"Perfection," by Mark Helprin, was published in the 2004 collection The Pacific and Other Stories. The protagonist, a Hasidic Jewish boy called Roger Reveshze, lives in post-World War II Brooklyn and becomes the unlikely ally of the New York Yankees baseball team in helping them out of a string of defeats. Roger is physically puny and knows nothing about baseball but draws his power from a divine source (angels help him hit the ball out of the stadium). This agency is available to him because of his extraordinary piety and devotion to perfection in his own life. In the greater scheme of things, his unusual abilities are portrayed as a God-given compensation for the Holocaust, in which he lost his parents in horrific circumstances. Rejecting the cynicism of much twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature, Helprin invokes such traditional themes as the perfection of God's ordering of creation, the inspirational quality of the life lived with honor and integrity, and the limitations of materialism.
Mark Helprin was born on June 28, 1947, in New York City, the son of Morris, a motion picture executive, and Eleanor Helprin. He was raised in New York City, the Hudson River Valley, and the British West Indies. He received his undergraduate degree from Harvard College
in 1969. While he was an undergraduate, at the age of twenty-one, he sold his first story to the New Yorker. He received a master's degree in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1972 and then did postgraduate work at Oxford University in England and at Princeton and Columbia in the United States. He has served in the British Merchant Navy, and from 1972 to 1973, he served in the Israeli infantry and the Israeli Air Force. On June 28, 1980, he married Lisa Kennedy, a tax lawyer and a vice president of Chase Manhattan Bank. As of 2006, they were still married.
Helprin believes that his work speaks for itself and seldom talks about it or about himself. However, he has described himself as Jewish by birth and by faith, though not in the orthodox tradition, and depicts his books as religious. Politically, he labels himself a Republican. He has also spoken about his pursuit of exceptional experiences; he is a skilled mountain climber.
Three quotations from Helprin collected in John Affleck's dissertation, "Birds of a Feather: The Ancient Mariner Archetype in Mark Helprin's ‘A Dove of the East’ and A Soldier of the Great War," shed light on Helprin's motivation in writing and on his choice of themes. Affleck cites Helprin as writing that he loves literature "not only because it is so pleasingly beautiful, but because it is so deeply consequential." Affleck adds that in an epigram to A Dove of the East and Other Stories, Helprin quotes Dante in Italian: "amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare," (love moved me, and makes me speak). Finally, Affleck cites Helprin's remark to a Paris Review interviewer:
I write in service of illumination and memory. I write to each into "the blind world where no one can help." I write because it is a way of glimpsing truth. And I write to create something of beauty.
From 1985 to 2000, Helprin wrote political opinion pieces for the Wall Street Journal; he was appointed a contributing editor to the Journal in 1991. He has also published stories and essays on politics and aesthetics in the Atlantic Monthly, New Criterion, Commentary, the New York Times, the National Review, American Heritage, and Forbes ASAP. During the 1996 U.S. presidential election campaign, it was revealed that Helprin had written the nomination acceptance speech of Republican Party candidate Bob Dole. As of 2006, he was a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank.
Helprin's books include A Dove of the East and Other Stories (1975), the novel Refiner's Fire: The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, a Foundling (1977), the critically acclaimed Ellis Island and Other Stories (1981), the novel Winter's Tale (1983), the children's book Swan Lake (1989), and the highly praised A Soldier of the Great War (1991). Thereafter followed two children's books, both with illustrations by Chris Van Allsburg, A City in Winter: The Queen's Tale (1996) and The Veil of Snows (1997). The Pacific and Other Stories, which contains the story "Perfection," was published in 2004, and Freddy and Fredericka in 2005.
Helprin's work has garnered many awards. He received a PEN/Faulkner Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and an American Book Award nomination in 1982, all for Ellis Island and Other Stories. In the same year, he was awarded the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Prix de Rome. In 1984, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. His novel for young adults, A City in Winter: The Queen's Tale, won a World Fantasy Award for Best Novella, World Fantasy Convention in 1997. In 2001, the Center for Security Policy gave Helprin a Mightier Pen Award.
"Perfection" opens in the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn in June 1956 but immediately flashes back a year to March 1955, to the incident that sets off the events of the story, when "the Saromsker Rebbe opened the wrong drawer." (Rebbe is the Hasidic Jewish word for rabbi, which means spiritual teacher or master while Saromsker refers to the Hasidic dynasty or family group from which the rebbe descends.) The Saromsker Rebbe's family had taken in many children who survived the Holocaust though their parents had not.
The events leading up to the drawer incident are described. The Saromsker Rebbe wishes to telephone another rabbi to discuss a theological point. But snow has snapped some telephone lines, so the Saromsker Rebbe puts his points in a letter and asks one of his students which student may be trusted to take the message to the other rabbi. The student recommends Roger Reveshze, a fourteen-year-old boy who escaped the Majdanek Nazi extermination camp in Poland and spends much time praying for his parents. The student says Roger is suitable for the errand as he is extraordinarily fast and has unusual spiritual purity. The Saromsker Rebbe summons Roger and asks him what he sees when he closes his eyes. Roger describes a scene in Eastern Europe with an old man (probably his father) with snow settling on his hat.
Looking for sealing wax for his letter, the Saromsker Rebbe opens a drawer of his desk. It is the wrong drawer, and when he sees what is in it, he rapidly slams it shut, though not before Roger catches sight of it. It is a box marked with the brand name "Lindt," a kind of Swiss chocolate which is non-kosher.
Roger reflects that the Saromsker Rebbe has eaten non-kosher food over time, lied, and concealed his sin from his followers. Roger concludes the rebbe is imperfect. Roger hates lying because it weakens a person against worse evils. He knows what happened to his parents and others in the Holocaust, and he is determined to bear witness to this truth until he dies. He aims for perfection in this aspect of his life, in the conviction that his persistence and love will lead to reunion with his parents in the afterlife. The Saromsker Rebbe's lie tells Roger that the rebbe cannot be trusted to study current affairs honestly and sense when there may be another impending holocaust. Roger decides that he himself must listen to the radio. His classmate Luba, who works for the butcher, Schnaiper, tells him that in the butcher's shop there is a radio that cannot be turned off. Roger arranges to do Luba's job in order to listen to the radio.
Roger hears an entrancing narrative on the radio. Schnaiper tells him that it is a baseball game taking place in "the House That Ruth Built." This is a popular nickname for Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, after the famous baseball player for the Yankees, Babe Ruth, the nickname of George Herman Ruth Jr. (1895-1948). Roger, in his ignorance of U.S. culture, believes that it is a reference to Ruth, the supposed author of the book of Ruth in the Old Testament. Ruth is celebrated by Jews as a convert to Judaism as well as for being the great-grandmother to King David of Israel (c. 1011 b.c.e.-971 b.c.e.), from whose lineage Jews believe that the Messiah will come.
- The Pacific and Other Stories was released in an unabridged version as an audio CD by Sound Library in 2004. It is narrated by William Dufris. As of 2006, it was available from amazon.com.
Roger is excited that there is a place in the Bronx with a direct link to the Israelites. He asks Luba about it, and Luba solemnly describes his fantasy as if it were reality. He envisions a huge sacred construction, lit by divine light and filled with beautiful women who are descended from Ruth. There are rabbis reading sacred Jewish texts, Jewish bands playing music for dancing, and endless supplies of Jewish food. Luba says that no one can go there except if they die, when they are taken there on a sled, or the women are in danger and need a champion to save them. In his Western mind, Roger knows that what Luba says is impossible, but in his Eastern mind, he knows that rabbis and mystics could defy gravity and fly.
From his time spent in Schnaiper's shop listening to baseball games on the radio, Roger emerges with the garbled message that the Yenkiss (the Yankees) are suffering a string of defeats, and even with the great Mickey Mental (the real-life player Mickey Mantle, 1931-1994) on their team, the Kansas City team could easily "kill" them.
After much prayer, Roger knows the answer. He has to save the Yankees. Dressed in his Hasidic black robes and fur hat on a hot June day, he packs a suitcase and sets off on the subway for the House of Ruth, where he is convinced that "a miracle will come." Roger arrives at the stadium and, though he has no money to buy a ticket, gets in by helping a peanut delivery man carrying in supplies. He goes to the stands and watches as Mantle and Berra (the real-life player Lawrence "Yogi" Berra, born 1925) are engaged in a practice session. Roger repeatedly calls out, "Mickey Mental!" Mantle thinks he is being mocked. He walks over to Roger and asks what he wants. Roger says that God has sent him "To lift you from the darkness of defeat," adding that he has received no specific instructions as to how. He asks Mantle where the ideal place to direct the ball is, and Mantle replies that it is over the clock and out of the stadium. Roger offers to show him how to do this. Mantle discusses the idea with Berra. Berra thinks that Roger is a "hayseed" (a mispronunciation of the word Hasid) and that Mantle is also a "hayseed" (a nickname for a person with a farming background). Based on this logic, he thinks that Roger should be allowed to try.
Berra brings out the rest of the team. Roger holds the bat aloft like a sword, and as he dances and twirls with it, the sun shines on it, and it glows. He feels love in his heart. The Yankees do not know that Roger is here to test God's justice, according to the verse from the book of Ruth, "May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead." One of the coaches, Wylie, who does not believe in Roger, challenges him to hit the ball so that it knocks off the minute hand of the clock. The pitcher throws the ball, and Roger hits it so hard that it shatters into tiny particles. Roger apologizes and tries again. This time, the ball, trailing orange flame, hits the minute hand of the clock, which drops to the ground. Roger rises to each challenge the players set him, including putting a hole in the clock. Stengel (Casey Stengel, the real-life manager of the Yankees, 1890-1975) emerges and promises that if Roger can consistently hit the ball out of the stadium, he will double each player's salary and hire Roger for a million dollars a year. But if Roger fails, Stengel will not hire him, and each player will have his salary halved. Roger protests that he is not interested in money; he only wants to teach the team "to hit these objects, these … balls, with perfection."
