Let’s recap the last couple of days. We’ve discussed the perpetual fussing over the boundary between literary and genre fiction, and proposed instead that we should be discussing the difference between writing that acts as a pioneer into unknown terrain, and writing that acts as a settler of that opened frontier. As I wrote yesterday, that diminishes the value judgment inherent in assigning something “literary worth,” since one can be a good or an inept pioneer, a good or an uncivil settler.
So we’re left with the question of “good,” the question that drove Robert Pirsig to madness as he pursued his study of Quality. What makes some things good and other things less good? And why can we disagree about a thing’s quality?
Arthur Krystal, the guy whose essay started my little Chautauqua, talks about the writer’s (and by extension, the reader’s) sensibility, the ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences. So in this formulation, multiple opinions about quality are simply judgment errors made by those without sufficient sensibility. If you like Cardi B or Doritos or muscle cars, you just aren’t mature enough to know better. We spend far too much time in this place, blaming one another for their decisions rather than trying to understand them. That position of judgment is its own act of low quality, leading to our current irretrievable polarization.
But the opposite shore, that of radical relativism, offers us nothing better. “It’s all good, man” is nothing but an abdication of agency, an assertion that no decision can ever be seen as better than another. As the philosopher John Cougar Mellencamp put it, “nothin’ matters and what if it did.”
Let’s propose a new path. To do that, we’ll assert that nothing exists on its own, but rather in community with every other thing. An ecological understanding of quality, let’s say, in which we ask how all other things are affected by this one. In that formulation, we would then ask: does this thing enhance other things, or diminish them? Is it generous, or hostile? And of course, to claim that something enhances other things would mean that it makes those things also more generous, in a long and not fully predictable chain.
The relationship between any individual object and its ecosystem gets pretty complicated. Let’s think of sports, for example. The grace of beautiful, superhuman physical action lifts us all. LeBron James’ famous block of Andre Iguodola’s late-game layup, for instance, is one of those moments of grace that will stay with its viewers for years. And yet, any sporting event can also be reduced to chest-thumping tribalism in which we all try to enhance ourselves by the very fact of diminishing others. The way we consume an object is also part of its fate, part of its quality judgment.
When we speak to our political opponents, do we try to defeat or demean them, or do we try to move them a quarter-inch further down the road toward wisdom? And are we willing to be moved incrementally as well?
When we listen to music, do we hope that it washes over us, a soundtrack to our tedium and inattention? Or do we try to hear decisions, try to understand what it’s doing and what its alternatives might have been?
When we read, are we engaging the work from a place of growth and kindness and humility, or a place of hubris and ranking, or a place of distraction no different than scrolling at random through YouTube? And when we write, are we creating something that will lift, or illuminate, or offer? Or are we creating monuments to our own intellect, or marketable content, or more fuel for a flame war?
Show me something that inspires you, and tell me why. That’s where Quality resides.