That Eternal Question



Do you ever wonder about greatness? How about mediocrity? I have been considering these things lately – as I grow older and the future ceases to be laid out in a great plane of opportunity before me. As the path narrows and becomes more craggy; the hills become steeper and more barren while the end approaches more quickly than I – than any of us – would like to consider.

When we are young we think of ourselves as people apart. Invincible, different, special – unique; certain we are that in our very demeanor and bearing lay the hallmarks of our greatness, something to which we are predestined. None of us are alone in these delusions; most people I have met have harbored them, illusions that are best abandoned but sadly sacrificed as the realities of the limitations of man are laid like a heavy blanket over a fire that is burning out of control.

Greatness. Our world seems to confuse this with the physical; beauty not in the eye of the beholder but as the magazines tell us they should be. But of how many of those who were great, do we remember their appearance? And how many of those would we consider – or were considered – remarkable? Da Vinci? Benjamin Franklin? Homer? Sir Thomas More? St. Paul it was said was a hunchback. Jesus might have been a redhead.

I am currently on vacation, with family, in Dubai. That resort town of the Persian Gulf, the playground of princes and paupers, of the rich and famous and the painfully middle class. Of diplomats, dreamers and day-laborers. I see them all around me, at the hotel pool and on the beaches and walking through the crowded shopping malls. We don’t consider appearance, not really. Sure when we are young and the hormones rage we cannot help but see the innuendo in everything, a glance and a careless brush and a gentle smile. But we get older, and all we come to see are humans as they are. One, a little overweight; another balding. An unfortunate tattoo; a melancholy sag product of a life hard lived. Any of these, a possible Claude Monet… – or a nobody.

And what do they see, when they look at me? A washed-up novelist entering middle age; dreams of what could have been crashing upon the shallow shores of reality? Probably not – for they do not consider me, nor I them. We are silent companions upon this planet, each thinking more of ourselves than is warranted and each meaning less to the relentless rotation of the world than we would care to admit.

I recently finished “Villa Triste” by Patrick Modiano. It could be said that all French novelists are channeling the spirit of Baudelaire, Sartre or Camus. Not Nietzsche’s violent nihilism but instead a comfortable existentialism, gently held in the spirits of a people who do not consider greatness and who do not rage. That’s hard for us to understand, American’s are taught to rage. We are raised on stories of Paul Bunyan and John Henry and Lord of the Rings: we are told that to rage is our responsibility and that in our tremendous violence will be found the answer to that eternal question for which we really do not want an answer at all. “Do I matter?”

“Time has shrouded all those things in a mist of changing colors: sometimes a pale green, sometimes a slightly pink blue. A mist? No, an indestructible veil that smothers all sound and through which I can see Yvonne and Meinthe but not hear them. I’m afraid their silhouettes may blur and fade in the end, and so, to preserve a little of their reality…” 

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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4 Responses to That Eternal Question

  1. graphicgrub says:

    Vincent did not see the fame he got. How well he has been known. Mind you have people started to forget him, I wonder? Your words will always live. They will live beyond you. Just make sure you let them flow. Have a good holiday. They are important in one’s life. Time with family too.


  2. notabilia says:

    Of course you do not “matter.” You will live and die as a singular agglomeration of protoplasm, nothing more or less than has the been life of any fellow human or animal.
    So don’t worry about this “greatness” stuff- of what value could that preposterous notion be? Just let it rip, as the universe will have you do.


    • Jaja – thanks man! I once had an employee who did not have kids who said “I’m doing this for money, after I’m gone let the world burn. I’ll be dead” (the irony was he was working in democracy promotion). That always bothered me – but not easy to say why. Of course, I have faith so that answers some of the questions but leaves way too many still open. I guess my point, which I need to figure out how to articulate, is that – take Trump (or Pelosi or Theresa May or whoever, not being partisan here) is if we saw them in a Wendy’s in Pittsburgh we would think nothing of them. Or Steve Jobs, etc. Or Da Vinci. But yet we spend all this time and money on surgery and operations and haircuts and makeup – why?


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