The Yankees look on awestruck as Roger hits one ball after another out of the stadium. Roger also shows that he can make brilliant catches. Stengel bribes the witnesses to Roger's performance to keep silent, so as to maintain his team's tactical advantage. He is worried that Roger will not be able to play in the World Series because it takes place close to Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, a time of reflection and penitence that Roger is determined to observe.
Over the following weeks, the sporting and Jewish communities are surprised by the changes that take place regarding the Yankees. The hot dogs sold at the stadium are now all kosher, the stands echo with Hebrew prayers, Hasidic rabbis stand behind the umpires, the team refuses to play on Saturdays, the Jewish sabbath, and some of the players have adopted the Jewish head-covering.
The Yankees now lose by lesser margins, and the players perform better as they strive to match Roger. No one realizes that Roger closes his eyes after the pitch, feels an angel's arms take hold of the bat, and levitates slightly with joy. Hitting the ball is a mystical experience. Even with eyes closed he sees it coming, and it seems to grow and stop in front of him, asking to be hit. The angel hits the ball with great power, and it flies out of the stadium, slowly enough to be seen by an ecstatic crowd.
On the occasion of Roger's first game, his astonishing performance brings the Yankees a win over Kansas City. In the locker room after the game, the team picks Roger up and carries him about in triumph, chanting his name. He insists that they stop, because he is not responsible; God is. He also stops them from worshipping his bat. The press bursts into the locker room demanding to see Roger, but Mantle hides Roger in a laundry cart and Berra says that Roger has gone to his hometown, Milledgeville. A media storm of speculation follows about who he is and where he comes from. Roger is oblivious to the fame as his entire being is taken up with the experience of being within the embrace of an angel.
Roger's second game brings the Yankees a dramatic win over the White Sox. Stengel asks Roger to hold a clinic to teach the rest of the team how to play like he does. Roger warns him that he knows nothing about baseball but offers to teach them what he does know. The seminar takes place at the Yankees' secret practice ground. Roger tells the team that locks—both locks in doors and locks in canals—illustrate the mechanism of creation. God is perfect, and his creation is perfect, so that all fear and suffering in the world are ultimately counterbalanced, just as to allow a door lock to turn, each pin in the lock mechanism must be raised sufficiently to allow the lock to turn. Some pins are raised more, and some less. Though people live very different lives, with different levels of suffering, all are raised by God in various and invisible ways, so that the perfection of creation will not be broken. Similarly, a canal lock is a mechanism to lift or lower a boat that gets its power from the urge of all water to find its own level. People's reception of God's compensation, which is called holiness, is more real than the world itself. Roger says his strength and skill on the baseball field are supplied by God in compensation, resulting in perfection. The Yankees can tap into this, but not if their object is only to win games, which is a diminishment of God's infinite universe. Mantle asks Roger what his object is. Roger replies, "Because of the imperfection I have seen, I live for the hope of restoration."
Roger tells his story. Born in Majdanek, he saw so much killing that he thought it was natural. He was sustained by his parents' love. Just before the camp was liberated by the Allies, when he was three, he and his parents were marched out to the edge of a pit. Everyone was shot except for Roger, who escaped the bullets because of his small size. A soldier threw him into the pit on top of the bodies. Gasoline was thrown onto the bodies, which were set alight, but Roger escaped. Now, all he wishes for is a sign that somewhere forward in time or beyond time there is a justice in the world that will lift up those he loves from the grave they were given.
The Yankees return from the seminar with the ruthlessness of an efficient army bent on vengeance. For two weeks, they win every game they play. They no longer care about their salaries or their standing in the league. They care only about perfection.
Roger's last game takes place. Roger is cheered by people in the streets as well as in the stadium, which is filled to double capacity. Roger hits one ball after another out of the stadium. Everyone looks on in wonder and delight and feels as if "the world were ablaze with the light of perfection."
Roger is happy to return to his humble home in Brooklyn and does not miss the luxury hotel in which he has been staying. He knows that the value of the Hasidic rituals and manner of dress is that they put the things of the world in their place. As the subway train twists and turns on its journey towards his home, Roger closes his eyes and sees his mother and father. He opens his eyes and reflects that what happened in the House That Ruth Built is like a song that he has been brought up to sing, in protest of mortality and for the love of God.
Berra is a fictionalized version of Lawrence "Yogi" Berra, the real-life catcher who played for the Yankees baseball team at the time in which the story is set. The real-life Berra was famous for his malapropisms and his idiosyncratic use of the English language. Helprin exploits this reputation by having his character Berra utter cryptic remarks such as, "The start of the middle is the end of the road for the beginning" and mixing up the terms "Hasid" and "hayseed." Berra has a spiritual streak that makes him instinctively supportive of Roger from the moment when he first appears at Yankee Stadium.
Rabbi Eisvogel is a member of the Hasidic Jewish community in which Roger lives at the story's opening. He is a wise man who allows Roger to listen to the radio in Schnaiper's shop for long periods, even if it means missing his studies, because he knows it is important to Roger's spiritual quest.
Luba is Roger's classmate in the Hasidic Jewish community. He has a job in Schnaiper's shop until Roger bribes him to let him take it over so that he can listen to the radio. After Roger hears the baseball game "from the House That Ruth Built" on the radio, he asks Luba about the House of Ruth. Luba is one of those Jews for whom "dreams are real" because they have lost everything. He has a vivid imagination and launches into a fantasy that describes Yankee Stadium as a kind of theme park dedicated to the Biblical character Ruth.
Mickey Mantle, or Mickey Mental, as Roger calls him with his Yiddish accent, is a fictionalized version of the real-life baseball player for the Yankees. Roger begins his quest to rescue the Yankees by standing at the rail during a practice session and shouting repeatedly, "Mickey Mental!" Mantle is irritated but walks over to question Roger about why he is there. Against his better judgment, Mantle believes what Roger tells him about being sent by God to save him "from the darkness of defeat."
Mel is a radio sports commentator (one half of the commentating duo, Red and Mel). Though they work together, both are from Alabama, and both are described as prima donnas, Red and Mel clearly dislike one another. Their on-air bickering is temporarily interrupted by their astonishment at Roger's performance. Mel is stocky, with blue-black hair, and is portrayed as "what you might call a garage guy."
See Mickey Mantle
Red is a radio sports commentator (one half of the commentating duo, Red and Mel). Red is red-haired and thin, high strung, and aristocratic.
See Roger Reveshze
Roger, the protagonist, is a fourteen-year-old Hasidic Jew who, at the story's opening in 1955, lives in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn. He is described as a strange-looking boy with "wild eyes, big ears, and big teeth." He is physically undersized, even puny, and what certain children might call a "spastic." Nevertheless, he is deemed remarkable by his classmates and the elders of his community because of his extraordinary speed and his great spiritual purity. His piety and devotion to God have given him access to ecstatic spiritual states. When he prays, his body defies gravity and he spins head-over-heels and sees light.
Roger has a horrific past, having been born in and narrowly escaped from a Nazi extermination camp where he witnessed his parents and everyone he knew being murdered by the Nazis. Since then, Roger has devoted his life to praying for his parents' souls, seeking some compensation for their terrible deaths. He is devout yet intellectually independent, so he is ready to question the authority of the Saromsker Rebbe when he discovers that he has been eating non-kosher chocolate and soon sets out to remedy the imperfection that has crept into his life as a result of the rebbe's lie. Roger is a seeker after perfection, both in his own life and in the universe as a whole. Like many Jews who have lost everything (according to the story), he is susceptible to glorious dreams and is inspired to go to help the Yankees out of their run of defeats because he believes that they inhabit the divinely sanctioned "House That Ruth Built."
Roger has another motive for helping the Yankees. In the Hasidic tradition of spiritual mischief, he wants to challenge God. God, he feels, must compensate him for the deaths of his parents. Though people can be cast down by suffering, he believes, the perfection of creation demands that God raise them up by a sufficient degree to compensate for the suffering. God does not disappoint Roger. While Roger knows nothing about baseball, by drawing upon the infinite skill and power of angels, he is able to hit ball after ball out of the stadium. In the short time that he plays for the Yankees, he inspires the team to pursue perfection over and above all material considerations and brings a glimpse of perfection to thousands of awed spectators.
Roger's unimpressive physique, his ignorance of baseball, and even the Hasidic dress in which he introduces himself to the Yankees and which is completely unsuited to sports activity, are set against his extraordinary performance on the baseball field. The gap between the two is both a source of the story's comedy and emblematic of the nature of divine grace, which, the story suggests, ignores rational and logical considerations and works according to its own immutable laws.
During his time playing for the Yankees, he is given the more Anglo-Saxon-sounding name, Roger Reeves.
The Saromsker Rebbe is a member of the Hasidic Jewish community in which Roger lives at the story's opening. His family has rescued numerous Holocaust survivors. A man of considerable spiritual insight, he questions Roger and is quick to see his spiritual purity. However, he has neglected his own religious duties by eating non-kosher chocolate and lying about it. He has allowed imperfection to enter his life. His character is not examined further, his role in the story being to provide the catalyst for Roger's quest for perfection.
Schnaiper is a butcher who serves the Hasidic Jewish community in which Roger lives. Schnaiper in unique in the community in that he has a radio, and Roger takes a job in his shop so that he can listen to it. The radio is always tuned to a baseball game, which Schnaiper tries to explain to Roger.
