Most people think they know what an irony is until they are asked to describe one. Their hesitation to do so is perfectly understandable, given that the term irony actually has several definitions, some of which are still hotly disputed. To compensate, some people resort to personal experiences to illustrate what they think an irony is. Here’s a personal experience of mine to illustrate what an irony isn’t. At JFK airport several weeks back, I watched a heartwarming reunion between two childhood friends who just happened to be catching the same flight. They then proceeded to go completely apeshit about how ironic the whole thing was. But it wasn’t ironic—It was just a coincidence. Granted, it was a highly improbable coincidence, but improbability alone doesn’t make a situation ironic. If, however, the sheer excitement of the affair caused one or both of them to go into cardiac arrest and expire right there at the terminal, then that would definitely be ironic. That’s because real ironies involve darkly humorous twists of fate, tragically poetic reversals of fortune, or unexpected and often unfortunate outcomes. A real irony is simply the cosmos playing comedian to a crowd that isn’t laughing.
Canada certainly isn’t laughing—and with good reason. Because thanks to Ottawa native Alanis Morrisette’s whiny and altogether erroneous musical treatise on the topic of irony, an entire generation of shiftless teenagers has now entered into adulthood with a completely retarded understanding of what actually constitutes an ironic situation. Allow me to illustrate just a few of her total fuckups. Getting stuck in a traffic jam when you’re already late is not ironic—it’s irresponsible and suggests that you should probably be managing your time more efficiently. Paying for what you were told was a free ride is also not ironic; it’s false advertising and possibly even a crime. And oh yeah, you also just got hustled. But getting hustled isn’t ironic either, unless your stolen cash is in turn used by the thief to buy a seat on a rollercoaster that subsequently crashes, killing only him. Alternatively, if the crash managed to kill everyone on board except for him, then I guess that would be something of a double irony, and a decidedly unjust one at that. Getting rained out on your wedding day could be considered ironic, if you were getting married in Death Valley. But if your nuptials were being exchanged almost anywhere else in the world outside of a desert, I’d wager the chances of the whole thing being a total washout to be just about average. Don’t chalk this one up to irony, just tune in to the Weather Channel or consult an almanac, and then plan accordingly. Better yet, don’t get married at all, because chances are actually better than average that the harsh realities of marriage will inevitably pulverize every reason you ever had to even want to get hitched in the first place. And that is ironic, don’t you think?
In the unlikely event Ms. Morrissette ever reads this, I hope she doesn’t find my critique too scathing. She really shouldn’t. After all, her first taste of stardom came on the set of the 80’s Canadian TV series You Can’t Do That On Television, remembered mostly for routinely dumping green slime on children every time they said the words “I don’t know”. Given such an outstanding career foundation, Alanis really shouldn’t mind getting dumped on by me for saying “isn’t it ironic” about situations that totally aren’t.
Ironically, deadly ironies are also some of the funniest. That might make me sound callous, but how do we know that the victims didn’t burst out laughing themselves at the preposterous circumstances behind their imminent demise? What shipwreck survivor wouldn’t find it at least a little comical to be dying of thirst while floating around on a life raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? And I think that at least a few of the doomed passengers aboard the “unsinkable” Titanic must have taken a moment or two before their near vertical slide into the frosty North Atlantic to admire the gods for so humorously demonstrating that they could indeed sink that ship.
When an inventor gets killed by his own invention you can practically taste the cosmic lampoonery. I bet Henry Smolinski, inventor of the flying car, was all smiles when, as his poorly modified Pinto was falling apart in mid-air, he quickly realized that the key to being a famous innovator was not so much media exposure as it was hiring a qualified welder. And I’m sure that, had he not been screaming in abject terror while plummeting 80 feet off of a cliff, Segway company owner James Heselden would have marveled at the irony of dying on his own Segway when all he was trying to do was throw it in reverse. I’m not so certain, however, that chancellor Li Si of Imperial China had enough time between amputations to revel in the irony of being slowly dismembered via the very execution method he had devised, the Five Pains. Actually, he was probably just really frustrated for having devised that many pains. Had he not already had his hands amputated, he might have experienced that “slap yourself in the forehead” feeling physicist Marie Curie must have enjoyed when she finally realized that the lovely turquoise glow emanating from the vials of radium she obsessively carried with her everywhere she went was called “radioactivity” and was already in the process of shredding every cell in her body with massive doses of ionizing radiation.
Not all ironies are instigated by chance. People make ironic statements all the time, usually in the form of sarcasm or unintentional contradictions, either verbally or in writing. Billboards and traffic signs exemplify this type of irony (please see below for some brilliant examples). Playwrights use irony whenever they want the audience to know things about the story that the characters themselves are unaware of. Think the Truman Show or the finale to Romeo and Juliet. In both cases, a sharp disparity exists between what the characters think is happening and what the audience knows is going to happen. This is considered a dramatic irony and is meant to imitate real life, insofar as the characters reflect the average person and the audience assumes the role of god. That’s an important part of what makes an irony so ironic: the suspicion that someone or something “out there” must have planned it this way, for how else could something you intended or expected to happen backfire in such a hilarious and uncanny fashion?
Cosmic ironies make you feel like the gods are toying with you for their amusement because hey, they probably are. And dramatic ironies are designed to imitate this hopelessly unjust state of servitude. But there is another type of irony that involves neither gods nor playwrights, but social researchers—something I like to call “experimental irony”. More methodology than script, an experimental irony involves verifying the accuracy of social observations or theories by pretending to know less about a person or group when you actually know more. This approach is derived from the Socratic method, which involved feigning ignorance or assuming false personas in order to confuse adversaries into revealing otherwise guarded information. Again, the formula is clear: one entity (i.e. the cosmos, audience, or researcher) possesses knowledge unavailable to others, and uses it to comprehend and perhaps even organize circumstances in a meaningful yet unexpected way. But while theater and cinema rely on dramatic irony to ensure a tragic or comedic ending, an experimental irony simply ensures good data. As an ironic research method, this approach requires assuming false identities in order to reveal the true identities of others. It exposes truth by use of deception, and demands detachment from people even as you work to immerse yourself in their worlds. It’s like being a machine programmed to ask personal questions, such as why someone would care more about needing a knife in a house filled with ten thousand spoons than in the clearly troubled mind of the freak who feels they need to own that many. And now that I have that fucking song stuck in my head, I also realize how ironic it is that the only songs I can’t get out of my head are the very ones I hate the most. Surely, the gods must be toying with me.
Some more examples of irony: