Way back in 1770 the French philosopher, historian, and poet Voltaire wrote that “Perfect is the Enemy of Good.”1 He was quoting an Italian proverb, which was itself probably derived from the Greeks or the Etruscans or somebody, but we’ll go with Voltaire because he said so many wonderful things and deserves all the credit he can get.
This statement, “Perfect is the Enemy of Good,” seems troubling at first glance. Shouldn’t we strive for perfection, even if we know that we — flawed beasts that we are — can never achieve it? According to yet another poet, Robert Browning, “…a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”2
The classical Greek conception of the afterlife was not a particularly attractive one.
In Homer’s universe, the vast majority of the dead — those not singled out by the gods for special treatment — did not wake up in some bright city of jasper and chalcedony. There were no beautiful houris, no songs, no drinking with old comrades, no dancing in fields of asphodel. Death meant a transition from the daylight world to a gray twilight, a cavern of ashes and dust, populated by muttering shadows. The Homeric dead retained their identities only through the living, sustained in the memories of those left behind. As those memories faded, or the people who had known them in life themselves died off, the dead reflected that loss, becoming more and more vague, insubstantial, losing all individual selfhood. The one thing that could provide a moment’s respite in this slide into oblivion was blood. The blood of the living, freely given, would restore a shade’s identity and memory, at least for a short time.
Pretty grim, right? We are talking about death, after all, the big D, the final darkness, the end of life, so to expect sunshine and roses and platoons of beautiful virgins does seem a bit naive.
If you’re one of those folks who believes that you will, upon the death of your body, rise up to enjoy dancing and singing and partying for all eternity with your ancestors back to Adam and Eve, I’m not here to rain on your parade. We all look for consolation where we can. What I really want you to think about, looking out at those gray multitudes in the Greek afterlife vibrating to the last fading echoes of selfhood, is the concept of identity.
Way back during my turbulent twenties – about the time Nancy Reagan was tossing out Rosalynn’s White House china, and Mount St Helens was tossing its summit into low earth orbit – I had a friend.
We’re going to call this friend “Carl,” mainly because that’s his name, and when I try to use pseudonyms I lose track of who’s who from one paragraph to the next. Carl was a director of theatrical productions, and possessed a wealth of interesting – if occasionally impenetrable – epigrams with which he informed and edified his actors. In the course of a friendship that lasted many years (and continues to this day, thanks to the internet) I managed to retain two important and enduring lessons from Carl’s store of wisdom:
A) that cultural sophistication is something you evolve over time, not something you can pick up by watching a lot of public television, and
“It was a likely story. But then, all of his stories were likely.”
– Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
In a somewhat pointless exchange on Facebook recently (but aren’t they all, usually?) a friend-of-a-friend, struggling to defend against a criticism of current US President Donald Trump, trotted out the “birther” trope: the assertion that Barack Obama was actually born in Africa.
I’m not what you would call a fan of Donald Trump.
To be honest, I doubt if I would waste a good cup of coffee to extinguish a brushfire in his comb-over. At the same time, watching the video clips of our President lurching along in front of the 92-year-old Queen Elizabeth II at the inspection of the Queen’s Guard during his recent visit to the UK, my principal response was not disgust, or embarrassment, or outrage, or any of the other sentiments that seemed appropriate, but — strangely enough — sympathy.
I like to think that I’m a pretty easy-going sort of person.
I have strong opinions about a lot of things, but they don’t get in the way of my being able to talk to just about anybody, about just about anything, and I try to be courteous to, and considerate of, the people I deal with in my day-to-day life – regardless of who they are, and who I am. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but I think it’s important to give it my best shot.
Many years ago, during a visit to my family in my hometown of Boaz, Alabama, I got the notion to prepare a really fabulous meal for everybody.
On the face of it, this would seem like a nice gesture, but don’t fool yourself. I was thirty years old, and my snobbery knew no limits. I was from Boaz, but not of Boaz; I had gone away and become part of a wider world, and a fancy meal was just another way to prove my superiority. (I suppose all escapees from small towns go through that phase somewhere down the line. We’re Truman Capote or Andy Warhol: We go away for a few years, then come back to visit, proudly bearing suitcases full of Robert Rauschenberg and Igor Stravinsky and W. H. Auden and chicken recipes in Italian.)
I don’t like country music. The yodeling vocals, the whining guitars, the relentlessly predictable lyrics about faithless babes, abusive bubbas, pickup trucks, disreputable nightspots in the middle of nowhere … An hour of this, and a visitor from another planet would marvel that everything south of the Mason-Dixon line had not long since slid off into the Gulf of Mexico, crushed into slurry under the weight of all that drama and all those tears.
“Wait just a gosh-darned minute!” I hear someone shouting from the back row. “Yes, a lot of country music is like that, but it’s not all the same. You’re being unfair.”
Of all the obnoxious and unpopular universals we have to deal with – gravity, conservation of momentum, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, the speed of light in a vacuum, the way coffee never tastes as good as it smells – the one that seems to be the hardest for most of us to accept is entropy.
Just when we think we’ve gotten a handle on things, figured out how to survive, how to be happy, how to get through the day, we discover that the universe has marched on and the situation has changed. Suddenly all the systems and workarounds that we rely upon to keep us sane no longer work the way we expect them to. The rules have changed on us. Loved ones die, things break down, the places that are important to us become strange and different. “For no reason!” we insist, red-faced and frustrated, but in fact there is a reason: simple entropy.
During my survey of the art news this week I happened upon a provocative headline from the Daily Beast: “Why Artist Gerhard Richter Destroys His Own Art” . The title of the article is a bit misleading: the writer asks the question but she does not actually attempt to answer it. Instead she merely elaborates on the fact that Mr Richter has destroyed a considerable number of his own paintings over the years. She did, however, get me thinking about artists and their emotional relationship to the products of their craft — because I, too, often feel the desire to haul a big load of my artwork out into the yard and set it on fire.