May 31, 2004

Belle Waring at Crooked Timber writes about the Alanis Morisette song Ironic.

Much as I enjoyed reading the post and its comments, I find that I still do not understand irony. I persist in using it in its simple mode, the mode used by historians: irony is unintended consequences that undermine our intended desire. As such, history is commonly written in the ironic mode; we explain the situation that a person or group faced, figure out what actions that they took to meet that situation, and then explain how these actions were more or less successful and how they led to other, unexpected or at least unintended consequences.

Thus, to use a modern US example, Lyndon Johnson's Community Action Programs were intended to reach out to new voters, politicize people who were excluded from the political system, and build the democratic base. The program, as executed, ended up politicizing people who did not like Johnson and competed with the existing members of the Democratic coalition, thus undermining his political base without adding new voters. Johnson and his staff had not thought out the consequences of his program.

If you took away our unintended consequences, most historians would not be able to write.

Some fiction authors also use the term in this way. Belle and her commenters talk about Oedipus Rex and King Lear; my example comes from a mediocre science fiction author, Spider Robinson, and his short story, "God is an Iron."

The story tells of a man who walks into an apartment and finds a woman in the process of committing slow suicide through overdosing on electronic stimulation of her pleasure centers. The overdose consists not of extra stimulation, but of removing all time limits on the pleasure; she is sitting in bliss as she starves to death.

Our hero saves her, destroys the stimulation equipment, nurses her back to health, and convinces her that she does not have to commit suicide. At the end of the story she finally gets around to asking him who he is and why he has done this, and most of all how he got into her locked apartment.

He gives a long spiel about unintended consequences and argues that God acts through the ironic mode so extensively that he should be considered an Iron - one who committs irony. Then he explains how he got there:

It turns out that our hero had come in to burgle the place.

I love this short story; it is also a chapter in a really bad novel that I read once and regretted finishing. Is that combination ironic? It is to the extent that liking that short story convinced me to finish the novel.

Posted by Red Ted at May 31, 2004 09:48 AM | TrackBack

The short story reminds me of Ellison's original script for "The City on the Edge of Forever".

Posted by: DFH at June 1, 2004 01:26 AM
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