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.