Knowing When to Stop
How do painters know when to stop? By which I mean, how do they know when they must resist the temptation to add one last brushstroke – that could tip their creation from vibrant and audacious evocation of, say, a city-scape into crude and kitschy daub? It must be devastating to realise you’ve gone past that point and trashed a masterpiece in the making.
But isn’t this true of life, as comedy vicars are wont to say? It’s certainly true of fashion, even from my worm’s eye view of the industry. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve spotted a promising-looking garment in a charity shop, turned it round to check the back, only to discover that it was the back I was looking at, and the nice plain grey marl T-shirt is in fact a monstrosity with a red sequinned skull on it.
You could do worse than to follow Coco Chanel’s advice: ‘Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.’ (We’re talking accessories here, obvs, rather than staples like skirts or trousers.) Agatha Christie, rather improbably, confirmed the wisdom of this approach though the medium of fiction in her short story about two society women engaged in a bitter battle of bling, arriving at the gaming tables each night more laden with sumptuous jewels, until one reveals herself as the ultimate winner by – shock, horror – appearing in all her goddess-like splendour completely unadorned.
Not knowing when to stop can have far more serious consequences, though. How does a man recognise – and it usually is a man – the fatal (mostly for everybody else) decision that turns a liberator into a tyrant. At what point could you have stopped and retained your reputation as an unalloyed good guy?
Beethoven clearly spotted that moment when he angrily withdrew his dedication of the Eroica Symphony to ‘Buonaparte’, when Napoleon crowned himself emperor of France, declaring ‘So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!’ and tearing the title page of the score in half.
Similarly, in a recent documentary about Fidel Castro, one of his contemporaries described him as a man who never did anything by halves. To the end of his life he remained a fatigue-clad fighter. Was there a point when, having proved his power and the rightness of his cause by successfully supporting revolutionary movements beyond his borders, he could have graciously turned to negotiation, preventing the casualties of guerrilla warfare and securing less straitened circumstances for his citizens through a consequent lifting of sanctions?
All of which leads to the bigger question of when we collectively, in the first world at any rate, should have stopped? The beginning of the the Anthropocene, the epoch of significant human impact on the planet, is still under debate by scientists. Some claim we should date it from the Agricultural Revolution some 8,000 years ago, when many species became extinct with the widespread change in land use for growing food. The Industrial Revolution is a possible starting point, too, and other scientists point the finger at the middle of the last century, characterised by the dawn of the nuclear age, and the ‘great acceleration’ that followed World War II. I would have been happy to forgo smartphones, dishwashers and cheap air travel if we could have stopped some time after the introduction of public sanitation, pain relief, and antibiotics, ensured that these were available worldwide and consequently, perhaps, have spared the planet.