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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

To pursue perfection...

This passage from Samuel Johnson's Preface to Volume I of the Dictionary (quoted in The Meaning of Everything) breaks my heart--it's exactly the way I feel when I'm working:

When first I engaged in this work, I resolved to leave neither words nor things unexamined, and pleased myself with the prospect of the hours which I should revel away in feasts of literature, with the obscure recesses of northern leanring which I should enter and ransack; the treasures with which I expected every search into these neglected mines to reward my labour, and the triumph with which I should display my acquisition to mankind. When I had thus inquired into the original of words, I resolved to show likewise my attention to things; to pierce deep into every science, to enquire the nature of every substance of which I inserted the name, to limit every idea by a definition strictly logical, and exhibit every production of art or nature in an accurate description, that my book might be in place of all other dictionaries whether appellative or technical.

But these were the dreams of a poet doomed at last to wake a lexicographer. I soon found that it is too late to look for instruments, when the work calls for execution, and that whatever abilities I had brought to my task, with those I must finally perform it. To deliberate whenever I doubted, to enquire whenever I was ignorant, would have protracted the undertaking without end, and, perhaps, without much improvement; for I did not find by my first experiments, that what I had not of my own was easily to be obtained: I saw that one enquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to pursue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chase the sun, which, when they had reached hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them. I then contracted my design, determining to confide in myself, and no longer to solicit auxiliaries, which produced more incumbrance than assistance; by this I obtained at least one advantage, that I set limits to my work, which would in time be ended, though not completed.

When I was thirteen, I wrote an imitation of Emily Dickinson:

You needn't strive for perfection, miss,
For it will never be.
You try and reach it every day,
It's just a hyperbole.

(I know 'hyperbole' doesn't really work, but I was excited about it at the time)Though I've long remembered writing it, I found it this summer when my mother was moving and now have sad proof that perfectionism is a lifelong affliction.


Blogger Anna on Wed Jan 25, 01:37:00 PM:
When I was in Spain, I once explained to one of my teachers over drinks that there was in fact no Language Academy for English. "Who writes the dictionary then?" he asked, horrified. I explained about the OED and Samuel Johnson. When he heard that our first real dictionary was written by just one man, he shook his head and muttered into his drink, "Barbarians from the North."
Anonymous Anonymous on Sun Jan 29, 09:49:00 PM:
Perfectionism is a narrowing, an obsession with accuracy. To long to follow every link beyond, and beyond, to feel intense regret at the focus required to actually achieve something large...that's something else.