When I heard someone on National Public Radio a year or so ago describe a situation in which a young girl who wanted to become a ballet dancer when she was a child actually grew up to become a ballet dancer as an adult as ironic I knew that the word had officially lost all meaning. Ever since Alanis Morissette tried to pass off a series of unfortunate coincidences as examples, the meaning of ironic has fallen down a slippery slope. In light of NPR actually allowing that illustration to be used as a case of irony in a taped segment subject to review and editing, Morissette’s series of bummers actually seem to be almost textbook definitions of ironic.
For most of its history, irony was used almost exclusively to describe something that did not take place by accident. Irony by definition requires the context of purpose, thus nullifying from consideration Morissette’s contention that dying the day after you win the lottery is ironic. Over time, events or situations that contain the necessary sense of incongruity need for something to be viewed as an example of what had been defined as dramatic irony expanded the definition to include a type of irony found in everyday life known as situational irony. Even situational irony, however, originally seemed to require some type of human mechanism associated with its origination as a dramatic device that is visualized before an audience.
Morissette’s guy who buys a lottery ticket and then drops dead the next day would still not qualify as situational irony, because no human mechanism is at work to drive any sense of incongruity. In fact, there is very little about this example that is incongruous or in which there is tragicomic reversal of expectations. And that is the biggest problem with applying situational irony to major league bummers of a coincidence. What we are really suggesting when we observe something more commonly accepted as ironic is something more akin to Morissette’s lyrical example of irony as winning a free ride after you have already paid for your ticket.
There is a recognizable incongruity within a coincidental reversal of fortune lacking any of the intent that defines genuine irony, yet containing human actions that drive the sense of absurdity. It may not exactly be tragic, but we can all appreciate the natural emotional response to such a situation as temporarily being at least as tragic on a personal basis as the death of a beloved celebrity we don’t know personally. Which brings us to my suggestion that the continued misappropriation of the word irony be officially changed to the term grissoming.
That term derives from the non-purposefully but situationally ironic death of astronaut Gus Grissom. An awareness Grissom’s story is necessary and I guarantee that almost everyone will recognize the circumstances involved as containing exactly the sense of irony that originally stimulated the devaluation of the word from its literary origins.
Gus Grissom was one of the original Mercury astronauts. While those who blasted into space before and after him as part of the Mercury program received parades and a shower of heroic attention for their exhibition of the Right Stuff, Gus Grissom failed to enjoy the full extent of celebrity enjoyed by his fellow Mercury peers. That is because once Grissom’s capsule landed safely in the water, the escape hatch mysteriously and prematurely blew open. The danger to Grissom’s life from the sudden onrush of water was averted, but the capsule and all the vital data about his space flight contained within sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean never to be seen again until it was recovered nearly 40 years later.
No tickertape parade for Grissom and lingering questions about whether he was to blame for the loss of the capsule or whether it was a mechanical failure. Since it could not be determined, Grissom unofficially took the blame and somewhat more officially was blamed in the realm of public opinion. What the mysterious blowing of the hatch also accomplished was to reveal a design flaw that could potentially create an emergency situation in which future astronauts were not as lucky as Grissom. That flaw was addressed and in place by the time Gus Grissom got his chance to head into space as part of the Apollo program.
That mission would be the first manned flight in the NASA program designed to put a man on the moon. You know it better as the Apollo program and Apollo 1 would give Gus Grissom his chance for redemption. And this is where that situational sense of irony that seems to be such a bear to understand enters into the picture and offers Gus the chance for a legacy much greater than the one that has been attached to his name since his death.
The Apollo 1 mission would not be remembered for giving Gus Grissom his chance to rewrite history and blot out the circumstances that surrounded his Mercury mission. The spacecraft never made it into space. It never even made it off the launch pad. As Grissom and his fellow astronauts waited inside the cramped space within the capsule during a pre-mission test, a fire broke out. When the crew outside the Apollo 1 spacecraft finally managed to get inside, all three astronauts were dead. The positions of the bodies indicated strongly that senior pilot Edward H. White had been struggling vainly to open the redesigned hatch.
That redesign had resulted in the decision to make the hatch open inwardly in order to avoid the potential for an accidental repeat of the earlier Grissom situation related to a hatch which opened outwardly. That decision proved fateful, certainly coincidental and, arguably, ironic since the science related to air pressure inside the cabin affecting the ability to open the hatch inward doomed Grissom to a second disaster in which he could not escape the specter of death.