What makes someone or something dazzling?
Is it virtuosity or a kind of sleight of hand? Maybe it’s a little of both.
It’s a bit confusing, but then, that’s the nature of dazzle, which comes from the word “daze” – “to stupefy, stun or bewilder.” To dazzle, Webster’s New World Dictionary says, is primarily “to overpower or dim the vision of with very bright light or moving lights.”
The Christian Bible and Greek mythology contain striking examples of this kind of dazzle. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke recount the moment of Transfiguration when Jesus appears to the disciples Peter, James and John on a mountaintop in all his divine glory – his face “dazzling as the sun” (Matthew), his clothes “dazzlingly white” (Mark and Luke). Mark writes that Peter, the leader of the Apostles, “hardly knew what to say, for they were all overcome with awe.”
The 15th-century German artist Matthias Grünewald captures something of this effect in “Christ Rising,” a panel from his Isenheim Altarpiece, in which he suffuses Jesus in shades of yellow, amber and gold.
At least Peter, James and John survived their close encounter with divinity. In the back-story of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and ecstasy, philandering sky god Zeus has an affair with the Theban princess Semele, who becomes pregnant with Dionysus. When she’s six months along, Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera, instigates Semele to pressure her secretive lover to reveal his true nature. (A girl’s gotta know what she’s gotten herself into, right?)
Whereupon Zeus goes all thunder and lightning, killing Semele, but not before his clever son Hermes saves the baby, sewing him up in his father’s thigh for another three months’ gestation.
To dazzle – or bedazzle – then, is to reveal the utter radiance within, which can be, as we shall see, a mixed blessing.
Short of godhead, though, how do we humans dazzle?
With brains, talent, creativity, passion and industry, which yield extraordinary achievement and invention – the underpinnings of civilization. Nature in itself can dazzle, but it really needs the action of civilization to offset it. Think of the difference between a diamond in the rough emerging from the earth’s womb and a cut, polished Tiffany gem.
“Étonne moi,” the impresario Serge Diaghilev challenged the choreographer George Balanchine – “Astonish me.” And Balanchine would, in works whose speed, amplitude and dissonance helped define the 20th century. But then, artists and athletes, engineers and entrepreneurs have been doing this for millennia. Think of the enduring pyramids, the soaring cathedrals, the theatrical spectacles of “Sun King” Louis XIV, the pyrotechnical operas of Mozart and Wagner, the edgy, erotic abstractions of Picasso, the special effects of the movies and the digital innovations of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. These are all dazzlingly different accomplishments containing two common elements – vision and great technical know-how.
Technique is often at the heart of dazzle. At the inauguration of the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas, broadcast recently on Thirteen-WNET, violinist Joshua Bell played the fiendish showpiece “Gypsy Airs” by Pablo de Sarasate. Bell’s fingers flew up, down and over the instrument – plucking, vibrating, cajoling, conjuring – as the work shifted moods, tempi and dynamics. It certainly was a dazzling performance in the sense of “a brilliant display,” deserving of the standing ovation it received. But Bell – clad in black pants and shirt, the beads of perspiration on his intense face his only adornment – saved the fireworks for the instrument.
And that is what makes dazzle fascinating. It isn’t always accompanied by a ta-dah! temperament, though it certainly can be. In London this past summer, we were treated to both approaches as U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas sparkled in every way, while Michael Phelps quietly eclipsed his more glamorous teammate Ryan Lochte to become the most decorated Olympian to date. A few weeks earlier in the same city, Roger Federer had regained the No. 1 ranking and the Wimbledon crown with an understated elegance that his more expressive rivals – Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal – do not possess. (See related story.)
Among the best-known contrasts of quiet dazzle and ostentatious display is that of Abraham Lincoln’s plainly eloquent three-minute Gettysburg Address and Edward Everett’s flowery two-hour oration – though in his “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” Garry Wills tells us that both speeches were in keeping with the program for that occasion. Still, at Gettysburg, Everett placed his tome of an address on a table beside him – then famously ignored it to show he had memorized it. Lincoln simply read his prepared remarks. One was concerned with the dignity of his appearance; the other, with that of those he commemorated.
You don’t have to be showy to shine; and what shines isn’t necessarily showy. Which brings us to razzle-dazzle – “a flashy display intended to confuse, bewilder or deceive.”
“Give ’em the old razzle-dazzle, razzle-dazzle ’em,” crafty lawyer Billy Flynn sings in the musical “Chicago.”
“Long as you keep ’em way off balance, how can they spot you’ve got no talent,” he concludes. “Razzle-dazzle ’em, and they’ll make you a star.”
In the film version, Richard Gere’s Billy tap-dances hard, quite literally, to get his guilty clients acquitted of murder, his fleet footwork in a three-ring circus serving as a metaphor for the fast-talking he’ll do in another circus atmosphere – the courtroom. He’s dazzlingly victorious, of course – this is, after all, a marvelously cynical Bob Fosse musical – but at what price? Entertainment may be served, but justice? Never.
Dazzle can deceive. It’s a sometime dance with the devil, as in the movie “Bedazzled,” and guess who leads in that little pas de deux.
But perhaps dazzle is never more deceptive than to the dazzler himself. How many spellbinding entertainers and athletes – the Judy Garlands and the Mickey Mantles – found themselves bewitched, bothered and bewildered by addiction and shattered relationships?
Still, we don’t care. As Billy sings, we want the razzle-dazzle, the romance, for to dazzle or be dazzled is to be touched by the sun.
And we gravitate to that warmth, that light, whether we are kissed or burned by it.