A White Dwarf of Meaning


Words are memories. What we’ve forgotten, they still know. Consider the following: amazing, awesome, fabulous, fantastic, great, marvelous, terrific, wonderful. Today they may be synonyms, but each bespeaks a vanished form of experience, a lost feeling or idea. Awesome comes from awe: dread and veneration at the presence of the royal or divine. Terrific had to do with terror. Great referred to scale, to things beyond our puny human size: mountains, oceans, gods. Wonderful events evoked amazed admiration, and amazement itself denoted a kind of trance or spell. As for fabulous, fantastic, and marvelous, they pointed beyond the plane of quotidian existence, to realms of fable and fantasy and miracle–all real imaginative possibilities, once upon a time.

Wonder, terror, awe: emotions that are no longer part of our experience. Science has disenchanted the world; technology has robbed it of its threats. We used to experience wonder at a shooting star. Now we refer the phenomenon to the composition of the solar system and the physics of falling bodies. Once, a nighttime journey meant a host of terrors, real and imagined (wild beasts, departed spirits). Now the only perils are potholes and perhaps a bit of late traffic. Mountains and oceans are not what they used to be either–we can fly over them. The gods are gone, too; fable and miracle no longer win our credulity.

All this is inevitable, but there is something else to say about those words. Not only are they all synonymous now–awe and amazement are very different things, but awesome and amazing are perfectly interchangeable–but what they all mean is something very puny indeed. “This candy bar is fantastic.” “I just found the most fabulous parking spot.” A feeble tickle of gratification, reiterated all day long: the chief contemporary emotion. Our experience has become less intense as well as less various. Like a burning star that’s collapsed into a white dwarf, those words represent an implosion of meaning, a burned-out husk of human possibility.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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