The Idiocy of Perfection
The first thing to strike me about The Idiocy of Perfection was the clumsiness of its title. This, it turns out, is quite ironic given the lyrical, frequently delightful prose of the book itself. Márquez presents a collection of five essays about five political theorists: Carl Schmitt, Michael Oakeshott, Norberto Bobbio, Isaiah Berlin, and Octavio Paz. Márquez has a thoughtful and reflective style that does a great service to the men in the collection. The connective tissue that links the five disparate theorists is both the time of their writings, the 20th century, and the nature of their endeavors, to wrestle with the role of liberal democracy in the lives of modern subjects. The highlights of the book, to my mind, were the essays on Schmitt and Berlin.
Carl Schmitt, a lawyer for the Nazi regime, is presented with an even-handedness that, perhaps counter-intuitively, allows for a better and more considered critique of his political philosophy than I expected. The essay on Berlin stands out for its lyricism as well as its affection for its subject. In fact, several of the author’s descriptions of Berlin’s political thought could apply to the book as well, such the description of how Berlin “could delve into the marrow of any figure using only the cadence of subtle expression” or how he could make “ideas come to life through the lives of men.” The affinity between Márquez and Berlin is clear and is perhaps what makes this essay particularly strong.
If I were to find fault with the book, it would lie chiefly in two areas, its male-centricity and its occasional editing issues. It feels a bit old fashioned to see a book of political theory still focus only on male theorists, particularly when dealing with the 20th century. As relates to typos, in one instance “comprehsible” is misspelled and in another we come across “the Primer Minister” (which, to be fair, is pretty amusing). And occasional phrases turn up that make me wonder if there are issues with translation–the book itself is translated from its original Spanish, and many of the included theorists originally published in languages other than English. For example, one moment refers to “the snails of his diction,” which has the feeling of an idiom literally translated. In fact, the clunkiness of the title itself may stem from issues of translation, it being derived from a poem written in Polish, ostensibly then translated to Spanish, and then to English.
Overall, Márquez explores the ideas proposed in each essay with a supple curiosity that refuses to rule for or against any of them. The result is an intellectually endearing and invigorating series of meditations that rewards curiosity. I would caution potential readers, though, that the book uses rather academic language not angled at the casual reader and also assumes some grounding knowledge of political philosophy.
Rose Mary Salum
Jesús Silva Herzog Márquez