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Friday, August 19, 2016

On Perfection

An article in the NY Times Magazine got me thinking. The subject of the piece is Michelangelo's David, which may in time--like all things--collapse into dust. But what caught my eye was not the fascinating backstory of the statue nor the nature of the physics that threaten it, but writer Sam Anderson's description of the statue's perfection:
When I first saw the David in person, the only word that came to mind was “perfect.” Why hadn’t anyone ever told me he was perfect? I was 20 years old, exhausted, unwashed, traveling for the first time ever, ignorant of almost everything worth knowing. “Perfect,” I know now, is not a terribly original response to the statue, nor a very precise one, but in that moment it filled my mind. It felt like a revolution — urgent, deep, vital, true.
And then a bit later:
I stood there in my filthy Birkenstocks feeling a sense of religious transcendental soaring: the promise that my true self was not bound by the constraints of my childhood — by freeway exits, office parks, after-school programs, coin-operated laundry rooms at dingy apartment complexes, vineyards plowed under and converted into Walmarts, instability, change, dead dogs, divorce. No. The David suggested that my true self existed most fully in some interstellar superhistorical realm in which all the ideal things of the universe commingled in a perpetual ecstasy of harmonizing trumpet blasts. If such perfection could exist in the world, I felt, then so many other things were suddenly possible: to live a perfect life creating perfect things, to find an ideal way to be. What was the point of anything less?
Curiously, Anderson details all the conventional ways in which the statue is not perfect. That's actually the point of the article: "The seed of the problem is a tiny imperfection in the statue’s design" (my bold). The marble itself is pockmarked in places, and one of David's arms was once knocked off and reattached. What Anderson's describing is an artistic and aesthetic perfection, one with such power as to impart a religious experience. He ignores the tangible imperfections and instead locates a mystical perfection beyond the physical object.

Is he looking for the perfect beer?
Perfection is a weird concept. It suggests both an empirical and  subjective quality. Like a perfect ten in gymnastics, it's the way we attempt to codify in concrete terms our certainty of a surpassing aesthetic triumph. The perfect moment, the perfect man/woman, the perfect job. It's a self-defeating concept, though, because there's no way to actually measure the subjective, which is by definition a judgment based on non-quantifiable criteria like taste, opinions, or feelings. And that unverifiability is exactly why we want to have a concept like perfection. Calling something perfect is the act of desperate hyperbole, when we try to end an argument with the maximal rendering of judgment.

The reason "perfection" is a paradox is because the elements that compose it are always open to debate. We can't arrive at perfection because we can never agree to the rules of debate. I mean, when I look at David and see that bizarrely mannered tuft of pubic hair riding David's junk like a pair of furry chestnut burrs, I have a hard time moving on. And because perfection suggests a Platonic ideal, one which is so manifestly obvious that even a philistine like me can see it, David must not be perfect. In these matters, the doubters get the final veto.

In art, the idea of perfection is thrown around a lot. Maybe this has to do with the money involved. If you just spent a half a billion dollars on a Van Gogh, you don't want anyone telling you it's not perfect. In lower forms of expression--beer, let's say--perfection is generally considered a quality to aspire to, not one to attain. I've seen this over and over again. In homebrewing competitions, no one gives out a 50, the highest score. You're lucky to get a 40. It seems like the reasoning is encouragement: no matter how kick-ass your bock is, the theory goes, there's always got to be some room to make it more kick-ass. Homebrewing is a journey, and a natural 50 would abruptly end things at the summit. Best to think there's another, higher mountain beyond the one we're just about to crest.

When I sat in on the tasting panel at the Widmer Brothers brewery a few years back, they rated the beers on a five point scale. Four was the maximum any beer ever received, which seemed odd to me. I assumed five would represent the best quality the brewery could produce, since they were evaluating the beer before it shipped. Nope, four was the highest score I heard that day. I asked about that and they said five was reserved for a truly exceptional beer, one that, like Anderson's David, truly deserved the title of "perfect." They had never encountered such a beer but, like hopeful Sasquatch-hunters everywhere, wanted to believe one existed.

I sometimes use perfect casually (so please don't dig around the archives to disprove the following clause) but I've abandoned it as a useful concept. Whether we're talking about beer or art, perfection is a unicorn. We can describe it in rich, vivid detail, but no one has ever actually encountered it. Worse, the existence of this fictitious state denigrates the excellence we find occasionally in the real world. We hold open the possibility that there's something better than a Usain Bolt hundred-meter dash, or a 1966 Jaguar E-type roadster, or a Saison Dupont, but in pining for the impossible, fail to apprehend the real genius in front of us. The notion of "perfect" is what leads to hundred-dollar bottles of Cantillon and a veneration of mythical "whales" (or worse, "whalez"). There are a staggering amount of exceptional beers out there, more than the earth has ever seen, and settling into their enjoyment seems like a far better use of time than waiting interminably for perfection to come along.


  1. Perfection, perhaps through a personal bias, may feel unattainable, but whether sport or art or beer, these things always remind me of a common thread:

    There is an innate feeling we can't deny. No matter what we do, no matter how "good" it may be, we all strive to create something beautiful.

  2. So how about perfect for the moment? Where do you stand on that?

  3. An interesting essay. If I understand you, you seem to be defining perfection as "that which cannot be surpassed on a scale of measurement," and I don't think that's what is meant with regards to experiencing something in the aesthetic realm. X being "better" than Y doesn't affect the possibility that Y is perfect. Perfect doesn't exist as the endpoint on a scale of measurement, as in the homwebrewing judging/Widmer tasting examples you gave: there can be "better" or "more powerful" speeches than, say, the "I Have a Dream" speech, but if you were to argue that that speech wasn't perfect, your argument likely wouldn't carry the day. Lord knows there are better singers than Mick Jagger, but if someone were to argue for, say, "Gimme Shelter" as a perfect song as originally recorded by the Stones, many many folks would understand and nod in agreement. I quite possibly have had better beers than the Stone Tenth Anniversary IPA... but that beer was perfect the first time i had it, and on subsequent occasions, and if the recreation this year isn't any good, no matter, because the first iteration was perfect.

    I think we're not waiting interminably for perfection to come along -- we're definitely settling into the enjoyment of what we encounter... and occasionally recognizing perfection when we find it. If that experience isn't universal, no problem. We all know what the person means if we're lucky enough to have experienced it somewhere, or at least empathetic enough to recognize another's experience has validity.

  4. "Is he looking for the perfect beer?"
    More likely, he's looking at the price of some special release or the line at a brown-bag even, or some such. His expression is that of fear, apparently. :)

  5. Perfection is something to strive for. If you are fortunate you may experience bliss, ecstasy or even epiphany. It is about being in the moment.