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Time magazine (February 21) carries the article dealing with the exclusivity and subtlety of the Academy Award speeches under the title, “Science analyzes the Academy Awards speech.” In it, I’m interested in a unique (or creative) analogy comparing Academy Award speeches to attendance at one’s own funeral:

“Academy Award speeches are the artistic equivalent of attending your own funeral: an event that’s wholly, utterly, solely about you and one that, for most of us at least, is a metaphysical impossibility.”

However, I’m a bit perplexed with the word, “metaphysical impossibility.” Does it mean the chance to make a speech at Oscar for most of us is logically, theoretically, statistically, or practically naught?

Why is it specifically “metaphysical”? How can I translate it in plain English words?

Will I be ridiculed if I use the word in such a way as “the odds of your finding a job at your age are metaphysical impossibility,” in the conversation with my friends?

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Attending your own funeral is a metaphysical impossibility. It might be possible in some strange world with time travel or other distortion of how things work. But according to metaphysical principles (whatever those might be philosophically), it is not possible. And the analogy is that an Academy Award speech is like a funeral for you that you attend yourself. It is a strained metaphor to me. Nothing about this is particular to English. –  Mitch Feb 25 '13 at 4:54

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Will I be ridiculed if I use the word in such a way as “the odds of your finding a job at your age are metaphysical impossibility,” in the conversation with my friends?

I think you'd want to avoid using the word metaphysical – unless you are dealing with the metaphysical realm.

I just looked up metaphysics in NOAD, and I can see why its meaning might not be crystal-ball clear:

metaphysics (pl. n.) the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space.

Some examples might help. By and large, I think these would fall into the realm of the metaphysical:

  • witchcraft, voodoo, and spells
  • telepathy
  • time travel
  • using crystals to channel healing energy
  • the ability to see into the future
  • the ability to communicate with the dead

As Bill Franke said, in the Time article, the usage of the word works, because the author is talking about being able to deliver a eulogy at our own funeral – a metaphysical impossibility.


Why is it specifically “metaphysical”?

M.I. (metaphysical impossibility1) in this context refers to the inability to talk at our own funeral – not give an Academy Award speech. The reference is a subtle dig at Academy Award speeches in particular, which are known for being repetitious: once you've heard one, you've heard them all. These oft-parodied speeches are usually a litany of thanks toward people we don't know and we'll never meet. Because all two dozen or so awards are presented on a single night – by actors, to actors – these sometimes emotional acceptance speeches can get rather monotonous, especially since the awards of most interest to viewers are given toward the latter end of the ceremonies. Because of this, the writer compares the viewing experience to that of a funeral – another place where you see person after person get up and say something. However, the writer is also acknowledging that this analogy is somewhat fragile, because, at an Academy Awards speech, the actor is speaking about their own accomplishments, whereas at a funeral, people are speaking about the person in the casket. So the only way the analogy would really hold is if you could watch someone speak at their own funeral – a metaphysical impossibility.


1Lest anyone be misled by my tongue-in-cheek initialization, M.I. is not a standard abbreviation for metaphysical impossibility. As far as I know, metaphysical impossibility is not a commonly-heard expression, either.

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One synonym for metaphysical is theoretical. Make that switch, and it's clear that the writer assumes that most people don't believe that they will be able to attend their own funeral, which is what the eulogies delivered at the Academy Awards ceremony most resemble: funeral orations (e.g., "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.") intended, unlike Mark Antony's eulogy for Caesar, to praise.

Yes, you would probably be snickered at for saying "the odds of your finding a job at your age are a metaphysical impossibility". You'd be better off saying zilch, zero, nil, or nada.

Although "metaphysical impossibility" works in the Time article, it's in the proper context. It'd be pretentious (because it'd be overkill) when talking about being too old to find a job, which is a social reality for many people, not a theoretical impossibility.

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Here's what I think the author of this quotation meant to say:

Giving an acceptance speech at the Academy Awards is like addressing the gathered mourners at your own funeral: The occasion is entirely about you—or rather about something important that you did but that is now as far out of a reach as a departed life—and yet you are called upon to memorialize yourself.

I'm not sure why the author thinks that attending one's own funeral is a metaphysical (or physical, for that matter) impossibility. Most people attend their own funeral, so that they can get buried. It is true, however, that giving a speech at your own funeral is rather difficult, unless you've prerecorded it. But obviously that's not a reason why giving an acceptance speech at the Academy Awards is like attending your own funeral.

In my opinion, the author would have been better served by focusing on physical impossibilities (which are at least somewhat subject to natural laws and scientific assessment) than on metaphysical impossibilities (which tend to be impossible only in the mind of the metaphysician).

I also think that the formulation "the artistic equivalent of X," like "the moral equivalent of X," is almost always a befogging turn of phrase, as indeed it appears to be here. Hence, my translation of the author's intent replaces the vague and tendentious "the artistic equivalent of" with "like."

What this author needed was a second edit.

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