Stengel is a fictionalized version of Casey Stengel, the real-life manager of the Yankees baseball team at the time in which the story is set. He is a cynical businessman who thinks in financial and material terms. When he first sees Roger, he promises that if Roger can consistently hit the ball out of the stadium, he will double each player's salary and hire Roger for a million dollars a year. But if Roger fails, Stengel will not hire him, and each player will have his salary halved. Stengel finds it hard to understand that Roger is not motivated by money and even harder to understand that Roger will not play in the World Series because God told him not to play during Rosh Hashana, a Jewish time of penitence.
Wylie is one of the Yankees' coaches. "Mean and small of soul," he is the most cynical character in the story. He claims that Roger is using tricks to fool people into thinking that he is striking the minute hand off the clock or hitting balls out of the stadium.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the Holocaust that took place during World War II. Write and give a presentation on the conditions leading up to it, what happened, and the aftereffects. Include in your presentation some ideas on how such an event might be prevented from happening again.
- Either (1) interview some survivors of the Holocaust, and/or members of a family whose parents or grandparents survived the Holocaust, about their experiences, and create a report, film, or CD based on your findings; or (2) read some firsthand accounts of survivors of the Holocaust and create a report, film or CD based on your findings.
- Read about Hasidic Judaism—its beliefs, customs, and adherents—and write an essay on the subject. If you wish, you may include quotes from, or information about, literature written by or about Hasidic Jews.
- Research areas where Hasidic Jews have set up communities. Tell the story of one such community—who set it up and why, where the community came from, and what kinds of lives its members forged in their adopted area. Information can be gathered from any source you wish, including interviews.
- Research the subject of peak experiences, which may be defined as sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, and an awareness of ultimate truth and the unity of all things. Based on your findings, give a presentation or write a poem or short story about this subject.
- Helprin is known as an author who deals in grand themes, such as love, truth, and honor. Write a story, poem, short story, or short play around one such grand theme, showing how it transforms a life or lives.
The Importance of Truth
The events of the story are set in motion by Roger's discovery of the Saromsker Rebbe's imperfection—his deception about eating non-kosher chocolate. Roger has witnessed an extreme "imperfection," the Holocaust in which his parents were murdered. He knows that he can no longer trust the Saromsker Rebbe to bear witness to the truth with the absolute integrity needed to avoid another Holocaust. He himself intends to bear witness to the truth of the Holocaust until the day he dies. In order to know the truth of the current political situation, he listens to the radio, but what he learns leads him to another task: saving the Yankees from a string of defeats. In a broader sense, Roger lives his life in accordance with the truth, in that he is incapable of lying. He knows that a lie is the beginning of the breakdown of integrity, "the outrider of malevolent forces, which come first with a lie so that they might not have to fight to subdue you."
In this story, there are different types of truth. Rational truth is shown to be extremely limited, in that something can be spiritually true but rationally ludicrous. An example is Roger's belief, reinforced by Luba's fantasy, that Yankee Stadium is "the House That Ruth Built" in the biblical sense. While this is not true, it inspires Roger to become a champion of perfection for the Yankees.
The Perfection of God's Creation
Roger is prompted to set out on his quest to save the Yankees by the Saromsker Rebbe's imperfection. Roger believes that "The balances of the universe are precise and delicate…. One uncourageous lie destroys the core of the imagination." The balance of the universe demands that someone—in this case, Roger—must express the perfection that is truth. Despite knowing nothing about baseball and being physically frail, Roger is able to help the Yankees because he devotes his life to perfection, which involves a commitment to truth and to God. The image to which he clings in this quest is the resurrection of those who are gone, including his parents, somewhere in future time or beyond time: "All was grace and perfection there, all just and redeemed, all prayer answered, ratios exact, rhythms perfect, law obeyed." The spiritual lifting up of those who have met with a terrible death, and of himself, is seen by Roger as divine compensation for the horror of the Holocaust and an affirmation of God's perfect ordering of creation. When he arrives at Yankee Stadium, he is testing God's justice, challenging him to provide such compensation, and God does not let him down. Drawing upon the power of angels, Roger accomplishes marvelous feats on the baseball pitch that enable the Yankees to win and also teaches them, and the audiences in the stadium, the importance of commitment to perfection.
Closely related to the theme of the perfection of God's creation is the theme of the glory and beauty of creation. It is the Hasidic belief that God is immanent in, but also transcendent beyond, every part of creation. An example of such awareness occurs when Roger looks out from his hotel room on a glorious sunset and feels no personal pride in his accomplishments, only a reminder of the "kind of high glory that rides from place to place and time to time on a shower of sparks."
The Power of Holiness and the Limitations of Materialism
The unlikely premise of "Perfection" is that a physically weak, bookish, and unworldly Hasidic boy can single-handedly save the Yankees baseball team from a losing streak by his extraordinary performance on the field. The paradox is reinforced by the stereotypical image that prevails about Jewish boys: that while they may excel at intellectual and artistic pursuits, they are less likely to excel at sports. The narrator underscores this message in the following passage: "Jews couldn't hit, never could. Their job in the mystery of things was to take on the kidney a baseball thrown by a tall Irishman or a giant Pole." In other words, their role in creation up to now (until Roger's epiphany) has been to miss hitting balls thrown at them and be bashed on the kidney by the ball. The prevailing stereotype is also that the guy who is good at jock-type activities is likely to be a big Irishman or a Pole. The effect of this improbable plot is to displace reason and logic (which define the material world) and to announce to the reader that another law applies. This law, the story suggests, is the infinite grace of God and, by extension, the infinite possibilities open to a person who perfectly aligns his or her life and will with God.
How People Deal with Loss
Roger lost his parents and everyone he knew in the extermination camp at Majdanek. He copes with this loss by focusing on the image of his parents restored to glory in some future time or some place beyond time. He tells the Yankees: "Because of the imperfection I have seen, I live for the hope of restoration. That's all I live for, even if it be a sin." Hoping is one way of dealing with loss; another way is dreaming. The author suggests that for Jews, many of whom at certain times in history have lost everything, dreams are a vital part of real life: "for those who have nothing, dreams are real." Luba's dream-like fantasy about the House That Ruth Built in the Bronx inspires Luba and causes Roger to respond to its elevated tone by spiritually rising to the occasion and saving the Yankees.
This story has little in common with those works of twentieth- and twenty-first-century fiction which tend to emphasize realism, moral ambiguity, doubt, and cynicism. But it has strong elements of the genre known as magical realism, in which magical or supernatural elements (such as Roger's divinely assisted feats in baseball) appear in an otherwise realistic setting and in which all elements are treated as real.
Symbolism occurs in literature when something is used to represent something else, often when a material object represents both itself and something immaterial. Throughout "Perfection," Roger is surrounded by images of light and elevation, which symbolize his spiritual illumination and exaltation. With regard to light, a student tells the Saromsker Rebbe of Roger, "When he prays, white light bathes the walls." When Roger, with the help of an angel, hits balls out of the Yankee Stadium, they trail orange flame.
With regard to elevation, both in Brooklyn and while he stays in a luxury hotel, Roger inhabits the upper floors of tall buildings. In addition, Roger is frequently connected with birds in the story, which are creatures that inhabit the heavens and, like the angels that help him play baseball, have wings.
A metaphor is a similarity drawn between one thing and another to which it is not literally applicable. In this story, Roger uses metaphors of locks (both on doors and in canals) to describe the perfection of the mechanisms of God's creation. Military metaphors are used to suggest the war between good and evil that is played out in the events of the story.
The assumptions underlying Roger's lock metaphors are that God is perfect and that his creation is perfect, so all fear and suffering in the world are ultimately counterbalanced. Injustices are corrected, but sometimes this happens far away from people in space and time, so that they cannot see the mechanism in its entirety. All souls are equal in the eyes of God, and everyone finally comes to the same reward. To allow a door lock to turn, each pin in the lock mechanism must be raised sufficiently to allow the lock to turn. Some pins are raised more, and some less. Though a beggar lives a different life from a king, both "are lifted by God variously and invisibly, but equally, even in this world, so that the perfection will not be broken." Similarly, a canal lock is a mechanism to lift or lower a boat that gets its power from the urge of all water to find its own level. In life, those who suffer know, too, the level of compensation they acquire. The reception of this compensation, which is called holiness, is more real than the world itself. Roger's extraordinary feats on the baseball field, accomplished with the help of angels, are a divine compensation for the horrors he has suffered in the Holocaust.
Military metaphors are apt for a story that takes place against the historical background of the Holocaust of World War II. Roger and his allies are seen as warriors against evil and materialism. Luba talks of the rescuer of the inhabitants of the House That Ruth Built—the role that Roger takes on—as a "champion." This champion, says Luba, "must have great virtue, for he will carry in his hand the very staff of the Lord." This language connotes both scenes from the Old Testament and the Western European tradition of a chivalrous knight, called a champion, who fights for God, virtue, and truth. Helprin's invocation of the tradition of chivalry also has the effect of distancing his story from the cynical, materialistic outlook of much twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature. It hearkens back to an age which, it is suggested, valued truth, honor, and spiritual purity.
Military metaphors are also used to describe the Yankees after their transformative seminar with Roger. They seem no longer mere baseball players, but "soldiers," and they are referred to by the press as "The Invincible Engine," like some lethal military killing machine. Galvanized by Roger's account of his response to the Holocaust, they are "bent on a certain kind of vengeance"; they want "only to play to perfection" and "to speak directly to God, and to face like men the fact of evil and sorrow in the world." The suggestion is that they have, in some sense, become warriors for good against evil.
