…used of a phrase or saying which is worn out by constant repetition and is therefore completely useless and empty of meaning
Oscar found it hard to think of his life as something which had no meaning, but he knew that it had not. It’s like an empty bottle, Oscar found himself thinking, almost saying it aloud, but shivered visibly at the thought, or rather at the manner of description – Oscar baulked at the use of, at the sight of, merely at the thought of similes.
And it wasn’t just similes, it was any comment that one could make about anything in general, particularly about life in general. “It’s the modern condition,” Smith told him whenever something happened which defied either’s attempt to comment on it meaningfully. Smith had occasion to make this comment quite frequently, especially when Oscar was at a loss as to what to say about life in any particular instance.
And this phrase passed through Oscar’s mind several times that morning, the morning on which he set out to find a job, the morning on which he woke up when it was still dark, the yellow street light still shining through a gap in the curtains, the morning on which he carefully cleaned and dressed himself to confront the world, the morning on which he opened the door to a new day, the morning on which he felt resigned to the fact that he had little other choice than to play the game – it’s the modern condition.
“Jobs don’t find you,” Smith had said, by way of encouragement.
But it wasn’t encouragement; Oscar would have preferred to be found by a job, to have a job fall down on top of him, to have a job jump up and grab him, to have a job imprison him, tie him down hand and foot, gag him, torture him and do its very worst to him, but at least occupy his time and give his life some semblance of meaning, if only a false sense of meaning, but it would be better than no meaning at all, and at least he’d not have to sit around and think about meaning and how life was devoid of it, and have to begin to think about his current condition without resorting to the words “life” and “meaning” and putting them together in the most infuriating of phrases – “life has no meaning.”
That phrase as well as the phrase about the “modern condition” haunted Oscar for the whole of the day. Those empty phrases stubbornly came to mind no matter what he came across – an old woman asleep on the bus, lying across half of the back seat, the bus driver saying good bye to him, everybody in town walking past him and disappearing for ever, the rise of dark buildings on every side of him, the street ahead of him looking like a… he didn’t know how to describe the street ahead of him, not for anything could he come up with a simile for what the street ahead of him looked like; it didn’t look like anything other than a street ahead of him; it couldn’t be meaningfully compared to anything else; it wasn’t a crevasse cut into dark ice; it wasn’t a valley overhung by towering trees; it wasn’t a trench awaiting bombardment; it wasn’t anything else other than the street ahead of him.
And to be haunted by an idea – that thought now struck Oscar. What did it mean – to be haunted by an idea? Oscar quickly worked out that it meant nothing at all, but that didn’t stop him spending the next twenty minutes wondering about it. So, just as he had been set upon by the phrase “the meaninglessness of life” and the phrase “the modern condition”, the phrase “haunted by an idea” now knocked around inside his head in all its meaninglessness, until it collided with the phrases “the meaninglessness of life” and “the modern condition”, so that Oscar now had a jumble of throwaway phrases bouncing around inside his head, giving him an almighty headache, which peaked in intensity when Oscar finally considered the metaphor he was then stuck in, of his mind being an empty space in which ideas bounce around, so that it was all of a sudden too much for Oscar – he needed to sit down.
He had to sit down. He sat down on his satchel on the step of some building which was boarded up. Oscar was stuck.
Oscar promised himself that if he couldn’t get the phrases “the modern condition”, “the meaninglessness of life” and “haunted by an idea” out of his head, he’d throw himself in front of a bus.
And just then a light appeared from the heavens, a golden light, which was accompanied by the almighty roar of three double-decker buses in a row, a golden light which glinted off the windows of each of the double-decker buses, reflecting the light in every direction, lighting up, if only for a moment, every dark recess that Oscar was confronted with, and as the light passed, as a cloud covered the sun, and the sound of the double-decker buses had passed away, Oscar found himself to be “a changed man” – just like that.
Oscar had “seen the light”, perhaps it was “the light at the end of the tunnel”, perhaps this was a “road to Damascus moment”, even though Oscar didn’t consider himself a Christian, though he could always convert, or rather “come back to the church”.
What troubled Oscar now wasn’t the fact that he couldn’t leave these clichéd expressions alone, that he couldn’t “turn a corner” without finding such an expression sitting there waiting for him, it was the fact that he was exactly the same as everyone else, and that’s why such expressions fitted his life so well.
Then Oscar realised that he never had an original idea in his life, though he had a few “flashes of insight”, and even though his “life had no meaning”, it had just as much meaning as everyone else’s, which was in many ways a far worse thought, to have to consider himself as just the same as any one of the dull and insipid and boring and stupid and mindless and stunted people he saw walking past on the street, spitting onto the road, each of whom would have told him about their “road to Damascus moments”, how they saw “the light at the end of many a tunnel”, and how they had often reflected upon, perhaps whilst sitting on the barber’s chair, “the meaninglessness of life”. Oscar felt that he now at last understood what Smith had meant by “the modern condition”.