May 12, 2010
Degrees of Perfection
On learning about Dallas Braden pitching a “perfect game” last Sunday, I realized I had engaged two degrees of perfection within a day. The Oakland Athletics won their game against the Tampa Bay Rays with 26-year-old Braden retiring 27 Tampa Bay players, allowing no runs, and this with his grandmother in the stands (on Mother's Day, no less) witnessing his achievement.
I am not a real sports fan but I can understand the relevance of this kind of triumph; only 19 “perfect games” have been recorded in Major League baseball. Specifically, a “perfect game” is when the pitcher allows no player from the opposing team to get to base; no hits or “walks,” 27 players shut down.
Earlier on Sunday, before hearing the news of Braden’s accomplishment, I was awaiting a dim sum table with a friend who is a psychologist and former Catholic. We were talking art theory and since he knows Catholicism, I brought up Aquinas as our topics concerned various definitions of art. I referenced St. Thomas’s recta ratio factibilium which roughly translates as a definition of art concerning the right making of the thing to be made. It is an older definition that Aquinas inherited from Aristotle but it still carries weight when discussing “perfection,” as it considers the practice of making to be a “perfecting” of the thing to be made through operation. In other words, keep doing it until you get it right.
Musing over these things, I thought about Charlie Parker’s “Famous Alto Break” on “Night in Tunisia.” Recording for Dial in 1946 and ’47, Bird took a few runs at his solo break and one take so stunned producers of the 1996 re-release package that they included it as an alternate cut.
An altogether different degree of “perfection,” Parker’s totally free alto sax on that take is a jumble of barely contained, cascading notes that evoke pure musical ecstasy. Could Parker's solo have been “perfected” through the many years he spent “wood-shedding” in the rhythm and blues circuit? Or was it not a combination of luck and skill that allowed him the possibility to construct such a degree of perfection?
Braden’s “perfect game” could have gone south in an instant; any one batter’s energy and desire to connect with Braden's pitches could have resulted in tagging that one ball, gotten that one run, and ruined Braden's “perfect game.” So luck must count for something in securing that “perfect game” in baseball, and perhaps this means “perfection” is not possible without luck. For in order for something to become “perfect” it must require the unknown and uncontrollable element of luck, thus enabling a pitcher to achieve a “no hitter,” or a musician to play that “unbelievable” solo.
Obviously, both the baseball player and the musician work for years, in sustained and continual development of their skill and knowledge within experiential and theoretical levels. It is more than apparent, however, that they (as well as artists) need “pure luck” to gain “perfection,” and this prerequisite of chance as a factor in all degrees of “perfection” logically proves that “perfection” is not self-evident within the terms of perfection itself and, therefore, cannot be truly called “perfect.”