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ON GREATNESS


Back in December of last year, NPR's Scott Simon interviewed the veteran pop singer Neil Diamond about his new Christmas album and a tour he was undertaking for this year. Diamond got around to saying he didn't like touring much, but that once on stage, some other "Neil" came out of him, one that was always there, who has no fear and feels enormous confidence in his singing powers. This other Neil inhabits him in some way that he cannot make appear unless he is before an audience. He is otherwise a mild, self-effacing man no one could pick out of a crowd.

Actors know this same transformation when the curtain goes up and the audience is out there in the semi-dark and they must emote, and move, embrace someone, rage, cry and clutch at the air with their outstretched hands. It's another person who emerges in that performance, someone bigger, bolder, hungry to devour the script and the moment until nothing is left of them. The audience might weep, burst into applause, give a standing ovation at the end, leave the theater empty and astounded.

In a conversation I had with the poet Robert Creeley some years ago, he told me he knew of poets who had certain rituals to prepare for writing a poem. One washed his hands carefully, and in rubbing soap onto them and gazing down at them, something else was happening -- Creeley didn't go into details or theorize what might be happening, just that some change was being induced in the writer, who would have to face the terror of the blank page and not quake in fear. Creeley said he too had his rituals in order to drop the ordinary Robert and become Creeley the poet, someone larger than his own life, someone able to grasp reality with greater emotional understanding than he normally possessed.

The ability to lure out the hidden self within may well define what it is to be an artist -- the power to release some larger self that otherwise lies there in the dark of the unconscious, paring its nails, nodding off in boredom, reading a paperback novel, gazing out the window at the ordinary world. When summoned by some force, call it inspiration, this other self gets up, stretches, walks to the edge of personality and breaks through with its raw nature and the energy of some primal world to bend and break the rules of monotonous routine.

You feel it in the audience if you're gazing at some character no bigger than anyone else that suddenly darkens in voice and becomes absorbed in this emerging other self. You feel chills, you forget where you are, you lean forward and might forget to breathe for a moment while some cleansing energy sweeps over you.

I've read that people who knew Hitler found him ordinary, petty, a dull and conventional man in daily life, who sometimes went off on a terrible rant against underlings, and possessed no magic or power to astound. But at a rally, as he cleared his throat and gazed down on thousands of admiring Germans in a hall, he took a deeper breath and began to work his voice into a hypnotizing rhythm that thundered out syllables to mesmerize the entire audience. He was a great mimic and could change posture and gestures and voice to become a hated Jew, the kind he observed in the train station in Frankfurt and wrote about in Mein Kampf. He would mince around the stage and squeak his words as he pulverized the average cowardly citizen afraid to join the Nazis in their revolution. He had everyone laughing and jeering with him, and then he would pivot back to some Teutonic god's voice and freeze their flesh with his warnings and imprecations. He converted his fellow Germans by the power of this other self that he lured out and paraded up and down the dais, an inexhaustible comic genius. To think that the Holocaust and World War II were the work of his other persona!

Anyone who performs with inspiration knows this other self within, from opera singers to magicians to dancers. The primal self is in there, sealed behind the thick doors of personality and self-restraint. When John Lennon left the Beatles in 1970, he was unable to focus his creativity. He went to Arthur Janov to learn about primal scream therapy, and would spend his idle hours trying to scream down to what Janov called the "birth trauma," that moment in which the raw self became paralyzed with fear. If one could scream out the hidden child, perhaps it would restart the process by which the free soul would regenerate some transmogrifying artistic self. Janov is gone, and his primal scream is all but forgotten, but the theory was intriguing. It's possible to lose this inner self and no longer create art. Lennon would go on to write his anthem, "Imagine," against all those forces that inhibit freedom and the primitive self. But he, like Wordsworth, would lament that the primal self is a function of youth, that newly formed angel that trails clouds of glory as he or she enters the world.

Perhaps the power to call forth the other self is what we mean by greatness, this measure of strength that dwarfs ordinary existence. Whitman's "Song of Myself" talks about falling into a swoon by a river and feeling himself rise out of the body like a bird soaring over America, then the world, then out into deep space where he meets God face to face. Dante feels the same power as he enters the European underworld to discover the souls of purgatory and hell, and then paradise -- a trip to the limits of western consciousness. Homer's Odysseus takes a similar quest into the mind of Greek experience and recapitulates all the adventures of Greek migration down from Persia to the Peloponnesus. His powers are legion, he lies better than anyone else, he outsmarts the gods, he fools Polyphemus, the chief of the Cyclops, he seduces, and rises up against his wife's suitors on his return home. He is the shell of some god-like creature that possesses the magic of Zeus.

Van Cliburn, a skinny kid from Kilgore, Texas sat down to play Tchaikovsky's "Piano Concerto No. 1" and "Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 3" in 1958 at the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, two of the most daunting concertos ever written for the keyboard. At the end, he received an 8-minute standing ovation and won first prize, at the height of the Cold War and what was supposed to demonstrate the Soviet Union's cultural superiority to the West. His giant came out and seized the keys, and shook the piano down to splinters, and roared up to the rafters, tore off the spectacles of the judges, and gored the ears of everyone in the hall. He stood there smiling bashfully like a reborn Odysseus, a Dante in the depths of hell, a Whitman soaring out beyond the Ort Clouds. He had found his inner Zeus and it would emerge at the bidding of his long fingers sounding the first notes of a recital.

When Louis XIV was asked what is the state, he responded, "The state? It's me." He had filled France with his soul. His bed at Versailles was the center of the universe, and until he arose from sleep, the world lay in darkness. The levee, the rising, was the ritual for bringing the "sun king" back to the world so the rest of ordinary mortality could get on with its life. His inner giant was manifest in a floor-length robe of ermines and jewels, and his testicles were no doubt the source of French fertility, just as Henry VIII was the sire of English life. Napoleon crowned himself emperor of the West and pushed the pope aside as not being worthy of the rite. Madame Curie soaked in radioactive radium in her lab glowed like a medieval alchemist as she uncovered the hidden energy of nature. Isadora Duncan danced naked to free herself of the last vestige of restraint, until the cops showed up to arrest her for "indecency." But the giant was out, and she would tear up the heavy black clothes women still wore as part of their bondage. Gertrude Stein knew no bounds when she wrote Tender Buttons, in which a woman's world is dismantled umbrella by high-top shoe in her Paris apartment, and revealed the raw, undomesticated primal source of the female at the bottom of a history of laws and inhibitions.

Greatness has no morality of its own; it's a primitive heartbeat at the center of nature and, like the Hindu elephant god, Ganesh, tramples the feeble laws and structures of cultures that have grown rotten in their habits. Greatness is to be feared, as well as admired, adored, and it can kill or it can restore to vitality the thing that makes our lives worth living. The ones who possess it are miserable having to lug around such giants within their chests; but when they are in front of the rest of us, nothing is more sublime than the human being giving in to the god who tears this ordinary self open to be liberated into the air.

Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial speaking the words of his "I have a Dream" speech scorched the air with that inner god. It happens in our politics only once in a while, but when it does, the wind blows down the old world and the new one starts to be born.

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