(urth) objective measure of "good"

Alan Lewis alanarc1 at optonline.net
Thu Jun 15 17:14:51 PDT 2006

>>True: any kind of "value" is a _flattening_ measurement, i.e., a
>>single, one-dimensional measurement that combines in some
>>(usually quite complex) way a large number of measurements,
>>some of which are themselves multidimensional. This is why I
>>included the ludicrous "$5.95 in paperback" above: price is the
>>ultimate flattening value-measurement.

> Yet all of the different kind of "goods" seem to have something in common
> that make them goods in the first place - a family resemblance. But what
> makes a good soccer player may have nothing codifiably in common with what
> makes a good novel (in any particular sense). Does this mean there's no 
> such
> thing, objectively, as a good soccer player or a good book?

This kind of discussion is very interesting, and certainly relevant for our 
list.  Though there seems agreement that there is such a thing as good 
writing and bad writing, there remains the problem of the objective reality 
of these qualities when we disagree about which a particular work is.  A 
good (ahem) writer named Tom Stoppard said this in his play The Real Thing:

  ANNIE: It just needs a bit of work.

  HENRY: You're all bent.

  ANNIE: You're jealous.

  HENRY: Of Brodie?

  ANNIE: You're jealous of the idea of the writer. You want to keep it 
sacred, special, not something anybody can do. Some of us have it, some of 
us don't. We write, you get written about. What gets you about Brodie is he 
doesn't know his place. You say he can't write like a head waiter saying you 
can't come in here without a tie. Because he can't put words together. What's 
so good about putting words together?

  HENRY: It's traditionally considered advantageous for a writer.

  ANNIE: He's not a writer. He's a convict. You're a writer. You write 
because you're a writer. Even you write about something, you have to think 
up something to write about just so you can keep writing. More well chosen 
words nicely put together. So what? Why should that be it? Who says?

  HENRY: Nobody says. It just works best.

  ANNIE: Of course it works. You teach a lot of people what to expect from 
good writing, and you end up with a lot of people saying you write well. 
Then somebody who isn't in on the game comes along, like Brodie, who really 
has something to write about, something real, and you can't get through it. 
Well, he couldn't get through yours, so where are you? To you, he can't 
write. To him, write is all you can do.

  HENRY: Jesus, Annie, you're beginning to appall me. There's something 
scary about stupidity made coherent. I can deal with idiots, and I can deal 
with sensible argument, but I don't know how to deal with you. Where's my 
cricket bat?

  ANNIE: Your cricket bat?

  HENRY: Yes. It's a new approach. [He heads out into the hall.]

  ANNIE: Are you trying to be funny?

  HENRY: No, I'm serious. [He goes out while she watches in wary disbelief. 
He returns with an old cricket bat.]

  ANNIE: You better not be.

  HENRY: Right, you silly cow -

  ANNIE: Don't you bloody dare -

  HENRY: Shut up and listen. This thing here, which looks like a wooden 
club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together 
in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It's 
for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will 
travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you've done is give it a 
knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like 
a trout taking a fly. [He clucks his tongue to make the noise.] What we're 
trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and 
give it a little knock, it might . travel . [He clucks his tongue again and 
picks up the script.] Now, what we've got here is a lump of wood of roughly 
the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, 
the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance 
about shouting Ouch! with your hands stuck into your armpits. This isn't 
better because someone says it's better, or because there's a conspiracy by 
the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It's better because it's better. You 
don't believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you 
get on. [quoting from the play] You're a strange boy, Billy, how old are 
you? Twenty, but I've lived more than you'll ever live. Ooh, ouch! [He drops 
the script and hops about with his hands in his armpits, going Ouch! ANNIE 
watches him expressionlessly until he desists.]

  ANNIE: I hate you.

  HENRY: I love you. I'm your pal. I'm your best mate. I look after you. You're 
the only chap.

  ANNIE: Oh, Hen. Can't you help?

  HENRY: What did you expect me to do?

  ANNIE: Well.cut it and shape it.

  HENRY: Cut it and shape it. Henry of Mayfair. Look - he can't write. I 
would have to write it for him.

  ANNIE: Well, write it for him.

  HENRY: I can't.

  ANNIE: Why?

  HENRY: Because it's balls. Mary's part is the least of it - it's merely 
ham-fisted. But when he gets into his stride, or rather his lurch, 
announcing every stale revelation of the newly enlightened, like stout 
Cortez coming upon the Pacific - war is profits, politicians are puppets, 
Parliament is a farce, justice is a fraud, property is theft. It's all here: 
the Stock Exchange, the arms dealers, the press barons. You can't fool 
Brodie - patriotism is propaganda, religion is a con trick, royalty is an 
anachronism. Pages and pages of it. It's like being run over very slowly by 
a travelling freak show of favourite simpletons, the India rubber pedagogue, 
the midget intellectual, the human panacea.

  ANNIE: It's his view of the world. Perhaps from where he's standing you'd 
see it the same way.

  HENRY: Or perhaps I'd realize where I'm standing. Or at least that I'm 
standing somewhere. There is, I suppose, a world of objects which have a 
certain form, like this coffee mug. I turn it, and it has no handle. I tilt 
it, and it has no cavity. But there is something real here which is always a 
mug with a handle. But politics, justice, patriotism - they aren't like 
coffee mugs. There's nothing real there separate from our perception of 
them. So if you try to change them as though there were something there to 
change, you'll get frustrated, and frustration will finally make you 
violent. If you know this and proceed with humility, you may perhaps alter 
people's perceptions so that they behave a little differently at that axis 
of behaviour where we locate politics or justice; but if you don't know 
this, then you're acting on a mistake. Prejudice is the expression of this 

  ANNIE: Or such is your perception.

  HENRY: All right.

  ANNIE: And who wrote it, why he wrote it, where he wrote it - none of 
these things count with you?

  HENRY: Leave me out of it. They don't count. Maybe Brodie got a raw deal, 
maybe he didn't. I don't know. It doesn't count. He's a lout with language. 
I can't help somebody who thinks, or thinks he thinks, that editing a 
newspaper is censorship, or that throwing bricks is a demonstration while 
building tower blocks is social violence, or that unpalatable statement is 
provocation while disrupting the speaker is the exercise of free speech. 
Words don't deserve that kind of malarkey. They're innocent, neutral, 
precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you 
look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But 
when they get their corners knocked off, they're no good any more, and 
Brodie knocks corners off without knowing he's doing it. So everything he 
writes is jerry-built. It's rubbish. An intelligent child could push it 
over. I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. 
If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a 
little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead.

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