Sometimes greatness is dramatic and forceful.
by J.S. Porter
I remember taking my son when he was very young to a film at the old Broadway Cinema on King William Street in Hamilton about Picasso in the act of drawing. The camera followed his hand. The artist drew a bull and a matador. Very cliché, very Spanish. The surprise, though, was how he drew. How he defied your expectation.
I thought he would begin one thing, say, the matador’s hat, and finish it and then begin another thing, say, his cape, and then move on to finish something else. Instead, Picasso’s procedure seemed to be to start something and then start something else—the outline of the bull’s head, the outline of the matador’s shoes, in different parts of the canvass— almost simultaneously. Later from the perspective of an overhead camera, you could see the drawing as a recognizable whole. The lines cohered.
The figures came off the canvass the way a crocus comes out of the ground – stem and leaf all together, in wholes, not parts. No part in Picasso was finished until the whole was finished, no line was fully recognizable until all the lines were recognizable.
Sometimes greatness is quiet and barely noticeable.
A story that lingers for me, even haunts me to an extent, is called “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases” by the Swedish poet and novelist Lars Gustafsson.
The story concentrates on a mentally-challenged boy who is at the same time sensually alert and aware. His simplicity hides subtlety. The boy has a preternatural connection to living things and their movements and is particularly sensitive to mushrooms and their smells: “strong, earthy smells, smells of decaying leaves, of heated iron, of oxidizing copper, some of them like rotting animals and some with mysterious smells that didn’t exist anywhere else.”
The boy in the story is “as slow as the galaxy and as mysterious.” He is, in a way, “the center of the world.” He reigns “like a quiet monarch, too self-evident ever to feel that his own order was being threatened.” In a few short pages, Gustafasson draws a rich and memorable picture of a boy’s openness and receptivity to living things, particularly mushrooms, “as mysterious and great as he was himself.”
Why this story lingers in my mind and even haunts me still, is that the story reconfigured my childhood definition of greatness.
As a youth, greatness for me had to do with those who had enormous, calculable impact on the world, with the militaristic sweep of Napoleon or Alexander, for instance. These two giants led world-ramifying armies and also privately commanded my play-soldiers where I’d throw marbles against their enemies. The story caused me to rethink what constitutes greatness—that it may have less to do with grandiosity and impact than it has with presence and the grace of being.
A great person for me now is someone with the courage to be himself, or herself. I see greatness in persistence, effort and attitude. The unheralded, the unsung, can be as great to me as those who receive medals, standing ovations or twenty-one gun salutes. I see greatness in my wife’s capacity to love, my friend Paul Lisson speaking to a handful of people in a library as if they were multitudes in a Russian football stadium or Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip carrying on making music despite the savagery of brain cancer.
I think of the American poet Robert Lax who wrote poems as tall and skinny as his body. He didn’t win the Nobel or the Pulitzer or make a lot of money or become famous like his friend Thomas Merton. He lived alone on a Greek island with his cats and was kind and generous to friends and strangers.
The task in life, he writes, is
(Quoted in the Michael McGregor biography, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.)
That sounds right to me. Find your rhythm and walk your way. No one else will have the same rhythm or the same walk. That’s where greatness lies.