In a recent interview with Andrew Luck, the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, the man modestly brushed aside the question of whether he is likely to be the “next great quarterback.” He said that he really doesn’t listen to those sorts of comments; he looks to his parents and close friends, his coaches and teammates for evaluations of his abilities as a player. It was nicely done and the man does seem to be genuinely self-effacing, determined to give credit to his teammates rather than to take it all for himself. It was a refreshing breath of fresh air in the stench coming from the NFL these days.
But the issue raises an interesting philosophical question: how does one determine greatness in sports, specifically in football? The answer usually circles around some sort of calculation — how many games the man has won, his completion percentage, the number of Super Bowls he has won, and the like. The criteria of greatness shift and change like the smoke from a campfire, which can at times get as hot as the discussions themselves. But they always seem to involve numbers. In America we have a penchant for quantifying things. And with everyone and his Aunt Tilly carrying portable computers around, everything seems to be reduced to numbers and computed quickly so comparisons can be made. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the number of times a man brushes his teeth become a factor in determining if that man is a great quarterback before long. We love numbers.
But when it comes to greatness in literature and art, we blanch. There really aren’t any numbers we can plug into our computers. It doesn’t matter how many compositions a composer has written or the number of paintings an artist has completed, how long the performances are or how large the canvasses. What matters is quality and this is a concept we cannot manage to deal with. So we dismiss it with a wave of the hand and call it “subjective.” It’s a “matter of opinion.” But, as I have noted in previous posts, there would appear to be legitimate criteria of greatness in art and literature, and the dismissal seems intellectually lazy and just a bit sloppy. Furthermore, it closes discussion just when it ought to get interesting.
Great literature, for example, is well written, full of vivid descriptions, interesting characters, gripping situations, intriguing plots and, above all else, it is thought-provoking. It grabs and holds our attention. Moreover, it invites revisiting. And that’s the key. Great literature, like great art, rewards innumerable visits, because we always seem to find something new every time we visit. With art and literature that is created for quick perusal and mere profit the visits are usually short and sweet. Popular music, for example, remains popular for a brief time and then is replaced with something else. There’s not enough for the mind to get hold of, as one critic has said: it doesn’t engage our imagination. With great music, there is so much going on that one needs to listen closely, recall what has already occurred in the music and try to anticipate what might happen next. Popular music does not invite repeated visits or close listening, just as popular art tends to tug at the heart strings, but leaves the intellect and imagination untouched. There is more to great art and great literature than there is to popular art and literature, in a word, though there may be perfectly good reasons to enjoy and even take delight in the not-so-great in art and literature. As they say, there is no disputing taste. But greatness, while it cannot be quantified, can most assuredly be felt and experienced at many levels — so many that one visit is never sufficient.
Someone once said he re-read Don Quixote once a year and has done so for years. That’s a bit extreme, but it makes sense. Cervantes has put so much in his novel that it is like finding buried treasure every time the novel is read. Or, perhaps, it is like a bottomless cup of coffee except that, unlike coffee, the taste is fresh and delightful every time one takes a sip. The notion that greatness in art and literature is a matter of opinion, simply, is not worth taking seriously. We may not be able to quantify it as we do with quarterbacks and infielders, but we can experience it directly and discuss it intelligently.