The word “great” is a word we seem to be hearing a lot of these days.
“Make America Great Again” or “Man, you’ve got a great set of abs” or “Geez, that remote-control lounge chair was sure a great idea.” "Great" is one of those oversized words we see so often in this country — greatest house, greatest car, greatest self-adhesive nicotine patch.
Hell, I saw an ad the other day singing the lordly praises of the nation’s “greatest seamless gutter.” Now, I have all the appreciation in the world for good drainage but we’re still talking about gutters, OK?
It’s a word that holds far more weight than a standard pair of suspenders can reasonably support. It carries meaning without having any true meaning at all, like “nice” or “super.” I mean, it hasn’t taken us any particular state-of-grace to be considered a great ape, or a great grand-uncle for that matter. Ten fingers, 10 toes, an oversized head. I guess that’s great. Or nice. Or super.
I suppose I got to thinking about the term after stumbling across a quote from the late British statesman Benjamin Disraeli who wrote: “Man is only truly great when he acts from the passions.”
The passions? Now there’s a word, in all its manifestations, we don’t seem to hear too much about these days. I haven’t heard “Make America Passionate Again” or “Man, you’ve got an impassioned set of abs” or “Geez, that remote-control lounge chair was sure a compassionate idea.” Of course, it should be said, any style of lounge chair is a compassionate idea.
Passion has an entirely different set of rules. A stricter focus. Mother Teresa and Thomas Paine had passion. Jimi Hendrix and Alexander Graham Bell had it, too. So did the guy who dragged the very first charcoal brush across the dim limestone walls of his cave.
Come to think of it, one of my fondest memories is of a traveling exhibition of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings that made a stop at the Art Institute of Chicago back in the late 1980s. It was an evening affair and the place was filled elbow-to-elbow with grateful patrons. There was room upon room of his work — swirling self-portraits, symphonic landscapes, intimate interiors of destitute farmer’s cottages. All incredible, all bitterly truthful.
Still, a special room had been set aside for the “starry night” paintings, his famous series of atmospheric starlight portraits. The only lights in the room were fixed overhead, pointing at the elevated canvases. There were well over 200 people in the undersized room, yet it remained as quiet as an empty house. The only sounds that could be heard were the sounds of people crying, or praying.
I suppose “great” wouldn’t be the word I would use to describe it. I don’t think there is one.
Van Gogh was not considered a great man. He was often called an imbecile. He was thought to be criminal and hopelessly psychotic.
Van Gogh once wrote, ”A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke.” I wonder if the man in the limestone cave might have thought the very same thing.
Van Gogh also wrote: “Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.”
These are not words that came from a “great” man, whatever that may mean. These are the words of a man who existed in that fury of light that Mr. Disraeli alluded to so many years ago — passion. Van Gogh’s “great fire.”
Now perhaps that’s a word we can start tossing around the dinner table — “Honey, that was one impassioned plate of spaghetti you just served.” Sounds like a trend. Hears hoping we can live up to it.
• PAUL WHEELER, a former member of The Write Team, resides in Ottawa. "The River at Both Ends," Wheeler's most recent book of poetry, is available at Prairie Fox Books in Ottawa. He can be reached via email@example.com.