Ambitions in writing

April 27, 2022

This piece, B.D.McClay, is an interesting one about ambition.

Surely most people have ambition, yes?  But for what, I guess, is the question.  By “having ambition” here, I mean only that people do things for hopes that are large, if perhaps a little inchoate—aspirational, as it were.  We act for aims that are vast but perhaps only loosely associated to our everyday practices; they are not modular attachments, like lego pieces, snapping firmly and securely onto our quotidian behaviors, but neither are they wholly detached from them; instead, the tether is more like an astronaut’s life line, or a fetus’s umbilical cord, loose and maybe a bit elastic, but still connected and vital.

People’s ambitions are, in my own experience, manifold.  Some write for themselves; some teach for an imagined student; others work for their family, or their parents, or for some image of themselves.  Everyone is in one way or another teleological, in this loose sense.

But McClay—the author of the piece—is right about the kind of ideal that many (not all) of us aspire to:

“I suppose another way of putting this position is that excellence requires a mix of arrogance and humility; arrogance as to your capabilities, humility toward the work. Arrogance says that you can and will accomplish your desires; humility understands that a greatness that transcends excellence, let alone survives, is not actually in your hands. You have to submit: to the truth, to the real, toward the bends and knots of what is coming to be through you. This is hardly less grandiose and mockable than Stanley’s original statement — I just think that it’s more true. I want something that is real to come to be through me.”

But I also think she spoils this thought by stepping back into a kind of lame and chaste modesty, which she tries to anchor in the fact that she writes non-fiction:

It is also true that while the best writing I’ve done corresponds to this description, I do not think any of the type of writing I do is likely to last longer than my lifespan, if even that long. Non-fiction writing, in its popular and scholarly varieties, is largely parasitic on the real thing — the real thing being art. Art wrestles with problems of obscurity and immortality; art testifies to the transcendent horizon. Little essays, no matter how clever, fade as soon as they are born; big books, even before.

To this I simply disagree.  Whose essays aren’t transcendent?  You don’t think Hazlitt is worthy? DuBois?  Trilling?  Arendt?  And all of those not just for the thoughts they say, but as writing--Arendt's discussion of Sgt Anton Schmidt in Eichmann, the beginning of DuBois's Souls of Black Folk, Trilling on "Wordsworth and the Rabbis," everything of Hazlitt (but maybe, for starters, his stuff on comedy?).  I work with many old books, most of them at least aspirationally non-fictional, and I find them often powerful.  Maybe it's hubris to admit it? 

Then again, it would be fake humility to deny it.

Anyway, a good piece--read for yourself!