Let's Start With Panic
The first story of panic: In Tomas Tranströmer's prose poem "The Name," a man pulls his car off the road, crawls into the backseat, and falls asleep. After he wakes he can't remember who he is: "I am something that wakens in a backseat, twists about in panic like a cat in a sack." Finally, the man remembers his name. This is how the poem ends:
But impossible to forget the fifteen-second struggle in the hell of oblivion, a few meters from the main road, where the traffic glides past with its lights on.
A second story of panic, and one of the most haunting depictions of what it means to lack an inner life: Anton Chekhov's "The Darling." At first the story seems to be about a harmless woman. Young, beautiful, and willing to parrot others' opinions, initially she attracts friends and admirers. In the course of the story she takes on the views of each of her successive husbands, repeating his convictions until, widowed and alone, she fastens upon a ten-year-old boy. The story reveals the burden the child carries as the woman assumes his internal reality as her own. At the story's conclusion, the boy cries out in his sleep: "I'll give it to you! Get away! Shut up!"
Tranströmer's figure who wakes in his car is only momentarily at a loss, but his lapse points to the precariousness of identity. Chekhov's short story is about a woman's life-long failure to develop any self-reflection, or any residue of self-knowledge. It's not so much the story of an idiot as of a vampire, albeit a hapless one.
The amnesia in the first narrative is unwilled. In the second story the woman suffers a worse predicament. She doesn't comprehend her hollowness, her inability to create an identity of her own. Reflexively she preys on others to give herself a sensation of reality. Only the child victim can begin, at least in his dreams, to recognize that he is being feasted on by a succuba.
* * *
This is a book about ambition. The ambition that I know best is writerly ambition, and its peculiarities. The writer knows that he or she writes for the man waking up in the car who can't remember who he is, as well as for the child whose inner life is being invaded. The writer writes, too, for "the darling" who needs to discover her own inner resources. The writer writes against panic. And this is a book about reclaiming the writer's ambition, that idiosyncratic drive.
Certainly there are writers who are ambitious for conventional rewards, such as fame, love, money, power ... although of all ways to win any of those rewards, writing would seem to be one of the most labor intensive and uncertain. Yet there's another form of ambition that writers may focus on: the ambition to make a lifetime's work that adds to the sum of what Wallace Stevens, referring to poetry, called one of the "enlargements of life." To make the written work itself more powerful—to renew ambition within the process of creating the work—is one of the most daunting of ambitions. When T. S. Eliot referred to "a raid on the inarticulate," he chose a word less likely to refer to his character Prufrock than to a Viking. Imaginative writing is a raid, and a raid on, among other riches, the writer's own resources.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was ambitious for poets as "unacknowledged legislators of the world." Generally people who read that phrase can't resist playing with the wording: acknowledge your legislators as they level the world; legislate knowledge in the underworld; ours is a world legislated by underknowledge. In his poem "Disasters," George Oppen reworked the phrase memorably into "legislators / / of the unacknowledged / / world."
In The Case for Greatness: Honorable Ambition and Its Critics, Robert Faulkner argues that "if the aims are honorable and just as well as grand, they mark a truly grand ambition, ambition good as well as great." Yes, and why not? Charlotte Brontë used the same term, "honorable ambition," when discussing her attempts to convince her sister Emily to seek publication: "a mind like hers could not be without some latent spark of honorable ambition, and [I] refused to be discouraged in my attempts to fan that spark to flame." We can likewise hear a certain thrill of ambition in Emily Dickinson, including in her poems about being powerless. One paraphrase of those poems seems more accurate than others: I am so little I could destroy you. Dickinson makes us think that tyrants are not ambitious enough, given that they're unable to control or fathom their own psychic horizons.
There is something especially compelling about writers' ambitions, coming as they so often do—in actuality, despite labor and talent—apparently to nothing. Or being believed by the writers (Keats and Dickinson, for instance) to have come to nothing in any public sense. And to turn the question about ambition back upon the writers' creations, where are writers without their characters' ambitions? When it comes to aspiration, there's at least a pinch of Dr. Faustus in every engaging literary character—and I wouldn't exclude Anne of Green Gables.
