On Non-Ambition

Having recently changed career paths (not dramatically, but significantly), I’ve been thinking about ambition, lack of ambition, contentment and challenges.  How does a person challenge herself enough to grow, to learn, to change without becoming crazy?  How does a person nurture happiness, stability, even contentment without selling out?  And, importantly, how does one create a trajectory that is distinctly one’s own and be brave enough to stand behind all the bumps, the backward travels, the poor decisions?

These very questions have been bubbling up as I begin reading Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas.  The writing is incredible (if Naipaul doesn’t have respect for most people, he certainly respects the English language).  What’s utterly fascinating though is his subtle (not so subtle?) critique of ambition, even desire.  What do we desire?  To be normal, to meet expectations, to follow a familiar path:

“For there was no doubt that this was what Shama expected from life: to be taken through every stage, to fulfill every function, to have her share in the established emotions: joy at a birth or marriage, distress during illness and hardship, grief at a death.  Life, to be full, had to be this established pattern of sensation.  Grief and joy, both equally awaited, were one.  For Shama and her sisters and women like them, ambition, if the word could be used, was a series of negatives: not to be unmarried, not to be childless, not to be an undutiful daughter, sister, wife, mother, widow” (153).

What would be an unestablished emotion?  How can we disrupt the “established pattern of sensation” and still be recognized?  This is as much a problem of narrative as it is a problem of ambition, feeling, duty.  For we have such few narratives (although the colonial bildungsroman may have a different trajectory than the bildungsroman, it still has an established narrative arc, an established pattern).  Living an ambitious life, then, means being comfortable telling unfamiliar stories.  Life really must imitate (embrace?) art.

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Mr. Fortune’s Maggot

My dear friend gave me an incredibly thoughtful wedding gift: Mr. Fortune’s Maggot.  He thought this book would be just the thing to help me think about faith, love, and form (all things incredibly important to my understanding of marriage – but that’s another post).

I was absolutely blown away when I finally read it this Thanksgiving.  Ostensibly a story of a missionary (gifted in the art of bureaucracy and accounts) who heads off to the island of Fanua to attempt to convert the islanders, the story is really about love, faith, and World War I.

Arriving on the island, Mr. Fortune quickly abandons his attempts at conversion, happy with his one ‘convert,’ Lueli, and his daily walks.  After an earthquake, both he and his ‘convert’ lose their god (Lueli loses his icon, Mr. Fortune loses his faith). He reflects:

“How differently to Lueli was he taking his loss!  The reason must be that Lueli though losing his god had kept his faith.  Lueli had lost something real, like losing an umbrella; he had lost it with frenzy and conviction.  But his loss was utter and retrospective, a lightning-flash loss which had wiped out a whole life-time of having.  In fact the best way of expressing it, though it sounded silly and paradoxical, was to say that what he had lost for ever was nothing.  ‘Forever is a word that stretches backward too'” (95).

I love this description of a “lightning-flash loss” because I think it captures, more than any other writing I’ve read, the way in which belief is “world-constituting” (as suggested by Gauri Viswanathan).  The loss of belief is the loss of a world.  More importantly, perhaps, this world is lost ‘forever’ – it cannot be recaptured or even accessed once it’s gone.

Knowing that I still believe in God, but don’t believe in the Catholic Church, I wonder about my world. What does it look like?  How can I still nurture what Newman calls “the habit of belief?”  Should I still nurture it?

Sylvia Townshead Warner closes the novel with silence.  Confronted with WWI, Mr. Fortune “felt incapable of comment.  He did not seem to have an idea left.  Everything that was real, everything that was significant, had gone down with the island of Fanua and was lost forever” (153-4).  But even such loss is not hopeless, Mr. Fortune quietly asks for the time and synchronizes his watch.

I take this to mean that beneath the synchronicity of everyday life there is still a difference in meaning, in value, in significance.  To find this meaning, and to hold onto it, is precisely how one makes her way in the world.

Little Dorrit

When I was in England, I found solace watching BBC’s adaptation of Dickens’s Little Dorrit.  By no means my favorite Dickens’s novel, I couldn’t believe how addicting the tv series was.  It eased my loneliness and led me to my first friend (although, when I went over to S.’s house to watch the grand finale to the series, we never got to it.  I blame the wine and good conversation).

Returning to Little Dorrit this fall, I couldn’t believe how textured the novel was.  I had only remembered how much I disliked “the Pet” and how Little Dorrit seemed to be another impossibly perfect female character.  But the novel is utterly fascinating: whether the watch inscription, “Do Not Forget,” Maggy, the forever child, or Arthur Clenam who lacks a childhood, the novel is very much about the perils of uneven or even arrested development.  Moreover, it’s dark – there’s not an easy solution for what to do once you see society for what it is.  Exposure is not necessarily the answer, but acceptance certainly isn’t the answer either.