Maybe to perfect a thing was to destroy it.” I was struck several years ago by this line from Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, a novel about a boy growing up in a broken family in a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. The main character, Dylan, son of an artist and an activist, is a white kid in a mostly black neighborhood. It’s the seventies and the nascent forces that will turn the neighborhood that the locals call Gowanus into what residents now call Boerum Hill are just beginning to stir to life.
Dylan, out of sync with his surroundings, wears the wrong kind of pants, likes the wrong kind of music and sounds funny when he talks. He’s terrible at all of the games the neighborhood kids play while they’re hanging out on the block until he finds his niche with skully, a game played with wax-filled bottle caps on a board drawn on a slate sidewalk square. While not good at the game itself, he takes ownership of the perfect slate square and becomes a master at drawing the boards and making the pieces. But then something happens:
Strangely, after Dylan’s rapid rise to chief alchemist and philosopher of skully, nobody seemed to want to play the game anymore. Dylan presided over an ideal slate which was persistently shirked, deserted in favor of just about anything including standing around Henry’s front yard with your hands in your pockets, kicking at one another’s ankles….
The narrator puzzles over the potential causes of this lack of interest, eventually questioning whether Dylan’s perfectionism itself isn’t the ultimate cause for its sudden lack of appeal: “Maybe to perfect a thing was to destroy it.”
There’s a poignancy to this observation in the context of a neighborhood that is in the process of being “perfected,” or at least “made better” (turned from a “bad” neighborhood into a “good” one—all terrifically loaded terms often used by white people to distinguish neighborhoods according to race). The renovations to the worn brownstones and the replacement of the cracked sidewalk slates are coming. Soon enough there will be trendy restaurants and cafés. Crime statistics will go down. Local school test scores will go up. Tax revenue from the neighborhood will increase and people who own the buildings now have a windfall in their futures. But we know that few, if any, of the (mostly black) families living on Dylan’s block in Gowanus will be there during Boerum Hill’s real estate boom, and that in a very real way the true price of a “more perfect” neighborhood is the lives of the displaced. The sentence is suggestive of the ways that developers, investors, and entrepreneurs perfect the trappings of the neighborhood like Dylan perfects the trappings of skully, only to lose the thing they ought to have perfected in the process. They’re left with a shell, an empty husk of something that once had meaning but has been drained of something essential, so that it suddenly isn’t the thing that it was before. Skully was drained of its interest; Gowanus was drained of its people.
There’s another, related story here: a story about artistic perfection. Dylan is the son of an artist and will grow up to be a literary artist himself, and his excellence at skully is essentially artistic (drawing skills and game piece production quality), so this little episode in his youth is surely also a kind of fable—a warning. “Distrust perfection,” it seems to be saying, “for it will destroy everything it touches.” And while I know in an offhand way, as an artist, that there is a too-easy perfection that it’s right to distrust, I’d like to linger for a moment in the inherent contradiction in this thought—that maybe to perfect a thing is to destroy it. On the face of it, to perfect a thing should not destroy it. It should let it become the thing that it was truly meant to be. When Jesus says in Matthew 5:48, “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he isn’t intending to destroy you, he’s trying to make it possible for you to become you, to become “the best version of yourself”—although looking at this sentence after having written it is revealing. Of course there is a very real way in which to perfect myself is to destroy my self (the grain of wheat must die . . . (John 12:24). But this perfection loses nothing essential—indeed only burns away the inessential things that I’ve become attached to, so that the true “me” can live and grow. If there is an inherent, worldly resistance to this logic and the demands of the Christian life, it is probably a lively sense that following the path that Jesus lays down in this directive will destroy you (in one way), and an understandable (if I believe ultimately misdirected) desire for that not to happen. “The best version of yourself,” it’s worth noting, is a catch phrase used by Catholic popularizer Matthew Kelly in talks and writing.