The story contains much comedy, most notably in the unexpected image of an undersized Hasidic boy in traditional dress showing the Yankees how to hit a ball out of the stadium. The bizarre juxtaposition helps to break the boundaries of reason and to open the reader's awareness to a reality beyond reason. But sometimes, the humor has a darker hue. When Roger plays for the Yankees against Kansas City, the Orthodox Jewish contingent in the stands fears lest "he would be the reason for the defeat of this otherwise invincible gentile team … and that this might result in a pogrom." As the Yankees win, while the gentiles "shook the pillars of the world with their shouts … the Jews prayed silently, thankful to have been spared." This is a joke, of course, because it is unlikely that another Holocaust could result from a Jewish boy's letting down the Yankees in a baseball game. But the humor has a serious point. During a baseball game or any sporting event, a crowd can be whipped up into a highly emotional and irrational state, overwhelmed with suddenly felt hostilities. It is just such emotion that Hitler succeeded in manipulating to gain support for his anti-Semitic policies, of which the Holocaust was the extreme example (it is no coincidence that Hitler often used large sports stadiums similar to Yankee Stadium for his rallies). Many Jewish people are sensitive to such irrational winds of change, as they fear they could be forerunners of a new Holocaust.
The Holocaust is the name given to the genocide of the Jews and other minority groups and so-called undesirables carried out by Nazi Germany and its allies during World War II (1939-1945). It is estimated that around six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust in what the Nazis called the final solution of the Jewish question or the cleaning. The Nazis promoted the belief that the Jews were a physically and morally inferior group that should be exterminated. Hundreds of thousands of Jews perished in the extermination camps set up in Germany and collaborating countries by the Nazis. Early on in the war, as happened to Roger's parents, many were marched to the edge of a pit, where they were shot, a method later found to be too costly a use of ammunition. The pit was then filled in by bulldozers. Later when the Nazis wanted to speed up the killing and use a cheaper method, death camp prisoners were gassed in custom-made chambers with a common delousing poison, zyklon B.
Minority groups murdered by the Nazis in extermination camps included Roma (gypsies), Poles, Serbs, homosexuals, mentally and physically disabled people, communists, dissidents and intellectuals, black people, resistant Catholic and Protestant clergy, and various criminals. Taking these groups into account brings most estimates of those killed in the Holocaust to an estimated eleven million.
The Nazi extermination camp at Majdanek, where Roger was born and where he witnessed his parents being murdered, was two miles from the Polish city Lublin. It was one of two camps where zyklon B was used in the gas chambers, though carbon monoxide was also used. According to data from the Majdanek State Museum, about 300,000 inmates passed through the camp, of whom over 40 percent were Jews. It is estimated that around 100,000 Jews lost their lives there, half dying from disease, exhaustion, and harsh conditions, and half being executed or gassed.
Some people do not believe that the Jews were killed in an event of genocide during World War II. People who do not believe the Holocaust occurred are commonly called Holocaust deniers, but they themselves generally favor the term Holocaust revisionists. Key beliefs of Holocaust deniers include rejecting the fact that the Nazi government had a deliberate policy of targeting Jews for extermination; that around six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust; and that mass extermination of Jews occurred in camps designed for that purpose. Some Holocaust deniers claim that the gas chambers found in the camps after the end of the war were for delousing inmates and that the camps were for prisoners of labor and not for extermination. In the last decade of the twentieth century, some commentators claimed that Jews invented or exaggerated the Holocaust for financial or political gain. They coined the term, Holocaust industry, to describe this notion. In "Perfection," the character of Roger is placed in
COMPARE & CONTRAST
1940s: The Nazis murder approximately six million Jews, in a genocide that comes to be known as the Holocaust, in extermination camps in Germany and its allied countries.
1950s: In the United States and other countries to which Jews immigrate after World War II, the Holocaust is not much discussed either within or outside Jewish circles. Jews who survive the Holocaust and immigrate to the United States are discouraged by customs officials from talking about their experiences, on the presumption that Americans are not interested.
Today: The Holocaust is the subject of documentaries, films, and books and is commemorated in museums and monuments. Holocaust denial is illegal in many countries.
1940s: The Holocaust destroys all Hasidic groups in Eastern Europe.
1950s: Survivors of the Holocaust immigrate to various countries, including the United States and Israel, and establish new centers of Hasidic Judaism modeled on their original communities. In the United States, the largest communities are in Brooklyn, New York.
Today: Hasidic Judaism thrives, especially in U.S. cities, with approximately 165,000 Hasidic Jews living in the New York City area. Hasidic Jews preserve the Yiddish language and many of the religious traditions of pre-Holocaust Eastern European Judaism. The American Hasidic Jewish reggae artist Matisyahu is popular. His music is primarily aimed at non-religious Jews to bring them closer to Judaism.
1940s: Palestine is partitioned into Arab and Jewish regions, and the Jewish state of Israel is set up in 1948, largely to provide a homeland for the Jewish people where they can avoid the possibility of another Holocaust.
1950s: From 1951 to 1956, hundreds of attacks on Israel are carried out by Arab resistance groups called fedayeen, operating from the Arab countries of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. In 1956, Egyptian president Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal, an international waterway through which Israeli ships passed, threatens British and French oil and trade interests in the region. In the hope of ending the fedayeen attacks, Israel joins with France and Britain in attacking Egypt, though this war ends in the same year.
Today: Hostilities between Israel and neighboring Arab countries continue. Israel builds a West Bank barrier purportedly to defend the country against attacks by Palestinian groups, though opponents claim the barrier is a way for Israel to appropriate land.
opposition to Holocaust deniers, in that he is determined to "bear witness" to the truth of the death of his parents and so many others, "even as others might forget, ridicule, dismiss, or demean it."
In many countries, Holocaust denial is illegal. In 2005, British historian David Irving was sentenced to three years imprisonment in Austria based on books he had written and speeches he had given claiming the scale of the extermination of Jews in World War II was exaggerated, that Hitler knew nothing of the Holocaust, and that there had been no gas chambers at the Auschwitz camp. In 1998, Irving launched an unsuccessful libel suit against U.S. academic Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher. The presiding judge, Charles Gray (as reported in the Guardian Unlimited article, "The Ruling against David Irving: Excerpts from High Court Judge Charles Gray's Ruling in the David Irving Libel Suit"), ruled that characterizations that Irving is a "Holocaust denier," that he is "anti-Semitic," and that he has "for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence" were "substantially true." The case also demanded that the judge rule on the truth or otherwise of the events of the Holocaust itself. After hearing evidence from both sides, the judge concluded, "It is my conclusion that no objective, fair-minded historian would have serious cause to doubt that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz and that they were operated on a substantial scale to kill hundreds of thousands of Jews."
Hasidic Judaism, of which Roger is an adherent, is a form of Haredi Judaism, which in turn is sometimes known as Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. The word, Hasidic (Chasidic is an alternative spelling) derives from the Hebrew word for "piety." Hasidic Judaism was founded by Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), a mystic who is commonly referred to by Hasidic Jews as the Baal Shem Tov (generally translated as Master of the Good Name), or as Besht for short. Hasidic Judaism stresses joy, faith, and ecstatic prayer, accompanied by song and dance, and places religious exaltation above intellectual knowledge. One of its central beliefs is that the entire universe is a manifestation of God but that God also transcends the universe. This belief tends to give rise to optimism about the human condition, as it teaches that everyone and everything possesses a divine spark in which God is manifested.
Hasidic beliefs and practices are expressed in "Perfection" in Roger's love for, and wonder at, the marvels of creation; in his sensitivity to visions of "the House That Ruth Built" as being filled with music and dance; in his easy familiarity with ecstatic states; and in his assumption that he and, ultimately, the Yankees can reflect divine perfection in the relatively mundane act of playing baseball.
Hasidic dress is distinctive. Hasidic men usually wear a black hat and black clothes with a white shirt, and on the sabbath they wear a black satin or silk robe with a prayer belt. In common with other Jews, Hasidic Jews follow dietary laws, and food produced in line with these laws is called kosher. In "Perfection," under Roger's influence, some Jewish rules of dress are adopted by the Yankees baseball team, and some of the dietary rules are followed within the stadium, shocking the media and the public.
Helprin published The Pacific and Other Stories, the collection in which "Perfection" appears, in 2004, after a seven-year absence from fiction publishing. The critical reception was mostly positive, although Helprin's embrace of such old-fashioned themes as beauty, truth, and honor, and his affirmation of moral absolutes, was not universally admired.
In his mostly enthusiastic review for Newsday entitled "Glimpses of Lives Honed on Honor," Dan Cryer remarks that Helprin is an "unabashed cultural conservative" who writes about "great qualities" without irony or "the wink of postmodernist qualification." While he calls the collection "uneven," Cryer notes that it has a coherent theme, "the grace imparted by a life honed on honor." He singles out "Perfection" as an "exuberant story" and "one of the oddest, and funniest, of baseball stories," combining magical realism with an "unabashed moral focus." Overall though, Cryer's main
criticism of the collection is that sometimes the stories fall into "heavy-handed didacticism."
Michiko Kakutani, in his review for the International Herald Tribune, was less impressed. Kakutani comments that "Helprin's focus on moral absolutes seems to have hardened, if not calcified," resulting in "heavy-handed, stage-managed fictions," which display a "growing sanctimony."
In her review for the San Francisco Chronicle, "Fuzzy Lives in Perfect Detail: Characters Act Precisely as They Seek Redemption," Jennie Yabroff highlights a feature of the stories that is simultaneously a strength and a weakness. "God," she writes, "is in Helprin's details." She praises Helprin's precise and lucid descriptions of how things work (examples might include Roger's explanation of how canal locks and door locks work and the narrator's detailed description of a baseball game) but feels that the characters lack emotional depth. Pointing out that "Most of his male characters are uncommonly brave," she comments: "Helprin becomes a generalist when writing about how people operate. His stories read more like fables than observations of actual human behavior."
