The 'Great Man' Waiting to Happen

To look at the history of science is to note that there are times when a number of 'scientists' are working on the same problem, and a discovery may appear "waiting to happen." This is not always easy to track because not all scientists or (natural) philosophers have published their research: some of this work goes unrecorded. How much more evasive are the currents in the humanities, similarly sometimes seemingly directed by the single figure. The Great Man Myth is pervasive. Stefan Zweig, now enjoying a resurgence thanks to NYRB and Wes Anderson, wrote in his work on Magellan: "Wonderful things happen in history when the genius of the individual coincides with the genius of the times." Emphasis added. We might add, terrible things can happen, too.
Though I have not read works by Paul de Man, a book review of a recent work on him makes compelling arguments as to the facets of fame, the idolatry of the one in the spotlight. As the article was shortened since it first appeared, it is necessary to explain that in the form in which I read it, we were told that the author Evelyn Barish writes in The Double Life of Paul de Man that character is fate (a Heraclitean pronouncement) and that she associated the lies of the individual to the theoretical lack of commitment to meaning. Perhaps the latter is the sign of the times. This is already suggested in Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilyich wherein a pitiable judge, on falling ill, becomes a victim of his own lack of humanity and that though as a child he knew better, he grew into a hypocrite because everyone else acted such and it was the thing to do. To maintain his position of wealth, he grew a second face and almost lost his own (barely regained by his screams in the months leading up to his death). Ours is the age of that which is hidden - what, after all, has money become? The great man of this age is undecided and elusive in his words. To return to Heraclitus, that which is hidden is to be expected - this is the idea in his most famous phrase (not very well translated). Perhaps to deny this aspect of reality is to become willingly blind and extremist to the point of the denial of all fixed meaning, as opposed to understanding that we can understand some things.
For example, the book review (originally) noted Man's belief that the meaning of a text cannot be reached. Gadamer has addressed this idea and argued that there is a great difference between reaching a text through a qualified interpreter and a less or unqualified one. Not everyone agrees about the potential for meaning, as testified to in the comments to said book review. In fact, some people get very emotional over this issue which does not help further discussion.

In the review, Barish is quoted as writing: "People want a kind of messiah ... Most of the time we don't know what we're doing. When someone comes along and seems to have it right or to be very clear and very intelligent and immensely seductive, intellectually and personally, we say 'Right, let's go that way.'" If this is true, while we may dispute the validity of the great man myth, it does no good to deny its power.
As I mentioned Tolstoy earlier, I might also bring him into this question, being a man who also had disciples, though they seem to have disbanded for the most part on his death. There is a text written by a now canonised saint of the Orthodox church that calls him both a prophet - for addressing in so much of his writing the idea that there is no such thing as a great man - and also explains the reasons for his excommunication by the Holy Synod in Russia, in that author's words, for having wanted Christianity or life in general to begin again, an idea which consequently denies Christ and ignores the problem of Cain and Abel who were the type of more primitive and simple man that Tolstoy glorified. I like this illustration because while the very text I citing argues that the better idea is for mankind to work together (rather alike the sentence by Zweig that it is man and zeitgeist - possibly the 'waiting to happen' - that comes together for something good), it also does not deny the importance of the work of the individual mind. It is an attempt to walk the middle ground, which one is wont to remember will always mean being criticised by both sides, not just one.
The zeitgeist, however, is elusive and sometimes best understood in retrospect, just like the spirit of one's own youth, always turning depending on perspective rather like what Halbwachs' work on memory teaches. And to those who say this changing perspective is testimony to the fact that understanding is ephemeral one wonders about whether one's freedom is denied to be a man and take a stand, possibly being be wrong but at least as such having the chance of learning to be right. Maybe we have lost the freedom to live in the sense that to live on indecision is no life but abstract worrying. Common sense would teach that, had it not been declared redundant by Kant. That's why it would be better to be a peasant than Ivan Ilyich. Neither man can go back to the beginning, but one has not denied who he is. If we accept that there is a great man to an age who picks up on the good ideas 'waiting to happen' who is this man to the people without so much power and money? Without the great man, this answer could be education or journalism.


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