Great Quarterbacks and Such

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.


8 thoughts on “Great Quarterbacks and Such

    • Many thanks. I have always thought the idea of dismissing great works of art as merely things some people happen to like as rather simple-minded. It’s a topic that is dear to my heart.

  1. Great piece Hugh. You touched on greatness of several different things. Starting with music, I find it interesting the most popular chart songs that are less on substance and more on something catchy, tend not to get played very often in future years. So, their greatness was quite superficial. With sports, the object is to win the game not the fantasy football league for someone. So, Joe Montana’s four super bowl wins make him a better quarterback than Dan Marino, who passed for far more yards, e.g. John Elway was great, but his team winning two super bowls the last two years, elevated his status. Willie Mays was a better player, but Mickey Mantle’s teams won far more, so Mantle is elevated.

    As for literature, a book that can invite someone back to re-read it, would tend to better than one, where you squeezed all the good out of it in one setting. I read often, but I have many unfinished books that did not catch my interest. I love “Don Quixote,” but could not find myself reading it every year, but may venture back once in awhile. So, it should be read by all, at least once. I also feel if the character or story lives on and becomes part of the vernacular, to me that means the author did well. The character Don Quixote fits that bill and the term “don’t go chasing windmills” lives on. Atticus Finch, Huck Finn and Jane Eyre are other characters that live beyond the pages.

    As always, thanks for sharing your perspective. I find it illuminating and thought provoking. BTG

    • hey amigos
      i’m coming up for a gasp of air before vanishing again! this has been on the screen, and there’s been no time to read it at a slower pace or comment until now.

      there are many books that i enjoy reading over and over, and i love them more each time.. whether it’s the art of the opening sentence or the hook that gets me again and again, or the art of the final line, i treasure many books and return to them at random times to savor those well-written lines.

      the old man and the sea has always been a favorite, as has rebecca.. hmmm, ‘ ‘last night i dreamt i was at manderley again..’

      • One of the greatest opening lines in all literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” [Pride and Prejudice] Thanks, Z.

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