Greetings, literarians, it’s finally Friday, and we’re thinking about ambition. This unholy, motivating beast comes in many forms. Here at TLM, we think first and foremost about artistic ambition: those great tomes like Joyce’s ULYSSES, Picasso’s Guernica, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Rodin’s Le Penseur, or, you know, Patrick Swayze’s hair in Point Break. These are all works for which the artist has been striving for years, ouevres that invariably contain pieces of the artist’s self and soul which can never be retrieved, given to us, the consumer, in order to better understand their anguish or ecstasy. But what of non-artistic ambition, if it can even be called that? What about the doctors, lawyers, bankers, politicians, athletes, and other practitioners of professional perfection?
A friend of mine, a doctor, recently completed her residency at a prestigious New York hospital and started her first full time position, in the exact hospital of her choice, in the exact position of choosing. She has, in a way, finally made it, and yet when speaking with her it seemed clear that she felt deflated, that the
challenge and difficulty of medicine was exactly the point of pursuing it. What next? she already seemed to think. Money seems equally problematic: there is always someone else with more, and you can never have enough. As I sat listening to my friend talk about these feelings, I could feel, sense, perceive an artist forming inside her, like a germ, a worm, a pearl, or anything that begins in the dark, under nebulous circumstances, and immediately starts growing. It sounds dangerous, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s best to start with art, achieve your vision, and then pick up another ambition. Chekhov would probably disagree. Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot, respectively an insurance salesman and banker, were also professionally successful while pursuing their art. But it’s still up for debate whether an artist can achieve their ambition, or whether it isn’t something so finite or definite. I have personally asked this question — When Did You Achieve Your Ambition? — to Denis Johnson, V.S. Naipaul, Gregory Rabassa, Chuck Palahniuk, and renown opera singer Stephen Kechulius. All the writers dodged the question or outright denied ever having any ambition in the first place. Only the opera singer gave me a straight answer. He said: “When I started turning down roles, I knew I’d made it.”
What say you, literarians? How do you measure your success? How do you wrestle with your ambition? How have you achieved it?