Entry 30: Perfect (as you can be)- Sometime in the middle of the 17th Century, somewhere in China, after the fall of the Ming Dynasty, a former mandarin official, Zha Shibiao, found something else to do with his life. He became one of the Four Masters of Anhui and one of the few capable of attaining the three perfections. This title goes back to the 8th Century when the Emperor Xuanzong, delighted by a painting given him, inscribed
the words “three perfections” on it.
Since that time the three elements: painting, poetry and calligraphy have been appreciated as the ultimate expression of the visual arts. The calligraphy, in itself of the highest aesthetic value, is further enhanced by the formal beauty of the poem, which comments of the subject-matter of the painting. The complex interplay of these elements, as mediated in the informed mind of the observer of the art-work, results in an increasingly sophisticated appreciation of the composition upon repeated viewings.
On the western fringe of Sydney, hanging on a wall of the box-room I use for writing, above the printer, is a reproduction of an exemplar of the three perfections. The original: a hanging scroll, ink on paper, measuring 97 inches tall by 28.5 inches wide. The sheer verticality of the format lends itself to the steep cliffs, distant mountains and forest trees depicted. A solitary figure, surrounded by tall trees and standing at the edge of a stream, looks out across the water and up the steep rock face. As we follow his gaze, our eyes are drawn along the gully to a temple which peeks out from behind a vertiginous bluff, one of several, which are surmounted by stands of trees. Our eyes travel ever upwards to view the conical mountains in the distance.
Zha Shibiao, signing himself, The Taoist of Plum Gully, composed the following poem for the landscape (maybe he painted the scene after writing the poem):
A clear stream at the gully’s mouth,/On the stone path I enter the cold forest./It is late as I approach the front of the mountain,/The stream flows off into the distance.
There is a sort of perfection found near running water under trees which are sighing in the breeze, surrounded by steep, wooded slopes flooded by summer sunlight. There’s another sort of perfection found in numbers. Mathematicians claim that beauty, similar to that to be found in painting or literature or music, resides in the rarefied upper reaches of their discipline.
Unable as I am, to ascend even the foothills of that discipline, I content myself with finding nuggets such as, six is the perfect number- Pythagoras and St Augustine agree, though for different reasons. Greek mathematicians regarded as perfect those numbers which equal the sum of their divisors that are smaller than themselves. Such a number is 6, for 1 + 2 + 3 = 6. Similarly, 28, which is 1+2+4+7+14=28. The Bishop of Hippo cited the number of days it took God to create the world as the reason for 6’s perfection.
Other claimants to be considered the perfect number among the single digits include, each and every one! Zero and one can encode the universe in binary form. Two is the smallest prime. Three is the Trinity, four, the points on the Compass, five the fingers of the hand, seven days in a week, the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing started at 8 seconds and 8 minutes past 8 pm on 8 August 2008. There are nine muses in Greek mythology- don’t get me started on the whole nine yards!
What, I wonder, would a perfect person be like? Michelangelo’s David? Perhaps one of The Stepford Wives?? Or what about the perfect society? Calvin’s Geneva? Pol Pot’s Cambodia? In yearning for perfection, like so many other things in life, it is wise to remember the admonition to be careful what you wish for. In Australia, to call any achievement or attainment pretty ordinary is, in fact, a comprehensive put-down.
But what about the situation so many find themselves in where to achieve the merely ordinary would be a blessing, if not a miracle? It was in the mid-70s, living in Wollongong, that I read Thomas Shapcott’s poem, Near the school for handicapped children. It struck a chord then and that dissonant stack of notes has sounded again and again over the decades since, striking closer to home. This compelling poem gets it right: I am hurt by my wholeness, the poet says when he spots the disabled child whose freckled face reminds him of nephews and how his limbs remind me of how straight/is my own spine and that I take my fingers/for granted. Love blazes out in the simple line, he has been dressed carefully.
When the lights change to green, the child skips across the road like a skimming tambourine/brittle with music, the telling simile with which the poem ends. The light, signalling the ordinary, will be stuck on red forever.