A recent post on our blog about whether any of the situations in the Alanis Morrisette Song “Ironic” were, in fact, ironic, has garnered unexpected interest. I looked at the lyrics more carefully, and I think perhaps half could be said to qualify in an extended sense, that is, they seem like dramatic irony. So: “rain on your wedding day” is unquestionably not ironic, it’s just somewhat unfortunate. But I’ll give her “death-row pardon two minutes late”, I guess, if we accept a certain notion of irony I outline below.
Adam Kotsko contends, in comments, that there are no ironic situations. Bryan counters with dramatic irony. I remember learning about dramatic irony as a young lass, and the paradigmatic example is, as Bryan noted, Oedipus’ railing at Tiresias in the opening of Oedipus Rex about how he’s going to get the regicide who is responsible for the terrible miasma afflicting Thebes, when in fact he himself is responsible.
But now that I think about it, the concept seems a little underspecified. Is it that Oedipus’ words are (dramatically) ironic, because they mean something different that what he intends by them? He places a terrible curse on person x, and turns out to be person x. Or is it rather that the whole situation is ironic, such that if it were performed as a ballet, but the same facts were stipulated to be true in the ballet, it would be dramatic irony? If we accept the latter formulation, then we can think that there are dramatically ironic situations in real life, just when something happens which, if it happened in a play, would be ironic.
But even on this account it’s not clear what the criteria are. It’s obviously ironic that Darth Vader is Luke’s father (because this is just the Oedipus situation in sci-fi drag). Is it ironic when Romeo kills himself because Juliet is dead, even though she is actually alive? Not really, I don’t think. But maybe it’s some sort of tragic irony? It seems sufficiently parallel to the Oedipus case that by rights it ought to be ironic. Obviously inversion or reversal plays a role in this account, some sort of precise upending of expectations. Or perhaps a kind of negative lottery, in which a bad thing happens against huge odds. So, although it’s not ironic if it rains on your wedding day in Oregon, perhaps it could be ironic if it rained on a wedding which took place at a Berber encampment in the Sahara, or at Ayers Rock (where I was once rained on while I camped.)
But lots of things which confound expectations aren’t remotely ironic; say I am invited to a wedding between Jack and Jill, and I expect that they are a heterosexual couple, but it turns out they are lesbians, and “Jack” is short for “Jaqueline”. This is not ironic, it’s just mildly surprising. And the song “Ironic” contains something which fulfills the negative lottery criterion, but doesn’t really seem very ironic to me, just dumb: “It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.” What are the odds that one of those 10,000 spoons wouldn’t be a knife! (John thinks this is ironic, however. I can see it if I squint a little.)
How’s this one: you are (you believe) alone in the desert, without another soul around for 100 miles, and you fire a gun in the air. The bullet traces a fatal parabola and lands in the head of someone who was sitting behind a rock, killing her. Ironic, or not? Is it ironic to be hoist on your own petard, to set a trap for someone else which you then fall into, as in every action movie ever, when the bad guy looks in terror at the ticking clock of his own bomb, moments before he is blown to bits? Would it be ironic if it turned out that a given action taken to fight terrorism ended up causing more people to become terrorists than it killed or imprisoned as terrorists, so that the situation were a net loss? Was it ironic that I had used the blog post title “Isn’t It Ironic” just a day or so before to blog about extreme ironing, or just coincidental? Have at it, you ironical types.