Sunday, February 19, 2012

Perfection: A Very Human Curse

We are still entering the Age of Aquarius, said to be the age of brotherhood, or of our common humanity. I suppose we have our foot in its door, but not much else. The famous song heralding the dawning of this new equinoctial era promises a golden age, the kind hippies once loved to love and wax lyrical about. I’m not interested in the impossibility of any causal relationship between the procession of the equinoxes and human behaviour on earth, but I am interested in myth, because myth is about as rich a source of Freudian slips as one can imagine; myth is a repository of our musings about ourselves and reality, at a time when introspection was unknown. Myths are therefore the ‘honest’ expression by the human psyche of its own processes, as recorded by antiquity. Dismissing them would be like dismissing our imagination and psychology, or refusing to listen to our deeper past.

In that vein I can ask: What is aquarius? I know a lot of astrology, since I studied it feverishly for many years, so know what I’m talking about here. It is the symbol of the urge to smash the too restrictive Old and usher in the New. In astrology, all signs have ruling planets; aquarius has Uranus, or Ouranos, the ancient sky god, son and lover of Gaia (Mother Earth), and father of the Titans. He is said to have hated his monstrous offspring, whom he imprisoned in Tartarus, in the belly of Gaia. Aquarius is the proselytising ideologue, the passionate idealist whose clear logic and faultless reasoning others follow, believing the New Way he urges will usher in a golden age. Mao’s Great Leap Forward is aquarian/Uranian in its dynamic. ‘Out with the old, in with the new.’ The ugly and unwanted are to be done away with, they have no conceivable utility, are not as good as they should be, could be. We are to strive for perfection. We are gods. Anything less belittles us.

This dynamic, though gruesomely dramatic in myth (as I develop below), is as humdrum as grass. Think of any urge to create we might have, say, to write a poem, or paint a picture, compose a song, found a company, marry a loved one, become a parent, etc. The reality will almost always be a disappointment on some level, sometimes crushingly so. No matter how clearly we conceive it at the outset, our control of the process cannot be total. Our creation takes on a life of its own, goes where it will, evolves under pressure of life’s infinite variability in ways we cannot foresee. Sometimes the urge to destroy our creation is too strong, even to the point of infanticide, or burning years of work, or selling a company, divorcing a childhood sweetheart, etc. Even if we are more proud of our creation than we dared hope, once in the world it becomes a creature of Universe, taking on, as I said, a life of its own. Or we try to hide it away, keep it to ourselves somehow, as Ouranos imprisoned his offspring in Tartarus. But even there it lives on, evolving, developing, subject to change.

The urge to perfection is one of humanity’s qualities which causes us to create. But when we create, we necessarily interact with the infinite, and thus, by introducing something new into its totality, relinquish the control we think we have during the creative process. Tension is thus unavoidable. Everybody knows the stereotype of the choleric, moody artist; depression, which follows creation, the fertile dark from which the new idea emerges, raising the artist's spirits to euphoric heights during much of the work, only to crash them again to begin another cycle.

Ouranos locked his disappointing creations away, not wanting to have to deal with their ugliness, but Gaia suffered horribly with all her children locked up in her womb. In her pain, she pleaded with them to castrate Ouranos and so end his reign. Only ambitious Cronus agreed to act, and there is at least one famous painting depicting this.

Cronus castrating Ouranos

But Cronus’ ambition, also part of the creative urge, caused him to lock away his siblings as his father had done. For this cruel act, Ouranos prophesied that one of Cronus’s children would overthrow him. In fear, Cronus devoured his children, and the dynamic of control is seen again. We work towards something, carry it out (create it), then fearfully protect what we feel we have earned. We want to keep things perfect, free of unwanted interference. Such can drive us mad.

Cronus devouring one of his children

And just this minute our pet cat, Ember, meowed his deep and ugly meow at our flat’s front door, wanting to be let out. Here I am, the artist at work, lost in my perfect world of thought, my creating, and yet ugly reality intrudes. I instantly wanted to strangle the damn tomcat. He was so cute as a kitten, with a meek little meow. Now he is big, less cute, and meows like a foghorn. I want my children to be perfect too, and have to fight hard to hide my disappointment when I feel it. My children are wonderful human beings, but they are not perfect, as I am not, and this creates tension and challenges. We get to be creative in dealing with that tension and those challenges, but in being creative set ourselves up for unforeseeable other challenges and tensions a little further down the road.

And I am an idealist too. I want the New Way already, now, yesterday preferably, work hard to help bring it about, have changed my life dramatically, having been inspired by Gandhi’s words to “Be the change you want to see in the world.” But I disappoint myself, fall short of my expectations as the task throws up challenges and tensions I had not foreseen, or whose intensity and difficulty I had underestimated. It all looks so easy in the planning phase, especially when we are talking ourselves into taking a mighty risk.

All this to say, that though there is no such thing as perfection, the drive towards it is very real, very necessary, very human, and inevitable. It produces wonders and horrors alike, both of which go on to produce their own wonders and horrors, ad infinitum.

I am most fascinated by that train of thought which attaches itself to and arises from what Jacque Fresco calls resource-based economics. The Venus Project is, to my mind, a very Uranian project, all blue skies, sparklingly clean cities and utopian promises, and I write this knowing full well they say, and rightly, what they propose is no utopia. And yet it is utopian, equally rightly. For it is dissatisfaction which causes us to perfect, to tinker, and risk change. When a stern but affectionate father figure of the Uranian type—which Jacque Fresco most certainly is, whether he means to be or not—says, ‘This is the way to a better place!’, his audience sees Heaven, The Promised Land, Utopia. In that sense it is doomed to fail of course, but then, everything is on some timescale. The Venus Project is also doomed to succeed, only in ways neither Fresco nor anyone else can now imagine. Such things are out of our control, though it is also imperative we work to bring The New Way about. Actually, we can’t not so strive, we just can’t know the harvest we sow.

Even conservatism, the adherence to the hard-won wisdom of tradition, is idealistic. Though it protects the old and fears the new, in seeming opposition to the Uranian dynamic outlined above, even it cannot escape idealism, fanaticism, and the destruction of that which interferes with or threatens its inherent rightness, its obvious, self-evident perfection.

And finally, to make all this still vaguer and more complex, success and failure are like beauty; they lie in the eye of the beholder. Yet I believe there is a creative fusion of this striving dynamic, humanity—or rather nature—is catching scent of now. We are about to write new myths, weave new stories. Of course this is the idealist in me speaking, but in giving voice to this I do not seek to call anyone to arms, to overthrow any oppressor and install a new oppressor. Change is the only constant. It is our relationship with our own power and our blindness to our ignorance we must transform, embrace perhaps, see clearly. History may rhyme, but it most certainly does not repeat. Speaking personally, I have a soft spot both for old traditions and new-fangled crazy talk. My intuition and experience tell me growing numbers of us see things this way too (though there is much cause for dismay). My crystal ball tells me it will be from our ability to creatively fuse seeming opposites our most fruitful endeavours will be born. The future, if we're lucky, will be more BothAnd, less EitherOr.


Debra said...

Nice post, Toby.
I am pretty far away from Uranos right now...
Thinking about it, I set things in motion a while ago upon getting outraged about flushing my shit away in drinking quality water.
Somehow, the turning point became conscious when this act became obscene to me.
My... refusal to flush my shit away in drinking quality water somewhat amuses the family (I have converted my husband...), but many people really feel that I am a loony, and strangely enough, I am now at a new turning point where being seen as a loony no longer bothers me.
I will run in the opposite direction from clean, sparkling, bustling cities, by the way.
Greet your cat with a foghorn meow from me.

Toby said...

Ember meowed us awake this morning. It's a very mild late February, mild enough to convince the birds spring has arrived, so they are active, and Ember is a-hunting. He wanted out, and howled the house awake. I will take your advice and foghorn him from deep slumber next opportunity I get.

My Uranian urge is strong, too strong for me to ignore. And that's one of the reasons I wrote this confessional. If you can't beat it, expose it, and then laugh about it. No one's perfect. Enjoy your shit!

Tao Jonesing said...

The pursuit of perfection is not a human imperative, but the pursuit of certainty is. This explains why the absolution of imperfection (sin) is a suitable substitute for the Christian, for example. Christians do not seek the perfection of the Divine so much as they seek the certainty that being Human is "good enough."

Perfectionists are a relatively rare, and self-selecting, breed. I stopped being a perfectionist once I realized being one meant being a masochist.

Toby said...

Hi Tao,

yes, all you say is true, but I was not really talking about perfectionism. My bad for not drawing that distinction, so thanks to you for doing so. When blogging works well, this sort of thing happens.

In this post I was characterising perfection as the carrot pulling us forward, generally, though certainly not exclusively. There are other drives, other forces, other urges. The urge towards perfection can produce horrors and wonders, but we have a better chance of a healthier relationship with the urge towards perfection the more aware we are of it, in both its 'negative' and 'positive' aspects. And of course this is as old as the hills, this sort of pop wisdom, but I think it's an feature of the process worth repeating now, as the old paradigm collapses, and hope for the famous Better Way offers escape from suffering.

Tao Jonesing said...

In this post I was characterising perfection as the carrot pulling us forward, generally, though certainly not exclusively.

I think I may have confused you with my second paragraph. Sorry. I think I was actually talking about exactly the same thing in my first paragraph.

For the vast sea of humanity, perfection is neither a carrot nor a stick. They are simply not aware of or interested in perfection. They just want to be happy, and happiness arises first and foremost from certainty, which for most people is far less than perfection. Being absolved of our imperfections on a weekly basis is a more than sufficient carrot for 99%+ of the people.

Perfection can be understood as merely a pathological case of certainty, i.e., the certainty that this is the single best way. And those who seek perfection (i.e., Utopia) truly are a danger to themselves and others. But the systems invented by Utopian rationalists always get co-opted by brutal realists who seek to dominate and control others, rendering the pursuit of perfection itself an illusion, as we get "saved" time and again by the very people that the Utopians seek to save us from. The pursuit of perfection will always lead us into the maw of the beast who awaits us there.

Toby said...

Those are good points, especially the idea of perfection being certainty squared. And yet I still think we are talking past each other a little.

My example of being annoyed by the meow of my loud cat is hardly what one would characterise as an obsession with perfection; my point is that this irritation belongs in the same ball park, or on the same scale. Certainty is in there too, as you suggest. I'd guess that people become more prone to the allure of perfection the less they have to worry about where the next meal is coming from, and the more opportunity they have to be creative in some way. Because this does not occur to many people, your description of what I've called humanity's curse as being rare is accurate. But again, and even though I called perfection a very human curse, I did not mean by that, it applies to all humans equally, but that other animals cannot develop the urge.

I suspect we are in close agreement, Tao. Where we might differ is in my suspicion that all humans might slip into an obsession with perfection, circumstances permitting, but those circumstances would have to apply pretty much from birth on. Though your example shows it is an affliction we can overcome. Besides, handled creatively, perfection's not a curse at all, which was the more general point I was trying to make.

Timbo614 said...

"But when we create, we necessarily interact with the infinite, and thus, by introducing something new into its totality, relinquish the control we think we have during the creative process."

I meant to post this earlier - That is a great sentence! Explains everything :) Why my plans fail - when they looked "perfect". Why certainty can't be achieved.

Retirement security - the lack of it's certainty (when TPTB manipulate the economy) is, possibly, given your reasoning, why people get so upset about it being affected.

Which returns us to interacting with the infinite possibilities of the future, which we alter when we create a retirement "plan".

Not a subtly comment - but it might make sense :)

Toby said...

Hi Tim,

thanks for the compliment. Even though I don't want to be, I am flattered by them!

Yup, certainty and security versus the pressure to be creative and adaptive because of problems, challenges and upsets. It's a difficulty generally, and should be too. No one really wants everything to be completely certain and predictable with no further chance of change, but nor does anyone want total chaos. We muddle through.

At times like this (although I suspect what humanity is going through is unprecedented in terms of scale and depth of change) the age-old struggle between 'comfort' and change, the dissonance therefrom, will get very rough indeed; we ain't seen nothing yet. The best we can all do is be as farsighted and grown up about it as possible, which won't be at all easy.

In my humble opinion.

Tao Jonesing said...

I'd guess that people become more prone to the allure of perfection the less they have to worry about where the next meal is coming from, and the more opportunity they have to be creative in some way.

I was going to agree, but I cannot. The true urge to "perfection" transcends economic circumstances and explains why people like me (and Milton Friedman, whose actions I despise) can pursue it as a means for escaping such circumstances. The reason why I don't have to worry about where the next meal is coming from is because I have worked to understand the true nature of the world in a way that my CEO prizes (as did my last two CEOs).

I suspect we are in close agreement, Tao. Where we might differ is in my suspicion that all humans might slip into an obsession with perfection, circumstances permitting, but those circumstances would have to apply pretty much from birth on.

I agree. Your cat meow story is an example of what I've called for years the "my worldview" problem. When I first met my wife, she was appalled that I did not wash my dishes as soon as I was done with them. I told her that because I have many more dishes, it simply is not in my worldview to wash them as I go. Instead, I wash them when I run out of dishes. I told her then, and this compact holds to this day, over twenty years later, that I will do dishes any time she asks, but that it simply is not in my worldview to do dishes of my own accord unless and until we run out.

Anything that crashes into my expectations for the day is unpleasant. An unexpected meow at the wrong time crashes into expectations and upsets the certainty that comforts us. I see no real disagreement. What you are calling "perfection" is really "conformity with expectations."

Toby said...

"What you are calling "perfection" is really "conformity with expectations.""

Except that they are intimately related. :-)