LA Observations III: The Illusion of Perfection

On the Thursday morning of my visit to Los Angeles, I made and drank my morning cup of coffee, and walked out on the beach to the water’s edge.  The ocean this morning had an impressionistic sheen to it, due, in part to the lovely, unbroken sets of small waves that rolled in, broke modestly, and were soon replaced by their equally comely twin sisters.  Most only measured from 3 to 4 feet, trough to crest at their height, but often the unbroken curl would extend more than 50 yards across.  Watching them, I remembered the stirring Henry Moore Sculpture Garden on the grounds of my hometown museum, the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City, and wondered whether Moore had ever attempted to replicate, in his own language, the grace of these gifts of nature.

As I walked north, toward the pier that separates Venice Beach from Marina del Rey, my eyes were drawn incessantly to the ocean and the aesthetic treat that world was giving me.  I also noticed that, as the minutes moved on, the waves began to increase in size, but not dissolve in form.  Before long, these breathtaking sets were 5 or 6 feet high, noisier in their breaking, and attracting surfers with waxed boards and glistening wetsuits to join them.  Within a few minutes, perhaps a dozen surfers, a sentinel line out past the break, sat on their boards, legs dangling on either side as shark bait, waiting.  For what?  One or two actually caught a wave, and I’m sure it gave a satisfying, though brief, experience.  The rest waited.  Eventually, as with everything in nature, change occurred.  The waves got smaller.  Within 45 minutes of my arrival, they were back to 3 feet in height, and the surfers had left the water, most having done nothing but sit 100 yards out and wait.  Apparently the Godot of surf is as punctual as that of Beckett.

It would be easy to blame Bruce Brown for this.  His idyllic movie, “The Endless Summer,” placed in our collective consciousness the idea of “the perfect wave.”  He, and his surfing friends, whose names I once knew like those of the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies, found that perfect wave at Cape St. Francis, South Africa; rode it, filmed it, rhapsodized it, and gave it to all of us.  And maybe that’s where the trouble started.  The dozen or so surf squatters on Thursday morning were waiting, in all probability, for the perfect wave.  But in doing so, they ignored some otherwise beautiful, shapely, small-scale masterpieces, marred only by their lack of perfection.  I wondered if they were passing a joint back and forth, an activity not unknown in the surfing community, and were distracted by the comradeship and its effects.  But their boards were not within arm’s length and they hardly seemed to communicate at all.  In addition, perfection, American style at least, appears to be focused on individual effort.  Of course, there was that Miami Dolphins team of the ’70s, and I once heard what I felt was a perfect performance of the tone poem by Richard Strauss, “Ein Heldenleben,” performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan in the Kennedy Center in 1977.  But most attempts to grasp perfection are individual, not team attempts.

As an old body surfer I can tell you that surfing, whether on a board or not, is a matter of the moment.  You seize what nature gives you, experience it as intensely as possible, or you sit on your board, pissing and moaning about the shitty conditions.  Thus, an imperfect attempt to grasp the gist of the two earlier LA blogs and form a rough continuity.  The pursuit of perfection I have observed in others has almost always demanded of them that they jettison any attempt to live in the moment as a disutility.  Or, at least, they seemed to interpret that as the sacrifice required in order to participate seriously in the illusory pursuit of perfection.  But there are at least three illusions connected with that pursuit.

The first is the logical fallacy of False Dichotomy.  Most people who engage themselves in the pursuit seem to think that failing to reach the goal is utter, general, personal failure.  There is a continuum between total failure and the triumph of perfection, and within that continuum there is a wide range of satisfactions and fulfillments.

The second is the belief — and it is a belief based on the same kind of reasoning as religious belief is based — that perfection is attainable by finite beings.  While I tried to pin that on Bruce Brown earlier, that will hold for a shorter time than I could stay vertical on a board on the North Shore of Oahu.  As a philosopher, I could prod the grave of Plato and disturb his Forms, or the perfect certainty that beset Descartes, but this is a blog by a philosopher, not about philosophers.  The  western edge of the capital city of the Domain of Perfection was at my feet as I had these thoughts: Los Angeles.  In southern California, no one’s boobs are big enough, no one’s teeth are white or straight enough, no one’s abs are rippled enough, no one’s ass is shapely enough.  This is the epicenter of the destabilizing belief that we can become perfect, given enough money, focus, time, or fanaticism.

The third is the belief that pursuit of this metaphysical abstraction requires that we abandon the concrete elements of our lives that give it savor and immediacy.   It seems improbable that the headlong runners of the first LA blog, prisoners of their timing devices, their expensive shoes, and the cocoon in which they place themselves, would think to listen to the cadence of the surf just to their west, or appreciate the aroma of the ocean’s complex stew.  Nor would they ever interrupt their obsession to dig their toes into the wet sand, as I did with great joy each morning, feel the skin’s varied responses to the warm sun, the cool water, the refreshing breeze, all simultaneously.  Some of us were living life while others were pursuing a destructive ghost.

Finally, love is not perfect either, though we’re told it is.  While that slander did not originate in Hollywood, that’s its most effective agent.  I am not a disillusioned cynic about love, though I might have the creds to warrant that attitude.  I am a naive realist about love. I like the way Archibald MacLeish described  it when using the metaphor of a torn leaf reunited.  “Two imperfections that match.”  Note that he didn’t describe love as two imperfections that make a perfection.  Just two imperfections that meld and do the right things together to make them flourish.  The way I see it, love is just human life with an elevated heartbeat.  We bring our imperfections into this imperfect world and find a way to make ourselves hum without destroying the world that brings us love.  One could discover worse things in LA.

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