Saturday, February 14, 2009


"She's a force of nature."

That is the ultimate sweeping compliment. What about a person warrants the praise of all praises? Her ability to listen? Her generosity? Her charisma that detonates every one of our senses, like a supernova, when she enters a room and offers a mere smile? When we call someone a force of nature, we cannot determine exactly why we compare her to the very state of being, the very idea of being alive. The statement itself glorifies generality: She is beyond definition. Nothing is greater than nature.

It is easier to understand the statement when we remark on someone's physical excellence. Usain Bolt is a force of nature because he is faster than wind. He is a natural phenomenon like tectonic plates shifting three millimeters beneath our feet, and everything, absolutely everything, must succumb. Perhaps all elite athletes are forces of nature because they are stronger, they are healthier, they are more determined, more indestructible than you and me. Everyone else.

Then what about artists whom we describe as forces of nature? Do we praise them on their corporeal achievements, as if Hemingway's ability to type and Pollock's elbow arc are qualities to celebrate? No. Hemingway's words, Pollock's drips, Gehry's forms, Joni Mitchell's lyrics... The things they make are what awe us like Vancouver's backdrop. And when it is Joni's voice -- certainly a bodily wonder -- that moves us, still, we are celebrating the melodies she makes. Forces of nature who are not athletes elevate that compliment to extreme conceit; James Dean may not run faster than the wind, but his performances wrench our insides like cedar snapping in a gale. Ozu may not grapple with the strength of a grizzly, but his films calm us like a lone shrub in the midst of desert. There is specialness to an artist being called a force of nature because we do not usually associate one with the physical and the natural. Artists make things, even intangible things like a moment on stage or an emotion on guitar. When we say one artist is a force of nature, we are saying her work is beyond normal human ability, beyond human manufacture, worthy of being on par with the clouds.

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