(Editor’s note) When I began this project of asking people to respond to the idea of perfection and constraining them to a thousand words, I made a mental wish-list of all the voices that I hoped would participate. Today’s guest author was certainly on that list and it is an honor to present his thoughts below. George R. Walker has been in the business of discovering and re-introducing lost worlds to us through his books, his regular column in Popular Woodworking Magazine and through his furniture design blog, George Walker Design. His quest for harmony and beauty have given a new generation of craftspeople insight into the ancient (and nearly forgotten) language of geometric proportions and facility with how to integrate it into our own work.
I know I’ll never look at a pair of dividers the same way again.
Perfection in a thousand words or less.
by George R. Walker
If you look up perfection in a dictionary, you’ll find it’s one of those words with scores of meanings and uses. In fact it has so many meanings, it’s impossible to get any sort of agreement on what perfection is.
Years ago I worked in a department in a factory dedicated to making the highest level of precision metal parts. Because we worked to super tight tolerances (plus or minus 5 millions of an inch) it required a lab environment with tight controls, plus fair amount a of voodoo. This level of physical perfection is a colossal challenge to both make and then accurately measure. One thing became quite clear.
The closer we got to making parts with the perfect size, taper, or roundness, the more impossible the task became. Steel might seem like a stable material, much better behaved than wood, yet at ultra high levels of precision, it’s pretty ornery stuff, not much different than some rotted maple salvaged from the bottom of the woodpile. It’s interesting to note that some things we measured could fall on either side of the target we were shooting for. For example a linear size measurement was something that could fall slightly larger or smaller than the aim. Other things like roundness or flatness were different because you could only approach them from one side. You can sneak up on perfect roundness, but you can’t shoot past it and make something rounder than perfect roundness. We were in a very real (and costly) quest chasing geometric perfection. The same perfection that had spellbound those ancient Greek geometers thousands of years ago and like them we were humbled by our inability to reach out and touch the perfect circle or perfectly flat plane. To give you some perspective, if you precisely measured the roundness of a brand new billiard ball it’s circumference would actually look more like a starfish or the Grand Tetons. Which isn’t to say that the pursuit of perfection should be written off as unachievable or impractical. If we could somehow smelt a steel with perfect crystal structure and no impurities it would be thousands of times stronger than our best steels today. So it goes with humankind’s search for physical perfection, going after the perfect superconductor, or hybrid wheat, or clog free rain gutters. It’s not like this quest for perfection is strictly a modern thing linked just to big science or industry. Centuries ago, sword makers in Japan forged Samurai blades that reached levels of perfection we can scarcely fathom or even appreciate today.
Yet that same culture that gave us the pinnacle of the swordmakers art, also gave us another glimpse into a completely different way to think about perfection. The rituals of the traditional Japanese tea ceremonies evolved into an aesthetic perfection. This aesthetic perfection revered hand crafted pottery tea bowls with anything but physical perfection. These cherished objects are revered because of the marks left by the hand of the potter and the little surprises woven in by nature.
Perfection in this realm becomes something very different from a comparison to an ideal standard. Instead, perfection is thought in terms of how it connects us with our humanity and nature itself. Thus we see perfection not in a sleek machine made surface, but in the imprints of an artisan’s fingers on a saw handle. It’s in the fleeting glimmer of childlike innocence in an aged person’s eyes, or the tenacity of a tree that envelopes a rock in it’s roots.
Few people have the awareness to even sense this kind of aesthetic perfection and even fewer artisans have the courage or humility to chase after it. In a very real sense it may be more challenging than the search for the perfectly round circle.
Another aspect of perfection that raises deep questions is why are we as humans so captivated by it? Even if we rebel against the idea of reaching it, we still as a species cannot escape the idea of perfection. Almost every judgment we make is against some theoretical ideal or perfect thing. We may not agree on what the perfect thing is, but we all appeal to some ideal of perfection when we try to persuade or argue a point. If we are as the materialists say, just a pile of molecules responding to an endless chain of cause and effect, why are we always looking to something (perfection) outside of that chain to guide our thinking and actions?
Finally, if you go down to the bottom of that long list of definitions in the dictionary, it lists the latin word perfectus as the root of our modern word. It originally meant finished, done, or complete. It hearkens back to the ancient way of thinking about a masterpiece as something which cannot be improved by taking away or adding anything. Indeed, a lofty ideal to aspire to.