Perfection and completeness

Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian are not the only language in which a single word covers both the categories in my title. It is a common Slavic root, and I’ve encountered it in many forms. Tolstoy’s Kitty Oblonsky, for instance, has a long and fascinating rumination in Anna Karenina on the idea of “sovershenstvo” (“completeness” and/or “perfection”), a word she uses repeatedly in characterizing her friend Varenka’s enigmatic attraction for those around her, including for Kitty herself.

In the passage below, Jergović dances around the BCS cognate savršenost, leaping deftly from Karlo Stubler’s beekeeping to the political world in the process of destroying itself all around him.

First came the handbooks on practical skills and on errors in traditional and popular beekeeping, as well as books on the construction and architecture of hives, varieties of pasture, and the influence of climate and seasonal changes on the rhythm and variety of the work of bee farming, then came handbooks on bee illnesses and propagation, on the types and manners of healing, along with brief overviews of the largest and deadliest epidemics. Sickness and death stand at the gates of every metaphysics. And of every history of civilization and society. In quiet and collectivity, in the lateness of evening and winter, Karlo cultivated his metaphysics of the bees and with a feeling of trepidation imagined a bee history, which, like that of human beings, is no more than the history of plague and evanescence. The difference lies in the fact that the bees have reached the completion of their civilization; they reliably, stubbornly, and in perfect order build their architectonically perfect hive, which does not change but has always been the same, for thousands of years, just as the honey is the same, and the bee’s daily rhythm, and there is nothing in their history other than plague and evanescence. People must not take the bees as their example because people are not complete. Imitating the bees, people become fascists.

This is one of those places where one must orchestrate the dance in English so that perfection and completeness, or completion and perfectness, come out sounding at least reasonably in tune. Working backward from “because people are not…,” I’m inclined to go with “complete,” rather than “perfect,” since the latter pushes the thought into banality. People’s completion reaches towards a metaphysics, Platonic and Platonist Christian, and for that reason seems more interesting. This then makes the earlier “bees have reached the completion [rather than perfection, which would otherwise be my first choice] of their civilization” the necessary choice–it has to prepare the way for people’s lack of “completeness” later. Anyway, this is what I think today.

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