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Does Excellence Exist?

By Jeremy Taylor

Caribbean excellence is to be found among our creator-builders

In the English language, certain words and phrases have been used so often, so relentlessly and so unthinkingly, that their meaning has drained out of them. In politics, “democracy”, “freedom”, “terror” and “liberal” are examples. In economics, “globalisation”, “free market”, “level playing field”. This is language deliberately used to produce a warm, fuzzy glow, or a frisson of fear; language used to make people feel what someone wants them to feel.

“Excellence” is such a word. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it in tautological terms: “the state of excelling . the activity etc. in which a person excels”. Look up “excel” and you find: “be superior; be pre-eminent or the most outstanding”. Not much help there – except for one vital point: excellence is something relative and comparative, not an absolute quality in itself. By this definition there is no test or criterion to pin down excellence: it is identified only by reference to lesser accomplishments.

All these big vague words say one thing and mean another. The prospectus of the Music Festival which Trinidad and Tobago holds every two years carries on its cover a slogan from the composer Walford Davies: “The object is not to gain a prize or defeat a rival, but to pace one another on the road to excellence.” Wonderful! Formal speeches and adjudications pay pious tribute to this notion. But you only have to sniff backstage to understand how far it is from the truth. In practice, the object is precisely to gain a prize and to thrash all rivals as soundly and as bloodily as possible.

In this way, language corrupts thought as easily as thought can corrupt language. “It is almost universally felt that when we call a country a democracy we are praising it,” wrote George Orwell in 1946, in an essay George Bush has presumably not read. Daniel Boorstin, the former Librarian of Congress, applied this scepticism to the idea of excellence and the paradox that so often enfolds it: “We expect to be inspired by mediocre appeals for ‘excellence’,” he wrote sarcastically in The Image.

It is tempting to say that “we know excellence when we see it”, like beauty. But that won’t do either. The Royal Festival Hall in London used to publish extracts from critical reviews of its concerts, putting different expert opinions side by side. One reviewer would declare that a singer sang perfectly in tune, while another complained all her top notes were flat. A performance would be condemned as too fast, or then again too slow; a conductor would be full of vitality, or then again totally wooden. There was never total critical agreement, even on the most “excellent” artists.

Because we are all biological organisms with individual sensory systems, we all perceive in our own way. What you find excellent, I might find perverse. What I find excellent, you might find boring. What society acclaims as excellent is very likely to be fraudulent somewhere behind the mask.

So let us rule out any thought of an ethereal, almost super-human realm where excellence dwells, and where the elect, the great and the good and the mighty, receive the awed tributes of us lesser mortals after their labours are done. We all know that the greatest artists, the most brilliant scientists and the wealthiest entrepreneurs can be cantankerous human beings; and that the sweetest, warmest human beings might not be able to spell their own names. If it exists at all, excellence has many mansions, and nobody has total and permanent tenancy.

Where does that leave us? If excellence is relative, comparative, ambiguous, subjective, even fraudulent, what can it possibly mean?

That is an empty question. For excellence does not exist as a quality in itself. It has become simply a word of admiration bestowed on people or accomplishments that mightily impress the beholder. It is a word into which we try to fit experience, like casting around for the right object to fit into a box.

To rehabilitate this poor, exhausted word, we need to go back to its roots. In his classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig used the word “quality” to decode the idea of excellence. By that, he meant the care, the quality of attention, which you bring to action, whether it is pondering philosophy or fixing your motorbike.

He traced this notion back through the Greek philosophers as far as Homer and the idea of aretê, a word often mistranslated into English as “virtue”. But for the Greeks it involved a whole package of personal characteristics, which included courage, strength, intelligence, honour, wisdom, endurance, athletic prowess, practical life skills, sensitivity, and an understanding of the wholeness and oneness of life. Aretê was broad-ranging, not specialised; it was something to be lived, not debated or intellectualised (that came later, with the professional philosophers and their endless dialectic). Our own notion of high accomplishment in a specialised field is a thin, pale vision by comparison.

The concept of aretê chimes very well with other pre-western cultures. If we accept it, an immediate consequence is that excellence is not the exclusive preserve of the great, or even of the high achievers. What is high achievement for one may be routine for someone else. Rather, anyone who lives a life of quality, of profound care and attention to the fabric of life, has already achieved excellence, be they are high or low, poor or rich, known or unknown.

Excellence is one end of a spectrum. At the near end is a cluster of characteristics such as slackness, indifference, impotence, disengagement, irrationality, lethargy, deceit, cynicism, superstition. At the far end are intelligence, rationality, truth-telling, courage, engagement, energy, empathy, compassion, consistency. Most of us could plot our strengths and weaknesses along this spectrum; but those whose characteristics cluster at the far end are the people of aretê, the excellent ones.

This applies to the Caribbean as much as to any other culture or place. But every culture must evolve in its own way, which puts a premium on authenticity as a marker of excellence. Frantz Fanon warned many years ago that the great danger of independence would be replacing an outgoing colonial elite with a new local elite which would behave in the same way and maintain the same old colonial structures and systems. Caribbean excellence would have lain in heeding that warning and acting on it, in every field of human endeavour.

But that was not to be. Instead, the Caribbean has bred importers and improvisers, and a few creator-builders. The importers see development in terms of importing not only goods but ideas, experts, media, entertainment, investment, standards, even political instruction (open your markets or else!). Hence our region of client states struggling with incompetence, fraud and corruption, waste and neglect, and the perennial unsolved problems of poverty, employment, health and education, income distribution, resource management, inefficiency and injustice. No excellence there, only defective thinking.

The improvisers are often life-affirming and entertaining, but their resistance to planning, organisation, structure and accountability rule out consistency, another marker of excellence. They will rise to the occasion, producing wonderful one-night stands, but that’s all. In sport, in the arts, in organisations, spontaneity and reliance on natural talent are the default position. Even our athletes train overseas. No true excellence there.

It is the creator-builders who construct new, authentically Caribbean systems and processes, as well adapted to the actual environment as the ajoupa was for the Amerindians. Peter Minshall takes the mas, single-handedly restores it to its root and builds fantastical new shapes onto it. Kamau Braithwaite takes poetry, Wilson Harris and Earl Lovelace take the novel, and conjure strange new worlds that could be rooted nowhere on earth but in the Caribbean. Fr Gerry Pantin takes conventional top-down development theory and turns it on its head, by wandering up the Laventille Hill in dangerous times, braving the curses and insults, simply asking “What do you need?” And, by listening carefully, he builds a truly Caribbean organisation which the outside world has copied.

Excellence is lived, not pursued; enacted, not defined. It is embedded, not a streak of light like a meteor of a firework. Scott Fitzgerald described in The Great Gatsby “One of those men who reach such acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savours of anticlimax.” Excellence is the child of quality, of aretê. To lay claim to it is as crass as boasting about one’s modesty. And if it is to be found in our corner of this weird world, it is among the creator-builders that you have to look.

Writer and editor Jeremy Taylor was born and grew up in the UK, but he has lived in Trinidad for more than thirty years. His writing has appeared in dozens of magazines and newspapers, and he is the author of two books about Trinidad. He edited Caribbean Beat magazine from 1992 to 2003.
His book Going to Ground collects many of his articles, essays, and reviews.

The first Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence, each valued at around US$80,000, will be presented in October.

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