed for “hoarding” the crops they hoped to subsist on, Solzhenitsyn describes the ordeals of the young Vladimir this way:
…he was merely expelled. Such cruelty! Yes, but he was also banished….To Sakhalin? No, to the family estate of Kokushkino, where he intended to spend the summer anyway. He wanted to work, so they gave him an opportunity….To fell trees in the frozen north? No, to practice law in Samara, where he was simultaneously active in illegal political circles. After this he was allowed to take his examinations at St. Petersburg University as an external student. (With his curriculum vitae? What was the Special section thinking of?)
That dismissive “Such cruelty!” is related to what is one of his strangest rhetorical effects, namely how when describing the remorseless cruelty of the Soviet system, he seems almost, but not quite, to convey admiration for their total lack of scruples. This black humor is just one element of tone that achieves a chord-like complexity, giving the lie to the notion that snark is always simple.
Denby laments the “knowing” tone of snark, which he says implies in-group status. He’s right about that implication. But knowingness can be the appropriate antidote to authorities who insist on playing dumb. During the camp rebellion, the government deigns to negotiate with the prisoners. It offers to involve the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the MVD, but the prisoners refuse this.
“Don’t trust even the MVD?” The vice-minister was thrown into a sweat by this treasonable talk. “And who can have inspired in you such hatred for the MVD?” A riddle, if ever there was one.
The MVD’s record of abuse is well known to the prisoners, and to Solzhenitsyn’s readers. They are an “in-group” in the matter of Soviet torture and their knowing tone is fitting.
To make a great literary work, a writer has to find the best style for his subject. Given his position as a dissident writing in secret, it’s impossible that Solzhenitsyn could have been the objective historian, even if he’d wanted to. There were two remaining options. First, he could have been lachrymose, solemn, and shaken. This is the more obvious way to write about the murder of millions. The second approach would involve bitterness, cynicism, and a resolve not to be duped. By choosing the latter, Solzhenitsyn was able to be more, not less, affecting and honest. Snark stimulates the human attraction to conflict, and this accounts for its currency online. It also helps hold our attention when sympathy alone proves insufficient.
The sad fact about human attention is that it flags even, or especially, when you tell yourself that the subject at hand deserves it. When Roberto Bolano wanted to include in his final novel, 2666, a detailed description of the serial murder of Mexican women, he went about it by listing how they died, their professions, and much other data. Even the most sympathetic reviewers conceded that this was a hard section to get through. The effect was ultimately deadening instead of affecting, for the same reason you feel you know much less about the man whose thick file you’ve read than about a Shakespeare character who has just a dozen lines. Data is nothing; drama is everything.
Take, for example, Solzhenitsyn describing an apparent suicide by hanging: “The bosses were not greatly upset; they cut him down and wheeled him off to the scrap heap.” In this case, snark shows both how easy it is to become inured to cruelty, but also how ineradicable the standards of human decency are to those who haven’t been totally corrupted by the camps. Snark is the tone we adopt when we decide to laugh at something that demands our reverence, and therefore obedience. The invective may be against a puffed-up cultural figure or a totalitarian regime, but the different levels of bravery these two kinds of snark require shouldn’t blind us to their rhetorical affinities.
Some might say that, because of the conditions under which he wrote the book, a cruder, blog-like tone won out. Given a more leisurely environment, the argument goes, the irony would have been refined. But the political oppression which necessitated the tone also necessitated the book, and it becomes obvious quickly that The Gulag Archipelago and its snark are of a piece. In the gulag, subtlety wouldn’t have done the trick and would have sapped Solzhenitsyn’s rhetoric of its moral power. And the trick was shifting world consciousness.
And consciousness needed shifting. Nazism enjoyed some respect from those who were free to choose, but communism enjoyed more and for a longer time. Few intellectuals needed to be shocked into seeing the essential evil of Hitler’s regime. The death camps were able to speak for themselves. Specious stuff about omelets and eggs, though, seemed to constantly hover around the “progressive” dictatorships. The Soviet mass murder required a commentary, which Solzhenitsyn and others had to provide. But how does Solzhenitsyn’s snark compare to the kind currently sloshing around the Internet? The moral vision behind his snark certainly elevates it above the jealous sniping of Gawker and its ilk at the established media, which has as its counterintuitive end the effort to become the established media. But the fall of the Soviet Union hardly heralded the end of political double-talk or of political crimes on so massive a scale that earnestness and sorrowfulness will fail to convey their full injustice. The persistence of these features of political life leaves open a space for snark in our public discourse. One of the greatest books of the previous century was snarky, and it blasted away other apologists for the gulag who posed as “sober,” “level-headed,” and “reasonable.” (“In the USSR, at least they’re trying to forge something positive,” said A. J. Ayer to Kingsley Amis, who had brought up that annoying five million dead.) This teaches us, I think, that we should be wary of entering into any polite rhetorical arrangement when important matters are at stake. We should be wise enough to realize that, exasperating as irreverence can be, the alternative is worse. After all, a figure or institution that crumbles at the first touch of snark might deserve to be targeted. Denby would argue that we—the Correct—should be nice to each other and heap our scorn only on the Incorrect. That would nice if these categories were distinct except in retrospect (or even then). Since life is lived forwards, not backwards, only fanatics know for sure if they’re wrong or right in the present, and this necessitates skepticism and irreverence and, yes, snark.
Nicholas Desai has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion, and other publications. He lives in Virginia. Art by Katherine Eastland.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire