Notes: The Right Wrong Stuff

IRECALL SEEING a poster mam years ago for an appearance by the guru Mahara-ji, who advertised himself as the “fifteen-year-old perfect master.” On the poster a passerby had written, “When I was fifteen, I thought I was perfect too.”I am not fifteen, and I have not thought of myself as perfect for years. Indeed, for quite some time perfection has not even been a personal objective. When a new year commences, I no longer resolve to terminate any of my dreary vices. Rather, I think about how, at some perpetually future date, I might upgrade the quality of my imperfections. Perhaps I am making a virtue of necessity, but it seems to me that having a flaw or two is usually preferable to having none.

There is a difference, of course, between a gross defect and an attractive blemish. For a deficiency to be winning there must exist a certain level of adequacy. The mistake supposedly woven into every Oriental rug—on the grounds that only Allah is without flaw—would serve no purpose (and have no cachet) if the carpet were defective throughout. The very finest shortcomings call attention less to themselves than to the estimable context in which they occur.

I know a woman—an American — who has become fluent in Uzbek, a Central Asian tongue; owing to the origin of her tutors, however, her Uzbek is marred by an Afghan accent. The failing compels respect. As it happens, I have a long wish list for flaws of just this kind. Were it possible without effort, I would like to speak an easy French whose textbook precision was occasionally interrupted by lapses into crude Corsican patois. I would like to bring to the piano such technical virtuosity that I occasionally undermined a composer’s intentions. I would like to be reproached in chess circles for a style of play “overly imitative of Capablanca.” I would like to have a broken nose, badly healed, that suggested to others how unbearably handsome I would otherwise be.

I cannot lay claim to defects so fine as these. Up to a point, however, imperfections are worth fostering even when they do not, in Goldsmith’s phrase. lean toward Virtue’s side. If nothing else, they confirm that what one lacks in common with the Supreme Being one holds in common with the highest of His creations. We would enjoy less solidarity as a species if Ronald Reagan could substantiate his anecdotes or fire his friends, if James Michener were laconic and Joe Theisman speechless, if Ralph Nader displayed a sense of humor and Willard Scott a quiet charm. Our race would be diminished if Tip O’Neill himself were, if Rex Harrison could sing, if Sister Teresa had no need for a confessor. It is important, somehow, that even Homer nod, and that we all know it. Imperfections of a middling kind contribute to comity. By making tolerance necessary they also make it possible.

This is worth bearing in mind on NewYear’s Day, lest in our resolutions we be tempted to go too far. All of us manifest shortcomings from which others derive solace or satisfaction. A rush toward perfection on even a modest scale would be uncharitable as well as disruptive. But cultivation of the right wrong stuff is another story and can only be encouraged. “She did make defect perfection,” Shakespeare wrote of Cleopatra. That, on a more modest scale, is my very goal. A gruff manner concealing inner warmth, a smile shaped by a hint of tragedy, an utter self-control except in the presence of fools or smoked salmon — these are some of the refinements that I hope to introduce in the twelvemonth ahead. At the very worst, the endeavor will end in noble failure.

—Cullen Murphy