Ones reputation is like a shadow. It is gigantic when it precedes you, and a pigmy in proportion when it follows…Charles Maurice de Talleyrand
I quote Talleyrand often. He was a cold-hearted, fish-blooded, disloyal, yet indispensable French Foreign Minister who single-handedly invented modern diplomacy in the service of French monarchs, emperors, and republics. None of those he served could hardly tolerate being in his presence, simply despising him; yet, none could dispense with him, either; his service was too valuable.
Talleyrand was the master of using speech to disguise his true intentions, of saying something that committed nothing. Former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot was wise to the Talleyrandish mode of diplomacy when during a presidential debate in 1992 he declared, “State Department? What would I need a State Department for? I’ve got a fax machine!” Every modern Secretary of State is a Talleyrand wannabe. He was the Ty Cobb of diplomats, not the Babe Ruth. Talleyrand may not have hit a lot of home runs, but he sure could get on base with a hit when the team needed it most.
We could use a shrewd Talleyrand these days, though he had many traits I do not admire. He would be able to understand, without the evil of underestimation, or the worse evil of overestimation, the mindset of those whom our nation seems at eternal enmity with. Unfortunately, many of those he served never took his advice.
Other than graft and corruption, which was his primary source of income, Talleyrand made his living with words. His talent for using them to conceal was the same talent that let him use a very few to convey extremely precise meaning. He could pack a lot of wit into a couple of sentences. One might even say he was funny, but his smiles were cold and calculated. He never frowned. He never showed any emotion, even when sentenced to death, which he was more than once. As far as Talleyrand’s reaction to the news, the sentence may have well been, “The morning paper has arrived.” He likely never said anything he had to retract or explain. If fact, he also said, “If we go on explaining, we shall cease to understand each other.” He said what he said and left it for you to figure out. A thing said well needs no explanation.
We often wish we personally knew our biggest heroes. We seldom realize that our knowing them better might make them less heroic, since, we have also heard, familiarity breeds contempt. Our heroes are not familiar, only their reputation prepared by their media handlers, or the one that simply proceeds on its own. It is hard to distinguish them. Ahead of them it is a shining beacon, a lighthouse, a star set brightly in the heavens for all to see. In their wake, it is a mere shadow of its former self.
The shadows the suns casts in the early morning and late evening are long. Those at midday, when the light is bright and hard are much shorter. The things the midday light reveals are not always flattering, unlike the soft, long-wave light filtered by its transit through a denser atmosphere. I prefer my light filtered until I am investigating something thoroughly, then I want the glare of the unfettered light. That’s why I prefer my heroes illuminated in theatrical lighting, such as that used on a stage to achieve whatever the producer hopes to achieve.
Bob Dylan is one of my musical heroes. His music speaks to me in a way that no other has. The words he weaves into song seem to pierce directly through the facades I erect for myself, straight to my ego, leaving me vulnerable and exposed. From the shelter of filtered light casting long shadows, Bob Dylan always seems to put me under the glare of the harsh mid-day sun. It always seems to me that others see me under that same light.
“How does he do that?” I always ask myself. “What gift does he have to always make me see myself in his music?” It is a talent that many folks admire and others despise.
While I have seen Bob Dylan in concert, I used to regret that I never had a chance to meet him. I don’t really regret that any more. Having never met him, he still casts a giant shadow, since he is what I have made of him. I don’t know Bob Dylan. It’s better that way.
The more we know someone, the more likely their shortened shadow. I prefer my heroes to stay gigantic in proportion. I do not like them diminished. If someone knows you and you are still a giant to them, then you are a fortunate person for two reasons: The first, to cast such a long shadow; the second, to leave a long shadow in your wake. The only way I know to achieve this is to be the same person all the time, and to embrace the truth wherever you find it, casting aside every single thing that conceals it, distorts it, or tries to render it obsolete. One does not achieve this by striving for it but by striving against one’s self. The truth may have been concealed in Talleyrand’s words, but it was there for those who could find it and make use of it, and explaining it does not help its clarity.
Truth is never obsolete. It may be unfashionable, disguised in clever phrases, but it is never obsolete. Obsolescence of necessity turns in to non-use, and the truth is always useful since through it, one can make plans that are likely to be far more successful than those based on colorized perceptions. The truth casts a long shadow, just like my heroes. I may not know either of them very well, but I suspect neither one of them will likely get along. Like oil and water, they will separate and stratify if given enough time.
If you think about it, the one who rides in at sunset casts a long shadow; riding out in the twilight, he casts none at all. I’d rather spend my time in the mid-day sun then ride off into a sun low on the horizon, leaving a bigger shadow in my wake than the one I rode in with.
Don’t we all want that?
©2014 Mississippi Chris Sharp