When Stanley Hauerwas was told that Time magazine, in 2001, had chosen him as “America’s best theologian,” he quickly retorted: “‘Best’ is not a theological category.”
That ‘category’ discomfiture came to mind as I was reading David Orr’s provocative piece, “The Great(ness) Game,” in this weekend NYTBR. Orr raises the carrot that teases the aspiring poet: proverbial, elusive “greatness.” He well notes the vagaries of the term, the fickleness of peer evaluation, and how the vicissitudes of time can play havoc with such ranking. But in particular, he’s concerned with present greatness–the fate of greatness in American poetry which, he worries, might be going the way of the dodo. Not unsurprisingly, he lays the blame at the feet of “postmodernism”:
The problem is that over the course of the 20th century, greatness has turned out to be an increasingly blurry business. In part, that’s a reflection of the standard narrative of postmodernism, according to which all uppercase ideals — Truth, Beauty, Justice — must come in for questioning. But the difficulty with poetic greatness has to do with more than the talking points of the contemporary culture wars. Greatness is — and indeed, has always been — a tangle of occasionally incompatible concepts, most of which depend upon placing the burden of “greatness” on different parts of the artistic process. Does being “great” simply mean writing poems that are “great”? If so, how many? Or does “greatness” mean having a sufficiently “great” project? If you have such a project, can you be “great” while writing poems that are only “good” (and maybe even a little “boring”)? Is being a “great” poet the same as being a “major” poet? Are “great” poets necessarily “serious” poets? These are all good questions to which nobody has had very convincing answers.
But postmodernism is not the enemy of Truth, Beauty, Justice, and the American Way that Orr makes it out to be. However, what has happened is that we now appreciate that the criterion for what counts as truth, beauty, and justice is not some natural kind, not an objective given. What’s true and beautiful and good is recognized as such only against a background of a shared narrative or story. The situation isn’t necessarily nihilistic; it’s just pluralistic. The loss that Orr laments is the loss of a dominant, WASPy set of criteria that dominated American letters in times past (Updike’s death might signal the end of a regime in this regard). Its dissolution might entail the end of unanimous “greats,” but not greatness as such.