No such reservations are recorded by the Los Angeles Times critic, Nick Owchar, in his review, "Appreciating Life's Moments of Perfection." Owchar calls the collection "splendid" and notes that it has "plenty of magic" of the "earthly, human" kind. Owchar identifies a consistent theme in the collection that also applies to "Perfection": "attaining holiness and practicing charity in an age obsessed with science and reason…. Helprin presents us with people confronting life's ugliness with small acts of perfection." He praises "Perfection" as "exquisite," noting that the abundant comedy in the story is "underscored by a tragic sense of cosmic balance."
Robinson has an M.A. in English. She is a writer, editor, and former teacher of English literature and creative writing. In the following essay, Robinson explores the significance of the theme of perfection in Mark Helprin's "Perfection."
The opening incident of "Perfection" sets up the moral and spiritual framework for the entire story. A chain of events is set off when the Saromsker Rebbe opens the wrong drawer, allowing Roger to see that he has been eating non-kosher chocolate and lying about it. In the framework of Helprin's story, this imperfection creates an imbalance in the universe that has to be compensated for by a manifestation of perfection. This is less a matter of morals than it is a law of physics. The fact that the Saromsker Rebbe's offenses may have been morally forgivable is not the point. "The balances of the universe are precise and delicate…. One uncourageous lie destroys the core of the imagination." Roger knows that a lie is "the outrider of malevolent forces, which come first with a lie so that they might not have to fight to subdue you."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- "Perfection" is one of the short stories collected in Helprin's The Pacific and Other Stories (2004). The other stories focus on honorable characters who, in the interests of honing their lives in the direction of perfection, perform extraordinarily unselfish acts.
- Helprin's acclaimed novel A Soldier of the Great War (2005) tells the story of a young Italian man from a privileged family who finds the direction of his life changed forever by World War I. Along the way, he loses and rediscovers love and has to find a way of reconciling his love of beauty and religious faith with the horror of war.
- The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (1983) provides an exuberant exploration of Jewish life, traditions, religion, and folklore from modern New York City to the Eastern European villages of Singer's ancestors. A central theme is the power of benevolence.
- The Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel wrote a moving memoir Night (1982) about his teenage experience at Auschwitz with his father. The work tries to reconcile his former fervent religious belief with the horror of the Holocaust that killed his parents.
- Martin Buber's classic work Tales of the Hasidim (first published in German as Die chassidischen Buecher: Gesamtausgabe in 1928, translation by Olga Marx and published as Tales of the Hasidim, 1948, reprinted by Schocken, 1991) is an entertaining, thought-provoking, and inspiring collection of stories and anecdotes about the lives of the Hasidic masters.
Roger follows this line of reasoning to its conclusion and decides that he can no longer trust the rebbe to listen to and report current affairs with truth. The rebbe could miss the signs of a future Holocaust. Roger, who saw his parents murdered in the Holocaust in horrific circumstances, has devoted his life to bearing witness to the truth of that event. Roger feels he must take over the job that the rebbe, in his imperfect life, may have done less than perfectly, and he must listen to the radio himself. In this way, he is introduced to the plight of the Yankees, whom he decides to save from a run of defeats. This resolve leads to his challenge to God on the baseball pitch, the essence of which can be summed up as follows: God's creation is a perfect mechanism comparable to a well-functioning lock, in which pins are raised and lowered just enough to allow the lock to turn. Thus God must raise up Roger in compensation for the horrors he has known in the Holocaust.
God does not fail Roger, who, in spite of knowing nothing about baseball and being physically puny, achieves inspired feats on the baseball pitch by drawing upon the power and skill of angels. No one realizes that after the pitch, Roger always closes his eyes, and "It was then that he felt the arms, fluttering and feathered, golden and shiny, reach from behind him and slowly, viscously, take hold of his hands on the bat." But onlookers do see the results in the shape of the ball flying out of the stadium, never to fall to earth. This process of divine grace not only confirms Roger's hopes of redemption, but inspires the Yankees to pursue perfection in their play. It also displays a glimpse of divine perfection to all the spectators, who experience an ecstatic joy as they watch Roger hit balls out of the stadium which fly off into the infinite heavens—and are never seen to come down again. As for the reader, who has been told that Roger has neither the physique nor the talent for excelling at baseball, there is only one way to look for the source of his power, and that is in the direction of the divine. As Roger tells the Yankees' manager, Stengel:
I weigh thirteen and three-quarter shvoigles. I'm two yumps tall. How do you think I hit the ball out of the house? Do you think I could do such a thing alone? Who do you think is in charge here? You? Me?
It can be seen from the trajectory of these happenings that seemingly small and trivial events, such as the Saromsker Rebbe's opening the wrong drawer, can have great effects in the scheme of things, as Helprin portrays it. Thus, Helprin suggests, the ways in which a person chooses to live his life is of vital importance. It is significant that the Saromsker Rebbe, at the same time as he is neglecting truth in his life, is much occupied in pondering theological disputes. The implication is that such intellectual quibbles are as nothing compared with spiritual purity. Roger's observance of the pieties of his religion, such as not playing baseball during Rosh Hashana, the time of penitence, is part of his philosophy of not compromising and of pursuing perfection. Only such perfection will ensure an atmosphere of truth and clarity that will reveal the first approach of such dangers as another Holocaust. Catastrophes such as the Holocaust, the story suggests, can unfold from an apparently tiny lie. The historical evidence, indeed, supports such a theory, in that many commentators have remarked that the Holocaust was enabled by many small acts of deception, negligence, and denial on the part of ordinary individuals.
Versions of the notion that great consequences can spring from a person's acts and choices can be found both in physics and religion. The New Testament teaches, "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Galatians 6:7). Hinduism teaches the law of karma, that what a person gives out comes back to the person. This is reflected in Newton's third law of physics, that forces occur in pairs, and so for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Chaos theory in physics and mathematics is an extension of this idea. The theory tries to explain the phenomenon whereby small occurrences significantly affect the outcomes of seemingly unrelated events, leading to results which are apparently random but are in fact determined by tiny variations in the initial state. This high dependence on initial conditions is called the butterfly effect, which refers to the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that ultimately cause a tornado or prevent it.
The equivalent in "Perfection" to the butterfly's flapping its wings is the Saromsker Rebbe opening the wrong drawer. Helprin creates a universe in which everything is minutely interconnected with everything else, giving a sense of the intelligence and unity underlying creation. However, while the term, chaos theory, tends to be associated in the layperson's mind with increasing disorder in a system (though to scientists, the theory simply explains apparently random results that are really determined and therefore not random), the theory that governs the world of "Perfection" is the opposite. Roger's piety and devotion to perfection in his life create a moment in which the witnesses to his performance are lifted into a perception of divine order. The narrator explains, "For the moment, at least, they felt as if the deepest circles within them had been squared, their ragged doubts knit smooth, and the world were ablaze with the light of perfection." In the intricate system of balances that makes up the universe, Roger's actions, motivated by altruism and love for God and humanity, have served as an antidote to the chaos set off by the Saromsker Rebbe's deception.
Helprin uses symbolism to support his portrayal of Roger as a spiritually pure human
being. Roger is surrounded by images of light, suggestive of spiritual illumination. A student tells the Saromsker Rebbe of Roger, "When he prays, white light bathes the walls." Under questioning from the Saromsker Rebbe, Roger reveals that when he prays, he is blinded by light and spins head over heels. The Saromsker Rebbe notes that at such moments, Roger's spiritual purity makes him pass beyond the law of gravity, in the manner of the levitating mystics of historical tradition that are mentioned in the story. When Roger, with the help of an angel, hits balls out of Yankee Stadium, they trail orange flame, a sign to onlookers that something beyond the mundane is occurring.
Another symbolic thread emphasizing Roger's spiritual status is images of elevation. On his journey to Yankee Stadium, Roger sleeps on the roof of an elevated subway station; when the Yankees accommodate him in a luxury hotel, he inhabits a room with windows "as high above the earth as an airplane." At home in Brooklyn, Roger lives on the top floors of his building. He spends hours in prayer there and gains the knowledge that he must go to "the House of Ruth, where a miracle will come," whereupon he comes "down from his perch."
As well as suggesting spiritual elevation, the image of the perch connotes birds, creatures whose element is the sky. Roger is frequently connected with the imagery of birds. To persuade the Yankees out of their rationalism, Roger points out that "God shifts an untold number of birds twice a year from the top of the earth to the middle, and from the middle back to the top." When Roger shows the Yankees his batting skills, following his miraculous hit of the minute hand of the clock, a seagull examines the broken clock, then "rose like a rocket and disappeared into the clouds." This image foreshadows Roger's hitting the ball so far and high that it disappears up into the heavens and is not seen to return to earth. Roger's questioning of Berra about what lies beyond the stadium, where the balls travel (the Bronx, then Long Island Sound, then Long Island, then the ocean) has the effect of extending the reader's boundaries towards infinity. Such images of elevation also relate to the theme of the perfection of God's creation, whereby God raises up people in different ways to compensate for their suffering.
While such compensation may not come immediately or even within the limits of time, the story suggests the perfection of creation demands that it must eventually arrive. Indeed, if it were possible to see the entire picture at any one time, then it would be clear that the "counterweight for which we long—to right wrongs and correct injustices" is always present, though it may be far away in space or time. In Roger's words, as his experience in the baseball stadium shows, "forward in time, or where time does not exist, there is a justice and a beauty that will leap back to lift the ones I love from the kind of grave they were given."
Source: Claire Robinson, Critical Essay on "Perfection," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of Mark Helprin's work.
