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.