A friend of mine used to accuse me of falling into hyperbole when describing items of interest in my life. “No,” I swore, “I don’t mean to exaggerate, I’m giving you a true record of my experience—it was truly, superlatively [adjective]!” This little essay is an attempt to get at possible motivations for spending big words on little things, while also offering a hesitant typology.
So I figure: there’s hyperbole, and then there’s hyperbole. Hyperbole A is a straightforward rhetorical device. As my dictionary widget tells me, it’s an intentional exaggeration for the sake of humor. Saying that a flight attendant’s invisible efficiency made you afraid for your life, is an attempt at humorous hyperbole. Saying that a man’s head was big as a blimp, is hyperbole. Saying that you’re so tired you could die, might be hyperbole. (Jury’s out on the science of sleep, as it were.)
But then there’s hyperbole. Hyperbole B is not an intentional exaggeration. Hyperbole B happens when your brain gets swallowed up, when an upswell of life and feeling carries your soul away. Hyperbole B pretends to a sort of accuracy in giving its account of something, even while knowing that its task is probably impossible because its target datum is somewhere beyond the reach of its meager tools. It’s a little bit of flirting with the ineffable.
I immediately want to distinguish this from varieties of excited cliché that seem endemic to political reporting, for instance. The sorts of exaggeration I read every day in headlines across the internet seem closer to Hyperbole A for being intended as knowing overstatement, except that the humorous motive has been replaced by a cynical one. Harry Frankfurt’s technical use of the term “bullshit” is applicable here.
But even after this distinction, there’s a problem. Next to its adult brother, Hyperbole B could seem to be, well, kinda-sorta childish. The 5-year-old whose day turns on receiving a temporary tattoo at K-Mart while his mom orders a couple boxes of Little Caesar’s has yet to experience his licensing test at the DMV, his first day of college, the birth of his own child. His tattoo enthusiasm and the exclamations that follow in its wake are proportionate to the size of his world. Are my enthusiasms similarly proportioned?
I suppose therefore it might be important to get at a maturity gradient for Hyperbole B, because I don’t think everyone who uses it is experiencing some kind arrested development. At one end, we could put a person who has been caught up in some momentary delight, and who gives voice to it in overblown terms. Maybe he’s grown up, maybe he hasn’t. And here, apparent sincerity can come across as the new irony, as I suppose a Zoe Deschanel character or other MPDGs demonstrate well enough. Then, at the other end of my gradient, perhaps there are some deep wells, some poets and sensitive souls who manage a real openness to the overdetermined milieu of the world. Pardon my self-serious exaggeration, of course.
The difference between these poles may be imperceptible in experience, held behind an impenetrable veil like Kant’s moral will. But it’s real! The difference is real. And it is essential to how I might justify a tendency to fly off into the clouds on a nudge. Reflection occasionally brings back to the fore the miraculous idea that before the fact of a thing—the coffee mug in front of me, the candle on my table that is just now flickering out—there is the fact of the existence of the thing at all, and lockstep with that miracle, there’s the more overwhelming miracle of the existence of anything at all - of existence itself! Cue wonder, cue fascination, cue vertigo a la Sartre’s protagonist in Nausea upon the sight of a gnarled root under his park bench. There is an incomprehensibility in the divide between being and nonbeing that is at play in every experience of things. It's western philosophy's mystical side.
This lands us right on the aforementioned Kant’s doorstep, although the door itself is locked. As David Bentley Hart writes in The Beauty of the Infinite, the sublime of the third critique (which, to be clear, I haven't read) breaks down our powers of representation and leads us to revel in the excess, and in the power of the subject to grasp that excess in its formal way. Mathematical infinity, for instance! Who could imagine it? The mind boggles, and pleasantly, if Hart on Kant is to be believed. And the funny thing is that this and other infinities seem to glow just underneath the finite furniture of the world we are accustomed to navigating without a thought.
What can words do, when the world is re-made mysterious, re-enchanted? This formica tabletop, that kitschy peacock hanging from the ceiling, a mite of dust, an oily pebble in the street outside; how can a guy speak for these things, holders of impossible conceptual depths, inscrutable for being here right now, for all the contingencies and alternatives and, Lord knows, classier choices of décor?
Stretching for a big word to call forth a small thing— I suppose it could be a kind of faithfulness. I’m a Christian, shoot. In spite of the armies that march under the banners of disparate hermeneutics of suspicion, I have to believe in the original sanctity and general peaceableness of language, its ability to carry safely its passenger-referents, to speak well for them and give them everything they need to manifest themselves in all fullness. Language has a kind of sacramental function, which says nothing of the possibilities for its misuse except that such possibilities are a very serious business.
My favorite authors and poets do the good work of Hyperbole B all the time, with maturity and sure-handedness to counterbalance the occasional wild ecstasy, and all in the service of sacrament. They adeptly help us to practice philosophy, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty would have it, in relearning to see the world. When this world comes at you with a new, sudden power, or pulls a trapdoor in your mind and confronts you with some hidden eternity, or lends great moment to an item of no significance to another human—perhaps it’s then that language is at its healthiest, its most athletic and tragic and beautiful for being at its limits, even if those limits are as near as the cuff on my sleeve, or a puddle’s reflection of a streetlight and the night sky. That’s hyperbole in good faith.