Huckleberry Finn's "All right, then, I'll go to hell" is as resonant in its own way as Satan's claim (through Milton), "myself am Hell."
Some ambition, depending on its aim, can be a symptom of malignant egotism, the preoccupation of a writer who would succeed at any cost. And yet a lack of ambition can signal timidity—writing small, without courage or discipline. If writing well always takes the form of an experiment, as Theodore Roethke and others have claimed, then we writers may feel like our own specimen tubs. But then, for some, the right to be ambitious signals independence, including those who since childhood heard the phrase "Who died and made you queen?" at the slightest assertion of their human worth.
Ambition has its price, and there is no lack of warnings. Or ridicule. The prospect of public ridicule is even more ominous of late, given the many forums in which writers can be found wanting. No one is safe, especially from reviews on Amazon.com. If you look up Shakespeare's Macbeth you'll discover that some readers give it only two stars: "Tacky with very few memorable quotes" and "mediocre plot, mediocre characters." The Tempest, too, merited a two-star rating: "Interesting, but just a one-time read."
Ambition can be tainted with arrogance. Even so, arrogance may be a necessary weapon for many writers. Just the same, those accused of being arrogant and who accept the epithet may be anxious to insist that the description involves a matter of degrees. Sherman Alexie responded to an interviewer, "You know, I'm an arrogant guy and sometimes I say things that make me sound like I'm some very arrogant guy, but I'm only arrogant. I'm not very arrogant. But I play with the big boys."
Edna O'Brien's account of James Joyce's writing of Ulysses serves as a wrenching testimony to ambition that should serve to stiffen any writer's spine:
Ulysses took seven years of unbroken labor, twenty thousand hours of work, havoc to brain and body, nerves, agitation, fainting fits, numerous eye complaints—glaucoma, iritis, cataract, crystallized cataract, nebula in the pupil, conjunctivitis, torn retina, blood accumulation, abscesses and one-tenth normal vision. That Joyce has risen above so much misunderstanding is surely a testament to those wounded eyes and the Holy Ghost in that ink bottle.
The aim of ambition is what matters. We have to decide how to fill the concept and what form our relationship to ambition may take. And that's the problem. The act of writing is so dependent on unknowable factors and the momentum forward is so unpredictable that our aims may be continually modified. I don't mean to exaggerate. It's not as if we start out intending to compose a recipe featuring chickpeas and wind up creating a new sort of graphic novel. But the instability of the act, its volatility, and the uncertain likelihood of success, can make predicting the final form an unsettling and sometimes nearly futile venture.
To write imaginatively is to be a student of ambition, our own and that of our characters. In terms of plot, imaginative writing is often about ambition's price. Writers are apt to use ambition as a situational or dramatic device. Some variant of ambition—normally called "desire" or, less dramatically, "motivation"—is at work. Consider the unquenchable will of the governess in Henry James's novella The Turn of the Screw or the obsession of a biographer with "The Aspern Papers" in a story of that name, and Miss Tita's determination to destroy those same papers; or consider the grand ambition displayed in the title of Edward Casaubon's unrealized life's work, "The Key to all Mythologies," contrasted with George Eliot's tidy title Middlemarch and even more humble subtitle A Study of Provincial Life.
* * *
I recall having lunch a few years ago with a woman who was bitterly criticizing a mutual acquaintance, without specifics. "But what bothers you about her?" I asked, frustrated and wanting to get at the evidence. Voice lowered, as if her words would consign that other woman to damnation forever, my lunch partner said, "She's ambitious."
At another lunch (why do these conversations happen at lunch, and now that I'm reporting them, will anyone ever go to lunch with me again?), another acquaintance praised a woman in the most backhanded way imaginable by claiming she lacked ambition: "She's a mediocrity and knows it, but she accepts it and has no qualms about it. I find that quality admirable."
One woman's ambition was disparaged, another woman's purported lack of ambition was praised. I felt sympathy for both of those absent women, defenseless before such judgment. When I recall those lunch conversations I think of a portion of Milan Kundera's Ignorance that suggests the most horrible of the vulnerabilities that ambition seeks to overcome:
For the woman who is dead is a woman with no defenses; she has no more power, she has no more influence; people no longer respect either her wishes or her tastes; the dead woman cannot will anything, cannot aspire to any respect or refute any slander.
