Columnist Stanley Fish made an interesting observation about many of reviews of the movie "Les Miserables." Some of the "sophisticated" reviewers scofffed at the movie's presentation of virtue and vice. From their 21st century cultural perspective of 19th century values, the story's take on heroism, sacrifice, tragedy, grace, and mercy seemed quaint and archaic. Fish quotes one reviewer who criticized the movie for it's lack of irony - treating these virtues with disdain. Fish goes on to analyze this cultural malady:
Irony is a stance of distance that pays a compliment to both its producer and consumer. The ironist knows what other, more naïve, observers do not: that surfaces are deceptive, that the real story is not what presents itself, that conventional pieties are sentimental fictions.
The artist who deploys irony tests the sophistication of his audience and divides it into two parts, those in the know and those who live in a fool’s paradise. Irony creates a privileged vantage point from which you can frame and stand aloof from a world you are too savvy to take at face value. Irony is the essence of the critical attitude, of the observer’s cool gaze; every reviewer who is not just a bourgeois cheerleader (and no reviewer will admit to being that) is an ironist.
“Les Misérables” defeats irony by not allowing the distance it requires.
Fish's observation reminded me of C.S. Lewis's comment, "We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst."