The other day, we were all together in the car listening to the audiobook for The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We’d just heard the part where Ma wigs out and Pa says, “You’re right, Caroline. You’re always right.”
I turned to my husband in the driver’s seat.
“Honey, if you said something like that to me, I know it would be sarcastic, but when Pa says it, I think it’s sincere. Do you think the Little House books happened in a time that pre-dates sarcasm?”
“When was sarcasm invented?” he asked. Neither of us knew.
“Or maybe it was a matter of poverty. Laura Ingalls Wilder is basically saying, ‘When I was a child, we were so poor, we couldn’t afford sarcasm.'”
I’m writing this not (just) so you all can see how witty and clever I am, but to admit that I’m often jealous of the Ingalls family. I like electricity and indoor plumbing and I don’t think I could react with such delight at discovering my house had been buried in snow as Laura does, but I envy them how well they get along. Yes, they’re fictionalizations, and yes, Laura Ingalls Wilder likely paints those relationships through a rather rosy filter, but still I envy them.
Not only were my husband and I raised after the invention of sarcasm, as part of the tail-end of Generation X we came of age during a time steeped in sarcasm. I think about the Simpsons scene where the GenXers are at the Hullabalooza music festival and the one guy says, “Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He’s cool.”
“Are you being sarcastic, dude?” his friend asks.
“I don’t even know anymore,” the first guy responds.
We were fluent in sarcasm. It was our element. I’ve been trying to move past it over the intervening years, but it’s difficult. Learning to live without sarcasm is like learning to breathe underwater. Well, that may be an exaggeration. But when I abandon sarcasm, I need to replace it with something, and hyperbolic simile works as well as the next thing.
While the Ingallses may have missed out on some jokes by not having sarcasm, they also missed out on that biting criticism of the people they love. They missed out on that self-centered inclination that puts wittiness and coolness ahead of relationship and authentic connection.
Or maybe Pa was being sarcastic and Ma was just too preternaturally polite to call him on it. In which case, maybe it’s preternatural politeness I should envy.