Ambition and literature
May 10, 2011 § Leave a comment
G [ombrowicz] begins his 1953 journals with a discussion of Polish literature, its place in the wider field of European literature, and the attitude of Poles to both. Some of his points are good — such as that his Polish contemporaries spent way too much time trying to prove to anyone who’d listen (but mainly themselves) that they were good Europeans and every inch the equals of the better sort (i.e. the French and the Germans) because Polish lit was as good as French lit and Mickiewicz as good as Dante. This concern with status of Polish culture, says G, proves that we aren’t anybody’s equal because a truly great people are not worried about their equality or otherwise, but busy themselves with their own business and all foreigners be damned.
The point is good, but then G belabors it unnecessarily. This puzzles me at first: when in my journal I write a note to myself, usually one sentence suffices: it is there to establish a fact, or make a resolution, or remind me of something. It is there because just to think the thought was somehow not sufficient: I had to write it down in order to see what it contained1. But once written out, such a thought requires neither discussion, nor illustration, and certainly no rhetorical flourish. Yet, G embellishes his entry with all three. I wonder: why?
The answer is that he does so because his journal is not his journal: it is not written for himself, out of a need to deal with thoughts too difficult to think without writing them down. Rather, it is written for an audience. It is meant for publication.
This explains why G then goes on to add further points to his argument, not really as good, indeed, some not good at all, but more controversial, such as his argument that Mickiewicz was not really as good as Dante2. The argument is silly: according to it, Dante is better because his topic is better (i.e. God), by which argument the greatest writer of all times would be… Torquemada: G cannot believe it, and certainly does not. He only includes it in his entries in order to stir things up more, to get a bigger reaction. Why? Because debate is good in and of itself as long as it generates publicity. Indeed, the more furious, the better: the points one makes are best when they are infuriating. They needn’t be especially good. We do not even need to believe them.
At last I understand what the journal truly is: a thinly disguised bid for literary fame. What matters is neither Polish literature, nor the Polish complex, but that there be a debate, the louder the better, in the public media best of all, and that G be in the center of it.
A similar point emerges during a discussion of Milosz’s decision in early 1940 not to join the armed forces, but instead to return to occupied Poland and — write. His ambition was to be famous, and to this end he would take inordinate risks with his own life — such as return to occupied Poland — but not silly risks such as take up the gun and fight. Milosz had a true talent, but he also had a dogged ambition and it is the ambition that earned him his fame, his Nobel prize, and his life after death. Baczynski, on another hand, was a talented poet and a warrior; Baczynski died in battle and his Nobel went to Milosz.
What is ambition? Falstaff should ask3.
“An earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction”, says the dictionary, “such as power, honor, fame, or wealth”.
All four (power, honor, fame, wealth) measure their owner in terms of other people: people who fear, respect, admire, and serve us. In the eyes of ambition, therefore, achievement consists in one’s ability to affect other people. To be ambitious means to live vicariously — through the eyes of others. To be ambitious is not to be oneself.
Worse, being ambitious puts us at the mercy of others. What if they do not fear us or admire us? Or worse: only pretend that they do? Ambition is solicitous of the thoughts and feelings of others. To be ambitious means, in effect, to submit to other people’s judgment. Ambition is… subservient.
Worse yet, ambition measures its success in terms of the opinions of people who rank below us in the social hierarchy: do my servants look up to me with admiration? Do they think my books are good? Is my car shiny enough for them? But the opposite should be true: as we rise in the world, those beneath us should matter less, eventually disappearing form sight altogether.
Now, surely, what is true of nations must be true of individuals, too; and if so, we can rephrase G’s dictum above: one’s concern with status proves that one isn’t anybody’s equal because a truly great man is not worried about his equality or otherwise, but busies himself with his own business and all other men be damned.
It seems an odd concept to me: that one could write a book on an important topic — such as the place of Polish lit in the wider context of European lit — not in order to tackle the topic, but in order to promote himself. I suppose I must be profoundly unambitious: what other people think about some topics interests me only to the extent that the topic does; when I read a book on Boucher, say, or Xanto, I do so because the work of those artists interest me, their colors, or their perspective, say, not because I am interested in the author of the book; and when I write a post about it, here or elsewhere, it is because I am organizing my own thoughts on the topic and not because I am trying to promote myself.
But then I have nothing to promote; I don’t have a career; I do not charge money for my articles; there isn’t a tenure in view. More importantly, perhaps, I am really not interested what people think about me — for the simple reason that their opinion cannot possibly be informed; but only in what they think about what I am thinking about at the moment, like Boucher say, or Xanto; and even this only to the extent that what they think on the topic is worth knowing. Which, unfortunately, mostly is not.
Thus, my lack of ambition is a kind of luxury which allows me to take an interest in things that interest me; and devote my time to them regardless of the marketability of the topic. But most writers, it would seem, do not have this luxury. It is important to keep this in mind as we read: it explains why so many books feel bogus and insincere and why so many arguments are simply bad.
1 I do not know what I am thinking until I see what I have written.
2 It is manifest to anyone who has read both in the original that the opposite is true.
3 “What is Honor? What is in that word, Honor? Why: air”, etc., Henry IV p. II