JUNE 3, 2009
I was given many reasons to deplore perfection, and never to dream of it. The tradition in which I was gratefully raised included in its beginnings an admonition against imperfect offerings, but grew into a welcoming comprehension of human finitude. It may be onerous to be reminded that I am not free to desist from the work, but it eases the night to know that it is not for me to finish it. My religion rains obligations, but it is notably free, except in some of its more stringent and sectarian versions, of the worst terrors of sin. The compassion is even in the etymology: in Hebrew, the arrow that misses its target "sins" against it. The proper response to imperfection is not despair. It is another arrow. And this penetration of duty by mercy was reproduced for me in my other universe, the America that had prostrated itself before psychology, in which the best was infamously the enemy of the good, and the individual was to aspire chiefly to adjustments. This atmosphere of acceptance was a benevolent thing. Perfectionism is also a way of thwarting, or injuring, oneself: masochism pretending to morality, in which one's demons are tricked out as one's angels. Yet the management of the psyche soon broadened into the larger managerial ethos that leveled every domain of American life, for which the problem with perfection is finally that it is impractical. One of America's dubious innovations has been to confer philosophical prestige upon practicality. When something works, we pronounce it truth. And beauty, too: at an antique shop in Maryland, I once found myself in a dispute with a brilliant companion about the beauty of tools. Stirred by the design of some nineteenth-century kitchen implements, she said that their fitness for their function made them beautiful. I said that their beauty was owed to the extent to which their form surpassed their use. She persisted in her mechanistic rapture, but proposed that there are many kinds of perfection. This, an ancient notion, appeased my exasperated idealism, but it settled nothing. The perfection of which I spoke was neither relative nor metaphorical. I could apprehend the modest perfections that she extolled, but she could not apprehend the immodest perfections that I extolled.
My training in the war against perfection was completed by my apprenticeship in post-war liberalism. I have no quarrel with the conclusion of my elders that it was a belief in perfectibility that was in part responsible for the slaughters of totalitarianism. Perfectionism, personal or historical, is an eschatology, a doctrine of revolution; and in the wake of genocide it seemed prudent to build a fence around the fire, around any ambition of such force and finality. My teachers taught me well the lessons of complexity, moderation, contingency, patience, and irony in historical action. But I began to worry that the reverence for limits was going too far; that an inhibition which belonged in one realm of existence, the political realm, was conquering all the other realms, and leaving the prospects of the spirit smaller than they needed to be. I wanted something more than muddling through and less than apocalypse. Also, the historical picture was mixed: it was in the language of absolutes, and with an impatient and unironic idea of justice, that civil rights were won in America and democracy was won in Eastern Europe. Can we really live without concepts of transcendence? Can a liberal really not enjoy a metaphysical life? Was Schelling--to borrow the title of Lukacs's somewhat ridiculous book--really responsible for Hitler? These questions I put to Daniel Bell (who has now turned ninety, as if his venerability were in need of chronological confirmation) one afternoon many years ago, as we sat with wines and theories on his back porch in Cambridge. It was from him that I learned the multiplicity of the realms, and so it was to him that I expressed my heresy about the categorical repudiation of the dream of perfection. "We knew just how much we were giving up," he pensively explained. I was moved by the catch of melancholy in his vigilant voice. It was his tribute to the fullness that preceded the horror.
If perfect offerings had not been enjoined, would any offerings have been brought? A culture imparts nothing more significant, perhaps, than its level of exertion, its ideal of strain. Whereas (this is my religion again) it is wrong to enact a decree that the community cannot fulfill, I find nothing particularly humane about aiming too low. The release should come at the finish, not at the start. The bells will crack, but I do not see that we should make them with cracks. We are indeed imperfect beings, which is why we harbor the imagination of perfection. Yet our givens cannot be our goals. Why reach for what one already is? That is a formula for complacence, or worse; and in the adoration of the conditioned in modern thought, and of identity in contemporary society, I detect a grandiose glibness, a species-wide or group-wide self-love. I desire that my offerings should find favor for reasons other than that they are mine. We wish to be preserved from the discovery of our inadequacies, but we do not deserve such protection. All are forgiven, none are pre-forgiven. Failure does not mean that one was wrong, which is the cheap unpoetical theodicy of the pragmatist. Success, for the mystic or the businessman, is intermittent; but to find yourself back at the beginning is to be granted another opportunity to break a boundary. In politics, the aftermath of perfection, which is to say, of total power, is shattering, but there is nothing cruel about the aftermath of a perfect nude or a perfect sonata, or a perfect bowl, or a perfect kindness. There are transformations that do not kill and do not die. To impose the spiritual stagnancy of politics, its containment of extreme vision, upon all of existence would be perversely to re-politicize it, which is how we got into this mess.
"By reality and perfection I understand the same thing." That may be the most shocking sentence I ever saw. I read it in Riverside Park as a student, for a tutorial in Spinoza, who was a liberal in society and a perfectionist in the cosmos. I remember recoiling from such an intuition, but also coveting it. I did not yet know this sentence, which I found recently in one of Spinoza's letters: "We cannot conceive imperfection in things except by having regard to other things possessing more reality." I covet it, too. So I am out of step. I live among good people who are indifferent to my hunger. It feels almost like a secret life. Anyway, I have nothing to add to the panic about Pakistan.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.
By Leon Wieseltier