“A traffic jam when you’re already late
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife
It’s meeting the man of my dreams
And then meeting his beautiful wife
And isn’t it ironic…don’t you think
A little too ironic…and, yeah, I really do think…
It’s like rain on your wedding day
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid
It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take
Who would’ve thought… it figures…”
Ironic, Alanis Morrisette
“….And then there is ‘Acc-is-mus.’” My literature professor purposefully enunciated this term and then hesitated as if we were apprentices in some Masonic society and he was waiting for the customary due guard response. He carried on like a farmer feeding filet mignon to his prized swine. “This form of irony might reveal itself in the shape of feigned indifference when in fact, the exact opposite sentiment holds true – – underneath there lies extreme prejudice.” I scribbled the cryptic words in the margins of a note pad already crowded with strange literary terminology and countless doodles that betrayed my disinterest. Beside several unevenly spaced words, there were drawings of surfers cutting out of perfect pipeline waves and a baseball hitter pivoting on his back foot to make perfect contact with a rotating fastball. My class notes would be useless to any other human and a harbinger of my failure to achieve an acceptable grade in Literature 101.
Next to my perfect sketch of a feathering wave, I had penned the words “contradiction”, “hyperbole” and “malaprop.” A half hour earlier, I had also absent mindedly written the word “anti-phrastic” but had been distracted by an attractive coed from an adjacent college that was walking by our lecture hall. Having no idea what anti-phrastic meant or who this Helen of Troy was, I fell further behind in the lecture. I suddenly had the disconnected feeling that I was watching ancient Athenians converse in Greek. This led to more introspection and resulted in my missing the final two terms: “synecdoche” and “metonymy”. My professor droned on. “These tropes are the essential building blocks of literary irony. Irony, my aspiring wordsmiths, is a vehicle by which all effective writers and communicators can engage and enlist their audience.”
What the hell was a trope? I thought. I strained to catch a glimpse of the mysterious girl who had floated like a cloud past my window. Alas, she had vanished, stealing my attention, diverting my inspiration and perhaps sealing my fate in this class.
Before taking the notoriously humbling Lit 101 course – the equivalent of combining sixteen weeks at Marine boot camp and a colorectal exam, I had always considered myself a skilled prospector of irony. I was an acolyte of Woody Allen and appreciated the dry, acerbic wits of Oscar Wilde, Ambrose Bierce and John Updike. I could separate the fool’s gold of camp-fire story irony from the timeless cunning of Charles Dickens who excelled at situational and dramatic irony. Whether it was his jilted bride that purposely raised a daughter incapable of love or an simple act of charity that led to a life-altering event, Dickens possesed an uncanny ability to divine irony out of the bleakest and hardened of places.
I grew up searching for meaning and irony in everything – history, television shows like the Twilight Zone and every song on the radio. When you are young, everything is profound and ironic. When you encounter irony as a child it is as if you have personally discovered some hidden message left exclusively for you – – a clue that might help unlock the mysteries of life. I remember memorizing the militant lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “ When God’s On Your Side”:
“But now we got weapons
Of the chemical dust
If fire them we’re forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world-wide
And you never ask questions
When God’s on your side.”
As a teen, my view of irony became cynical and agnostic. Life was a Greek tragedy. As a young literature major, irony was simply the Fates sadistically plucking at the gossamer strands of our mortal webs to remind us that we were mere pawns in some random cosmic chess game. The universe offered no order or control. When you are twenty years old, there is no shortage of conviction that you are the one who is in control and life is made or broken by your own best efforts.
Years later, when Alanis Morissette would paint her dark picture of life’s random injustices, critic Jon Winkour took exception to her ballad in an essay on Irony. In his tirade, he tried to dispel her notion of life’s ironic conditions. “Morissette’s situations purporting to be ironic are merely sad, random, or annoying. It is of course ironic that ‘Ironic’ is an unironic song about irony. Bonus irony: ‘Ironic’ is widely cited as an example of how Americans don’t get irony, despite the fact that Alanis Morissette is actually, Canadian.”
Fortunately, as with many things in life, we get older and learn from irony with the benefit of hindsight and perspective. For many of us, wisdom comes when we finally begin to accept the cunning symmetry that is the universe. Irony finds its way into your life like smoke under a door. Instead of an empty cosmos inhabited by Gods who loathe mortals and toy with them like plastic figurines, we begin to see irony as a sign that there is a higher order to everything. God indeed does exist and possesses a very warped and highly evolved sense of humor. Perspective is not found in neon-lit classrooms or in a comfortable chair but in dark alleys and face down in a muddy street. A gift is often wrapped around a brick and tossed through your window. A win is often disguised as failure.
Historical irony haunts us as we look back to see the most ecologically human of all people – – indigenous natives – become genocide victims at the hands of “civilized“ nations determined to fulfill their manifest destiny. There is irony in our present day foreign policy where it seems we are financing both sides of a war – – funding the enemy through fossil fuel dependence while fighting for our security to protect our right to stay addicted to the black opiate. Some argue gunboat diplomacy can lead to peace. We keep rediscovering the painful irony that war is easy to begin and very hard to end. Closer to home, we are struggling to fix a system called “healthcare” that is desperately sick.
Even closer to our core, is the irony of materialism. It seems that the more you have, the more you fear losing and the less secure you feel. It seems those who have very little are often happier than those who have very much. It is ironic that one must try to live like they are dying to understand how to live. Why is it that sinners make the best saints? Why are there no atheists in fox-holes?
Yes, we can always agree to disagree. And of course, irony is the essential DNA of humor. Why is it that men drive faster when they are lost?
Irony flits all around us like little celestial fireflies at twilight reminding us of a higher purpose. It is the beauty of Ted Williams hitting a home run in his last professional at bat. It is Haley’s Comet appearing at the birth and death of one of America’s most brilliant literary lights- Mark Twain. It is the simple contradiction of thorns on a rose.
Irony after all is not random coincidence or accidental contradiction. It is divine design. It is a celestial yin and yang that stretch far beyond our mortal horizon line – – an imaginary barrier that only exists because as humans, we can only see so far.
I eventually did discover the identity of that perfect girl who left me in an attention deficit during my lecture that indian summer day–and no, I did not marry her. However, I did hear, years later, that she went on to become an English professor at a midwestern college. Ironic? Perhaps. I squeaked by Lit 101 with a passing grade but not without a reproach from my professor for my verbal incontinence. His note scribbled on my essay like a doctor’s prescription read, “Michael, an antiphrasis to live by: Less is more.”
I still don’t know what the hell he was talking about.