For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Rodel: Honest Error And Icy Perfections

Leaving Uig, I drove south through South Lewis and onto the Isle of Harris. As I headed into the mountains the rain fell ever more heavily. Agnes Maclennan had been right. I stopped in the small fishing and ferry port of Tarbert and ate some venison sausages and mash in a pub. Then I took the coastal route round Harris. Harris is wild, mountainous, magnificent. On the west side there are splendid beaches. On the east side it's even more remote, the coastline more indented, the narrow, single-track road more challenging. I drove slowly, scattering small flocks of wheatears and grey wagtails as I passed. Sheep grazed at the edge of the road and sometimes wandered into the middle of it. The east side looks like this...



On the tip of Harris stands the church at Rodel. It was built around 1500, rebuilt in 1784, then restored in 1873...




The dark, atmospheric interior is quite empty except for the tombs of 3 armoured knights carved in black gneiss. You can see one of these tombs on the left in my pic...




I climbed the tower (square-shaped - very unusual for these parts) via a gloomy, stone staircase then 2 vertical wooden ladders. At the top were 3 lancet windows facing north, south and west, each with a deep recess. In each recess visitors had left little notes - containing prayers, personal messages, spiritual observations and homespun philosophies...





One of these hand-written reflections struck me with the force of a lightning bolt. I memorized it, then later wrote it down. Here it is verbatim: "There is hope in honest error, none in icy perfections or the mere stylist..." I don't know who wrote this, whether it's a quote from anyone, or whether the writer was inspired to scribble it on the spot. But it certainly inspired me that rainy day in Harris, on my own, at the top of a church tower, on a far-flung island, miles from anywhere. Perhaps 'error' is not such a bad thing, even a noble thing, if it is 'honest'? And perfection, or the striving towards perfection, can be such a cold, heartless and 'icy' thing, can it not?


I wonder if you who are reading this identify more with 'honest error' or more with 'icy perfections'? Be honest! I know I'm heart and soul in the former camp... But I also know I have a wilful perfectionist streak in me too...

'Style' alone is just cleverness, surface gloss. It's what's behind the style that counts - the substance behind the seductive, flickering shadow, the narrative behind the verbal and artistic trickery...

12 comments:

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

There is a world of truth and reflection to be gleaned within that quote from the church at Rodel—one might even call it a theology of life and outlook, depending on your hermeneutical reading.

"Honest error"…to me implies a blunder not of will, but miscalculation or misconception, made while striving toward a higher ideal or a difficult but honorable goal. Not necessarily a mistake made endeavoring toward the ultimate and perhaps impossible goal of absolute perfection (is perfection of anything actually possible?)—and certainly not "icy perfection," which I see as an attitude of arrogance, possibly connected to having reached a point or an original intent error-free, which is not the same as it being perfect! A place where you consider and regroup, change, try another tact, then pick up and move forward empowered by faith and desire—and hope—of attaining something of higher quality, beyond your currant point, more appropriate or desirable and closer to that target of loftier aim.

I don't see style as necessarily shallow or of little value—mere sizzle without the steak—but I do believe style should compliment and enhance substance.

God knows, I'm a life-long and chronic perfectionist…often to my own undoing or exasperation. But since I find it so difficult to please myself—and always feel like I should/could have done more, or done it better— there's seldom a chance of copping an attitude of icy perfection." My errors are legion, but honest.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Interesting post Robert - interesting church too - very dour in some ways but beautiful because of that rather than in spite of it. Interesting what Scribe says - I think if one is a perfection ist then one has little choice but to strive towards it, as Scribe rightly says - often to one's own detriment. My father impressed on me from a very early age that if a job is worth doing it is worth doing well - and sometimes that philosophy has been almost my downfall.

am said...

"There is hope in honest error, none in icy perfections or the mere stylist..."

I'm thinking that Dante could have said that somewhere in The Divine Comedy (-:

Spiritually, I'm at the tip of Harris today, inside the church at Rodel, and quite moved by that note left by an anonymous person and by your response.

As a child, I felt that my parents expected perfection from me. No matter what I did, I felt that I disappointed my parents. Eventually I turned around and expected perfection from them. That went to an icy nowhere, unresolved until after their deaths. How were we to know any better? Perfectionism itself can be seen an honest error.

A few months ago I was sitting at a table with some friends. On the table was a book with the word "progress" on the cover. Suddenly I saw that the word "progress" contains the word
"ogres." I thought of Shrek and his honest errors and his words, "But I AM an ogre."

