Saturday, June 2, 2012

after perfection

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In his 1931 metaphysical thriller "Many Dimensions," Anglican theologian (among other things) Charles Williams shapes the novel around a magical stone stolen from Mecca and capable of granting wishes. No matter how often it is divided, the stone never gets smaller. The stone -- nudge-nudge, wink-wink -- is God and how people use the stone (to gain wealth or power, to reverse time, etc.) creates the tapestry of the tale. In one way or another, every character who puts the stone to use stumbles, falls, or fucks up ... all except for one woman who wishes only to serve, to love, to go with the flow. She seeks a simple unity. A perfection. A place of utter release. And what happens to her in the end? She dies. "Many Dimensions" is a very Christian book, not in the offensively threatening or promisory sense -- it was, as I recall, a very good read -- but in its theological outlook.

I thought of how much I had once loved the novels of Charles Williams last night after skipping through the 2010 movie "Black Swan," the tale of a ballet dancer who must find her dark side, her double, her shadow, her black swan as she prepares to perform as both white and black swans in the ballet "Swan Lake." At first, the protagonist seeks perfection in her chosen field. But the director tells her she must find her black swan, her imperfection, if she is to perform to perfection. In one scene he calls out in disgust to others dancing around the central character, "Does anyone want to fuck this woman?!" or something similar. And in the end, the dancer performs flawlessly ... and dies.

"Black Swan" is the second of director Darren Aronofsky's movies I have seen in a month -- the first having been "Pi," a surreal and more daring depiction of a man in search of numerical perfection. The movie's quasi-insane descent into a search for perfection is far less politely scripted and presented than "Swan Lake." It has a raw and grating quality that comes closer to the clawing insanities and strange juxtapositions of any search for perfection. And in the end the protagonist does not die ... instead, having touched the protagonist's stars, the best his creator can do for him is to paste a small, knowing, mediocre smile on his face. After enlightenment, the laundry.

I could go on and on with authors and artists and gurus who have likewise attempted to depict what I call perfections. I mean no disrespect either to Williams or Aronofsky here ... their works only inspire my own point of view ... striving for perfection, rending the flesh in pursuit of some pinnacle ... reaching, reaching, reaching with stupendous effort and terrific courage and determination. It is such a human and inspiring theme.

But it is hard not to notice that the creators' attempts to depict the search for perfection always fall short. It's like an unending and inescapable coitus interruptus ... striving, sweating, swearing, sacrificing, learning, unlearning until, at last, after all that effort and discipline depicted there is no definable orgasm. Why? Because to depict perfection, whether on canvas or celluloid or printed page would be to assert the limitation of perfection ... a limitation that is not possible. The author or filmmaker or just-plain-walking-around individual can be perfect, but s/he cannot lay claim to it. The best the creator can do is to pretend, for the audience pleasure, that death is perfection or some vapid smile ... that dark and light are a package deal and if you know that, you know something about perfection .... NOT. It's as if the universe asked with no particular venom, but a bit of a smirk, "OK, there is perfection ... and your point is???"

Not everyone is a spiritual daredevil or a ballet dancer or a crazy mathematician, but I think the principle is the same for NASCAR drivers and pig farmers -- to reach and reach and reach some more. To smugly pretend that reaching has no punch line is both lazy and inaccurate since imagining that reaching has no punch line is in itself a form of reaching.

There is a reason that fairy tales end by saying, "and they lived happily ever after." There is a reason that movies end when the boy gets the girl or vice versa. There is a reason why the sun sets beautifully in the west and the music rises. Attainment is as satisfying as it is inept at depicting what has been striven for all these years. OK, you attained perfection ... now what? You came to know God ... now what? You met and embraced your shadow ... now what? You danced without flaw or uncovered the magic stone or found the mathematical apogee or finally had an orgasm ... now what? Killing people off is a cheap date; implanting a knowing smile is a cheap date ... it's a cheap date but it is the only date there is ... unless, of course, anyone chooses to live the life that spawns perfections.

After perfection, perfection.

And your point is?
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