Reach > Grasp = Heaven

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?

–Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto”

Robert Browning was the poet laureate of my sophomore year in college. His poetry is the reason that I became an English major. It showed me how fun poems could be. Browning’s major technique, the dramatic monologue, invites readers to piece together a story from the words of a single character. Reading a poem becomes something like solving a puzzle. And there are great intellectual rewards in the solution.

Andrea del Sarto, Madonna of the Harpies" (1517)

Andrea del Sarto, Madonna of the Harpies” (1517)

It wasn’t until I was a senior, though, taking a Victorian Literature class, that I encountered the Browning poem that would become my absolute favorite: “Andrea del Sarto, Called ‘The Faultless Painter.’” In this poem, Browning not only gave me a wonderful puzzle to solve. He also radically altered my understanding of the gospel.

“Andrea del Sarto” tells the story of a (very real) Renaissance painter, perhaps the most talented artist of his generation, who has nonetheless gone down in history as a clear inferior to all the guys who got their own ninja turtles. Spurred on by the histories of Giorgio Vasari, Browning wanted to understand the connection between perfection and mediocrity. He placed a long monologue in the mouth of Andrea del Sarto himself to explain the paradox.

The answer is as stunning as it should have been obvious: perfection and mediocrity are essentially the same thing. Andrea had reached a kind of artistic perfection. His technical skills was beyond dispute, which brought him a fair amount of fame and fortune (all of which he squandered). In a sad reflection, Andrea acknowledges his technical proficiency:

What I see, what at bottom of my heart
I wish for, if I ever wish so deep—
Do easily, too—when I say, perfectly,
I do not boast, perhaps: yourself are judge,
Who listened to the Legate’s talk last week,
And just as much they used to say in France.
At any rate ’tis easy, all of it! No sketches first, no studies, that’s long past:
I do what many dream of all their lives,
—Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing.

And it is this very perfection that makes Andrea del Sarto sad, as it caused him to settle for doing that which he could already do better than anyone alive. But he also knows that greatness requires striving beyond what one can already do, and this necessarily means making mistakes. Perfection, then, becomes a sure-fire sign of mediocrity. That which one does perfectly one cannot do greatly. Speaking of his rivals Rafael and Michelangelo, Andrea acknowledges that their art is both technically inferior, and spiritually superior to his own:

There burns a truer light of God in them,
In their vexed beating stuffed and stopped-up brain,
Heart, or whate’er else, than goes on to prompt
This low-pulsed forthright craftsman’s hand of mine.
Their works drop groundward, but themselves, I know,
Reach many a time a heaven that’s shut to me.

Browning’s insight here moves us well beyond the standard wisdom that “nobody’s perfect” and “everyone makes mistakes.” Indeed, he tells us, perfection of a sort actually is possible, but it is also a spiritual trap, since becoming perfect in what one can do often means ceasing to strive for what one cannot do.

Andrea del Sarto, “Assumption of the Virgin” (1526)

In my adult life, I have found this to be a powerful gospel insight. Yes, I know that nobody is perfect. But I also know that Mormon orthopraxy contains many practices in which perfection CAN be attained. One can pay a perfect tithe, for example, and be perfectly faithful to one’s spouse. One can perfectly avoid alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and pornography. One can perfectly attend all of one’s meetings, do all of one’s home teaching, and read the scriptures every single day. Our spiritual life is full of targets that we actually can hit. But this is a trap.

There is a great danger that, when we attain perfection in all of these perfectible practices, we will imagine ourselves to be good and stop striving for Zion. But Zion will not be built on things that we can do perfectly. We will never reach a point when we perfectly love our neighbors—all of our neighbors—whoever they may be. We can always improve in the way that we mourn with those that mourn, comfort those who stand in need of comfort, and bear one another’s burdens that they may be light. The really hard stuff cannot be done perfectly every month or earn a checkmark when it has been completed. That’s why it’s the hard stuff—and also the most important.

In both creating art and living the gospel, there are things that we can do perfectly–but these are not the most important things. Settling for them looks like perfection, or at least righteousness, but is really just mediocrity in disguise. Greatness doesn’t look like perfection at all; it is riddled with mistakes because it strives for what it cannot obtain. “Ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.”

Comments

  1. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Wonderful Michael! Lowell Bennion advised us to substitute the word “balance” for “perfection”–

  2. This is wonderfully expressed, Michael. I particularly like this:

    There is a great danger that, when we attain perfection in all of these perfectible practices, we will imagine ourselves to be good and stop striving for Zion. But Zion will not be built on things that we can do perfectly.

    For what it’s worth, this is, in a nutshell, my understanding of Hugh Nibley’s call for us to live personal lives of consecration, and to strive to organize our social world around the ideals of Zion. That is something which fundamentally, economically, realistically, can’t be done. But that’s the point! We can’t be pure in heart, we can’t be real Christians, if our goals really are attainable, perfectable things. The things we are called to do which can be attained and perfected probably really aren’t conducive to Zion, because they are domesticated, made technical, something appropriate to a del Sarto rather than a Michelangelo. So God calls us to pursue an ungraspable condition, because it is the reaching for Zion that will bring it to pass, not anything that we fallen creatures can ever actually accomplish ourselves.

  3. Thérèse of Lisieux proposed “the little way” to heaven. “Well, I mean to try and find a lift by which I may be raised unto God, for I am too tiny to climb the steep stairway of perfection.”

  4. Kathi Johnson says:

    I have never thought of perfection being a sign of mediocrity as described in the article. But it really does make sense. I now need to think how this relates to areas of my life – beyond religion. Excellent writing, Mike. Seriously.

  5. Thanks for giving me a great excuse to read a little literature and theology as a break from reading gerontology research. (It’s been decades since I’ve read Browning. GAH!) There is a principle in composition theory that points out that writing errors are a sign of GROWTH. If a student writes sentences that are in perfect technical control with paragraphs that unfold in a lock-step manner, and chains of reasoning that are absolutely air tight, he or she is not stretching. I used to use an example of a water skier on two skis doing perfect starts, wake jumps, and shore landings. But put that same person on a single ski and he/she starts falling. GROWTH! Now I need to take my own advice and apply exceeding my reach as a writer to more numinous areas. Here’s to being a HOT MESS! Thanks, Michael (Robert & Andrea).

  6. This was almost a perfect blog post.

  7. True and important. “There is a great danger” because checkmark perfection is so seductive. Bearing the cross, taking His name, drinking the cup, is very hard.

  8. Quite possibly the best thing I’ve read on the internet in a while. It rings so true in my life. I’ve long known that the moment I get really good at something (usually artistically), I get bored and lose interest. It’s the process that is so wonderful. The process of learning and struggling and experimenting and growing that is rewarding.

  9. I love this so much, Mike. Thank you!

  10. This is fantastic. Thanks for writing it. I also particularly liked Christian’s comment about the seductiveness of “checkmark perfection.” Thanks all.

  11. This was perfect. Keep trying.