Writers’ Wednesday: Irony and My Day Off

Irony

Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?

Alanis Morissette – 1995

Well, no, Alanis. So sorry, but I don’t think it’s ironic. I’m, of course, not the first person to have pointed this out. However, I’ve ranted before countless students about how the only thing ironic about the anthem of my senior year of high school is the fact that it’s song called “Ironic” that doesn’t contain a single example of irony in the lyrics.

One could, if one so desired, make a case that Alanis did that on purpose, and that it’s genius. And to quote Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction), “…Now, I’d like that, but that shit ain’t the truth…” Morrisette herself admitted as much when asked about the lyrics. Still, the song does serve as a great example of irony precisely because its lyrics are such blatant non-examples of irony.

Michael Reid Roberts made a case on Salon.com for “situational irony” in the song, but I call bullshit on his argument. First, the whole argument is founded on the premise of a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary:

3. 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.

Oxford English Dictionary

Roberts makes the point that by that definition most if not all of the lyrics to the song fit, and he’d be right… if that were a complete definition. I posit that definition is incomplete. There is a concept missing from that definition, and that concept is built around intent. Yeah, I’m disagreeing with the OED. What of it? I may not be a Ph.D, but I do have a graduate degree in English and years of experience teaching the language and literary devices including irony. What I’m trying to really do here, though, is reign in the definition of irony by saying that “situational” irony isn’t actually ironic, either.

True irony requires that actors involved in the “ironic” situation to have made some sort of decision or mistake that results in the “state of affairs or… event that seems deliberately contrary to what was or might be expected [or] outcome cruelly, humorously, or strangely at odds with assumptions or expectations.”

For example, let’s look at some similar, but not identical situations. I posit that one is ironic, and the others are not.

Situation A:

Humanity evolves to a point in which there is finally world peace. The next day a Gamma Ray Burst that nobody could have ever seen coming destroys the earth and all of the humans with it.

Situation B:

Humanity evolves to a point in which there is finally world peace. They’re able to turn back the clock on climate change and decide to stop putting so many resources into looking for new planets to colonize. As a result of that decision, they don’t notice the giant asteroid heading toward them that they could have easily detected and deflected otherwise until it’s too late. It hits the earth and wipes out 95% of the world.

Or… Situation C:

An asteroid is headed toward Earth. Scientists expect it to miss us. It hits us and kills us all. Isn’t it ironic?

See The Difference?

In the first scenario, what we’re really dealing with is Deus Ex Machina, and if I had to guess, I’d say that’s where much of the confusion here lies. Deus Ex Machina means “God from the Machinne.” It’s a cheap way for writers to get their characters out of situations. Situation A applies because nobody can do anything about a gamma ray burst. One could hit while I’m typing this sentence and there would be NOTHING ironic about it. We have no way of getting advanced warning because they move at the speed of light, and by the time one hit us it would have happened at least hundreds of millions of years ago, long before we even evolved as a species. The only way that is ironic is if there is a Divine Creator with a will and a plan for the universe. A sentiment I wholeheartedly reject.

Situation C could be ironic, but we don’t have enough information. As it sits, it’s not ironic yet. There are a couple of ways to make it ironic. Here’s how I would do it: “An asteroid is headed toward Earth. Scientists expect it to miss us and decide to do nothing about it. Still, they want to study it, so they send a probe to orbit the rock and take pictures. A malfunction on the probe causes the craft to explode while it’s orbiting the asteroid. The energy and debris from the explosion send the asteroid just far enough off of its original trajectory and onto a path straight for Earth with no time to stop it.

Intention. Intention is the mother of irony. Without intent, there is no assumption or expectation to be at odds with.

So no, kids. You don’t get to just say, “An old man turns 98, he won the lottery and died the next day,” and call it irony. We need a lot more details to that story before it becomes ironic. Same thing with rain on your wedding day, 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife, or a traffic jam when you’re already late. We just need more info.

Did the old man work for the lottery company his entire life? That would be ironic. Otherwise he’s just another guy who died, regardless of how much money he had when he kicked the bucket. And we all die, regardless of how much money we have when we kick the bucket. Nothing ironic there. Or maybe he realized on his deathbed that his real riches were the ninety-eight years he got to spend on Earth… That would qualify, too. But again, if you just look at the text, there’s not enough information to call that irony.

Rain on your wedding day? Did you plan an outside wedding? If you didn’t, who cares? If you did, like millions of idiots do every year, did you spend months studying historical meteorological and precipitation data before setting your date? Did you plan your wedding in the middle of Death Valley or the Sahara or the Namib desert in the in the middle of the dry season, just in case? In either of those cases, I might be persuaded to say it’s ironic. Still, the case would be even stronger if it were a sci-fi story and the bride and groom both worked for the Ministry of Weather Regulation and one of them accidentally programmed the wrong weather for that day.

10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife? Did you order 10,000 knives and ended up with spoons instead because you accidentally clicked the wrong button? Did you walk into a store called “All The Knives You’ll Ever Need,” and then find they were out of everything except spoons? Were you stranded on a desert island and left with 10,000 spoons after throwing away the box that you thought was spoons buy was actually full of knives? In those situations, I might give you an irony pass. And none of that is even mentioning the fact that if you’re resourceful enough, you can turn a spoon into a knife. Anyone who’s ever watched any prison movie or documentary can tell you that. Call me when you have 10,000 forks and nothing to eat but chicken broth. Actually, don’t call me then, either, because you can just drink it out of a bowl. This one’s just wrong all over.

A traffic jam when you’re already late? Did you cause the traffic jam? If not, shut up. It’s not ironic.

Alright, enough about irony.

My Day Off

I’ve been working twelve-hour days in the studio from Friday through Tuesday. Yesterday I had my first day off while down here in Georgia. I didn’t get to do a whole lot, but I did get out of the studio for a little while and walked around downtown Athens. I’m also recently single again, so I spent way too much time on Tinder yesterday, too. Today I’ve been mostly off again while Jason works on lead vocals, but we’ll be doing some more instrumental overdub work tonight. Then we’ll work on harmonies and background vocals after that.

That’s about all I can say about how things are going down here at the moment. We’re grinding along. Recording an album is a great experience, but it’s a lot of work, and the time I have off right now is much appreciated.

I may get a Thoughts for Thursday in this evening, I man not. We’ll see what the night brings.

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