Mark Helprin is a writer whose fiction is marked by language "more classical than conversational," observed Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, and one who shapes his short stories and novels "less to show my place in the world than to praise the world around me." Explaining his artistic distance from the sparse, clean prose of writers such as American author Ernest Hemingway, Helprin told Jon D. Markman of the Los Angeles Times, "My models are the Divine Comedy, and the Bible and Shakespeare—where they use language to the fullest." Helprin's political concerns—he pursued Middle Eastern studies in graduate school and later served in the Israeli Infantry and Air Force—figure in his newspaper and magazine articles; his books, he has often said with little elaboration, are religious.
Majoring in English as an undergraduate at Harvard, Helprin wrote short stories and sent them to the New Yorker with no luck until 1969, when the magazine accepted two at the same time. These became part of his first book, A Dove of the East and Other Stories, in which critics have noted the author's grand depictions of nature as a source of strength and healing and his concern with characters who survive loss, particularly that of loved ones.
Some critics were impressed with the wide range of settings and the graceful prose exhibited in A Dove of the East. In the Saturday Review Dorothy Rabinowitz described Helprin's stories as "immensely readable," some "quite superb," writing that his "old-fashioned regard shines through all his characters' speeches, and his endorsement gives them eloquent tongues. Now and again the stories lapse into archness, and at times, too, their willed drama bears down too heavily. But these are small flaws in works so estimably full of talent and … of character." Amanda Heller, however, complained in the Atlantic Monthly that, as a result of Helprin's "dreamy, antique style," the stories' "sameness of tone" becomes monotonous. "It appears that Helprin is striving for loveliness above all else," Heller commented, "a tasteful but hardly compelling goal for a teller of tales."
Duncan Fallowell allowed in the Spectator that some selections from A Dove of the East and Other Stories are "unbeatably vague," but praised Helprin for "recognising the intrinsic majesty" of seemingly meaningless events, because, as Fallowell wrote, "he is also a seeker after truth. Bits of it are squittering out all over the place, sufficiently to fuse into a magnetic centre and make one recognise that the book is not written by a fool." Dan Wakefield, even more appreciative of Helprin's work, observed: "The quality that pervades these stories is love—love of men and women, love of landscapes and physical beauty, love of interior courage as well as the more easily obtainable outward strength. The author never treats his subjects with sentimentality but always with gentleness of a kind that is all too rare in our fiction and our lives."
Helprin's first novel, Refiner's Fire: The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, a Foundling, further interested critics. A New Yorker reviewer found that Helprin describes the protagonist's boyhood "lyrically and gracefully" and proves himself to be "a writer of great depth and subtle humor." For Joyce Carol Oates the problem is "where to begin" in admiring a novel she described as a "daring, even reckless, sprawling and expansive and endlessly inventive ‘picaresque’ tale." She added: "At once we know we are in the presence of a storyteller of seemingly effortless and artless charm; and if the exuberant, extravagant plotting of the novel ever becomes tangled in its own fabulous inventions, and its prodigy of a hero ever comes to seem more allegorical than humanly ‘real,’ that story-telling command, that lovely voice is never lost."
With Ellis Island and Other Stories Helprin secured his place among contemporary writers, winning for this work a PEN/Faulkner Award, a National Jewish Book Award, and an American Book Award nomination—a rare feat for a collection of short stories. Though some critics, such as Anne Duchene in the Times Literary Supplement, found that Helprin's language sometimes overwhelms his intent, the greater critical response was laudatory. In the Washington Post Book World, Allen Wier called the collection "beautifully written and carefully structured…. His rich textures alone would be enough to delight a reader, but there is more: wonderful stories, richly plotted, inventive, moving without being sentimental, humorous without being cute." Harry Mark Petrakis stated in the Chicago Tribune that in Ellis Island and Other Stories Helprin "reveals range and insight whether he is writing of children or adults, of scholars, tailors, and lovers. His eye is precise and his spirit is compassionate, and when we finish the stories we have been rewarded, once more, with that astonishing catalyst of art." Reynolds Price, writing for the New York Times Book Review, cited as particularly memorable "The Schreuderspitze," in which a photographer who has lost his wife and son in a car accident risks his life to climb a mountain in an effort to regain his spirit; the first half of the title novella, and "North Light," which Price called "a brief and frankly autobiographical recollection of battle nerves among Israeli soldiers, a lean arc of voltage conveyed through tangible human conductors to instant effect."
Winter's Tale, Helprin's second novel, held a place on the New York Times bestseller list for four months despite mixed critical opinion. Seymour Krim, writing for Washington Post Book World, described the allegorical novel as "the most ambitious work [Helprin] … has yet attempted, a huge cyclorama" with a theme "no less than the resurrection of New York from a city of the damned to a place of universal justice and hope." In Krim's view, however, the novel reveals itself to be "a self-willed fairy tale that even on its own terms refuses to convince." In the Chicago Tribune Book World Jonathan Brent called the book "a pastiche of cliches thinly disguised as fiction, a maddening welter of earnest platitudes excruciatingly dressed up as a search for the miraculous." In the opinion of Newsweek's Peter S. Prescott, "Helprin fell into the fundamental error of assuming that fantasy can be vaguer than realistic fiction."
In the view of Benjamin de Mott of the New York Times Book Review, however, neither through the unique and compelling characters nor "merely by studying the touchstone passages in which description and narrative soar highest" can the reader "possess the work": "No, the heart of this book resides unquestionably in its moral energy, in the thousand original gestures, ruminations, … writing feats that summon its audience beyond the narrow limits of conventional vision, commanding us to see our time and place afresh." Detroit News reviewer Beaufort Cranford found that the book "fairly glows with poetry. Helprin's forte is a deft touch with description, and he has as distinct and spectacular a gift for words an anyone writing today." Further, Cranford noted, "Helprin's fearlessly understated humor shows his comfort with a narrative that in a less adroit grasp might seem too much like a fairy tale."
Openers contributor Ann Cunniff, who also caught the humor in Winter's Tale, praised "the beautiful, dreamlike quality" of some passages and Helprin's "frequent references to dreams." "All my life," Helprin explained to Cunniff, "I've allowed what I dream to influence me. My dreams are usually very intense and extremely detailed and always in the most beautiful colors…. Frequently, I will dream, and simply retrace that dream the day after when I write. It's just like planning ahead, only I do it when I'm unconscious."
In 1989 Helprin collaborated with illustrator Chris Van Allsburg on Swan Lake. Michael Dirda wrote in the Washington Post Book World, "The book is so attractive—in its story, illustrations and general design—that by comparison the original ballet almost looks too ethereal." In the Chicago Tribune, Michael Dorris raved, "This is one of those rare juvenile classics that will keep you awake to its conclusion … [and] will become, I predict, among those precious artifacts your grownup children will someday request for their own children." Helprin and Van Allsburg also combined their talents in 1996's A City in Winter: The Queen's Tale and 1997's The Veil of Snows.
In A Soldier of the Great War, which Shashi Tharoor described in the Washington Post Book World as "marvelously old-fashioned" and "a mammoth, elegiac, moving exegesis on love, beauty, the meaning of life and the meaninglessness of war," Helprin seemed to have transcended the criticism leveled at his earlier work. According to John Skow in Time, in this tale of the old Italian soldier Alessandro, Helprin has "simplified his language, though he still works up a good head of steam, and he has moderated his enthusiasm for phantasmagoric set pieces. He has also picked themes—war and loss, youth and age—that suit a large, elaborate style." Ted Solotaroff commented in the Nation that in A Soldier of the Great War Helprin takes "his penchant for life's heightened possibilities and transcendent meanings down into the vile trenches and nightmarish forests and jammed military prisons of the Italian sector of the war." Tharoor concluded: "Clearly a writer of great sensitivity, remarkable skill and capacious intellect, Helprin relishes telling stories in the grand manner, supplying details so complete as to leave the reader in no doubt about the texture of each place and the feelings of each character in it."
Helprin produced yet another expansive, picaresque novel with the mysteriously titled Memoir from Antproof Case, which was published in 1995. The story is the memoir of an elderly narrator who relates his fantastic and vivid life in a document he keeps locked inside an ant-proof case. While packing a pistol and hiding from his enemies in Brazil, the narrator describes his early life near New York City, his stay in a Swiss insane asylum, his involvement in World War II, his marriage to a wealthy heiress, and his employment with—and scheme to steal from—a powerful investment brokerage. While telling his life's story, the narrator divulges an odd obsession: the hatred of coffee, including the substance itself as well as the people who drink it. Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Adam Begley described the novel thusly: "More odd mysteries than the anti-coffee mania await unraveling; lyrical passages brim with high-toned literary prose; broad comic riffs announce themselves with take-my-wife subtlety; and tall tales sprout magically at every turn, fed by a steady stream of flamboyant exaggeration."
Critics were positive in their appraisal of Memoir from Antproof Case, commending the author's trademark high-wire prose styling and his creation of another unusual, colorful, and rambling narrative. Terry Teachout, writing in the Washington Post Book World, called the novel "long, extravagant, daring, occasionally tedious but more often impressively compelling." Similarly, New York Times Book Review contributor Sven Birkerts remarked that the story "is rendered with great anecdotal charm and is embroidered throughout with vivid descriptions and delightful reflections." Not all reviewers' comments were positive; Begley, for instance, noted a "lurching Ping-Pong pattern" in the novel in which "suspense alternates with silliness," and Teachout declared that certain elements of Memoir from Antproof Case are "exasperating in the extreme." However, Teachout concluded, while "Helprin is a bit of a blowhard, … he is also one of the most ambitious novelists of our day."
