Overhearing an American saying to his co-flâneur one day, ‘It’s like downhill all the way?’ I wondered, as his words faded with blessed distance, what exactly could be ‘like’ downhill.
Because if it were downhill, it wouldn’t be ‘like’ downhill – it would be downhill. If it weren’t downhill, then it would be either level or uphill, but it would make no more sense to say that ‘level’ is ‘like downhill’ than it would be to say ‘level’ is ‘like uphill’ – either way, you’re saying ‘A equals not-A’ – similarly, if it were uphill, you saying that’s ‘like downhill’ would be saying ‘uphill is like downhill’ or ‘A is the opposite of A’ (or A = A’ or A complement), which also makes no formal logical sense.
I couldn’t think of a literal case of something whose physical properties shared certain undefined second-order aspects of downhillness (‘like downhill’) while remaining untouched by any of the central, indeed defining characteristics that make up the essence of The Downhill. Staying with the literal, if there be an essence, it must inhere in a mathematically statable proposition about the physical world (in what I’m pleased to call ‘the universe’) that posits a measurable difference between two values, the lesser of which, in three dimensions, would be deemed by any sane observer to be ‘downhill’ from the greater (assuming, of course, that the American I overheard wasn’t talking non-Euclideanly).
However, bringing in time – the fourth dimension – on the other other other other hand, allowed me to pan his statement for nuggets of metaphor. Maybe, when the guy said, ‘It’s like downhill all the way?’, he was describing some personal experience unfolding over time that wasn’t entrely or irremediably bad – i.e, ‘downhill’ – but was rather an experience ‘like downhill’, implying particular moments of reprieve from a seemingly unstoppable descent. So his ‘like downhill’ could have been referring to some biographical path arising from a life decision that had set its protagonist barrelling downwards towards regret, embarrassment, anomie, ennui or good old despair, not full-tilt (‘downhill’) but intermittently (‘like downhill’) somewhat in the manner of a mountaineer gaining fleeting purchase on various gorse bushes and stony outcrops in the unhappy course his or her earthward plummet, said purchase providing merely temporary respite from gravity’s inviolable pull. Hope lifted and then, as ever, dashed.
Catching for two seconds the arse-end of an American’s conversation just as you’re coming out of a Bioladen on Bernauer Strasse doesn’t furnish enough evidence to exclude the possibility of his being some kind of artist.
We just don’t know.
‘It’s like downhill all the way?’ could be a Hamletty self-depiction of his career path or oeuvre over time rather than a literal description of, say, the bike route to an exhibition of the works of a somewhat more successful, talented or lucky competitor.
But I may still be on the wrong interpretational track. Maybe I’ve been getting too hung up on meaning – snagged on the semantic, to return to the falling-mountaineer metaphor – so it’s not that a gorse bush is like a tree but it’s, like, a tree? There is a chance that ‘like’ is nothing more than a tic – a function of musculature rather than meaning, similar to, say, a squint – commonly littering various speech acts. Transcribing ‘It’s, like, downhill all the way?’ would then result in a ‘like’ huddled between two commas: not quite a subclause (an ‘unclause’, perhaps). So ‘like’ would be something less than a word or an item with specific lexical content and more a Tourette’s vocalisation, a piece of viral linguistic software meme’d into the English language over the past two or three decades, possibly having no equivalent in any other language.
This strange half-lingual, half-glottal caesura seems versatile or insidious enough to be placed before or after any verb, adjective, adverb, part of speech or complete sentence whatsoever. Making ‘like’ as common and as tedious as breath.
I recognise, indeed have a lot of sympathy with the counter-argument that ‘like’ can be construed as signalling a post-modern tentativeness about the authenticity of the narrative voice, a certain modesty about the processes and products of one’s own mentation or the premises underlying one’s statements about the world but, when I overheard another American on the street saying to his partner, after a long pause, ‘Like… like’, I started to wonder whether we’re losing that vocabulary which differentiates between the varying ways we apprehend physical, mental, emotional and – dare I say? – moral reality.
I can only assume that, when this second American said, ‘Like… like’ to his partner, the first ‘like’ was the usual prefatory social cough to introduce a statement, while the second ‘like’ was the stand-in or representative of the statement itself. So ‘Like… like’ was him saying, ‘First, I’m introducing what I want to say, and second, this is what I want to say.’ But, if his introduction to what he wanted to say could be
encapsulated in the word ‘like’ and what he actually wanted to say could also be encapsulated in the word ‘like’, then we’ve arrived at a conversational point where meaning is unable to escape from the singularity which arises when a sound that’s maybe not even a word any more becomes a synonym for everything or nothing.
Take this as patronising, perhaps, but when I heard this second American say ‘Like… like’, I felt so fucking sorry for him. I’m sure he was a lovely guy but for me he was just signposting a lack of reflexive awareness or mindfulness towards his own thoughts. My four-year old son gets this. When I say, ‘It’s like red,’ he says, ‘It’s not like red – it is red.’ Maybe that’s a four-year old’s literalness. But he does make me think about what I’m saying, and about whether what I’m saying about the world is actually worth saying rather than just a blabbering load of old flappy jaw-noise.
If the richness and nuance of the experiences that characterise our response to the world can be rendered down into such undemanding gloop as ‘like’, then it really is downhill all the way.