"There is hope in honest error" makes me think of the words "progress rather than perfection."

Hope. Honest error. Progress, not perfection. Shrek and Fiona. Or even Dante and Beatrice (-:

The Solitary Walker said...

I've just this moment 'googled' the quote (sometimes I think 'Google' solves all our puzzles far too quickly; it takes the fun out of guessing and tracking things down) and find it was said by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who in turn took it from another, less well known architect. The quote I discovered in the church was slightly wrong (or I remembered it wrongly)- the correct quote is: 'There is hope in honest error, not in the icy perfections of the mere stylist.' I think Mackintosh was saying that a design could be TOO perfect.

The quote resonated with me because lately I've been considering mistakes, errors, wrong turnings in my own life - for which, perhaps, I've judged myself too harshly.

Certainly a pedant who is obsessed about perfectionism at the expense of all else can end up a boring, selfish, dissatisfied person, I think.

I think we should do things to the best of our ability, if we can - but really we hardly ever do this, do we? We're often too lazy, haven't enough time, get waylaid by other projects, take the easy way out. It's only humnan, I guess.

gleaner said...

I really love your travel posts - I feel I'm there and get lost in the places, probably because they often seem remote, peaceful and reflective places. The photo of the church, particularly the stone walls and the windows felt familiar (I've been looking at old churches renovated into houses and love the idea of living in one).

What is an honest error? I think the word honest means it is done without ignorance and with good intent. I tend towards liking honest mistakes because there is possibility for transformative moments - they hold alot of creativity and possibilities. I think I come from a family who liked using the term 'honest error' but the operative word was 'honest' and probably we could be perfectionists only in regards to 'dishonest errors', or errors which involve ignorance and greed.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

My immediate thoughts about the quote were that it referred to one's life, not one's work. I didn't think around it in terms of art, architecture, writing etc, but in terms of person.

Now reading that it was an 'artistic' quote, my thoughts are: There is great joy in trying to create a work of the best possible quality. And there is also a fine balance between striving for perfection of art and craftsmanship, and not stifling spontaneity of expression and spirit.

When it comes to trying to be a 'perfect' person, though, am's reference to Shrek says it all! I'd much rather be, and be with, an honest bungling big-hearted person than an icy perfectionist!

The Solitary Walker said...

These were all such wonderful responses to my piece and I'm truly grateful for them.

Raph, my thoughts entirely.

Dominic Rivron said...

The building (interior and exterior, from the photos) reminds me very much of Iona Abbey.

A good quote.

Jefferson GrandsLieux said...

That quote will be my meditation basis for tonight...
As you see, you're read from as far as near Paris (I'm pretty sure that your readers come from much further).

Your blog is very interesting.

I have written an article about some part of England in my blog. Have a look and tell me what you think please.
http://www.grandslieux.over-blog.com
Good night

SimplesSimes said...

Just seen how you were struck by that quote left in the bell tower in St Clements church near Leverburgh. As a sassenach solitary biker (on a kawasaki from Gloucestershire) I saw the same note in June of 2009 as I was killing time waiting for the ferry (the church was recommended to me by the helpful and friendly Leverburgh post mistress on missing an earlier sailing). I was so struck upon reading the quote I photo'd the note but only found out the quote source was Charles Rennie Mackintosh only recently. A Glasgow Architectural Design School is named after the author and he appears on a scottish £100 note. It is the the unexpected finds on a road trip that stick in the mind and reflecting back on a journey through Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland last summer that little church with the tower notes was a real un-planned highlight (along with a magnificent sculpture piece and inspirational poetry commemorating W. B. Yeats' final resting place in Drumcliffe, Co. Sligo, Ireland). Thank you Solitary Walker for a reminder of a wonderful little part of Scotland.

David said...

"There is hope in honest error; none in the icy perfections of the mere stylist" was written by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928)a Scottish architect and interior designer. Based on “Modernist” ideas, art and crafts, and Japanese simplicity of forms, his so-called "Glasgow" style was exhibited in Europe and considerably influenced the Viennese Art Nouveau movement. Later in life he worked mostly as a great watercolorist.

Anonymous said...

According to one of my (many!) CR Mackintosh books the quote is originally by J.D. Sedding though the 'icy' was added by CRM who popularised it when he hand-lettered it in 1901. The Glasgow School of Art shop sell badges of the lettering. (Apologies for being pedantic but credit where it's due!)