Saturday, June 25, 2011

Situational Irony: The One I Understand

I have spent many hours pondering the meaning of irony, attempting to identify all things ironic, and Googling articles where someone attempts to explain it and only further confuses me. However, situational irony is easier to understand. The definition I prefer most is this: “a situation where the outcome is incongruous with what was expected, but it is also more generally understood as a situation that includes contradictions or sharp contrasts. . . . An example would be a man who takes a step aside in order to avoid getting sprinkled by a wet dog, and falls into a swimming pool." (Lars Elleström, Divine Madness. Bucknell Univ. Press, 2002)

Okay, so now we are all on the same page with what the meaning of the term is. Well, all of us except Alanis Morrisette, who mistook unfortunate coincidences for irony. But she's Canadian, so that is to be expected. She did have the last laugh though, as her album Jagged Little Pill has sold over 33 million copies to date. I digress.

I like the term and the usage of situational irony, but I have never seen a great real world example of it. That is, until I was watching an episode of Ice Road Truckers: Deadliest Roads. In this show, they have given up the frozen tundra of northern Canada for the cliff-hanging “roads” in the Himalayas. During one of their runs from one station to another, they stopped at a road-side vendor to peruse their wares. It was not specifically mentioned on the show, but I know what I saw, and it sent me into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. The proprietor of the road-side stand used a fly swatter that was adorned with a picture of Buddha to end the life of an unsuspecting fly that settled unknowingly next to the personification of situational irony. Yes, the likeness of the very deity of the religion whose first precept essentially states “do not kill” was painted expertly on a device that's sole purpose was to do just that. At that very moment, I no longer cared about a man who stepped aside to avoid a few sprinkles from a wet dog, only to find himself soaking in a swimming pool moments later. No, I had seen the Mount Everest of situational irony, and I will never be the same.

I wondered if the man who just performed such a deed with an instrument that embodied all that is ironic knew just what he was doing. He obviously had lost his way down the Eightfold Path long ago, and he is as likely to attain Nirvana now as Kurt Cobain was to see his 28th birthday (too soon?). I also wondered how many other wonderful situational ironies there are floating around in the world. Not the simple ones where wars are waged by people who preach non-violence. That is so 11th, 12th, and 13th century, and I don't like picking low-lying fruit.

I wondered how many Egyptians died of heat stroke while building the pyramids for the Pharaohs. Were they aware of the situational irony of the Sun, one of their main sources of worship, being the catalyst for their demise? Did they pray to Ra with their last few breaths, or did they look up at the burning fire in the sky and think, “well this is ironic?” The answer to that is obvious. No, they didn't. Socrates would not come around for another 1,500 years and explain what irony was. But I'm sure they felt the irony, they just didn't have a word for it yet.

Beyond your religious situational ironies, there are linguistic ones as well. My father has always loved a certain word that is dripping with irony like a man emerging from a swimming pool into which he so ironically fell. The word is sesquipedalian. My father's definition is similar to those of the OED and Webster, but his adds just a little bit more that really drives the irony home. His definition is as follows; a sesquipedalian is a person who uses big words when smaller ones will do. It is generally a derogatory term when it is thrown at someone, but in order to hurl the insult one must use the term. Therefore turning the hurl-ee into an immediate target for for the next hurl-er. I guess it really doesn't fit the bill for irony, but it is still quite a linguistic Catch-22 (and my father's name is Bill, so ipso facto, it does indeed fit the Bill).

While I am on the subject of family stories, I will throw out another family favorite. My sister Erica was on a day trip to the “Happiest Place on Earth” to celebrate her graduation from high school. For those of you not aware, the “Happiest Place” I am speaking of is Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. They have an annual celebration that welcomes students from around the state (and perhaps the country) to let loose and revel after four long years of pubescent torture that is also known as high school. The irony is coming, I promise.

Inside the 30,000+ acre property there are many different parks and recreation areas. One of the most popular areas of the park is called The Magic Kingdom. Inside The Magic Kingdom are several sub-lands. They are Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and the subject of this anecdote... Tomorrowland. My sister was celebrating a major milestone in her life (graduating from high school), and in the minds of her and all her friends were thoughts of what the future had in store for them. They frolicked with excitement through Adventureland, they trudged through the antiquities of Frontierland, and they let their imaginations run wild in Fantasyland. However, when they attempted to cross over into Tomorrowland, they were greeted by a sign that would have made Socrates soil his toga. The sign read matter of factly, “We're sorry, the road to Tomorrowland is closed.” That was the message they received from the fine people at Walt Disney World that night. They could have taken it as a cosmic sign to give up their hopes and dreams. Hopefully, they took it as a chance to go home and Google irony. Unfortunately, Google wouldn't be founded for another five years and could not be used as a verb for another ten years after that. Luckily for my sister and her friends, our father was and still is a sesquipedalian, and he could explain to them the situational irony they just encountered.

I hope this commentary was educational, entertaining, and most of all I hope my definitions and understanding of irony were accurate. If they weren't, I blame the following entities: Google, The Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Yahoo Answers, Wikipedia, Lars Elleström, Alanis Morrissette, Ice Road Truckers, Canada, Kurt Cobain, Buddha, Ra, Joseph Heller, Walt Disney, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and my father.

1 comment:

  1. Is this irony? HEPL!