In addition to his nine fictional works, Helprin wrote articles for the Wall Street Journal from 1985 to 2000. "Many people would probably be surprised to know that the same man who writes political commentary for the Wall Street Journal cites as his motto a line from Dante's Inferno that translates ‘Love moved me, and makes me speak,’" remarked American Enterprise reviewer, John Meroney. Helprin also came to the political forefront in 1996, when word leaked out that he was the author of presidential candidate Bob Dole's strong resignation speech from the U.S. Senate. Meroney quoted from the speech: "I will run for President as a private citizen, a Kansan, an American, just a man." Dole's speech was "an unusually lyrical oration by the Kansas solon's dry standards," commented Salon.com contributor Mark Schapiro, who continued by noting that "Helprin's soaring words were widely credited with at least temporarily recharging Dole's languishing presidential campaign."
In 2001 Helprin was awarded the Mightier Pen Award by the Century for Security Policy. The Center's president and chief executive officer, Frank Gaffney, Jr., stated that Helprin is "one of the most important writers at work today." "Helprin's creative flair is tempered by intelligence, wisdom, and experience," noted John Elvin in Insight on the News in reference to Helprin's receipt of the Mightier Pen award.
Source: Thomson Gale, "Mark Helprin," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2005.
In the following interview, Helprin discusses the stories in his collection The Pacific and Other Stories.
[Scott Simon:] The characters in Mark Helprin's new book, The Pacific and Other Stories, range around the world and the whole range of life from blood to opera to baseball: a wounded British paratrooper in Germany, reaching for his daughter's hand; a hungry laundress in Venice who becomes a diva; a September 11th widow; a lonely Israeli army reservist; and a putz of a 14-year-old religious student who becomes the savior of the New York Yankees. Mark Helprin is among that short list of writers acclaimed as the finest fiction writer of our times. The Pacific and other Stories is his new collection of short stories. Several have previously appeared in The New Yorker and The Atlantic.
Mr. Helprin, who's won a PEN/Faulkner Award and others for previous books that include Ellis Island and Other Stories, Winter's Tale, Soldier of the Great War, now joins us from Charlottesville, Virginia.
Mr. Helprin, thanks very much for being with us.
[Mr. Mark Helprin:] Delighted.
Is there a theme to this collection? I apologize for such an obvious one.
It's about many things, but there is no single agendum. It's about art. It's about making amends. It's about memory, childhood, marriage, sacrifice, honor, perseverance, courage, war, putting materialism in its place, infatuation, resolution, the Holocaust, baseball, God, redemption, loyalty, show business, dictatorship, love for one's family, New York in 1869, the loss of a child, Herman Melville, adultery, World War I, the mountains, the Schtedle(ph), idolatry, technology, ocean racing, dying, the nature of love, the Middle East, the Second World War, California and redemption denied. And that's a partial list.
That's an awfully good answer, Mr. Helprin. I have to ask about your story of perfection. Fourteen-year-old Hasidic Jew who feels called on to become the savior of the New York Yankees.
The story arose in 1954, actually when I, as a child, was taken to Yankee Stadium to the only baseball game that I ever saw in my life. And I was brought there by Allen Funt. Remember "Candid Camera"?
And we got there early, and we went to the left field fence. And he stood at the fence, bellowing, ‘Hey, Mickey! Hey, Mickey! Hey, Mi’—because Mickey Mantle was at the plate. Yogi Berra was catching, and Billy Martin was pitching. There was nobody in the stadium—I mean, a few people, but virtually no one. And Allen Funt just yelled this for half an hour until finally the three of them walked over. It looked like they were going to hit us with a baseball bat, you know. They were really irritated. And they came over to us, and we then spent about 10 or 15 minutes talking to them, because Allen Funt had filmed a Wheaties commercial with Mickey Mantle, so he knew him. And Mickey Mantle didn't realize that when Allen was yelling at him.
But, anyway, in the story, Mickey Mantle thinks that H-A-S-I-D, Hasid, as in Hasidic Jew, is pronounced Hasid (pronounced HAY-seed). And the confusion of language is such that they tell him that he is a hayseed, which he thinks is a Hasid, and he doesn't quite understand it.
I mean, this is a real boy's fantasy in a sense, the teen-ager who becomes the savior of the NewYork Yankees. And yet, in a sense, that aspect of the story is lost on this young man, because—if I might put it in parlance—he might say, ‘Well, you know, what does he know from baseball?’
Oh, he knows nothing about baseball. He never heard of baseball.
He never heard of the Yankees or Yankee Stadium or anything. He mistook it for the House of Ruth. He thought that the House of Ruth was in the Bronx and that they were in trouble, so he went up to find them. And his purpose was actually to see if there could be perfection in the universe, if after the Holocaust, it was possible to have a moment of perfection, because if there were, then that was the beginning of the answer to the question, ‘If there is a God, how could he have have allowed’—not just the Holocaust, but everything that the Holocaust may symbolize as well, you know, the suffering of anybody anywhere in the dreadful ways that they do.
You have a story principally set in Venice, a man who becomes an impresario. You refer to it somewhat as, in a sense, a man paying penance for making dreams come true. This is a man who had discovered a laundress and facilitated the ability of the rest of the world to share her gift.
She's the leading soprano in the world, and he is her agent. And it's a matter of great regret, because she was actually happy before he plucked her out of it. She was a laundress hanging up sheets, and she had a man that she loved. He couldn't handle her fame, and he committed suicide.
But it didn't end there, because what happens is the impresario is ordered by this diva to go to Venice to, as she says, ‘check out the Bellini,’ the paintings that have been restored in the Academia. And when he goes to Venice, he's in the Academia, looking at a painting which reminds him of his daughter, and he hears a beautiful song coming from outside on the street. And he knows immediately this is the best singer in the world, who's singing on the street for contributions in a hat. And he rushes out to find her. She is an Estonian. And she has her boyfriend, who is a guitarist.
And the story then proceeds with the relations between the impresario and these two people whom he finds on the street. And the imbalance between the guitarist and the singer is just as immense as it was between the diva and the soldier, because the guitarist cannot make it, and the impresario knows that. So he hesitates to offer the singer all the things that he knows will come in train with his representation. And in the end, he gives them money, and he advises them to go back to Estonia to think about it and etc., etc. And this is his way of making amends. So what happens is that he finds a way to restore the color of his life by making these amends very late.
It's interesting to me, being a little bit familiar with your background—you were educated at Harvard, Princeton and Oxford, went into the Israeli armed forces and the British Merchant Navy—it seems to me you write a good deal more about soldiers than you do about academics, and entertainers for that matter.
Yes, I do. It's—you know, I once had an argument with a friend of mine that lasted about eight hours. He said that a poet living in a garret is more of a hero than a soldier who gives his life. And I said, ‘Now wait a minute. You know, if you die, that's it. You don't have another chance. You can't look forward to much else.’ And we had this long argument. What I'm—the reason I brought that up is that when you're talking about war or anything in which physical death is at risk, it has a tremendous reverberation for everyone, because people know about war, and they dread it, and they fear it, and they have suffered because of it.
Daughters appear a lot in your stories.
I have two.
Well, there's your answer.
Yeah. My …
And my pronunciation is going to be bad. "Charlotte of the Utrecht …"
Utrechtsaveg(ph). It means the road to Utrecht.
It's so beautiful and so sad. This is a British paratrooper, and—well, I almost can't bring myself to utter it—his thoughts as he is involved in an enterprise that is both, he firmly believes, protecting his daughter and yet is the one thing that will prevent them from seeing each other again.
This is a major in the battle—in Operation Market Garden, the battle of Arnhem in World War II, when we overextended our forces and dropped a lot of paratroopers where, as it turns out, we couldn't support them. And it's a very simple story. It just tells how he left England and saw his daughter for the last time. His daughter was manning an anti-aircraft gun in Chelsea. And she was more or less the daughter of the regiment. Everyone's heart went out to her, because she was very clumsy, and she tripped, and she dropped her books, and she wore big, thick glasses. She was very beautiful, even though she had the glasses. And every man in the regiment, even the coarsest man, felt protective of her. And then he gets in a glider, and they come in on the field, and I describe the combat, and he goes down. And as he's dying—and it takes him a while to die—he envisions his daughter.
You're left with the impression that she, his daughter, is put on this Earth precisely to get him to reach out.
That's true. It's just a—what the final moment is is an imagination of a man's last and how, in the final moment, he can close off his life in a way that will somehow balance it out and make something of beauty and something that's worthwhile, something ineffable and very, very powerful.
Mr. Helprin, thanks very much.
Thank you so much.
Source: Scott Simon, "Interview with Mark Helprin," in NPR: Weekend Edition, November 6, 2004, pp. 1-3.
In the following review, Kakutani is unsettled by Helprin's penchant for "moral absolutes."
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Source: Michiko Kakutani, Review of The Pacific and Other Stories, in International Herald Tribune, November 4, 2004, p. 14.
Affleck, John, "Birds of a Feather: The Ancient Mariner Archetype in Mark Helprin's "A Dove of the East" and A Soldier of the Great War, http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/staff/kamorgan/affleck.html (accessed October 27, 2006).
Bible (King James Version), Galatians 6:7.
"Concentration Camp," in State Museum at Majdanek website, http://majdanek.pl/en/oboz.htm (accessed October 27, 2006).
Cryer, Dan, "Glimpses of Lives Honed on Honor," in Newsday, November 11, 2004, p. B04.
Helprin, Mark, "Perfection," in The Pacific and Other Stories, Penguin, 2004, pp. 125-95.
Kakutani, Michiko, Review of The Pacific and Other Stories, in International Herald Tribune, November 4, 2004, p. 14.
Owchar, Nick, "Appreciating Life's Moments of Perfection," in Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2004, p. E7.
