A conversation on perfection with faculty ends inconclusively, main take-away to take it lightly

It was late evening when the professors arrived. The college lay deep in rainy mist.

There was nothing to be seen of “Perfection,” for mist and darkness surrounded it, and only the faintest marks of chalk showed where the concept of “Perfection” was. The professors sat behind a table at the front of of Sci 101, in between the chalkboard where “Perfection” was written and the hundred-fifty desk-chairs of the enormous auditorium, for a long time looking up at what seemed to be a void.

If a land-purveyor is the hero of Kafka’s story “The Castle,” then Professors Constance Hungerford, Peter Baumann and Barry Schwartz were our aesthetic, philosophical and psychological land-purveyors, respectively, invited together by Peripeteia to survey and guide us to the flawed land of “Perfection.”

“It’s an incremental step-taking,” said Hungerford into her microphone. Thus did she introduce a notion of “Perfection” on Tuesday with a metaphor: “Even those who are associated with perfection, and since I’m an art-historian, the artist from the Italian renaissance, Raphael, is often associated with perfection — the paintings that he does of the Holy Family, for example —”

It wasn’t like the audience wasn’t already acquainted with perfectionism, but “Perfection, a Conversation,” had stubbornly made its way across Swarthmore’s campus as a poster, a series of emails, rumors, before finally taking the form of Hungerford’s introductory remarks, as a specific and approachable problem.

“But it seems to me,” continued Hungerford, “that even Raphael, in completing a painting, would look at it and identity the things he wasn’t quite happy with: That then begins to be the basis so the next painting that he’ll do which will address some of those shortcomings —”

Hungerford’s analogy, like art, was focused, broad, open to interpretations and applications, but not political.

“— likewise, an ice skater that gets a ten is perfectly aware of things that were not quite right in the routine. So there’s always a process for defining what the next steps are for — a beneficial improvement. For me,” concluded Hungerford, “while perfection sounds like an absolute, it’s really a quite qualified, process-oriented experience.”

Professors Barry Schwartz and Peter Baumann sat on either side, the Psychology professor with his hand on his chin, arms crossed, and the Philosophy professor, Baumann, peering out into the crowd, as they waited their turns at taking swipes at “Perfection.”

“Yogi Berra once said, ‘If life were perfect, it wouldn’t be’,” said Baumann.

Likewise, if the Castle of “Perfection” in Kafka’s story had come through with its promise to the land purveyor of providing meaningful, Castle-approved work, a salary, insurance, a car, a home, retirement, then both Kafka and his character would have missed out on the opportunity to survey the complex, subterranean land of bureaucracy that extends like elusive tentacles from the state into public opinion. To the public, however, in Kafka, the land-surveyor’s pursuit of “perfection” is obscene, grotesque; power, after all, like in a newspaper article, is taboo.

“We all want success,” Baumann continued, receiving nods from the sample of students that did take time out of their studies during the chaotic last week of classes. “We all like success, we want to reach our goals. … Of course you do want to reach your goal. But is it true we want to reach all of our goals? Do we have a reason want to reach all of our goals? I think we don’t.”

“Imagine a person who is successful, whatever they do, they succeed without any effort,” proposed Baumann.

“In philosophy,” continued Baumann, “there are special uses of the word ‘perfect.’ For example Descartes’ ‘Meditation on First Philosophy,’ which attempts to prove for the existence of God. It goes like this: ‘God is perfect, which actually includes existence, hence God exists.’”

“I’m not going to go into this proof,” decided Baumann, like Kafka turning away from describing the Castle of “Perfection” itself, unlike how Joyce turned inwards and attempted to perfectly describe every detail of the mind in “Ulysses”; focusing instead, like Kafka, on the applicable, allegorical and political truth-content of his story that is always bound to fail the ultimate test of truth, simply because it’s human.

“What is interesting is this notion of ‘perfection’ used here,” the prestige of the Castle and reputation of Klamm, “which I think is a measure of maximum goodness; and I have two problems with this notion of goodness.”

“Is there really maximum?” Does the ideal Castle, the ideal College, the “Perfect” actually exist? “Is there a best maximum possibility because we’ve reached the top of the scale, not like the Richter scale, which is open, but a closed scale? Should we really believe that? Because it presupposes that we can compare things and put them on the scale of goodness.”

Professor Schwartz began slowly, confidently, as “Psychology,” according to him, “has been interested in this topic also for some time. But not in “Perfection” per se.

Schwartz, not unlike Kafka, turned away from the Castle of “Perfection,” though it is constantly alluded to in his speech.

“Psychology is interested in ‘perfectionism’,” of the sort the land-surveyor in Kafka’s “Castle” is the main protagonist, like an experiment. “Psychology’s interest is in the [perfectionist] attitude that people have, that only ‘the best’ will do. That is the only reasonable standard of perfection. There are scales to measure how perfectionistic we are. And it’s interesting because it’s clear that psychologists are of two minds: on the one hand, they think that people who are perfectionists are just crazy, and tortured.” There are types of perfectionisms, for example, like the Kafkaesque land-surveyor’s: “neurotic perfectionism.”

On the other hand, “[Psychologists] think that the aspiration for perfection is what produces some of humanity’s greatest achievements. That it keeps you on the task. It keeps you struggling through adversity. You persevere, you push on.”

And, “you do something great,” like the self-described failure, Kafka, who on his deathbed, dying from tuberculosis, asked his best friend to burn all his stories, which in his opinion were “failures,” without exception.

“And you get more satisfaction out of doing that great thing. And the world gets immense satisfaction from you doing that great thing. So we want people to be reasonable perfectionists.”

“Be a perfectionist, but don’t take it too seriously.”


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