In Darren Aronofsky’s psychological horror film Black Swan, Nina, a ballerina obsessed with perfection, must take on two roles in the season’s latest show: First, that of a pure, lily white swan who is innocent and perfect, in fact a bit too perfect. According to the ballet director, Nina, who is played by Natalie Portman, is too consumed with perfection and this makes her a bit too rigid to be able to transform into the second role, the black swan, who is loose, open, and spontaneous. Whoever stars in this role must be able to play both, but Nina has not learned how to integrate her dark side. So she can only be transformed into the black swan while being unconsciously driven to madness by disorders, including bulimia, self-cutting, and an obsessive desire for order and prediction.
Superb essay. Thoughts to sleep on, and I'm grateful for them.
French and Rufo are both warriors, or ex-warriors, and they're men who bring a religious sensibility to what they do, each in his own way. In their family lives, they've certainly lived out MLK's creed to create blended tribes organized around the content of character rather than color of skin. To that extent, they're more Brotherhood of Zion than Matrix. I like them both, and value their contributions to the conversation.
Immediately after writing those words, I'm tempted to say "But...." and create an opposition between them, a hierarchy of true enlightenment that places one above the other. What I appreciate so much about your essay is that it brushes my elbow with the lightest touch and says, "Not needed." It says, "What would happen if you refused to judge and simply sat with your need to do that, rather than imposing it on them?"
Such a hard thing--to do that!
"we as a species didn’t always do this, before we were hunger-gatherers it was commonplace for us to see each and every individual as a unique, unrepeatable being"
Could you speak more on this?
Will watch.. then decide if I read the book.. Are you still involved with young children's education? If so, I would like to send you a children's book.. I follow you on FB as well...
"Why unachievable? Because perfection is a construct that refuses to admit the basic structure of what it actually means to be human: A being which by definition is always becoming, always growing, never static, always subject to change."
This brought me back to Ernst Bloch, an associate of Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, etc. "Negative ontology" - the idea that 'we are becoming' is a more accurate expression than the Cartesian "sum". I still have a copy of the 3 volume "Principle of Hope" which a wonderful friend bought me back in college. I no more read the whole thing than I read "Finnegans Wake" for another class but read enough to understand that the striving that you are talking about is fundamental and potentially very dangerous.
Utopian ideas are beautiful but underly that driving for perfection which enables us to refuse to see the shared qualities in the opponent as you not Rufo for "failing to acknowledge that the very thing which exists within his enemy also exists within him..."
One image of this which sticks with me is Marlon Brandon's "Kurtz" in "Apocalyse Now" when he relates the story of after innoculating a village of children they come back to find a pile of children's arms out side the village. At first he cries in shock but:
"...And then I realized... like I was shot... like I was shot with a diamond... a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God... the genius of that. The genius. The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we. Because they could stand that these were not monsters. These were men... trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love... but they had the strength... the strength... to do that..."
Another facet of the "Perfect as the enemy of good" idea.
Going back to Bloch he made me understand what I think is an often misunderstood quote from Marx - the whole "religion is the opiate of the masses" passage. Sometimes we need an opiate - relying upon it without limits we get addicted.
Or as Bloch's more celebrated colleague Benjamin would put it in an aphorism:
"Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope."
Kafka before him “There is an infinite amount of hope in the universe ... but not for us.”
It is hard to hold onto the idea that we are trying for the good and not the "Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure."
Without the urge towards hope we are doomed, but trying to build the New Jerusalem or the Tower of Babel - we become beasts. That dichotomy is at the root of much tragedy.
I do love your work and look forward to your articles. But I usually only comment online when something hits me as not quite on the mark. And here it is: "...the basic structure of what it actually means to be human: A being which by definition is always becoming, always growing, never static, always subject to change." Well, yes, this is the basic structure of material being, are you quite sure you want to locate "what it means to be human" primarily in the attributes common to all material beings, including the inorganic? Re: striving for perfection, it is one thing to want to be perfect, to satisfy the ego, and quite another thing to hold fast to a vision of perfection that we know exceeds our human capacity. In fact, your writing leads me to suspect you are such a person, yes, human and fallible, surely at times vain and egotistical, like the rest of us, but an honest person who loves and strives toward the ideal, e.g. "justice", even as you know perfect justice is an unattainable goal.
Wow. Love this.
Awesome post - reminds me of a thing I wrote a decade or so ago for HuffPo when the film originally came out (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/michael-vick-black-swan-a_b_798941).
The thing I think you’re emphasizing that is IMV super important is the extent to which the *compulsion is itself the source of both the perfection and imperfection*. It drives the refinement of craft, but also fuels the fundamental sense of inadequacy because of its fixation upon an unattainable perfection. And a thing I think we get societally wrong sometimes - and we see this in the “woke wars’” demands for moral absolutism, justified or not - is a sense of expectation-setting that pretends the two are extricable.
At the time I thought the prime example of this was the excommunication of Michael Vick, which I think (in a very ‘Like Mike’ way) reveals how we like to laud the upside while ignoring the downside of what it might take to get there - and dealing with it honestly. After all, the whole thing about ‘giving yourself up’ to something is: you don’t automatically get yourself back!