Ascensiontide: Who’s afraid of a little perfection?

I have a wasp in my fedora about the movie Pleasantville.

Among other reasons, it’s because I’m a color freak.  And so while the application of color to a black-and-white town and its black-and-white inhabitants thrills me, I hate that that application in Pleasantville is so slapdash.  And that the application of color gets progressively more slapdash as the story hastens to its conclusion – by story’s climax, anything in a character is enough to make him appear in color.

And what happens when all Pleasantville has taken on color?  “I don’t know.”  The story has shot its bolt.  Pleasantville purports to champion growth and change, but it ends in a place of indifference. Any further change would be as good as any other.  By the story’s own principle – in the hero’s words, “it’s not supposed to be anything” – straight-up stagnation, or even a return to black-and-white, would be as good as further change.  Boldly defying the law of pleasantness, Pleasantville’s inhabitants win a town that’s . . . well, pleasant.  Granted, the place looks better in color, but at its end it’s a town colored by an idiot, full of vivid pigments, signifying nothing.

Pleasantville is a kind of postmodern broadside against the idea of perfection.  By its frequent allusions to Genesis’s account of the Garden it draws a parallel between the black-and-white perfection of Pleasantville and the perfection of Eden.  And so Paradise comes off as deathly stultifying, uninhabitable for actual flesh-and-blood humans.  Eden becomes Egypt; rebels become Moses; and the Fall turns into an Exodus.

Much could be said by way of untangling the various threads (not all bad) that Pleasantville has left in a terrible tangle. In this post, though, I seek to salvage just one thread from the knot: the thread of perfection. Our age has a perfection allergy.  This allergy shows itself particularly in ideas that perfection is boring, static, doesn’t allow for change and growth, doesn’t “translate filmically,”[1] and so forth.  Are these charges warranted?

The Church’s teaching about her Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, has traditionally maintained His perfection, from conception to Passion.  And yet St Luke says of Jesus that he “increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.”[2]  This isn’t an instance of Luke being a bad boy evangelist, defying the apostles’ teaching about Jesus.  Rather, it tells us something about the nature of true perfection: it can grow in wisdom and stature.

This conjunction of perfection and growth appears more boldly in one of the traditional readings for the Feast of the Ascension, the Epistle to the Hebrews.  The author writes of Jesus that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”[3]  Yet, having said this, just a few sentences later he goes on to pen this rather astonishing passage:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.  And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.[4]

So two implications from the foregoing.  First, a “sea-green incorruptible” character is no liability to a writer.  Such a character will, however, reveal liabilities in a writer:

To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash; the Satan, the Iago, the Becky Sharp, within each of us, is always there and only too ready, the moment the leash is slipped, to come out and have in our books that holiday we try to deny them in our lives. But if you try to draw a character better than yourself, all you can do is to take the best moments you have had and to imagine them prolonged and more consistently embodied in action. But the real high virtues which we do not possess at all, we cannot depict except in a purely external fashion. We do not really know what it feels like to be a man much better than ourselves. His whole inner landscape is one we have never seen, and when we guess it we blunder. It is in their ‘good’ characters that novelists make, unawares, the most shocking self-revelations.[5]

Second, if those of us who would be writers take up this challenge – the challenge to ascend to the level of a good character – we need to remember that we will not be the only ones growing, and mind that we do not inadvertently add our voices to those who slander perfection by depicting it as static or black-and-white boring.  For true perfection can and will go on to further perfection, without regard for the limits of our imagining.


[1] What Lord of the Rings screenwriter Philippa Boyens said to justify the transformation of Faramir from the “sea-green incorruptible” character who appears in J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic into the Boromir-lite version who appears in Peter Jackson’s films.

[2] St Luke 2:52 (ESV).

[3] Hebrews 4:15 (ESV).

[4] Hebrews 5:7-10 (ESV).

[5] C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost 100-101 (1961).

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Posted on May 21, 2012, in David Mitchel and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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