Departments

Questions on Greatness

I

Do masterpieces tend to occur at the beginning of the history of an art form only because they are easiest then? Certainly, there are advantages in being first. The best of the first set the standard for the rest; but the first are also forgiven much. Shakespeare had freedoms we can only envy; we indulge Homer’s nods. Shouldn’t it diminish our estimation of their gold that they did not have to smelt 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: do something new; and that is always a reconnaissance in force.

Is it enough to be first to be great? Do we always owe the name of greatness to whoever makes way for the rest? Obviously not; in the history of painting, for example, in 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; by being great, they start something. And even where greatness exhausts the possibilities of the form, still it draws imitators. More verse drama has been written after Shakespeare than was written before him; more paintings have been painted after Leonardo than were painted before him. If we ask what is left to do in the detective story after Agatha Christie, if we ask what is left to do in rock and roll after the Beatles, we can find no answer except that people keep writing, keep recording, and show no signs of stopping.

II

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. The greatest are not always the most skilled; and even if they are, they may, in their greatest works, have set aside or moderated such skill for whatever quality makes for greatness: Bach wrote music more complex than the Chaconne.

Some hold 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 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 universal 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. (Mathematicians have their heroes, too.) Not that we come to despise ourselves as snobs; but that we 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 still the unembarrassed Gioconda.

III

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 smoky color-joints? If I say Beethoven, do I mean a certain skirting of anarchy? In short: something peculiar, easily recognized, even freakish – something 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 as 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.

Chroniclers (not quite historians) tell tales of kings who undertook the forbidden experiment, who tried to discover the true, original, and spontaneous language of the human race by isolating children from all human contact. To measure the effect of pecularity on greatness would require another such experiment, where instead of isolating a child from language, we isolate them from art. But the kings did not bother, and we are long past kings.

What can we say? Communal traditions of music are the least portable kind: they must be accepted or rejected as wholes, for every piece tries to do everything it can do. Everybody gets their solo. But even in communal contexts, the utterly individual character of greatness forces a response that is individuating instead of 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 spoil the ritual. This seems to be the effect of at least one kind of greatness on all human beings, prior to acculturation.

IV

Are the great honest? Is there some special honesty in their work? Does the road to greatness lie through honesty? On the contrary, we know that the great are usually either dishonest or stupid. Their false modesty proves it; and it would be worse to think them stupid than dishonest.

So we must distinguish simulation from dissimulation, the white lie from the black. 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 beloved does not make another love them, that does not disprove your love; if the picture of your home does not make another long, that does not disprove your longing. Maps lie, for being mappable is what all places have in common: maps falsely deny that places are different.

I will call a representation of a place honest when it gives me what I could never learn from maps or satellite photos, but know with a minute of its sunlight; 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, the more important kind, is the kind found in greatness.

V

Can greatness be wasted? 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 a subset of what happens to survive? Can we be right to hang so much on what comes to us by so narrow a thread?

(I would blame much of the turmoil of culture in the twentieth century on the certainty that most of its luminaries died on its battlefields before they gave any light at all.)

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

How much greatness has been lost? That I cannot say. I don’t know how to weight the greatness we know against the greatness that was, yet goes unknown, the greatness that was, yet was lost, the greatness that should have been, but wasn’t, the greatness that wasn’t, but could have been – there is no end to it. It is no thought for mortals.

VI

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

Of course, two people can always disagree about an 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 on the meaning of what they both felt. Indeed, where greatness is concerned, we often must rely on judgments we trust without any evidence of our own. Why, then, 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. If someday Herculaneum yields up a complete Heraclitus or Sappho, if we find that what survive are but diamonds from rust, what we have would lose its shine and value. Yet I trust that there was better than what 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. That is the best we have.