"The Ruling against David Irving: Excerpts from High Court Judge Charles Gray's Ruling in the David Irving Libel Suit," in Guardian Unlimited, April 11, 2000, http://www.guardian.co.uk/print/0, ,3984993-103501,00.html (accessed October 27, 2006).
Yabroff, Jennie, "Fuzzy Lives in Perfect Detail: Characters Act Precisely as They Seek Redemption," in San Francisco Chronicle, November 7, 2004, p. M2.
Buber, Martin, The Way of Man: According to the Teaching of Hasidism, Routledge, 2002.
This popular book (first published in German in 1948 as Der Weg des Menschen: Nach der chassidischen Lehre, first English translation by Maurice Friedman published in 1950 as The Way of Man According to the Teachings of Hasidism) presents the essential teachings of Hasidic Judaism through a collection of imaginative stories.
Dorfman, H. A., and Karl Kuehl, The Mental Game of Baseball: A Guide to Peak Performance, Diamond Communications, 2002.
This book, which has been highly praised in sporting circles, is aimed at players at all levels. It teaches the mental skills necessary to achieve peak performance in baseball, but the work has gained the reputation of helping people to function better in all areas of life.
Douillard, John, Body, Mind, and Sport: The Mind-Body Guide to Lifelong Health, Fitness, and Your Personal Best, Three Rivers Press, 2001.
Many athletes experience periods when they can do no wrong, when every hit is brilliant, when the body feels weightless, and action is effortless. This state has become known as being "in the zone" and has been likened to ecstatic spiritual experiences. In this practical guide, Douillard shows that there is nothing accidental about such experiences—they can be cultivated and are available to everyone, whatever their beginning level of fitness.
Gilbert, Martin, The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War, Owl Books, 1987.
Gilbert provides a comprehensive introduction to the history of anti-Semitism in Europe and how it culminated in the Holocaust. He describes the systematic destruction of European Jewry and the widespread disbelief that such an event could be happening.
Plato, Plato's Ion and Meno, Agora Publications, 1998.
These are two of the most accessible and entertaining of Plato's dialogs and complement Helprin's story of Roger's unexpected abilities on the baseball field in Helprin's "Perfection." In Ion, Socrates probes the nature and source of human creativity, concluding that it is divine and owes nothing to the personality, intellect, or moral stature of the artist. In Meno, Socrates investigates the source of goodness and considers the hypothesis that all knowledge is recollection of something that the soul knew before birth.
The concept of "perfection" has two closely allied and often overlapping meanings. First, it means "completeness," "wholeness," or "integrity": X is perfect when he (or it) is free from all deficiencies. Second, it means the achievement of an end or a goal. This meaning emerges most clearly from the connection between the Greek words teleios ("perfect") and telos ("end" or "goal"). An entity is perfect (to use Aristotelian terms) when it has achieved its goal by actualizing its potentialities and realizing its specific form. Bringing these two meanings together, one would say that a thing is complete or entire when it has fulfilled its nature and thereby reached its "end." The concept is best examined first under its religious, and second under its moral, aspect.
It has not always been believed that God (or, more generally, "the divine") is perfect. Thus, the deities of the Homeric pantheon were both ontologically and morally deficient. They differed from men only in being "deathless" (athanatoi ). But in Christian theology the perfection of God has always been affirmed by orthodox writers. In St. Anselm's celebrated definition, God is id quo nihil maius cogitari possit ("that than which nothing greater can be conceived"). St. Thomas Aquinas later maintained that since God is self-existent, he must be infinite (or limitless) in intelligence, goodness, and power. He also claimed, in the fourth of his five Ways, to prove the existence of God as absolute perfection from the limited degrees of perfection in creatures. Thomists hold that by the "analogy of proportionality" we can attribute to God "in a more eminent way" (eminentiori modo ) every "pure" perfection that exists in creatures (that is, every perfection that is capable of preexisting in an infinitely spiritual degree).
Those who hold this view of God's infinity must face two questions that have continually perplexed Christian philosophers. First, can we intelligibly assert that all perfections coexist infinitely in a single being? Thus, can God be both infinitely just and infinitely merciful? Second, if God is both infinitely powerful and infinitely good, how can we explain the presence of evil in the world?
Ever since men began to reflect on the moral life, they have been aware of some perfect ideal of character and conduct toward which they must strive. Thus, in the Greco-Roman world the Stoics wrote copiously of the "perfect" (teleios ) man. In their view perfection consisted in the subjugation of the passions to reason (logos ) in a state of "self-sufficiency" (autarkeia ). Sometimes they regarded moral virtue as the imitation of divine perfection, and sometimes they held out a human figure (especially Socrates) as the model of excellence; but more often they wrote abstractly of their ideal "wise man."
There can be no doubt that Jesus required moral perfection of those who would follow him. Thus, in the Sermon on the Mount, he told his disciples, "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). In saying this Jesus reaffirmed the Old Testament, in which the Jews, as the people of the covenant, are required to be perfect (or "holy") by obedience to the law (Torah ) which embodies God's will and reflects his character. The above-mentioned verses (Matthew 5:38–47) show that love, especially love of one's enemies, is the element in divine perfection that disciples are to imitate. Jesus' moral perfectionism was further expressed in his demands for complete inward purity (Matthew 5:21–22, 27–28) and self-renunciation (Mark 8:34–38).
Inevitably, theologians have affirmed that moral perfection is the goal of the Christian life. In the New Testament epistles perfection has three main characteristics. First, the norm of perfection is Christ himself, as the Incarnation of God. Second, the essence of perfection is love—the divine love revealed in Christ and made available to believers through the Spirit. Thus, St. Paul, having listed several virtues, wrote, "And above all these put on love, which is the bond of perfectness" (Colossians 3:14). Third, perfection is corporate. Thus, the author of Ephesians looks forward to the time when "we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to perfect manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (4:13). Postbiblical theologians (for example, St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas) continued to give primacy to love, by which all the natural virtues are supernaturally perfected.
Two comments on this Christian scheme are relevant. First, as early as St. Ambrose there emerged a distinction between the basic "precepts" according to which all Christians were expected to live and the "counsels of perfection" that only a few ("the religious") could follow. This distinction, which persisted throughout the Middle Ages, was based on such texts as Matthew 19:16–22 and could be plausibly represented as an attempt to combine adherence to Christ's absolute demands with a realistic attitude toward the spiritual capacities of the average Christian in a secular occupation. But it was rejected by the Reformers, and with special vehemence by Martin Luther.
Second, although some Christians have held that it is possible to achieve perfection (that is, sinlessness) in this life, the majority have held that the strength of original sin makes this impossible. Moreover, many biblical texts (particularly I John 1:8–10) imply the Lutheran view that all Christians remain throughout their mortal lives simul justi et peccatores ("at the same time justified and sinners"). From a purely philosophical standpoint Immanuel Kant held that since the moral law requires holiness, and since we cannot achieve it in this life, we must postulate another life in which an infinite progress toward it will be possible (Critique of Practical Reason, translated by T. K. Abbott, London, 1909, p. 218).
Finally, if we take human perfection in its widest sense to mean an ideal that satisfies man's deepest needs or fulfills his "true" being, we can see clear points of similarity between Christian and non-Christian systems. Thus, although humanists, Buddhists, and Christians have in common many virtues that they regard as normative, they put them in differing contexts. These virtues are practiced by the humanist as self-sufficient ends, by the Buddhist as means of entrance to nirvana, and by the Christian as both the outcome of present faith in God and a preparation for a future vision of him "face to face."
Flew, R. N. The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934.
Kirk, Kenneth E. The Vision of God. London: Longmans, Green, 1931.
Niebuhr, Reinhold. An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. London: Harper, 1935. An important examination of Jesus' perfectionism and the problems that it raises.
Saunders, Kenneth. The Ideals of East and West. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1934.
H. P. Owen (1967)
- Giotto’s O perfect circle drawn effortlessly by Giotto. [Ital. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 463]
- golden mean or section a proportion between the length and width of a rectangle or two portions of a line, said to be ideal. [Fine Arts: Misc.]
- Grosvenor, Archibald poet who has no earthly rival in his claim to being quite perfect. [Br. Opera: Gilbert and Sullivan Patience ]
- hole in one score of one stroke for a hole in golf. [Sports: Webster’s Sports, 215]
- Jesus Christ son of God; personification of human flawlessness. [Christian Hist.: NCE, 1412]
- perfect cadence where the dominant passes into the harmony of the tonic chord. [Music: Thompson, 333]
- perfect contrition sorrow for sin, coming from a love of God for His own perfections. [Christianity: Misc.]
- perfect game baseball game in which all opposing batters are put out in succession. [Sports: Webster’s Sports, 311]
- perfect number equal in value to the sum of those natural numbers that are less than the given number but that also divide (with zero remainder) the given number. [Math.: EB, VII: 872]
- royal flush best possible hand in poker; one-suited hand from ten to ace. [Cards: Brewer Dictionary, 940]
- Superman Nietzsche’s ideal being, a type that would arise when man succeeds in surpassing himself. [Ger. Phil.: Thus Spake Zarathustra in Magill III, 1069]
- 300 game bowling game of twelve consecutive strikes, scoring maximum 300 points. [Sports: Webster’s Sports, 311]
per·fec·tion / pərˈfekshən/ • n. the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects: the satiny perfection of her skin his pursuit of golfing perfection. ∎ a person or thing perceived as the embodiment of such a condition, state, or quality: I am told that she is perfection itself. ∎ the action or process of improving something until it is faultless or as faultless as possible: among the key tasks was the perfection of new mechanisms of economic management.PHRASES: to perfection in a manner or way that could not be better; perfectly: a blue suit that showed off her blonde hair to perfection.