On Irregular Perfection

Have you ever heard somebody say something like “it’s the imperfections that keep life interesting,” or “a perfect world would be a boring world”?

I have.

Have you ever heard somebody say, “It’s the imperfections in a Maloof rocking chair that make it interesting” or “a perfect dovetail makes a boring chest of drawers”?

I haven’t.

Variation is not the same as imperfection.  One of my favorite poems is Gerard Manley Hopkins‘ “Pied Beauty,” a short hymn of praise for all the variations in creation:

Glory be to God for dappled things–
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise Him.


In opposition to the idea that beauty is a single, monolithic ideal, Hopkins finds beauty in all the unpredictable variations in both the natural world (cows, finches, and trees) and the world of human crafts (farmland, gear, and tackle).  I think Hopkins is on to something.

Imperfections are annoying, but variations on a theme can be beautiful.  The irregularities of wood grain make even the most geometric furniture come alive aesthetically.  There is nothing so dull as absolute regularity, but there is nothing as exciting as real perfection in all its variegated radiance.

Absolute regularity is not the same as perfection. For example, look at two rasps, one with a regular pattern of teeth and one with an irregular pattern.

The teeth on the top rasp were punched by a machine, and the teeth are all in perfect little rows.  The rasp cuts aggressively, but it leaves a very rough surface, including deep furrows that take some work to remove.  The rasp on the bottom, however, had its teeth punched by hand.  The teeth are arranged in a general pattern, but there are significant variations in how each tooth is placed relative to the others.  This rasp cuts quickly, but it leaves a much smoother surface than does the machine-made rasp.  It is, in fact, the better of the two rasps, and it is just those variations in the tooth spacing that make it the more perfect tool.

Variation, irregularity, spontaneity–these are not necessarily the products of mistakes, nor are they necessarily the signs of failure.  A Mozart concerto is interesting when it is played flawlessly.  A computer can play the score without a mistake, but it cannot play Mozart quite so perfectly as a virtuoso musician, who introduces little variations in tempo, volume, and tone that bring the work to life.

We are used to saying, often in defense of our moral lapses, that it’s the little imperfections in human nature that keep life interesting. I disagree. As in the crafts and arts, real flaws cause weaknesses and eventually failures. People are far more interesting when they are virtuous–not self-consciously pious but actually virtuous, acting on the strength of moral character.  True flaws are not interesting in crafts or in people, except to the conservator and the psychologist, respectively.

Real perfection is rare, but those who have seen it never report being bored. More often, if they have not tried to destroy it out of envy, they come back wild-eyed, quietly insisting that they have seen a vision of the divine.

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3 Responses to On Irregular Perfection

  1. Sylvain says:

    Regularity may induce unwanted resonance :
    A regualr heartbeat is not good; it should change all the time to adapt continuously to the slightest body workload change.
    I am sure we can find a lot of examples where regularity is not desirable in practice even if for a first approximation model it makes it easier to calculate/understand.
    As for perfection, unperfect things/persons may be quite irritating sometime.

  2. Perfectly-cut, evenly-spaced dovetails contribuite to a boring case. There I said it.

    Good post.


  3. Point taken. Your comment about conservators is right on, though. From a material culture perspective, mistakes often reveal the mind, attitudes, desires, skills, etc of the maker. These are fascinating insights to those interpreting the piece years later. Because I am a conservator, I can’t help but think of what my pieces will look like in 200 years, blemishes and all. I am not so embarrassed by mistakes. My children’s children’s children may be able to peer a little bit deeper into who I was by the little inconsistencies I leave behind. Thanks for the food for thought, Steve.

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