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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Life is like a metaphor for life

The most profound truth contained in Forrest Gump is not that life is like a box of chocolates, but rather that people really love hokey metaphorical shortcuts to thinking, like the claim that life is like a box of chocolates. These metaphors purport to instruct in some way, as if taking seriously that "You never know what you're gonna get!" could appreciably change your approach to things. And sure, life is full of surprises. The banality of these insights is on par with those of the "there are two kinds of people in the world, Xers and not-Xers." A binary that's always by definition true, but never very informative. 

How much do we love life is like a metaphor metaphors? If you've ever read college admissions essays, you will know that our love of this kind of superficiality runs deep. According to 17-year olds, pre-calc, homeless shelters, and loving your dog are all metaphors for life. Even dancing on the pom-pom squad is just like all of living, condensed into a five-minute kicking-and-jumping routine. And remember that time, back in the late '90s, when we all paused to meditate on the profound insight that life is like a plastic grocery bag, thanks to the penetrating writers of American Beauty? Yes, that was a good time. We live in a universe of nested synecdoches, with every part reproducing every whole in miniature, if you just look at it from the right perspective.

Country music also instructs us in the meaning of life via metaphor. Rascal Flatts, for example, informs us that, "Life is a highway," which is nice. Elsewhere, we can learn that "Life's a dance." Also fine. But here I would like to pay homage to the under-appreciated brilliance of one of the hokiest and best-loved of all these ballads, Kenny Rogers's "The Gambler." Every time I hear this song, I'm re-astounded by the intricacy and detail of the fundamentally insipid analogy it develops between poker and life. Life is a gamble, and is in its details like the particular gamble of poker, and the train to nowhere is a metaphor for the course of a life which is like poker, and the gambler is also a swindler, because life is a swindle as well as a gamble (as is poker), and the swindler is also the most perspicacious observer of life. And, the course of the gambler's metaphorical career having ended on the metaphorical train bound for nowhere, the gambler literally drops dead at the end! Every line of the chorus is its own metaphor, each one at once representing all of life and also the umbrella metaphor that life is like all of poker.

Now, substantively, it's all horseshit. But whoever wrote it (was it Kenny Rogers?) must be the greatest technical virtuoso of his craft. This craft is, admittedly, is to write schlock. But, as with all really great popular songs that are great because they so perfectly follow rather than transgress the rules of their genre, it's an impressive achievement in its own right.

3 comments:

Flavia said...

Yesterday my spouse overheard someone else's student arguing, "But you don't understand! Getting a 'B' on my thesis is like a getting a 'C'!"

Apparently she missed the class on similes and metaphors.

Miss Self-Important said...

Maybe she just forgot the final turn in the argument: "And a C is like DEATH."

Ari N. Schulman said...

OR a prompt to schlock inversion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0acEl97ZBME