So this idea that somehow perfection will rob a thing of something essential is, on the face of it, paradoxical. Perfection should, well, perfect a thing—not destroy it. So why distrust it? And why, in particular, should an artist distrust it?
To get another touchpoint I’d like to jump into another fabricated world, the world of Nicholas Gannon’s The Doldrums, which is not unrelated to a neighborhood on the other side of the East River from Gowanus or Boerum Hill. The prologue to this story begins with a little meditation on perfection:
We all know perfect boys and perfect girls. They live in perfect houses owned by perfect parents. They dress perfectly and walk perfectly and live their lives in the most perfectly perfect way. It’s perfectly terrible. They’re perfectly dull. So it’s fortunate this story is about no such child.
It’s taken as obvious, here, that perfection is a personal defect of perfect people. What is notable is that it’s assumed to be axiomatic in the mind of the reader. Again, there is clearly something right about this: a perfect family with a perfect house and a perfectly manicured lawn and perfectly coordinated outfits arouses suspicion, a feeling that something is amiss. Just the thought of trying to inhabit those perfect categories is enough to make me shudder.
But what happens if I follow the logic of this thought to its conclusion? Should I resist becoming perfect for fear of becoming “perfectly terrible,” or “perfectly dull?” If I find myself close to perfection, should I cultivate a vice or two? Or if I find myself far away from perfection, should I not start down any path of self-improvement, but embrace my imperfections as essential characteristics of myself that keep life interesting? What is it about perfection that is so distressing?
This question had been jiggeting about in my brain for some time when I came across an article by Christopher Roberts entitled “The Atheist Field Hospital” in Pilgrim: A Journal of Catholic Experience. Roberts’ essay is about an experience he had while visiting England. One Sunday, he went to two church services, one Anglican and the other Catholic, in which one was more perfect than the other. And he, too, feels that something is amiss at the more perfectly executed liturgy. But his description opens out onto the identification of a deep difference between the more perfect and the less perfect liturgy, so I would like to dwell on his account of the day and attend to the specifics of his description.
Roberts was in Oxford and took the opportunity to visit two liturgies at two different churches there. At the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral, he was immediately impressed by what one might call the perfection of the liturgy—but struck by the lack of vibrancy in the congregation:
The music was flawless, the church edifice hauntingly ancient, and the sermon sonorous. Despite all that, I could not help but walk away with a sense of hollowness. Almost all the sparse crowd of worshippers looked to be of retirement age or older. A searching inventory of those present taken from my seat uncovered only one family with children. For all of the fading beauty of holiness, what I had just seen was the portrait of a dying church.
By contrast, the mass at the Catholic Oxford Oratory was less than perfect:
The choir sang well, but not nearly as well as the choristers in Christ Church Cathedral. A decade ago, I had heard the Oratorian priest who was celebrating the Mass preach. My recollection was the he lacked the rhetorical polish that I had heard just an hour earlier.
But the church was standing room only, full of people of all ages. Again, this seems strange. One would expect that a beautiful liturgy and eloquent homily would be more desirable to attend than a less beautiful one. Also, as the liturgy is the external form of the communal worship of God, a more perfectly executed liturgy should reflect a more robust life of worship.
It would be strange if the imperfections in the liturgy fanned the flame of divine worship. Surely it would be odd advice to suggest that in order to strengthen the parish the choir really needs to miss a few more notes, and the priest should attempt to be a little less eloquent in the pulpit. This makes no sense—there must be some further difficulty that is being obscured by what should otherwise be a purely aesthetic or technical question. The problem that Father Roberts identifies is, I believe, the key to the paradox of perfection.
As I knelt in a cramped corner near a pillar, it dawned on me that those who had come to this church had not come to hear interesting and edifying religious ideas expounded from the pulpit or even beautiful music. They had gathered together to render worship to God because it is fitting so to do.
There is a lot packed into this observation, and I’d like to pay special attention to one especially fine distinction being made. It’s about what the people are not there to do—“hear interesting and edifying religious ideas” and “beautiful music”—and what they are—“to render worship to God.”
