A wonderfully insightful article by Carina Chocano in The NY Times Magazine, “Our Imperfect Search for Perfection,” using, among other things, the two recent Hollywood releases “The Adjustment Bureau” and “Limitless” to discuss our profoundly troubled relationship with perfection. Certainly the first time I’ve ever seen Pelagius in the Times (and certainly in conjunction with The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills). I was only disappointed she gave the Christian understanding of human fallibility such short shrift. Weird, almost – because fashionable or not, what she’s describing here is nothing less than the unshakeable and inherent religiosity that plagues all of us, believer or no. As a treatise on the anxiety and despair produced by the Law, however, not to mention the absurdity/tragedy of the universal human addiction, it’s one of the two or three best things I’ve ever read in that paper. And the line about Franco is one for the ages:
Given the recent hell-in-a-handbasket zeitgeist, you’d think we would all find more comfort in “The Adjustment Bureau” idea that control over our own destiny is just an illusion; that if it’s not God or fate or John Slattery in a fedora controlling what happens to us, then it’s something like luck, birth order, genetics, macroeconomics, the law of attraction, big government or your damnable idiot boss. But this is not so. Given the amount of time we spend thinking and fretting and dreaming about how to become more perfect, it’s clear we’re all living in a “Limitless” world. After the movie, a woman beside me sighed, “I really need that pill.” And I blurted out involuntarily, “So do I!”
“Limitless,” in all its pulpy glory, represents the logical terminus of a certain pattern of modern thought, endlessly fueled by the culture: if you can theoretically become perfect, then it follows that you should at least try. This idea (that man is perfectible and so should strive for perfection) has been around for 2,000 years, but it has lately been streamlined and turbo-charged: in its contemporary incarnation, it regards any unfulfilled human potentialities as a particularly sad and sclerotic form of entropy.
And, sure enough, sitting in the theater watching Bradley Cooper evolve from a frizzy-haired dreamer into a slick and sophisticated doer, I started to count the number of waking hours I’ve spent involved in kind of a frenzied metaphysical calculus, trying to figure out what steps I need to take (or would have needed to have taken) to become a fully actualized version of myself. How many otherwise productive days have I tossed on the pyre of mourning for all that I haven’t written, read, accomplished, experienced, organized, color-coded, filed, mastered, ironed, toned, acquired or sorted in ascending order of importance? Was I trying to attain perfection through contemplation and mortification, as did the 16th-century mystic St. Teresa of Avila? Or was I just wasting my time? What would happen if I stopped measuring myself against an ideal and continually coming up short? Would I be better? Would ceasing to think so much about becoming a better person actually make me a better person?
By the 19th century, perfection had become a secular pursuit, albeit one that was thought to be attainable through education and cooperation and that would eventually lead to the betterment of all mankind. Well, that didn’t happen. And these days, if you talk about man’s inherent goodness combined with universal access to education and a meritocratic playing field blah, blah, blah, you are likely to be dismissed just as quickly as the frizzy-haired novelist Eddie, babbling on his barstool. We’ve collectively moved away from thinking about perfection in ethical, moral, aesthetic or social terms, toward the more limited concept of self-perfection — the attainment of a personal competitive edge.
Pelagius never lived to see “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” but he might have been fascinated by its stars, who display a rapacious ambition and commitment to self-perfection that are at once terrifying and awe-inspiring. (O.K., mostly terrifying, but you have to grant that they have attained their purpose.)
Which leads us, as all roads do, to James Franco. He is the personification of this very modern conundrum: we’re not sure whether to praise or mock him for his superhuman efforts at intellectual and artistic self-improvement… To this anxiety of self-improvement, we add the anxiety of authenticity and so find ourselves dogged by antiperfection and the question asked by Mom: Why not just be yourself? We mock Chua and Franco, because their version of perfection is so lofty and rarefied and seems so dauntingly hard. We’re not sure what to think about Simmons and Oprah, whose spiritual uplift masks a brand of self-transformation that has less to do with becoming a better person than with becoming better than other persons. And Timothy Ferriss just freaks everyone out.
Still, we’re forced to acknowledge that of all possible outcomes, this is the vision of perfection we’ve signed up for: That you must outsmart, outwork, outrival and outdream everybody else or consign yourself to a life of frustrated obscurity or worse. Perfection has always held a kind of promise, but this conception of it sounds less like a promise than a threat.