Discover more from Desk Notes by Charles Schifano
When a new idea strikes—in the shower, during a walk, amid a lively conversation—the moment feels limitless. With that opening glimpse, right as you begin to recognize the idea’s shape, its form still elusive and raw, the sensation is of perfection. And nothing can compete with the perfection of a fresh, unarticulated, inchoate idea, whether your inspiration is to create, or whether you’ve discovered the solution to a tricky problem. What you’ve stumbled upon, in a single flash, is a boundless feeling of potential. A writer senses the roots of a story in these moments—a great novel, the ideal line, a tragedy worthy of the Greeks. A painter senses the roots of a canvas in these moments—the colors will be vivid, the subject will reverberate, the composition will astound. But, alas, once the words are put to paper, once the brush hits the canvas, the disparity between the perfection of the mind and the imperfection of the world is sure to emerge.
And this is a particularly tricky spot for the creator who is a longtime student of great art. They know what they like, they know what’s good, and they know what’s deficient. They have studied the masters and refined their sensibilities to compete with the best. When these creators feel the spark of a new idea—the throb, or shiver, in Nabokovian terms—the moment is portentous, especially when the new idea feels grand, necessary, perfect, because the next step is actually to begin the work. Yet in those opening moves of pen or brush or solution the flaws appear. Bending reality to fit a new idea is always a tad thorny. The artist full of verve and desire feels nothing but torment after they move past the birthing stage of a new idea—and it is such a disappointing contrast when reality fails to meet the perfection of the imagination.
Which explains why so many people leave the page blank and the canvas untouched and the problem unsolved. Nothing compares to the pristine perfection of the yet-to-be-enacted idea, so surely there’s no harm in one more day of procrastination, in taking just a bit more time to prepare, in waiting and thinking and seeking out some pleasant distractions. But you don’t need to be working on a novel to use these timeless methods. You can keep your ideas unfinished and flawless in so many aspects of life. Because one surefire way to avoid failure is to ensure that internal perfection never meets external reality.
Of course any talk of perfection contains more than a hint of arrogance—whether the subject is art or daily life. To even consider this potential in a capricious, convoluted world is to exceed a reasonable amount of confidence. There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting a pleasant day or a decent meal or a timely flight. But there is something a tad suspect when the slightest inconvenience to those wants triggers rage. Whether you’re planning the perfect vacation, the perfect afternoon, or the perfect murder, you’re sure to be disappointed. There will be mistakes and snafus and just simple imprecision—but that should have been your expectation.
Pretending that perfection is possible almost certainly reveals a desire for order. And that’s not much of a surprise in the contemporary world, for both the artist smitten by a new idea and for anybody who confronts a difficult day, as nearly everyone feels the acceleration of life, the frenetic, crazed, breathless, and volatile nature of the world. To make your personal world orderly is an attempt to subdue that external disorder. Perfection, when you can find it, is the ideal solution. The whipsaw of politics and economics and war and technology can’t disturb you while your home is perfectly minimalist and your coffee is poured just right and your table is arranged with precision. Though it does seem, at least to me, that underneath the desire for everything to be perfect is also a slightly inhuman belief that life can be controlled.
And the artist who doesn’t finish, who forever struggles against the blank page, holds this same belief. Putting an idea into the world reveals its flaws. The only way to maintain perfection is to keep that new idea untested. Instead of dealing with the muck and grime and ugliness of the not-quite-perfect idea, the artist can decide to hold back. What’s inside, in these moments, isn’t spoiled by a confrontation with reality—it remains too good for the imperfect world.
In a slightly healthier culture—which isn’t asking too much—people could look to art to understand the flawed search for perfection. The artist deals with imagination, with emotion, with beauty, with all that’s messy and unexplained and ambiguous, and human fragility is the artist’s primary tool. But for exactly these reasons, the artist has an unresolved place in the contemporary world. Nobody is quite sure how to deal with the mysterious in a world that’s hurdling ahead. The issues of the day are technological, but art, at its best, contests the notion that everything can be calculated, that there’s always an answer, that perfection is possible, that emotions and tastes and lovers and that all of the world’s caprice can be somehow controlled.
One solution is to sneak the potential for perfection into a measurement of art. This works well enough because it ignores the messiness inherent to creation. And now art is judged based on its social value or its capacity to be intellectual or its political meaning or its ideology—which nicely shoves all the awkward, sloppy, and human values to the side and gives us a scale. Perfection is possible under those terms. But art isn’t technology, nor is it science, and it can’t be cataloged empirically. But what does it mean? What’s the point? Is this good? As a culture, we haven’t yet descended to enough barbarism to toss out our art, but, in general, people can’t tolerate taking art very seriously. If it can’t be explained, then it is ignored.
In blunt terms George Orwell highlighted the unnaturalness of perfection when he wrote about Gandhi, and I would like to believe that it was the novelist in him that spotted the shortcoming: “The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection.” Perhaps that’s too far, perhaps that’s not quite right, but maybe it takes a writer who regularly published novels and essays to see the flaws inherent in every effort. I happen to enjoy the artist who seeks, for example, a taste of beauty but ends up with something that’s a bit asymmetric, even blemished, as that’s actually when art feels truly human.
And perhaps the trick for the working artist is to strive for perfection while knowing that a shortfall is the guarantee. Even if the results don’t measure up to the vision—which they surely won’t—that’s perfectly fine and perfectly human. The alternative is the rather juvenile desire to keep the snow untrampled, to see a pristine field without any footprints, which does, in a way, seem inhuman.