“Push men too far and they fall off the cliff. Push great men too far and they soar.” The words are those of my novelist friend K. Marvin Bruce. Unless you read this blog you’ve probably never heard of him; his novel publishing record is about as successful as my academic career. Still, I think quite a bit about Marvin’s plight. He seems to be a gifted writer—he sends me copies of his stuff—but publishers take no notice. He’s had a few short stories appear in online journals; two of them even won prizes, but the internet is a very crowded place. It’s not easy to get noticed. Those who try to make a living smithing words often face a dilemma; it feels like all the momentous words have already been taken.
I mentioned in a recent post that we are suffering from a crisis of superlatives. The other day I was in a mall (this is a foreign activity for me—the people all look far trendier than I do, and they seem to think this is the place to be, not just where you have to go to have your laptop serviced). I saw a mother walking by holding the hand of her maybe three-year-old son. His little tee-shirt read “Über Awesome.” I recall when awesome really meant full of awe. And that was rare, reserved for things like towering, severe Midwestern thunderstorms alive with constant lightning, or gray north Atlantic waves crashing mercilessly into the cliffs of Maine. I stood, small and insignificant on the prairie or the coast, utterly at a loss for words. Yes, it was that impressive. My superlatives, however, have all been absconded. We live in a world where “greatest” sounds somewhat ordinary. Even the apocalypse has grown thin from overuse, and that used to be the ultimate end of everything. How weak it all sounds.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching the second Star Wars trilogy. While the special effects are impressive, it suffers compared to the original trilogy. One of the reasons, in my idiosyncratic hermeneutic, is that the Jedi knights were reconceived, or reconceptualized. They are action figures, hands on hips, ready to dart into a fight. “May the force be with you,” has become a mere “God bless you.” Was not the real strength of Obi Wan his silence and lack of haste? Was Luke ever more impressive than when he slowly walked into the cave of Jabba the Hut, light saber tucked away, only to be used when such an awesome weapon was called for? It takes a certain placidity of soul to stare long into the abyss. Perhaps this is a metaphor for our superlatives. Calm lives of measured, considered action. This seems to be what the world lacks. To find it would truly be experience simple greatness.