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Sunday, 13 November 2011

On The Nature of Greatness

Riding into work on the train one morning, listening to an uplifting rock track, my thoughts turned to the general idea of What is Greatness ?

Given my training as a bean-counter, Greatness at work is usually measured in terms of higher revenues and profits, but this is only one way of looking at the matter and there is a whole category of Greatness that cannot be objectively measured.

Whilst we can objectively compare, for example, sales volumes of the messy and wide-of-the mark U2 album Pop with the band's crafted and focused come-back All That You Can't Leave Behind, that won't actually tell us anything about why the latter is a better album and re-established U2 as the greatest rock band in the world at the time.

To do that, we need to listen to the two albums and see how they make us feel; for all its dance beats and lack of seriousness, Pop feels stodgy, plodding and heavy-footed whilst the more straight-laced and crafted stadium rock of All That You Can't Leave Behind has an uplifting, soulful emotional core of a band once again firing on all cylinders.

Focused, harmonious, uplifting - these are the same terms in which I describe a Great wine; more than taste, smell and texture, what makes a wine Great is how it makes me feel.

And this way of assessing quality in terms of how it makes us feel applies not just to wine or music, but to anything with aspirations to being Art.

I once worked for someone who owned a Porsche 911 and as a bit of a petrolhead myself, we would often exchange man-talk driving stories; I once asked him if it ever became just a car, did the excitement wear off after a while, to which he replied no, it was still special each time he got in.

That then, is a Great car - not because of its performance or looks, but precisely because of how it makes you feel.

The same applies to food and, for me, Great meals with innovative or unusual but balanced flavours, superb cooking and excellent wines to match are truly memorable events.

If, according to TS Eliot, poetry is "what gets lost in translation", then Greatness is that poetic aspect of something that cannot adequately be described but has to be experienced to be truly understood.

All these things - cars, food, music, wine - fulfil a fundamental need, be it of transport, nutrition, entertainment and refreshment; but Great examples express their artistry by transcending these basic requirements to enhance our mood as well.

There is no objective way to measure this capacity for transcendence and it is of course completely personal; you may simply not be a U2 fan and driving may not be your thing, in which case the charms of Beautiful Day or driving a 911 will have no appeal for you.

But for me, this is the very essence of human nature - once we have mastered the basics of survival - food, shelter, safety and companionship - so Maslow tells us, we look for self-actualisation and this is achieved by experiencing Greatness.

We may experience a sense of well-being by spending quality time with our families and friends but when an inanimate object such as a car, a meal, a piece of music or glass of wine, creates in us an uplifting sense of well-being, then you know you are in the presence of Greatness.

The iPod and the PC may be some of Humanity's greatest modern achievements, but they have no artistic merit - other than perhaps in how they are designed - because they do not inspire any feelings in us, they simply do a job. We may, rightly, admire their innovativeness and technical excellence, but admiring something is very different from it being Great.

The odd thing about experiencing Greatness is that it can become a bit of an obsession. I wrote earlier about improving one's palate and considered the question of whether an improved palate means greater appreciation or simply more wines not to like.

Perhaps another way of looking at it is trading a series of mediocre experiences for the occasional experience of Greatness and for me, the excitement of going to a tasting comes from the possibility that I might just come across, amongst all the good wines, at least one that is truly Great.

Image credits:

Main - http://www.sopalatina.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/greatness.jpg
Porsche 911 - http://www.carnews-focus.info/images/porsche-911-carrera%20(5).jpg
Maslow - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Maslow%27s_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svg

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