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Arête

Several people — several friends — have at some point or other criticized (and I mean this mostly in the (de)constructive sense) my perfectionism, my tendency to constantly expect my surroundings and things (and self) to be the best. They’re not wrong, exactly. That is, there’s definitely something wrong with needing the canned goods in the pantry organized in a certain fashion, or packing the moving truck so carefully (and slowly) that absolutely nothing could move or break even in the event of an asteroid strike. I do not, can not, maintain that everything out to be perfect at all times–though why, given the opportunity for improvement without much extra effort, anyone would fail to make said improvement, continues to baffle me. Frequently this is cited in support of some variation on the argument that I’m an android (as though the vast emotional storms inside me could be simple electronics (though I’m sure simple electronics must think the same thing)). The reality, though, seems to be direct evidence against that argued androia. I can count two serious influences in my life as regards perfectionism: my parents, and the honors college.
My parents are amazing people. Maybe all people are amazing, and my parents are not exceptional among them outside of my biased viewpoint, but they do seem special to me, and I think, even subtracting my bias, that they are exceptional. I love them a lot, and am very sorry that I am as much an android as I am, and incapable of really interrelating with them the way my sister does. My father is a miracle of intelligence and strength–so much stronger than me, he burned himself out working for 20 years to provide for us when I’m cracking after 2 (“The son son is rare who measures with his father / and one in a thousand is a better man.” II:276-77)–and my mother starts her day more tolerant than I can get after a couple beers and an hour of the Dalai Lama (not to mention all the years she worked full time and kept up all the cooking-childcare mothery things at the same time). I wish I were wasting less of what I ought to have been getting from them both. I wish I could say anything like this to them without feeling awkward and embarrassed. I think I must be a very difficult child to have, since I am a fairly distant and awkward person, and, sorry as I am at my inability to stay close to my friends, the problem is much worse with my own family.
One thing my parents did not to well is balance quality and price. Generally (and I think this has changed in the past few years, hence the tense) they preferred to buy cheap things rather than high-quality. Sometimes this is an economical choice; the difference in canned corn, for instance (I buy canned myself, though I think we always had frozen growing up) is fairly minimal, and the savings can be in the double-digit percentages (as much as 8¢!). Sometimes, it just means you end up with something two thirds of the price that lasts half as long (and thus costing a third more in the long run). Cheap clothing notoriously wears out and looks bad sooner than more expensive solid-quality cloth will. Making an economical decision means balancing quality vs. price. Blindly spending the least amount possible without regard to durabilty and quality means that a lot of the time you’re going to end up with inferior goods that need to be bought more often (see: road construction, Nickled and Dimed, all kinds of things in my parents’ house). Dealing with makeshifts (Janpack or Eastsport backpacks, say) that started falling apart the second week of school taught me this lesson very well. (Not that, I hasten to add, this meant I ever had to deal with a falling-apart backpack; my mother would never have allowed that. It just meant I had two $15 backpacks that year instead of one $25. My sister and I never lacked for anything (except, you know, coolness, which can hardly have been my parents’ fault).)
The honors college was also filled with some pretty impressive people, and, more relevantly, with a lot of concern for arête. Says the Telegraph of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “If he’d done Greek at school and knew what “arête” meant, we could have been spared most of the 1970s.” (and I think I could add, had I been introduced to the concept through some other agency than ZAMM at the age of 16 I think I might have been spared 10 years of rapprochement with Aristotle). Arête is actually a pretty tricky concept, but my understanding of it was–and more important to the subject at hand, what I took from hearing about it so often was–a sort of ultimate superlative. Arête was the best thing, according to the best definition of what was best (my current reading of the word and its place in philosophy is much more one of ultimate fulfilment than inherent qualities, something like a Platonic ideal). It became, when mixed with loads of other consumer-culture bullshit and too much T S Eliot and High Fidelity and anti-populism, something like a shopping list, for the arêtest books, music, liquor, furniture, whatever.
So I wasted a lot of time and energy getting hold of the absolute best music (Dylan) or philosophy (Aristotle) or novel (Forster) without appreciating it, without enjoying it, and without internalizing it as much as I ought to (to say nothing of all the getting caught up in fancy binding and special edition nonsense I did). It happens that Dylan, Aristotle, and Forster actually produced some pretty awesome stuff that I really do like, and liked right away, for itself, but while that may explain my continued indulgence, it hardly has anything to do with my initial encounters with them.
But now, in my house full of the best music, novels, films, etc, I am actually rather glad for that concern I had at age 19 for the best novels and poetry. I may have (I did) spent too much mental effort justifying reading and recommending William Gibson instead of Evelyn Waugh, and developed too hearty a disdain for many works good but not great, but the legacy of my conspicuous arête consumption is wonderful nights like tonight, moments like now, when, tiring of whisky and Ringworld, I can glance up at my bookshelves, at Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey, and be two books into it before I notice how incredibly lucky I am to have all of these great specimens of human creativity sitting there waiting for me and also the mind and soul to appreciate them.
I had the mind long ago–I actually read and appreciated even this particular Odyssey before–but never before with this swell of joy at the inherent beauty of the thing. As with it’s starting to seem like everything else in life, you need both opportunity and ability. Being handed these great books as an 18-year-old college freshman (or 25-year-old college senior, whatever) gave me the opportunity to enjoy them, and growing up watching my parents dismiss non-obvious quality to their detriment (as well as a packrat nature) kept me from dismissing them when instant pleasure failed to manifest itself. Life, especially the recent non-asshole paying attention to it I’ve been trying to do, is giving me the ability to seize it.
It’s a wonderful, joyous thing to enjoy art. To tie that enjoyment to something 2700 (or 50) years old, to share it with generations, is to magnify it immensely. But this bestness feeling isn’t just about ancient Greeks. I have a notebook with a list of the best songs. There’s only five or six on the list, because the best song isn’t a comparative idea. A song goes on there when it is the best song, when it feels like my entire life is wiped away by a chord change, when a single note (or my god those first two drumbeats of “Like a Rolling Stone”) will shoot my heart out and up past escape velocity so far and fast I’m not sure I’ll ever get it back in place.
Great art–great anything, great books or plants or constellations–are thrilling because of their greatness, but it isn’t just the opportunity to enjoy these beautiful, magnificent things that makes them awesome. The ability to appreciate the greatness is where the awe comes from, and the self-aware, critical appreciation of the experience turns greatness into transcendence.

Filed by shaun at October 5th, 2008 under indifferenthonest

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