Thursday, January 20, 2011

Perfection

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik discusses the modern dessert. His investigation soon took him to Spain, where he talked with with some of the most widely admired pastry chefs in the world. While Gopnik doesn't quite frame his own essay this way, it is clear that these chefs are not just looking for "new" or "exciting" tastes, but perfect ones. Their work is personal and artistic.

By chance, I read this article shortly after my wife and I had our first meal at a Michelin three-star establishment, Joel Robuchon during a brief get-away in Las Vegas. It was, without question, the best meal that I ever ate, even with the numerous dietary restrictions that we imposed on the chefs. It may even be unfair to call it a "meal." It was perfect - everything from the environment to the service to the incredible, new, and changing flavors of the food. It was the culinary equivalent of a great work of art, symphony, or ballet.

The experience (better than "meal") made me think about my own life. Very little - actually nothing - in my life can really be called "perfect." Much is very good or excellent, but perfect? It makes me wonder about what a perfect book or article in my field would even look like. Is perfection achievable in an academic monograph or a trade history? And what would it look like to teach the "perfect class" or a whole "perfect course"? Where is the model to which I can strive, even if I wanted to and was willing to put in the time and effort, like the chefs Gopnik discusses?

5 comments:

Alan K. said...

Especially in aesthetics, including the taste of food, is there truly objective perfection? For example, if the meal you ate contained olives, it could never be perfect for me; yet without olives, my wife mind find it equally imperfect. I understand there can be beauty and harmony, and perhaps our affinity for such is hard-wired to an extent, but my first reaction is to think that the perfection you proposive is so elusive because it is illusive--can I make up a word there, or does this introduce an imperfection into the perfectly crafted response to a blog posting?

Michael Satlow said...

Alan - From a theoretical standpoint, this is of course true. Some people love Picasso, others don't. But you should have had this meal! In any case, when it comes to academic writing we don't normally use the category of "perfect," which is even sometimes used in discussions of literature or poetry. I wonder why that is.

Tom said...

Michael,
My sense is that the amazing meal you enjoyed (and I can recall a similar one of my own) was not perfect but, like the great work of art, symphony, or ballet it brought to mind for you, inspired. Your chef paid attention to every detail, removed distractions and negative influences (as occurs when we attend a performance), and made you and your pleasure the focus of his effort. There's always room for improvement (meaning it wasn't perfect), but an inspired performance is always special and in turn inspires us - to listen to more inspiring music, attend more inspiring performances, and live a more inspired and less ordinary life. For fun (inspired by your post), I Googled "concept of perfection in Judaism" and came up with this link: http://books.google.com/books?id=yBXWFTQ4HWYC&pg=PA26&lpg=PA26&dq=concept+of+perfection+in+judaism&source=bl&ots=MJSd89lKvi&sig=L2uEG5pJWQoqycxWy09thRPN9_g&hl=en&ei=GPM9TZi6L4G8lQeKr7XrBQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&sqi=2&ved=0CBYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=concept%20of%20perfection%20in%20judaism&f=false.Start on page 26 if it doesn't anchor there. I especially like the reference to the members of the Qumran community, who in designating themselves as perfect, acknowledge what God has accomplished through them as opposed to touting their own achievements. Leonard Bernstein, when asked how he knew how and when to change the tempo when conducting, replied with something like, "the muses whisper to me." You can read that statement as humble or arrogant, depending on whether you put the emphasis on "muses" or "me." For me, perfection, if it may be called that, occurs where the muses and Bernstein intersect.

Michael Satlow said...

Tom,
Thanks for your comment. If I read you correctly, you are suggesting that "perfection" is an unattainable ideal; it is platonic, if you will. That is certainly a possibility, but what is more interesting to me is the "platonic ideal" itself for the kind of work that I do. What is it? I would guess that you would have the same question about your own job, or about our performance as fathers.

Tom said...

Michael,
You do read me correctly, that perfection is an unattainable ideal. And yet, our purpose in life seems to be to keep striving for it. Our success, then, is in the striving, the reaching, the constant effort to improve, even though achieving the ultimate goal is futile. It's along the lines of life is about the journey, not the destination, and how can I make the journey as enriching, enjoyable, meaningful, spiritually rewarding as it can be. More specifically, each profession - or endeavor such as parenting - does have standards of excellence. I think some of these are universal, such as not allowing personal attitude to affect your work performance, or not hitting your kids. Some are more individual, such as hitting your sales target or being more present for your child because your own parent wasn't there for you. The universal standards are ones we can all try to live up to. The individual ones, to go back to your three-star meal, are more a matter of taste.