- The Anonymity of Perfection
The text is taken from a four-page carbon typescript at Cornell. It is annotated at the opening by Lewis: “IMPORTANT NOTE” and “for explanation | Tyro.” This suggests that the piece was composed in the early 1920s and belongs to the group of essays concerned with the aesthetics of visual art that Lewis published during this period. The mention of The Tyro relates it to the “Essay on the Objective of Plastic Art in Our Time” published in issue number two (1922). This was an unfinished essay, and both “The Anonymity of Perfection” and some more fragmentary notes at Cornell entitled “A Theory of Divine Imperfection” may have been intended as developments of its argument. In the “Essay on the Objective of Plastic Art in Our Time,” Lewis discusses the imperfection of men of genius in comparison with an absolute standard. A synthesis of several geniuses (Calderrf, Voltaire, Plotinus) might seem to approach this standard more closely, but would lack identity and be a “pale shadow of their separate selves. Perfection, therefore, from this standpoint, appears as a Platonic ideal, and is a thing with which we have not very much to do. . . . “ 1 But, despite its title, “The Anonymity of Perfection” as it stands does not develop this line of thought (perhaps because the typescript may only be the first section of a longer or unfinished essay, since it is numbered as section “I”). What we have of the essay is more closely related, first, to [End Page 165] a section of the “Essay on the Objective of Plastic Art in Our Time” called “The Sense of the Future” advocating detachment from the functionalism of everyday life (and criticizing Futurism for its attachment to the machine of the present); and, second, the essay, “The Meaning of the Wild Body,” published in The Wild Body in 1927, but probably extracted from “Man of the World” typescripts composed in the early 1920s. That essay shows a similar preoccupation with dualism and the fundamental absurdity or uncanniness of animal life.
This essay and the two that follow are published in “reading” versions. Minor errors of spelling, typing, and punctuation have been silently corrected, but the texts have not been brought into close conformity with modern style. Significant alterations and doubtful readings are recorded in the editorial notes to each essay.
That we are eternal miners, lashed in the clumsy process of learning by the retribution that awaits our mistakes, and dreaming, steeped in transcendental values that transform the mechanical basis of our life into a fairyland, is the first truth that we must accept. “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me,” Sir Isaac Newton wrote.
So Newton felt that he had been “only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting himself”!
He at least was not taken in by the scale of the immense machine of the universe that he had constructed. He was a great mechanic. But he knew that this machine was only in reality a toy, just as a motor-car or a flying machine is a toy, invented by an eager and ingenious child. The only difference was that his toy was a very big one though not much more complicated than many machines invented by man. It would rather be some grand aesthetic or emotional twist of temperament that would lead this great mechanic to make railways or world-ways for stars rather than more homely contrivances on the face of the earth for our domestic uses.
Where we say a “child” and a “toy,” again, or “work” or “play,” it is necessary not to leave it at that.
The analogy is this. The little boy makes a wooden sword. It is an actor’s property, really: it only resembles the weapons of the real world. Or the little girl has a bevy of dolls...