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.
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.
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.”