Wednesday, November 23, 2016

20 Years of Irony - Who Would Have Thought?

Irony (ˈīrənē/). n. A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what was or might be expected; an outcome cruelly, humorously, or strangely at odds with assumptions or expectations. – Miriam Webster

When I started teaching, I was bent on "literary devices," from Eponyms to Ekstasos.  One of my favorites of course was irony, and the perfect academic tool was the Alanis Morissette video hit "Ironic." Irony is stating the opposite of what one means, I explained, without the hurtful intent. The assignment was to analyze the lyrics to identify what, if anything, was definitively ironic. In my zeal as a young teacher, I hammered Alanis (and who didn't want to hammer Alanis?): there wasn't a thing ironic about "Ironic." I’m not so pedantic anymore, and far less Gradgrindian. Higgs boson leans toward the multiverse, if I recall, the end of physics, the end of meaning. There are far fewer absolutes these days.

"An old man, turns 98; he wins the lottery
and dies the next day."

Based on Miriam Webster, the fact that the old man turns 98 would indeed only be ironic if the line read, “A young man turns 98.” Since irony requires a degree of unexpectedness, a 98 year old dying is far from ironic. What is ironic is that he's played the lottery all his life, but only wins on this penultimate day. These first lines unequivocally describe the plethora of the song's situations. Rain, for instance, on one's wedding day would indeed be cruelly, humorously, and strangely at odds with expectations, however absurd those expectations may be. This form of irony is called "situational irony." Despite any odds to the contrary, rain is purposefully negated from the young couple's expectations and is therefore situationally ironic (particularly if they picked, for instance, Palm Springs, which gets an average rainfall of 1.7 inches per year). This kind of situational irony can also be culled from a fly in the wine or "that death row pardon two minutes too late." Discount if you will the black fly thing, but that untimely death row reprieve is inexplicably ironic.

There are minor ironies or merely coincidences in the "free ride when you’ve already paid" line and the good advice that you don't take (which, sry Alanis, doesn’t have much to do with anything), but here we delve into the biggie: "Mr. Play It Safe was afraid to fly/ He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye/ He waited his whole damn life to take that flight/ And as the plane crashed down he thought/ 'Well isn’t this nice?'" This is definitively ironic since the fear of flying is irrational. The chance of a plane crashing is one in 11 million. Mr. Play It Safe has held an irrational fear his entire life. He finally faces that fear and due to some unbelievably low probability he chooses a flight that crashes. That's more than just coincidence or bad luck. Bad luck is when your flight is delayed two hours and the Dunkin Donuts is out of crullers.

It's situational irony once again in regard to the traffic jam, the no-smoking sign and the spoons, but meeting the man of one's dreams and subsequently encountering his beautiful wife fails the irony test only on a technicality: the man is married and therefore cannot be the man of one's dreams. But that's picky. Keep in mind that Irony is the disparity of meaning that comes from the difference between expectation and actuality. 

Yeah, I got your back Alanis. You only got a C+ on your assignment, though. Isn't that ironic?


E2 = p2c2 + m2c2