Friday, December 8, 2017

Against The Greatest Whatevers of All Time

We need to cycle the cliche "one of the greatest ___ of all time" out of our language. Of all time is a long time. It's a long ass time. It's forever. It is literally forever.

I am guilty of this myself. I'm just a sinner who's seen the light. For instance, in the past I have referred to the odd film as "one the greatest movies of all time" as if the movies themselves were ancient pillars of culture rather than an art form that came along at basically the same time as the toaster oven. (I've seen certain comic book flicks referred to as "one of the greatest superhero movies of all time" which makes the point even more strongly, since, historically speaking, the superhero movie is still teething.)

Like all cliches, the greatest whatever of all time cliche is just a dumbing down of language, an empty superlative in place of an actual opinion. This kind of inflation of language serves different functions. For one thing, it imbues the speaker with a sense of superiority. After all, if I declare some novel one of the greatest novels of all time, then I am claiming for myself the authority not just to declare a novel good or great, but to declare its virtues to be eternal.

This appeal to the eternal is revealing. Our language so often reveals us to ourselves. For instance, I've rarely seen the "all time" cliche bandied about in praise of the works of art that have an actual legitimate claim to antiquity. Homer's ODYSSEY has as good a claim to the mantle of "the greatest work of literature of all time" as anything (if we shrink the eternity implicit in the phrase "of all time" to mean the few thousand years of human life on earth), but we rarely see it referenced that way. Instead, the "greatest of all time" mantle is usually trotted out for rock bands and quarterbacks. And the relative newness of rock bands and football players is, I think, a key to the cliche's appeal. A lot of people love THE ODYSSEY but even its most fervent fans probably don't feel that the epic poem is evocative of their youth. The kind of people most likely to declare The Beatles the greatest band of all time are the kind of people most likely to feel an personal emotional connection to The Beatles. Ditto Joe Montana (or your quarterback of choice).

The inclination to declare something a part of the canon is an inclination to declare your own feelings part of the process by which we decide the canon. I love the Beatles, too. Will their music really hold the same beloved status in another thousand years? I doubt it. I really do. I suspect music, language, and culture will change so immeasurably that the Beatles will be a historical fragment of a bygone society. It's entirely likely that the feelings roused in me by a great Beatles song will no longer rouse feelings in people a thousand years from now. (The opposite is true. There's no reason to think ancient people would have liked the Beatles anymore than old people did in 1965.) Which is another way of saying that our feelings aren't eternal. It's more than possible that the things I've loved will fade in their impact over time.

Perhaps this is why the things that have lasted the longest (in both duration and impact) are the very works of art that claimed actual divine authorship. John Lennon once said that people tried to make a religion out of the Beatles, and he was right. People are still trying.

We say "nothing lasts forever" but we don't really believe it. We're constantly grasping after the eternal. And these things we declare eternal--books, songs, movies, sports figures--are fragments of an ever scattering past, fragments of our own dissipating lives.

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