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In an Extreme World, Everything’s Awesome

David Eggenschwiler is a professor emeritus of English at USC.

Imagine, if you can, the days when a dynasty took centuries to be established: the Plantagenets, Hapsburgs, Hanoverians. Then, creeping in its petty historical pace from generation to generation, time accumulated majesty. Now, we have instant dynasties, like instant oatmeal: four years for the New England Patriots, three for the USC Trojans, three presidential terms for the Bush family. Not surprising when movie reviews declare instant classics and restaurants announce that they have been a tradition since 1995.

We have such impatience, not to compress time as much as to inflate the import and importance of the moment. Make the test of time into a brief quiz with every answer seeming right. Of course, some will be wrong, but who remembers when the next classic of the minute is being celebrated?

And, I dare say, metaphorical space is as inflatable as time. What now is not awesome? Recently, a young woman at a swimming pool exclaimed that the split strap on my goggles was awesome. Ten inches of rubber it was. On such a verbal scale what language do we have for the Alps, let alone a spiral nebula?

Surely we have not lowered so much our threshold of awe. Rather, we have shrunk our experiences to fit within the verbal illusion that less is really much more than it is. Dissatisfied with the ordinary, we seek the verbal rush of grandiose cliches, a quick fix of the sublime, had without effort, thought, imagination.

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So too at the other extreme of size. What artist (or artiste in the more fashionable world of style) is not unique? One of a kind, a genius of singularity? A snowflake of crystalline never-before-or-again?

None of this verbal stretching for the Big Bang du Jour should surprise. The big or the unique sells products. Remember when products came in small, medium and large rather than large, super and colossal? Remember a time when no SUVs (the “largest models in their class”) thundered across the tundra of programmed TV-viewers’ desire?

And what of the television programs themselves, in which “extreme” is the hook of the titles: “Extreme Makeover” (people or houses), “Most Extreme Disguise” (whatever that means). And we are all to be “amazed” at medical stories or vacation homes.

Perhaps it is ironically fitting that our physical universe has assumed the very proportions of our hyperbole. Physicists, whether astro or quantum, tell us of the very big and the very small, galaxies of a hundred-billion suns and vibrating strings too small to be experimentally detected. The Newtonian middle-Earth of the everyday seems as quaint as the classical Greek values of just proportion and moderation. Now, everything in excess.

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Nevertheless, my swim-goggle strap was indeed nifty, if not awesome.


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