The OF Blog: John F. Williams, Hating Perfection

Saturday, March 20, 2010

John F. Williams, Hating Perfection

Ever since I completed my MA in History in 1998, I rarely have bothered writing reviews of non-fiction.  The challenges in reviewing non-fiction are much different than those that face the reviewer considering the merits of a fictional piece.  While overall structure and prose are certainly as important for either, in order to consider a non-fiction work, a greater emphasis on methodology is usually required.  This is especially true when the non-fiction work at hand is a philosophical work.

John F. Williams' Hating Perfection presents several challenges for the reviewer.  How does one, especially one who has only a modest background in intellectual history/philosophy evaluate a work that does not rely upon established philosophical models?  Does the reviewer take the repetitive nature of some of the author's arguments as a weakness or as something that grows organically from the conversational tone of this work?  When considering personal anecdotes, should greater weight be placed on the stories and how they are told, or on the intended impact of said stories?

The answers to these questions will vary from reader to reader.  For myself, I found Williams' book to be an enjoyable read.  In large part, his eschewing of using formal models makes the reading all the more intimate and personal, because it can be seen as being inductive reasoning carried out to its fullest extent.  Take for instance the first section, where Williams discusses buying a $1 Whiskey Lao shot and the effect it had on him:

Yes, the afternoon was pleasant enough in its strange way.  The world shrugged off the bondage of time passing and took on a vivid intensity, as if some unseen hand had turned up the Bright knob and punched the Slow Motion button.  (p.20)

Contrast that with a passing from the following section:

Came the sober morning, as usual.  The cravings lingered.  I could still go back to the Lao village and their whiskey.  But some part of my tenacity failed to function.  A painful knowledge, a fearful apprehension long pushed aside, came forward.


We know what will happen this day and we do not know.  We have control and we are helpless.  We are vital and we decay.  We can change the world and we cannot change it.

All of the universe, every corner of it, conspires to keep us tantalized but unsatisfied.  The world cunningly appears as order and as chaos.  Deliberate mystery takes the disguise of accident.  We know how to proceed and we do not know.  We can predict and we cannot predict.  No virtue and no vice is the key that faithfully unlocks the universe.  Every approach has successes and every approach is flawed.  All of us have answers and none of us have answers. (p. 22)
Williams sets up an interesting argument here, one that he explores more deeply in the following sections and chapters.  Humans are both agents (causing change) and passive subjects (changes occurring to them).  In this world, in any possible world (as he later discusses) there will be moments where humans have control and other times where they are controlled.  How is happiness to be achieved in a state where capriciousness will seem to hold sway and that suffering along with joy is guaranteed?

Williams frames his discussion around the notion that there is a sort of sliding scale.  There is no outside "heaven" or outside "hell," as each person can and does experience each in his/her turn.  Without the valleys of despair, the peaks of happiness would be pointless.  Williams makes a case for each to be embraced (or at least suffered), as without the contrasts in life, there would be a numbness that would set in that would distort what is transpiring in our lives.

He uses his experiences working and living in Southeast Asia (particularly, China) as an example.  He doesn't focus on cultural differences as much as the lessons that can be learned from human interactions.  One can be deprived of most everything and still find pleasure in life, while the things you might find to be modest pleasures can turn out to be burdensome to others partaking of a similar experience.  Williams also makes repeated references to how "subtlety" is the key to human happiness.  There is, he argues, an upper limit to the amount of joy and pleasure we can experience.  After all, our minds are only capable of so much.  He uses the example of spiders and pigs and their differing cognitive levels to extrapolate about human capacities for being happy.  If an animal is not self-conscious, then how could it ever experience "hell" as being anything other than just deprivation of a vital survival element?  But for humans, we place value on things and concepts that do not necessarily correlate with necessary tools for survival.  Our capacity for having nuanced, or "subtle", interpretations of what is transpiring around us allows humans to achieve higher...and to sink lower.  Control and being controlled, two elements of the duality system that Williams posits throughout the course of this book.

Where does an outside "divine" agency, say "God," stand in Williams' musings?  It is not a vital concept, covered only in the concluding section and in a way that seems more influenced by Buddhist concepts of what the Divine might be than by anything else that I can tell, although even that would be an uneasy fit.  Here is part of what Williams has to say about this "alien presence":

This God has no "perfect" versions of our thoughts, feelings and actions.  It has no thoughts and feelings as we have.  It does not love as we do, nor hate as we do.  It pursues neither justice nor injustice as we do.  We will never know how to play our cards right with God.  It cannot be pleased or displeased as we can.

In many respects, God remains aloof.  It declines to intervene in a world already perfect.  God declines to rescue us from God. (p. 359)
And right after that, the book concludes, leaving readers to ponder what Williams has set up over nearly 360 pages.  Philosophy is the search for truth and not necessarily the claiming of Truth.  As such, Williams' book serves to stimulate a whole host of thoughts, some in reaction to what he argues and some generated as tangents to be considered later.  Dialogue of a limited sort takes place, leading perhaps to something approaching enlightenment and perhaps a bit of happiness.  Or perhaps not.  But something occurred within while reading this book and it is still occurring hours after finishing it.  For that, Hating Perfection was a worthwhile read.


Neth said...

I got a copy of this one too - which I found very interesting. I'm not sure if it's Pyr/Prometheus trying to a new thing or if it was some mistake. But the book looks rather interesting even though I've never read anything like it.

If I do read it, I very much doubt I'd review it - for some the reasons you mention, but x10 or more.

Larry said...

It certainly was difficult to review within the parameters that I've set up here. 2000 words is my informal limit on reviews these days and to treat this book critically, I would have had to devote at least that and perhaps 3K to cover everything in detail in an academic fashion.

I wondered that too about the shipment. Perhaps the book was considered to be a high priority or maybe there were just a few left over promo copies? Regardless, I'm glad that I received it, even if I did not agree with everything he was saying there.

Harry Markov said...

Sounds interesting. I need to stimulate my brain a little bit with non-fiction.

Anonymous said...

What a load of crap.

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