Sunday, September 9, 2012

on perfection

I’ve been away on holiday for the last week. Yesterday we flew back from sunny warm Brisbane into a howling Wellington gale. ‘It’s great to be back,’ we thought, as the plane heaved to and fro in the strong winds and came dangerously close to flipping over on the tarmac. Landing in Wellington in such conditions seems like taking your life in your hands. 

En route back home, while being herded through Immigration at Brisbane airport, something - or, rather, someone - caught my eye. Walking ahead of us in the line was a youngish woman who had clearly already spent a great deal of money on physical enhancement. Her long unnaturally blond hair tickled her waist, and her tan was a perfectly uniform shade of golden brown. Slender as a rake, her large unmoving bosom defied gravity. Trying not to stare, I wondered, like Seinfeld before me, ‘are they real?’

On seeing this woman I didn’t feel envy, pity, or disgust, or any emotion at all. Rather, I had a quite disturbing sense that she didn’t seem to be really there. She was somehow out of place and out of time, different in kind to the harried women who chased after wilful toddlers, and the teenage girls who fiddled with their mobile phones. Perhaps she was a futuristic android from another planet. Or perhaps I had just watched Bladerunner too recently. Perhaps she was a celebrity that I didn’t recognise.

I have no idea if she was a celebrity. One could argue - though I don’t particularly agree - that it’s part and parcel of a celebrity’s job to look good ergo it’s perfectly okay to have cosmetic surgery and so on. What celebrities are attempting to achieve with all this work is the ability to look good in still photographs. Most of us mere mortals will never interact with the living breathing versions of sculpted celebrities, and the media will attempt to gull us that the photoshopped images we see of people with frozen stretched faces are simply the result of good genes. 

Given the proliferation of various techniques for enhancing, altering and distorting  photographs, one wonders why they bother. Even those celebrities who apparently don’t want all their wobbly bits airbrushed away are subject to the virtual scalpel. Basically, it just costs less in terms of re-touching if the subject matter is relatively ‘flawless’ to begin with.

Seeing the woman at Brisbane airport might have got me thinking about the beauty myth, about objectification, and what it all might mean for raising a daughter.  Instead, however, I found myself thinking about perfection. Both in terms of physical perfection and perfection in mothering. 

Philosophically, the concept of perfection has a complex and even contradictory genealogy - so much so that the greatest perfection is thought to be imperfection. More conventionally, perfection means completeness, flawlessness, the best, even saintly. It is all the things for which we are meant to strive. 

But it is also static and, dare I say it, boring.

If something is hypothetically complete, flawless, the best, then there is nowhere else for it to go; it cannot move.  Which is why perfection also means ‘to bring to an end’.

It is not perfection that is dynamic, interesting and life-affirming, but rather the striving for it. Usain Bolt, for example, strives to run faster and faster, eroding his times by fractions of seconds. But, if a runner ever achieved the impossibly perfect sprint of zero seconds, they would in fact be standing still or running so fast as to appear to be standing still. They would be such a perfect runner that they would not be running at all. 

Thinking about striving for perfection reminded me of media obsessions with dead mothers, which I have blogged about previously. Dead mothers are perfect: they are selfless, endlessly giving, and existed for no other reason than to perfectly nurture their children. There is no way a living woman could measure up to this ideal. How could she? She can breathe, move, think, and speak. Even the once-animated woman being morbidly eulogised in these articles could only achieve perfection by bringing her self to an end. Like the perfect runner, the perfect mother does not actually mother at all.

But even ‘striving for perfection’ is still buying into utopian thinking and the ideology of stasis to some extent. Similarly to the concept of perfection, a utopia is both a ‘good place’ and ‘no place’. To strive for perfection in the form of a utopia is to aim to remove yourself from place and time because you believe another time and place (usually the future) is better. Such utopian thinking, striving for perfection, has been responsible for some of the worst excesses of violence and depravity throughout human history. Perfection can be pretty chilling when you start thinking about it.

What to strive for, then, if not perfection?  Doesn’t that just leave pointless meandering?  Perhaps. Or maybe it means focussing on the here and now rather than wistfully looking back to the past or speculating on potential futures. There’s certainly plenty to be getting on with (she writes, one eye on the living room clutter at her feet ....) Or maybe striving without perfection is like flying into Wellington in a gale: you don’t know if you will get there in one piece or be brought to a premature end, but you still try and land.

So this post isn’t just pointless meandering, I want to finish by returning to the woman at Brisbane airport. I’m a little troubled by the way I have used her as an object of study for this post. True, her attempts at physical perfection have a ‘look at me’ quality to them, but aren’t they also a means of hiding in plain sight, of trying to maintain control and stillness in a world that is chaotic and constantly changing?  It got me thinking about why she wanted to invest so much time and money in trying to look perfect, who she might be, and what her story was.

Wouldn’t that inevitably imperfect story of movement and change, if she would tell it, be more interesting than whether or not she had actually achieved the goal of being a perfect size ten?