Monday, March 17, 2014

Perfection is the Enemy of Progress

Joseph Grand is a character in Albert Camus's great novel, The Plague. He is a minor character but is perhaps the most profound. Grand is a city clerk but in his spare time, he claims to be a writer. He is writing a novel but is stuck on the first sentence because he wants it be perfect. So much so that he spends a week deciding which conjunction to use. Finally, midway through The Plague, he reveals his sentence and it doesn't even have a conjunction:
"One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne."
By the end of the novel he is nowhere closer to finishing the novel. His only achievement is 50 pages comprised of variations of this "horsewoman" sentence.

Completion is a difficult thing for an artist. When I was younger, I lingered on poems and pieces of fiction leaning on the trope "nothing is ever complete." They hung around on my hard drive for years being "perfected." When I read this Camus book, perhaps twenty years ago, I recognized this for what it was. I believe it helped me get over this. Perfection indeed is the enemy of progress. We need to move on. Perfection will never happened. I have heard interviews with creative people like Woody Allen and musician Joe Jackson where they say, they can't even look at or listen to their old work. All they see it the imperfections. I am grateful that neither one of them had Grand's problem for the world would be lacking.

Larry Heinemann, one of my writing teachers, used to say "edit is where the money is." His approach is to overwrite to get your manuscript done and then fix it while editing ... then edit .... then edit.  When he wrote his most famous novel, Paco's Story, he was stuck on a plot point where Paco was reading a female character's diary and didn't know where to go with it. To solve this he wrote the entire diary as a separate project just to get into the head of the character. He was then able to get over the hump of the novel. He only included a few lines from the diary in the novel ... hence overwrite and edit.

It seems that the axiom of "Perfection is the Enemy of Progress" works not only in writing but with the rest of life as well. As a software engineer I understand that I should be aiming for perfection, I turn projects over to testers and hope they catch any mistakes I made in coding. It is a humbling process. But I also understand, that there is no such thing as bug free software. If I were to wait for perfection, nothing would ever get completed and turned over to the users of the software. It seems that this could be applied to anything like social movements, government, household planning, etc. A few years ago, the US government rolled out a huge healthcare bill that was by no means perfect. The web site didn't even work and it wasn't even funded. I am not talking about The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) but of Medicare Part D which was rolled out in January 2006 under President George W. Bush. Its roll out was just as bad, full of imperfections that was eventually fixed and people seem happy with it now. The difference of course is that Bush didn't budget for it and it only affected senior citizens. Not sure why the talking heads on Fox News didn't freak about it and call it Socialism ... oh wait. ... I do know why... it was rolled out by a Republican white guy. I realize that neither of these programs was even close to perfection when they rolled them out but at a certain point, especially in government, you got to say "this is done" and "I will fix it on the back end" which is what I am going to do now with this blog post.


Olga said...

"The perfect is the enemy of the good." I think it was Voltaire who said that, but I have heard different variations. Having a couple of perfectionists in my life, I would say it is a curse.

Mark Peloquin said...

Voltaire's quote is "The perfect is the enemy of the good" which I don't agree with. I don't know how it evolved into progress. I have seen the progress quote all over the net, but I haven't found its origins.