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Raphaël Enthoven

The quest for excellence makes life more beautiful

Is excellence an end in itself, a self-sustaining quest undertaken for its own sake, a path leading to performance? Sincere thanks to Raphäel Enthoven for this philosophical stroll through the ages, through ideas and through the paradoxes of the human soul.

The Larousse French dictionary defines excellence as a person’s eminent degree of quality and value. Does that mean our value as human beings depends on our capacity to excel?
“Value” does indeed stem from excellence, which itself defines an individual’s relationship with their activity. As its name implies, value (which does not mean price) cannot be quantified: anyone who excels is “non-evaluable” or “eminent”, as the dictionary says. The best illustration one could give of excellence lies in the Archer Metaphor dear to the Stoics. If the archer sets himself the goal of reaching the bullseye, he probably won’t succeed, since countless external variables beyond his control intervene between himself and his objective. In a nutshell, the bullseye does not depend on him. On the other hand, what does depend on him is the determination to do everything exactly right, to perform a “correct action” (Seneca) by dint of intense training. The bullseye (which he now stands a chance of reaching, given that this is not what counts) is merely a collateral virtue of excellence, which is its own purpose.

Does excellence define the pathway rather than the final result?
Montaigne wrote that what really counts in hunting is not the prey, but the chase itself. There are in fact several co-existing viewpoints. For the community, excellence is a means of achieving a benefit.
Excellence is quantifiable when it is reduced to what it serves to obtain, when it is measured by its success. In the same way that the time shown on clocks passes at the same speed for everyone, but the time of dreams is different for each individual, public excellence is measurable by everyone, whereas intimate excellence (which Foucault calls “intransitive freedom”) becomes an end in itself and puts the goal in its place – meaning in second place. Excellence accepts rewards, but doesn’t care about them. Listen to the words of Bergson (Spiritual Energy): “Take exceptional joys – the joy of the artist who has realized his thought, the joy of the thinker who has made a discovery or an invention. You may hear it said that these men work for glory and get their highest joy from the admiration they win. Profound error! We cling to praise and honors to the exact degree in which we are not sure of having succeeded.” Beautiful, isn’t it? How many people, sacrificing excellence for the desire to please, kill off their talent and are buried with all their medals, instead of having given birth to something that does not die with them?

In his portrait of the ideal city, Plato insists that justice (to put it briefly) consists in keeping everyone in their rightful place. If you are a farmer, don’t become a philosopher. If you are a soldier, don’t become a farmer. Nothing is more deleterious than the “democratic man” who changes moods or jobs as one changes robes. Such a degree of immobility is shocking to supporters of social mobility such as we ourselves are. And yet… The issue is not about changing places, but about a deeper experience of the place we occupy. Plato contrasts the inconstancy of an individual who constantly changes furrow with the patience of the artisan who ploughs his own. Excellence in no way depends on your place (high or low) in society, but on your relationship with your activity.

Is excellence a prerequisite for performance?
Performance is an effect of the excellence achieved. In Stefan Zweig’s wonderful novella Chess Story, also known as The Royal Game, a man is locked in a cell for three months, with only one chess manual to read. At the start of his incarceration he doesn’t know how to play, and by the end, he has become a great master and beats the world champion during a chance encounter on a sea crossing. Performance was not his goal, but it is the result. Similarly, the French sailor Eric Tabarly was a formidable competitor, precisely because competition was not his thing. He threw himself into it with the lack of concern it deserves. No opponent can fight that.

The frequently cited opposition between performance and harmony is an ancient quarrel, which dates back to the 12th century, meaning to the time when humankind discovered to its dismay that it was not at the center of the universe, and that the universe was infinite. Man ceased to conceive of the world as a closed entity within which the meaning of life is to find one’s place and stay there. The world opened up indefinitely. And conquering one’s place within infinite space is an endless task. The idea of performance was born from this anxiety-inducing limitlessness, like a desperate race towards an inexistent horizon. As early as the 18th century, the effects of this were felt in the practice of sports. The values instilled by the Greeks at the time of the first Olympics (the harmony that the athlete maintains with himself and his body) were gradually transformed into the ambition to be stronger than others. Harmonious serenity gave way to the urgent need to surpass one’s neighbor, leading to a number of abuses such as doping (which only transgresses the law because it obeys the even stronger law of striving to go ever faster, higher, further, etc.).

An artist (singer, dancer, musician...) who, through hours of work, succeeds in mastering a technique, is part of an excellence-driven approach. But does this excellence guarantee his talent?
If mastery of technique made an artist talented, all piano teachers would be virtuosos! On the other hand, you must have learned it enough to be able to forget it. Paradoxically, the pinnacle of excellence lies in a newfound ingenuity, in our ability to look at the world through the astonished eyes of a child discovering it for the first time. However, candor is inaccessible to those who have not learned anything.

This represents a conquest, unlike naivety which is a defeat based on the conviction that ignorance is a virtue. In Balzac’s beautiful short story, entitled The Unknown Masterpiece, the painter Porbus feverishly shows his latest portrayal of Venus to his master, Frenhofer. The latter looks at her and mercilessly declares: “Blood does not flow beneath that ivory skin, the tide of life does not flush those delicate fibers, the purple veins that trace a network beneath the transparent amber of her brown and breast. Here the blood seems to beat, there it is motionless, life and death are at strife in every detail; here you see a woman, there a statue, there again a corpse. Your creation is incomplete. You had only power to breathe a portion of your soul into your beloved work. The fire of Prometheus died out again and again in your hands, many a spot of your picture has not been touched by the divine flame.”

All this because it lacked the extra soulfulness, the spark of life that is the artist’s raison d’être and without which even the most excellent technique is useless. Art does not copy life, but it expresses it.

Picasso used to say “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
That’s so true! The same goes for the great Chinese painter Chen Jiang Hong, a drawing virtuoso who studied fine arts in China and France. Today, he expresses himself exclusively through abstract painting. He has been able to eliminate figuration precisely because he experienced figurative mediation for years. The indispensable learning process is transcended by its forgetting – a stage of which it remains the essential prerequisite.

Based on an interview by Michèle Wouters
Photos © A Prime Group - G.Figuérola

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