Questions on greatness


Do masterworks tend to occur at the beginning of an art form only because they are easiest then? Certainly, there are advantages in being first. The best of the earliest set the standard for all the rest; but the earliest are forgiven much that is beside their best. Shakespeare had freedoms we can only envy; we indulge Homer's nods.. Shouldn't it diminish our estimation of their gold that they were not put to the trouble of smelting it? And we who walk a narrower path—why should we revere where we are forbidden to compete? But there is a misunderstanding here. More freedom does not make work easier. We follow simple orders with clear objectives: write a novel, write a drama, write an essay. The first followed another order: make a work of genius; and that is always a reconaissance in force.

Then is it enough to be great to be early? Do we always owe the name of greatness to whomever makes way for the rest? Patently, no—in the history of painting, for example, for any virtue we can name the greatest are not the earliest; not even in primitive vigor, where the twentieth century trumps prehistory.

The great are not great by being first or earliest in something; rather, by being great, they start something. And even where greatness exhausts the form, still it draws imitators. More verse drama has been written after Shakespeare than was written before him; more paintings have been painted since Leonardo than existed before him. Even if we only ask what is left to do in the detective story after Agatha Christie, or what is left to do in rock and roll after the Beatles, we can find no answer except that people keep writing and recording and show no signs of stopping.


What is the difference, in any art, between what is great and what is good? They are not degrees of skill. Sargent was the most skillful of portraitists, but the best portraits are not his. Those who are the greatest in their art are not always the most skilled; and even if they are, they may, in the works which earned their glory, have set aside or moderated such skill for whatever quality makes for their greatness: Bach wrote music more complex than the Chaconne.

Many hold that no such independent quality exists—that the true past masters of any art can be known only to other masters; that if certain figures attract more attention from without, that is only because of the vagaries of vulgar taste. This is an attitude common in the young: prominence is with them a sin, when every circle of up-and-comers has its darling obscurity: some inaccessible poet, musician, painter who is the true hero of the art, the pure answer to today's needs.

Sometimes they are right. Their heroes, despite their rebarbicans of adamantine obscurity, deserve and find recognition and prominence. But more often this crack-seeking smoke of devotion is a symptom, and as hot blood cools with age we see, with a kind of vertigo, how much our impetuosity took for granted. There is an artist's journey not unlike that of Campbell's hero: how both in the end return with wisdom where they started; and a lifetime spent in the avant-garde in the end may bring you back to a shocked appreciation of just how much there really is, behind the hype, in Leonardo, in Beethoven, in Homer, in Archimedes. Not, I think, that such come to despise themselves for snobs; but they come to see that behind the hateful function (escape it if you can) of, say, the Mona Lisa as a symbol for Painting, there is a painting which earned its place.


Are the great only the most prominent because they are the most distinctive? If I say "Leonardo" do I mean his whole artistry, or a certain preternatural perfection of faces, a certain technique of smooth color-joints? If I say Beethoven, do I mean a certain skirting of anarchy? In short: something peculiar, easily recognized, perhaps freakish—something the popular taste can recognize when it is told that it should like this or that?

That is: is the phenomenon of greatness only a manifestation of the familiar public taste for the bizarre—as simple deaf Beethoven, fatuous (the playwright says) Mozart, visionary (joined into a mantra with Escher and Gödel!) Bach. We must say, "Of course": at least, it helps. To try so to dispel greatness as an artifact of diseased taste would require us to believe that people are told what to like; but they do not have to be told. People in far countries who do not know them from Adam (or of Adam) thrill when they hear.

Communal traditions of music are the least portable kind: they must be accepted or rejected as wholes, for every piece tries to comprise everything that that kind of music can do—everyone gets their solo. But even in cultures where the idea of individual greatness lacks meaning, the utterly individual character of great music forces a response that is individuating rather than communally subsuming: as, even in the West, a great composer's setting of the Mass is rarely performed in a religious context, where that individuating reaction would counteract the communing imperative of the ritual. This seems to be the effect of at least one kind of greatness on all human beings, prior to acculturation.


Are the great honest? Is there some special honesty in their work? Or does the road to greatness lie through honesty? We know, at least, that the great are generally either dishonest or stupid. Their persistent false modesty proves it; and it is more terrible to think them stupid than dishonest.

So we must distinguish (Bacon-like) between simulation and dissimulation—how your portrait may look more like you than you do, but it may not look like someone else. In all greatness there is a kind of honesty; but it is not the honesty of the camera or the map. The camera always lies—pictures sit still while everything flows and nothing abides. If the picture of your lover does not make another love, that does not disprove the love; if the picture of your home does not make another long, that does not disprove the longing. Maps lie, for mappability is what all places have in common: maps deny that places are different.

I will call a depiction of a place honest if it gives me what I could never learn from maps or satellite photos, but know with a minute of its sunlight; the form of a person, what I could never learn from imaging or lab reports or databases, but know with a minute of their conversation. That kind of honesty is the kind found in greatness, even at the cost of the other.


Can greatness be missed? Are the great we look to but a subset of the great that were—the subset that critics happen to have picked out—and that only subset of what survives? Beowulf comes to us through a single copy, the narrow survivor of a fire. I suspect that the rise of its reputation has been slowed by a certain nervousness on the part of critics—wondering, "Can we be right to hang so much on what comes to us by so narrow a thread?" And I would blame much of the cheapening of culture in the twentieth century on an unspoken awareness of the mathematical certainty that most of its luminaries died on its battlefields before they gave any light at all.

We know greatness and may languish and die obscurely—Van Gogh committed or Poe in Baltimore. If greatness so unsubtle—if the ubiquity and recognizability of that sunflower or night sky, of that raven or sea-side kingdom, may have been saved from oblivion by so thin a rope, how much greatness has been lost?

That I cannot say. I don't know how to divide between greatness that was, yet is unknown, and greatness that was, yet is lost, and greatness that should have been, but wasn't, and greatness that wasn't, but could have been—there is no end to it. It is a more than mortal thought.


Can one be sure of recognizing greatness? Is there a degree of cultivation and sensibility to which greatness is always apparent?

Of course, two can always disagree about any instance of greatness. But do they disagree because, feeling the same thing, they disagree on its significance; or because they feel different things? Generally it is the latter: if the doubter could feel what the urger feels, or the urger the doubter, they would agree in either. Indeed, where greatness is concerned, we often must accomodate the opinions of those whose judgments we otherwise trust without any evidence of our own: and thus we shouldn't be hesitate to name greatness when we think we have found it.

Let us have a thought experiment. Consider those ancients whose works survive to us only in fragments—say, Heraclitus or Sappho. Here is greatness we sense and know, yet cannot prove—a promissory note of greatness that we accept only on the word of writers of good credit. For I'm sure that I could extract from Tupper enough strange sentence to make him seem an oracle; from Mrs. Sigourney, enough strong lines to make her seem wild and passionate. Certainly, if decades from now Herculaneum yields up a complete Heraclitus or Sappho, and if we find that what survives are but diamonds from rust, what we have would lose its shine and value. Yet I trust that there was better than survives; and I can believe this rationally, yet without real proof, in the same way that I believe in any event in history: I have some reason to believe it and no reason to doubt it.

And that must be enough.