What Does it all Mean?

Though I’m happy to use Facebook for relentless self-promotion, I rarely visit the site, so I tend to catch viral videos months after they blow up if at all.  As of a few days ago I was probably the last person on Earth not to have seen the “Double Rainbow” video, but just in case, here it is.

I don’t want to laugh too much at this guy.  It’s churlish to deny him his sincere moment of awe, no matter how ridiculous he sounds.  We’ve all been as big of a sap at some point in our lives.  Most of us have just been lucky enough not to have a camera rolling at the time.  Still there’s a moment about a quarter of the way in that cracks everyone up.  After effusing about the (admittedly pretty impressive) rainbow arcing over an idyllic wooded mountain, the unseen narrator, his voice choked with emotion, asks, “What does it mean?” This is such a monumentally stupid question that you can’t help but laugh. But what exactly makes it so funny?  What does “What does it mean?” mean?

Well, there’s only one answer, right?–the rainbow doesn’t mean anything. Things don’t take on meaning just because they strike you as pretty. It’s not like anyone goes around breathlessly wondering what a plastic bag full of dog droppings means. This leaves us with two possibilities as to what could be going on in the mind of the person doing the asking. Maybe “What does it mean?” is just something to say in an emotional moment, a synonym of “Oh wow!” In grammatical terms, an interjection rather than a question. Except it sure does sound like a question. But taking “What does it mean?” literally requires going along with a person who appears to believe that objects in nature have significance in direct proportion to how pleasing he finds them, which, when you think about it, is mindbendingly arrogant. Stranded between an illocutionary misfire and a solipsistic worldview we have no choice but to laugh.

Leave it to a linguist to ruin a joke.

We should laugh at this guy–but just a little, without malice.  We need to save our scorn for more deserving targets.  Whenever some preacher, guru, or mystic stands in front of a crowd, puts on an air of beatific humility and finds a fancy way to ask “What does it mean?” they’re being exactly as stupid as Double Rainbow Man. The difference is that they are slick public speakers, and he’s just some dork with a video camera. More specifically, he is some dork we should thank.  Because if every time a self-appointed wise man intones vaguely about meaning someone else out there giggles because they can’t hear anything in their head but “Double rainbow!” this guy will have done a service for us all.

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4 Responses to What Does it all Mean?

  1. Ms. Understood says:

    I agree with your argument and want to make a small point: I don’t think Double Rainbow Guy was reacting to the beauty of the double-rainbow as much he was reacting to the unusual nature of two full rainbows right on top of one another. Crazy shit really trips our “what-does-it-mean-o-meters”. When something way out of the ordinary happens, something we don’t come across in our “normal” existence and so haven’t filed it in our tidy worldview yet, something like lightning striking twice in the same place, or a person dying in a freakish accident, we as humans are naturally prone to ask “what does it mean?” as a way of coping with sensory or emotional overload.

    We make meaning so we don’t go crazy. That’s my take on it, anyway.

    • W.P. McNeill says:

      Thinking about this some more, universal means universal. The meaning instinct is not just something handed down from on high like as I imply with my talk of preachers and self-appointed wise men. Clearly I don’t like the meaning instinct and want to show it in a bad light, but insinuating that we only get it from authority figures is a bit of specious populism on my part and doesn’t tell the whole story.

  2. W.P. McNeill says:

    The fact that this is such a widespread and automatic human instinct is a big part of what makes D.R.M.’s reaction instantly recognizable and therefore funny. We wouldn’t laugh if we didn’t empathize.

  3. Pingback: The Agency Error | Corner Cases

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