October 30, 2014

The Myth of Creative Perfection

Designed and made by Jolyon Yates for ODE Chair


An amazing meditation on creative perfection by Michael Cunningham in The Snow Queen.

There is, Tyler believes, a myth missing from the pantheon.

It concerns a man who produces something. Say, he’s a carpenter, a good carpenter; good enough. His work is solid and substantial, the wood well cured, the edges smooth, the joints all plumb and true. His chairs recognize the body; his tables never wobble.

The carpenter, however, finds, over time (time is always the punch line, isn’t it?), that he wants to make something finer than a perfectly level table or a comfortable welcoming chair. He wants to make something . . . marvelous, something miraculous; a table or chair that matters (he himself isn’t sure what he means by that); a table that’s not so exalted as to apologize for its modest object-life of load-bearing, a chair that doesn’t criticize those who sit upon it, but, at the same time, a table and chair that rise up, revolutionize, because they . . . what? (What?)

Because . . .

. . . they shape-shift, and appear in different forms to everyone who uses them. (Look, it’s the table from my grandmother’s farm! My god, it’s the chair my son was building for my wife’s birthday when he had the accident, it’s finished, it’s here, how is that possible?)

Because . . .

. . . the table is the reincarnation of the father you lost—patient and powerful, abiding—and the chair—gracious, consoling, undeluded—is the long-awaited mother, who never arrived at all.

The carpenter can’t, of course, make furniture like that, but he can imagine it, and as time goes by he lives with growing unease in the region between what he can create and what he can envision.

The story would end . . . who knows how?

It would end when a ragged old peddler, selling worn-out oddments nobody wants, to whom the carpenter has been kind, grants him the power. But this way it ends badly, doesn’t it? The wish goes wrong. The people who sit in the chairs, who rest their forearms on the tabletops, are horrified by their own conjured memories, or furious at these manifestations of their perfected parents, because they’re so forcefully reminded of the parents actually given them.

Or, once the carpenter’s wish has been granted, he finds himself imagining furniture imbued with still more powerful magic.  Couldn’t it heal maladies, mightn’t it inspire profound and lasting love?  He spends the rest of his days searching for the old peddler, hoping for a second spell that will render those table and chairs not just comforting, but altering, transfiguring . . .

There is, it seems, some law of myth-physics that requires tragic outcomes of granted wishes.

Or it could end with the carpenter unenchanted.  There’s no peddler in this version, no bestowing of a wish.  Increasingly aware of the limits of the possible, but lost to his old satisfactions, the carpenter finds limits to his joy in sanding and measuring, because a table or chair devoid of supernatural qualities will not, cannot, satisfy him any longer; because he has too vividly imagined that which he can imagine, but can’t generate. It would end with the carpenter bitter and impoverished, cursing the empty wine bottle.

Or (hey) it could end with the carpenter transformed into a tree (by the peddler, or a witch or a god), waiting for a new, younger carpenter to cut him down, wondering if he’ll be present, some essence of him, in the tables and chairs yet to be made.

Tyler can’t seem to come up with an ending that satisfies him.

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