In Praise of Imperfection: Ramblings

For an excellent post in a similar vein (though not as amorphous), read “Perfection is Illusion” at Under the Owl’s Wing.Image

I had a conversation recently with a [mono-]theist disaffected with Christianity. One reason for their disaffection was the problem of evil, which has plagued monotheism since at least the beginning of Christianity (I imagine the ancient Jews held to the conclusion in Job that God brings both good and evil because “eff you, that’s why.” Okay, that’s a vast oversimplificiation, but it’s close!)

 

I brought up the idea of denying omnipotence, and found myself up against a common mentality. That the deity must be all-perfect and care about us, or else what’s the point? Everything in the world, everything in the human condition points to something other than this, yet people try to believe it, yet come to terms with the world in all its imperfections and limitations.

Why do people seek what is perfect yet cannot be? Why will they protest the suggestion that perfection might not exist in divinity (at least not at any level that humans can relate to directly in any meaningful way other than temporary mystical ecstasy or intellectual epiphany)? Perhaps this is a vice that, for once, is unique to humans? Unless, perhaps, we learn to talk to dolphins and find that even Flipper laments lacking legs or wings, or some other impossibility, rather than enjoying being a dolphin like any other sensible cetacean.

I’ve come to realize that perfection is impossible, and an illusion. It can be spoken of, like the notion of colorless green ideas sleeping furiously, but it cannot exist in reality any more than a self-contradictory omni-everything personal God can.

One thing cannot be all things and still be something that is comprehensible or makes any sense to us or have any direct interaction with the world as we experience it. I have a feeling there is no such thing as a trait that is always an advantage and never a disadvantage. It seems to always vary with context. Moist skin that can take in oxygen is an advantage in the Nile, but a fatal disadvantage in the desert.

More than perfection being an impossible illusion, though, imperfection is what makes everything possible! It’s such a beautiful fact. Think about it. If everything was perfect, nobody would want for anything, and nothing would happen. There would BE nothing. There can be no growth, there can be no change, that can be nothing. Only nothing. Perpetual eternal, featureless, colorless, tasteless, soundless, seasonless, timeless, nothingness. Neither sorrow nor hatred, to be sure, but neither joy nor love as well. Imperfection is limitation, limitation is boundary,boundary is structure, and this is what lets there be things to do things to make things happen.

One common lesson to writers is that a story must have conflict, that the protagonist must want something, that if you write about a character who wants nothing who does nothing, then you will not have a story, let alone one worth reading. It needn’t be outright violent physical conflict. It could be internal conflict between opposing values or needs in one person, or social conflict between two or more people, or the classic man vs. nature story where the protagonist struggles against a harsh natural environment, or any of the many variations our species has used since the beginning.

Or, to look at the visual arts (since I also like to draw): I start with a blank white piece of paper. It is perfect in its featureless whiteness. It is the same throughout. I then take my pencil to it, marking off boundaries, making areas of positive space and negative space, filling some areas with shading, others with stippling, yet others with patterns. At the end of it all, I have irrevocably broken the perfect featureless white symmetry of the paper— but I have made something far more beautiful. Or Michelangelo’s famous explanation of how he made his David: By carving out everything that was not David (thereby breaking the perfect symmetry of the marble block in the service of greater beauty).

 

Perfection is, at best, like the horizon. One can endlessly travel towards it forever and ever, and never reach it, because it is by definition away from us. Like the horizon, it’s an illusion, caused by our limited perspective. However, by existing, even as an illusion, perhaps it gives us something to travel towards, thereby spurring movement and action. Maybe this vice serves a useful purpose after all.

That said, more people should appreciate imperfection and limitation. It gives beauty to an otherwise featureless canvas. Without it, we and the gods would not be.

One thought on “In Praise of Imperfection: Ramblings

  1. Pingback: The good stuff | The House of Vines

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