Asymmetry & Poiesis

Note to self (& other perfectionists and obsessionals out there):

Contra the old saw, studies show that practice itself does NOT actually make perfect. The good news, less alliterative, more accurate, and admittedly a bit of a mouthful, is that practice enlivens asymmetry.

I began to turn over asymmetry in my mind after listening to a conversation between physicist Marcelo Gleiser and the novelist Marilynne Robinson [here] and found convergences with a book called The Craftsman [1] by Richard Sennett that I’ve recently finished reading. There was, however, something that met resistance in me and felt counterintuitive in Gleiser equating asymmetry with imperfection [2]. I wondered why for a few days while working out this essay, and cast about for possible explanations.

My first thoughts turned to the craft of poets and potters which seemed to go against it. We have all seen and heard poems that appear to be jagged in some way (‘imperfect’) but work powerfully as poems, nevertheless. Also, I confess I am all too readily charmed by the slightly off-centre, possibly wobbly-looking , earthy style of the work of art that is a Japanese pot or vase. Not for me the pretty, delicate and finely-tuned porcelain.  Those very leanings, it turns out, however, tippled my linguistic instincts a bit on asymmetry.

The etymological dictionary tells me that ‘perfect’ comes from the Latin meaning ‘complete’; ‘symmetry’ from the Greek meaning ‘with+measurement’. Asymmetry (and imperfection) speak then, properly, I see, to provisionality. They really do not have any connection to right and wrong at all which I found a helpful insight, and something of a relief. We live in quick fix times and though we may intellectually submit (more or less) to things changing, there are some certainties we want to rely on and have difficulty holding lightly and trustingly.

Earlier, I wrote that poets and potters were one of the reasons I resisted the equation of asymmetry and imperfection. In poetry and pottery asymmetry seems a primal intuition in the sense that something gets made ‘out of nothing’. What was not, becomes. Why? How? The initial condition for its coming to be–the impetus– is asymmetry.

Asymmetry, I think, is the true shape of desire. It is Trinity. It is dynamism, the heart of the universe, animator of rhythm, repetition, refinement. Without asymmetry there would be no movement. Asymmetry signals a different kind of balance. So, while we may be drawn to the symmetrical as a classical (western? [3]) signpost of beauty and even perhaps, perfection, one need also consider its often indelicate, often more interesting, provocative, possibly disquieting and perhaps more honest opposite, asymmetry. It seems that as long as we subscribe to the delusion of completion, we interrupt the necessary flow of transformation and becoming that is Life. Gleiser says outright:  “Symmetry may have its appeal but it is inherently stale. Some kind of imbalance is behind every transformation.” This leads me to the transformations found in poiesis.

Close up, mitsudomoe

Poiesis is rooted in the older Greek word meaning ‘to make’. I first encountered the word in the ‘autopoietic’ sense of the universe being a self-organising entity [4]; that is, an entity which creates and tends toward cosmos (order). Sennet writes that “making is thinking”, an aphorism more loosely (and, ah, alliteratively!) expressed as: “doing is discovery.”

You will recognise in the word poiesis a hint of the English word, ‘poetry’. The poet, Mary Oliver, like Sennett, recommends a courteousness and faithfulness with respect to the cultivation of craft. She frames the relationship to the work in terms of a courtship. She describes the Muse who dwells in a ‘mysterious, unmapped zone’ somewhere in the territory between consciousness and psyche. It is the Muse that imparts ‘the heart of the star as opposed to the shape of the star,’ and who weighs, waits and watches, tests and tempers her aspirant courtiers.

Will the right conditions of the mind and its receptivity, the heart and its obedience be found?

— Notes —

  1. How about craftician as a neologism for a gender neutral term, Professor Sennett?
  2. See, Gleiser, A Tear at the Edge of Creation
  3.  What does this word ‘western’ even mean nowadays in the global hodgepodge?
  4.  The subtleties of autopoiesis can be read about in Fritjof Capra’s The Web of Life (1996).

Image by OK from a wall at Hokaiin Temple

 

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