What does it mean to "aspire to any respect"? Does it mean to at least attempt to reach toward the limit of one's capacity? And what is ambition, for all its bad reputation, but the antithesis of death, the opposite of the undefended corpse? Ambition seems to prove that, if nothing else, we are in service to a conception of enhanced possibilities. To be ambitious may even mean that we are extraordinarily alive, summoning energy, will, and resonant presence, even while so much that we experience conspires to make all but very few people believe their lives are smaller than they actually are or need to be.
The Closest Work
When I entered grammar school I didn't know the alphabet, and I was slow to learn to read.
In second grade all of us were told we would be awarded a prize if we read ten storybooks. I think I was the only child who didn't receive a prize. One by one, the children sat on the teacher's lap as she gave each a toy. I was too shy to sit on her lap. I reread the tenth book for weeks, never "finishing." To this day I can see the book's illustration of a school bus. It was an ugly book, and it was also a shield.
It's possible, though, that rereading that tenth book was a great help to me. As I steeped myself in those sentences I began to understand what I was reading. Soon, I could hardly stop reading.
Reading and writing, done less than an arm's length away, were accomplished in a small space removed from the more hazardous bewilderments of childhood. Otherwise, outside of the books and the papers on my desk at school, I experienced a sensation of stopping short, halted before a zone that I feared and avoided.
So much of the world was unreliable. It would take me a long time to learn to tell time, a long time to learn to play games on the playground. In many situations I could not understand what other children understood easily. I accepted my own bewilderment as inevitable, and I came to rely on reading and writing as substitutes for all that otherwise I couldn't understand.
I'd already discovered that poems, what little I knew of them, were best for the intense reading I depended on. Poems were like inky apparition, as were poets. I actually thought poets were their words. Somehow, I believed poems had materialized after the poets' deaths.
One afternoon a photographer took my picture and remarked, "One of her eyes droops." I was a seven-year-old in my First Communion dress. I was not offended by the photographer's comment but instead felt grateful for his close attention. In the photograph I am seriously trying to be Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Because I forgot my prayer book, I am staring at a blank sheaf of papers at the level of my breastbone. The papers are folded to resemble a book.
By the time it was discovered that I could not see writing on the blackboard at school, not even from the first few rows, that I couldn't read the numerals on the clock on the wall, that I panicked secretly when attempting to recognize the faces of the other children on the playground, I must have been at least nine years old. I had learned to read and write and had promised myself a secret and seemingly impossible ambition—to be a writer—although I never imagined I would be the author of something as extraordinary as an actual book. By then my promise to myself had been conditioned by the fact that I was—like so many others, simply enough, commonly enough—a myopic child.
When the problem with my eyes was discovered and I was at last prescribed glasses, it became obvious to me that by having my extreme near-sightedness corrected I also gained new vulnerabilities. The feelings of other people suddenly became too close. To see clearly meant it was possible to experience more fully others' repugnance or irritation or dismay. There were more colors in people's faces, and the colors took on sharper edges. Yet it was difficult to make any edges appear around myself. When I became a teenager I disliked wearing glasses and tried often, miserably, to go without them—out of vanity and out of the self-protection that young people so often desire.
The sensation of working close to the page, and of struggling to see into vague distances, has influenced my poetry and fiction. My work has also developed in some measure from early experiences in which I had to be careful to speak distinctly and to repeat myself.
I don't remember exactly when my father stopped being able to hear us well. Hearing aids never helped him much, and eventually he gave up trying to wear one. Instead, he taught himself to watch faces intently, to move his lips with our lips as we spoke to him. To be heard by him meant that all of us in our family had to weigh our words. I reduced whatever I needed to say to make repetition easier for myself.
My father doted on me. Even before I became a teenager I felt that he wanted something from me to which he could immediately respond. He wanted words that offered a stubborn quirkiness that answered his own sense of the stubborn quirkiness of life. It was characteristic of him to admire people who worked hard, and yet he was most fond of remarks that reflected an irreverent ebullience, a relief from worry and labor.
