Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Perfect Novel

woman reading by kuniyoshi

Does aesthetic perfection exist in the modern world?  Does it matter?

When I read a book--or watch a movie or TV show, for that matter--I'm looking for perfection.  I've always looked for it, ever since I was a kid, in both my work and others'.  Obviously perfection is very rarely achieved, which is why I give out so few 5-star reviews, even when I like a book.  But what does it mean to be perfect?

To most people, perfection in the arts is an abstract concept, something unattainable and unquantifiable.  But some cultures have very definitive ideas of what perfection is, and do nothing but try to achieve it.  The Greeks, for example, literally formulated perfection in music and made it illegal to play anything but "perfect" musical harmonies in public.  They also applied perfect proportions to the human body and architecture that became so endemic in Western art that they're used constantly without anyone thinking about them or guessing at their source.

According to Aristotle, who gave the oldest known definition, perfection means either total completeness, being the best of its kind, or something that has achieved its purpose.  For example, a circle is the perfect form because it's complete within itself--that's why heaven is often depicted as a circular form in medieval and Renaissance art.  Or a steampunk novel could be perfect if it's the best of its genre. 

Perfection is also a paradox, because it doesn't only mean perfection as such, but is often confused with excellence and carries connotations of beauty and grace.  Since the Renaissance, philosophers like Vanini have argued that the greatest perfection is imperfection.  If something is complete, it can't be improved upon; but if a work of art is incomplete, it invites the viewer or reader to fill in the blanks by using their imagination, making the viewer a part of the piece.  It is also invites progress, which is imperative for the development of technology.  Personally, I agree with Vanini--some of the best books I've ever read are ones that didn't give me all the answers.  And I enjoy it when a good author takes ambitious chances with a story, even if the results are imperfect.

Considering their interest in Classical art and philosophy, it's no surprise that Renaissance artists like Vasari and Alberti, and humanist philosophers like Petrarch, developed an interest in achieving aesthetic perfection.  They set forth values with which to judge perfection in the arts and distinguish it from mere excellence.  A perfect work is judged as a whole work, not a just a part, and is a conjunction of many elements.  It requires not only talent but skill to create, and shouldn't be the sole value by which the piece is evaluated.

For myself, I would also add balance.  I don't necessarily agree with Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry that perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away, but that the more elements are in a work, the more balance they require.  It's easier to achieve perfection with simpler forms because there's less to harmonize.

What is your definition of perfection?  Do you believe perfection is something writers and artists should strive for?

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