Discover more from Desk Notes by Charles Schifano
Keeping your sails taut and straight and flush with the wind is probably a good principle if you want your boat to follow the course that you’ve set. Nobody wants to see droopy, despondent-looking sailing in the sea, and Monet certainly wouldn’t have ever put slapdash sails on a canvas. To dangle your sails, loose, inexact, where they’re not trimmed quite right or angled too much into the wind, is called luffing, which is a sad way to spend your day at sea and would force both Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville to shake their heads in disgust.
If you’re struck by unexpected strong gusts and your boat is overpowered, always a vertiginous moment, you can reef the sails, which tightens them against the mast or boom and decreases the total surface area, bestowing small sails on a big boat or tiny sails on a small boat. This is a tactic that prevents luffing: to keep your sails wide against overpowering winds might result in excessive heeding and make the boat difficult to control—which is much more fun to watch from shore than experience on deck.
Yet there are some times when luffing the sails is necessary. Let’s say that you’ve spotted some rocks or an unexpected obstacle just ahead, and since boats unfortunately don’t come with brake pedals, you’ll probably want to, rather quickly, luff the sails and purposely spill wind. In this moment what you want is less efficiency. You’re looking to make your sailboat much less of a sailboat. Or let’s say that you’re about to tack, in a maneuver that faces you upwind, where you luff the sails so that you can pass along a smoother line. Perhaps you wouldn’t do that during a race, but a day on the water while underneath the sun shouldn’t ever contain the need to rush. The precision, in this instance, comes from hoisting your sails with imprecision, which is a rather curious thought to ponder.
It is a moment where the correct response is asymmetric, awkward, even a little clumsy, with perfection only achieved through imperfection, which is, I must admit, a conclusion that I relish. There’s something agreeable about a little friction in life, about noticing that just a bit of messiness is always required to reach an ideal. Sometimes the rope does require, so to speak, a little slack.
And the truth is that I prefer a little complexity, even a little dysfunction, whether that’s just a bit of traffic, or a slightly delayed plane, any situation where there’s some friction, where the pieces don’t quite fit together—the room is a tad too cold, or a tad too warm, the food is somehow not quite right, there’s a slight awkwardness to the conversation, something discordant in the atmosphere, rather than the artificial reality of a glossed, mendacious perfection. I can simultaneously appreciate craftsmanship, or refinement, while also loathing what’s sanitized, overly clean, and too presentable. Show me the marks, the flaws, don’t hide the sweat, or pretend there’s no odor, savor all the moments of dirt and disorder and dysfunction.
Although this is a preference that, at first, is a little tricky to conceive, as perfection seems almost always to result from a flawless structure, one that’s symmetrical and pristine and ordered. It somehow feels contradictory to have a faulty, irregular shape as the example of the perfect solution. Or to have a preference for the sincerity of grime rather than the dishonesty of sterility. But any honest examination of our supposedly perfect structures—in engineering, with nature, even of acts—reveals the worts, blemishes, and boils that are needed for perfection to emerge.
And after a little push much of the order and clarity in the world does start to dissipate. In the supposedly precise world of engineering the requirement is for inelegance. Look closer at your cogs and gears, locks and latches, tires and brakes, nails and screws, and spot all the microscopic imperfections in the steel—all the distortions and abnormalities and textures that are absolutely necessary if you don’t want any of your precise machines to seize. Or just take a glance at biology to see the necessity of flaws: without the imperfections inherent to biological replication, the errors that result in mutation, you wouldn’t be reading this sentence. A facility for language can be traced to a long chain of mistakes, little flaws of replication, with accident, irregularity, and simple failure the impetus that provides the smallest advantage. Perhaps there’s a reasonable argument that nature finds perfection through a larger perspective, in the summation of all the component pieces, so that the system itself persists and thrives even though the smaller perspective—of individual trees, flowers, animals—is certainly rather messy. At the smallest scale, there’s a lot of hunger, sloppiness, suffering, incongruities, missteps, rivalries, without much need for a word like perfection.
But there’s no need to look so closely or examine the evolutionary record. It is the mistakes, the flaws, which occur so often right at the edge of supposed perfection, that seem to draw our attention. Had an architect in Pisa studied a little harder in math class, the tourism center in Pisa would be a little smaller today. Had Thelonious Monk stuck to the right notes, the notes that weren’t discordant and unpredictable and off-beat, we might not listen to him today. Had van Gogh perceived the landscape with the perfection of a camera, you probably wouldn’t know his paintings today. There’s a sorcery underneath a divergence from the actual that somehow pulls us closer, especially when the subject is art, and even when the genre is realism, because a creation can’t be too rigid or exact or lack the always flawed human fingerprint. The aesthetics of wabi-sabi even give this tendency a label—where the incomplete, impermanent, and flawed appear as the beautiful.
If perfection were actually pleasing, then storytelling would also be straightforward: it would be a series of preset structures from the beginning to the ending, with the conflict and climax and resolution arriving with the precision of a mathematical formula. But that’s obviously wrong, and setting out to create a story with such a sparkling structure will certainly result in pages that are flat, soulless, and that don’t resonate with the reader. There will be an absence, a vacuousness to the art, even when the technical aspect is supposedly perfect. Because it isn’t about technical perfection, the following of rules to achieve a precise result. The art that pulls us closer will always have an aspect that’s mysterious, one that’s so very close to perfect but that’s somehow a bit troublesome, that contains something else, something that’s incalculable, something that reveals the hand of the creator underneath the art, something that just might be called human.