Every so often some never-before-heard-of idea comes along, claims you as its host. Claims me as its host for a while. Right now that idea is eucatastrophe, or “good” catastrophe, a sudden, unexpected, magical reversal of fortune, a rebound, turnaround, do a little kick. Eucatastrophe comes up in J.R. Tolkien’s work as a kind of happy ending. Something terrible, catastrophic is going down and then, suddenly, everything is okay. Storm clears. Protagonist is spared. But I didn’t find this idea by reading Tolkien, nor by reading second-hand stuff about Tolkien. It was mentioned in an undergraduate stylistic analysis essay draft I read and commented over winter break in late February. Eucatastrophe. There it was, a parasite slaking on my brainbody ever since, like these back-to-back late-winter colds I’ve been sniffling through. There it was, gently, persistently.
I don’t need this idea for anything. I suppose I will name my NCAA tournament bracket Eucatastrophe, since I usually pick too many upsets in the first two rounds and then have a shot, if I am lucky, as late as the Final Four. Bracket by some miracle is spared. Or else it is catastrophic.
But this idea has forked as it settled in, associating for me with two loosely related ideas. The first has to do with wicked problems, inquiry, and research. The second with the pop adage about jumping the shark (I guess it’s not quite an adage, something like that).
In the first sense, eucatastrophe is for the quicksanded, lost-in-the-mess researcher, the sudden reversal of fortune by which everything turns out okay. What was a problem is, by declaring it a non-problem, doubled back. One of my committee members at SU spoke of a similar idea that had surfaced in some lost-reference 1970s scholarship: Lance jumped out of the pit. The anecdote goes that in Lance’s dire predicament (no, really: extremely fucking dire), everything seeming like it was headed for ruin, Lance (could be anyone?) simply jumped out of the pit. And everything was fine again. Eucatastrophe meet Lance; Lance meet eucatastrophe. It’s the same idea, no? Close enough.
In the second sense, though, the now well-known reference to the fifth season of Happy Days, in which Arthur Fonzarelli took to waterskis, some dare or bet or something, and jumped over a shark. One misstep (misski) and he’d have been in the shark’s jaws, chewed to death, eaten alive, or worse! But he jumped the shark successfully. Nowadays, this phrase, “jumped the shark,” to indicate something that has gone too far–an overstated, exaggerated, even hyperbolic eucatastrophe, a kind of farcical, horseshit turnaround that makes everything after it seem absurd, ridiculous. Jumping the shark takes eucatastrophe too far; the suspense is so far eclipsed that the ongoing premise (i.e., everything back to business as usual) is overshadowed, lingering with the toxicity of the hyperbole.
And yet, in the case of Happy Days, as Ron Howard explains in the interview below, the series went on to many years of success, despite so-called “jumping the shark.” The shark jumping episode was not as much of a catastrophe of taking things too far as its contemporary corrective, “you’ve jumped the shark,” suggests. In fact, the episode aired for the first time in 1977, when I was three years old–long before I ever watched Happy Days. And yet it’s a show I could say I grew up watching, frequently as re-runs, well into in the mid-1980s. Shark-jumping was a curious turn in the series, but it was more eucatastrophic for the Fonz’s character than catastrophic for the series.
Another example, this broken backboard in Rec/IM:
Two days later. Eucatastrophe. Broken no more.