The question we need to answer is what the difference is between listening to beautiful music and interesting and edifying religious ideas, inhabiting a beautiful sacred space, watching a moving liturgical action, smelling sweet incense, etc., and—put more flatly—rendering worship to God (because it is fitting so to do). From the outside, for the Catholic, there may seem to be no difference at all. All of the things enumerated—the homily, the music, the architecture, the action of the liturgy, the vestments, the incense—are just the forms we use to worship God.
The music praises God in word and sound, the homily elaborates some truth that helps the congregation to better know and worship God, the building itself is dedicated to God’s glory, and all of the little details serve symbolically and materially to make visible and articulate our communal worship. All of these things are in the service of the worship of God, which means that when we go to Mass and listen to the music and the homily, when we inhabit the sacred space, when we pray along with the liturgy, we are just worshipping God.
The key to the distinction is the ever-so-slight difference between those for whom these components of the liturgy are a form of the worship of God, which could be rephrased in Father Roberts’ terms:
They come to the church to hear interesting and edifying religious ideas expounded from the pulpit and beautiful music that expresses their worship of God
and what Roberts suspects is going on at Christ Church Cathedral:
They come to the church to hear interesting and edifying religious ideas expounded from the pulpit and beautiful music.
There is something missing in the second sentence, and the thing that has gone missing is the connection between the forms of expression of worship and their proper end—the worship itself. The difference between the two can be mperceptible, especially at first glance. But it does explain why the more perfect liturgy seems, in all its perfection, hollow: the liturgy has, somewhere along the line, become detached from its proper end. At some point, attending Sunday Matins became about hearing the music, being in the space, and basking in the erudition of the homily, instead of about worshipping God.
Whenever that happened, something changed in the way that people related to the liturgy. Instead of struggling to perfect their worship of God, people got busy perfecting the music, the architecture, and the rhetorical structure and stylings of the homily—all of which, conveniently, are more easily perfected than the true worship of God.
Somehow, somewhere along the way, the end of the activity shifted from the worship of God (which is, notably, a human activity) to the forms of expression of the worship of God (which are, notably, works of art). I am tempted to call it a slip, like a bicycle slipping into a slightly easier gear. What a relief this feels like, at first, just like the pedaling of the bicycle is a relief in the lower gear—but the longer you ride in the lower gear, the more startling the higher one becomes should you attempt to shift back into it later on.
In this little shift, this little slip, any hope for true perfection (the perfection of the worship of God) is lost, and in its stead the only remaining perfection to be had is the perfection of the liturgical arts. And while perfection is elusive in these arts, it is, to some degree, attainable. It is easy to imagine, at a choir rehearsal, after a particularly good run-through, the choir director congratulating the choir: “Perfect!” It is easy to imagine a young couple planning their wedding, walking through the doors of the church, spinning around and saying, “It’s perfect!” It is easy to imagine the seminarian who served at Matins congratulating the minister after the liturgy, “The sermon was perfect!” All of these things could easily enough be said, could easily enough be meant, and could easily enough be true. But who would dare to say, “Your worship of God is perfect”?
The latter is an entirely other claim, entailing an entirely different set of criteria. The worship of God does not end at the last note of the motet, at the capstone of the spire, or at the rousing conclusion of the homily. The worship of God penetrates deep into the marrow of everyday life, where an honest assessment of my relation to perfection is far more sobering.
This of course does not mean that perfection of the worship of God is not worth seeking—it simply broadens the lens through which divine worship ought to be judged. It deepens the categories that apply to liturgical perfection. What this means will be very difficult to say, and I will work toward articulating it throughout this essay and in its continuation. But the reflection on the perfection of the liturgy does give us the tools to distinguish between a deep, genuine perfection—perfection like the perfection of the worship of God, a perfection that is not impossible (“my yoke is easy, my burden is light”), but that I personally fail to achieve, a perfection that I strive toward but that eludes me—and the so-called perfection that is perfectly irritating.
