22 March 2010
Wabi-Sabi & the Reverence for Imperfection
I like to contrast Wabi-sabi with perfectionism, even if that's not the best contrast. It's important to notice that perfectionism isn't just an attribute of individuals, but also of cultures. Looking around the Modern West, I see obsessive perfectionism right at the heart of our collective identity. We pride ourselves in it and look down on more "relaxed" cultures, even if it's no longer fashionable to call them "primitive". To say that the Modern West has something to prove is an understatement. We've stepped in to fill the job of the old Christian God, and we're collectively scrambling to bone up for the job, for which we are a bit under-qualified. Perhaps this is part of the reason we're so obsessed with all things productivity related.
Anyhow, in a recent moment of release from dissertation hell, I was doing a bit of casual reading at the local public library, when I came across the concept "Wabi-sabi"; it's the great antidote to perfectionism and modernism, while avoiding a return to the caves or trees (like primitivism). I'd love to tell you a bit more about this fascinating idea.
We know that the Ancient Greeks, from whom we borrowed the odd idea, were very impressed by perfection. Think, for instance, of their sculpture of the perfect male physique, which they designed with mathematical proportions. In fact, Plato, perhaps the greatest thinker in the Western Tradition, was so obsessed with perfection that he posited a perfect world beyond space and time, from which this imperfect world is a rather sloppy instantiation. Plato's ideas influenced the dominant Christian culture of the West, and we can see much of its residue in our obsession with perfection, newness and the slickness of youth, in everything from our geometric cities, to the perfect little cyber worlds most of us now spend most of our waking lives in.
Wabi-sabi, in contrast, is a position not just more accepting of the way things in fact are, but a position that reveres this realm, filled, as it is, with imperfection. Wabi-sabi honours simplicity, the rustic, the unfinished, the random, the asymmetric, the transient, the timeworn, the flawed, the locally made, the humble, the irregular, the organic, the idiosyncratic, the textured, the degradable, the degraded. It appreciates the beauty in the transient, aged, and in the frailty of things.
Things are wabi-sabi, but so are states of mind and states of the world. Wabi-sabi accepts impermanence; it accepts death.
Wabi-sabi is such a relief; it feels liberating to me. It suggests that we no longer have to be perfect. We no longer have to worry about always getting things right, since wabi-sabi accepts the impossibility and utter futility of perfection.
Modernism's obsession with newness and progress is not only arrogant and dismissive of traditional folk-ways, but it's actually a threat to life, beauty, and true freedom. Wabi-sabi gives us a framework for grasping all of this.
I like the concept of Wabi-sabi because it sums up many other thoughts and movements that oppose the modernist bent. If you think of, for instance, the slow food movement, or the local food movement, even the organic food movement, then you are thinking of an aspect of Wabi-sabi. We have lots of movements in the West now that oppose the alienation of modern technology, like television, and promote connecting with the land, with animals, with friends. We also find advocates for voluntary simplicity, for a return to traditional crafts. So, we see Wabi-sabi is a familiar idea, but it's a single concept that captures the whole spirit of a returning to things that worked, to wholesomeness, to authenticity, and away from the modernist rush to make everything new and perfect.