The distinction is between an activity directed toward its proper end, and something that has been re-directed toward a related, but distinct end. So the apparently perfect liturgy perfects the music (as music), the architecture (as architecture), and the homily (as rhetorical performance), but fails in the true worship of God. Similarly, in Fortress of Solitude, Dylan perfects the drawing of the game board and crafting of the pieces for skully, but loses the game in the process; gentrification perfects a neighborhood’s buildings and tax revenues but loses its people, and that “perfect” family described in The Doldrums has perfected all of life’s accompaniments—perfect grooming, perfect lawn, perfect car—but somehow seemed to have missed the point of life itself.
In short, the kind of perfection that the narrator in Fortress of Solitude suggests destroys the thing it perfects is actually the perfection of the wrong thing. So it might be better, and truly, said: To perfect the wrong thing is to destroy the thing you try to perfect. So the answer to the perfection dilemma is not to embrace imperfection, to foster vices, or to strive for failure— but to uncover the true perfection worth seeking—the perfection that does not fail to satisfy (or to make demands), but that is a fruitful guide for a life ever-directed toward the good.
This might sound easy enough, but it is actually quite alarming: for what is the material face of skully but the game board and the pieces? What is the material face of life but the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the house we live in, and how we get around? And what, beyond material matters, is in our power to perfect in the liturgy? The deep problem raised by this line of thought is that you can perfectly intone every note in a motet written by a saint—and still perfect the wrong thing. You can brilliantly render the folds of a cloak—and still perfect the wrong thing. The joinery might be perfect, the words smooth as honey—but it’s still very possible to perfect the wrong thing. The idea of “perfecting the wrong thing” is related to Stanley Cavell’s concept of “fraudulence” that he outlines in “Music Discomposed,” in Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp. 167-196. Cavell argues that modern art especially carries with it the potential to be fraudulent, to fail in a very real way despite the best intentions of the artist and the experience of the audience. For Cavell, this possibility is endemic to modernism and haunts all experience of modern artworks so that the audience must commit to the work of art in order to experience it fully even though the possibility exists that the experience will turn out to be fraudulent. It accounts for the way that you have to put yourself on the line to take a piece of yarn strung across a gallery wall or a musical composition generated by an algorithm seriously as art—for the way that art might make you look a fool for treating it seriously—making the experience of modern art more fraught than that of ages before this particular kind of problem existed. I would argue that Cavell’s fraudulence is one way in which a work of art can perfect the wrong thing, in which it can fail to achieve its proper end, and that far from being endemic to modernism, this potential pitfall of the work of art is actually very ancient (nascent in Plato’s rejection of the poet in the Republic and implied in Bernard of Clairvaux’s Apologia ad Guillelmum Abbatam), though the awareness of it has grown more acute over time.
Craft won’t protect you. Skill won’t protect you. Tradition won’t protect you. This is not to say that craft, skill, and tradition can’t help you—it is merely to assert that there is something more that you will have to do in order to make a genuine, true art that perfects the right thing, something more that is certainly related to that something more that makes a beautiful liturgy into genuine and true worship of God. I am tempted to venture the hypothesis that, in matters of art and of worship, the only perfection that can be taught is the perfection of the wrong thing.
Returning to that sentence, “maybe to perfect a thing was to destroy it,” after unpacking it helps me to see why it struck me so forcefully when I read it the first time. That “maybe” is doing a lot of work. And the world of questioning opened up by taking the thought seriously as a contradiction and trying to dig into the source of its paradoxical appeal is rich indeed. To re-phrase it as “to perfect the wrong thing is to destroy it” might seem pedantic, if ultimately correct. But there’s a flip side to this nuanced, provocative assertion—a question—that grows out of this fable of the young artist who has perfected the wrong thing. What is the right thing?