At times I would be tired even before I spoke to him, as if it was too much of an effort to repeat myself and to make words interesting enough for him. I was ashamed, because he was so obviously patient with me. I knew, too, that speaking with him could be wonderful—his face reflecting tender surprise. Yet talking with him was also a painful event, as if too much feeling threatened to overcome me. To be listened to with such hope, from someone so eager for laughter, eager for the jarring dislocations of meaning that create laugher: how fortunate I was, and how often his responses made whatever was reluctant to feel within me break open and thaw painfully.
In my early work a tone of voice can be heard that is derived from a training in inflection and repetition that I received by talking with my father, when even the most innocent words bore the potential to baffle, or to meet the undisguised yearning and love in his face.
It is a commonplace to speak of the sensual nature of strong writing. Yet the senses reveal shifts, decay, limitations. The senses live while we live. They may abandon us as they respond to time and trauma.
When I write I gain a recognition of both the boundaries of the senses and my boundaries as a writer, along with the hope of trespassing against those boundaries.
I recognize the note of ambition in the previous sentence. I wouldn't want to deny ambition to any writer, including myself.
In one of the most harrowing visual depictions of punished ambition, Titian's painting The Flaying of Marsyas, the satyr is skinned alive for his presumption in competing with Apollo—Marsyas's flute against Apollo's lyre. (In many retellings of this Greek myth, divine trickery occurs.) No matter how many times I study the image, its pretty yet cold-blooded Apollo pressing the tip of his knife into the satyr's skin, I can't dismiss the horror. Inevitably I return to stare at the painted body hung upside down, trussed and dressed out like a deer carcass. So many are at work. A little dog laps blood. An old satyr with distended nipples brings a bucket. Apollo fastidiously peels Marsyas's chest. Skin is visible everywhere, bare arms and legs and torsos, and it is the skin of Marsyas's torso that gleams brightest amid that writhing flesh.
The painting was symbolically resonant for the novelist Iris Murdoch in her efforts to pare falsities from her introspective characters. Portions of Titian's painting are included in Tom Phillip's portrait of Murdoch, painted over the course of three years in fifteen sittings. In her wonderful introduction to Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea, Mary Kinzie refers to the satyr's agony and the fascination that the painting held for Murdoch as an image of "unspeakable striving," representing "the physical being on the threshold of a spiritual change." As Kinzie puts it, Marsyas "is submitting in terror, yet without struggle, to having the real rind of his symbolically flawed nature sliced away."
Although I admire Kinzie's introduction, I can't be entirely satisfied with an attempt to discover a vision of "the artist ... both defeated and redeemed" in Marsyas's features. Perhaps I have trouble seeing that he is submitting to, and being redeemed by, what has befallen him because I have done the vulgar thing and turned the image upside down, which is easy enough for me to do, given that I downloaded and printed off the image. Of course the painting isn't meant to be viewed upside down, but the satyr being skinned is himself upside down. By inverting the image my perspective is more like his.
When the painting is reversed, the satyr's hoofs almost meet the edge of the canvas. It appears as if he's walking off. His arms, foreshortened, are curved above his head like the dancer Nijinsky's. Stepping away, Marsyas is escaping his tormentors, who now look as if they're hung like fluffy putti in the air. With the image inverted, Marsyas's expression is agonized, his misery undeniable. Is the satyr's suffering, as so many have argued, the artist's—the knife brought to bear, stripping the skin from overbearing ambition? My own explanation may be unsophisticated, but it's one that I experience more acutely each time I look at the reversed image. The satyr has not only lost the competition with a god and is now losing his skin—we know that—but he has lost more. It sounds almost too banal to comment on, but the obvious realization bothers me. For his presumption, Marsyas will never again play the flute. He has lost his music, his gift. He has lost the exalted breath that moves beyond the body.
* * *
Even before writing any notes, I had wanted to call this book Swallowing the Sea to suggest and honor the wildly outsized but exhilarating ambition that the act of writing can generate, and as an image of the love of possibility, the love of something astonishing achieved through the imagination.
That was before I even knew of the Chinese folk tale about the five identical brothers, each of whom possessed a miraculous capacity, and one of whom could swallow the sea. That's the brother who gets all his other brothers in trouble. He actually does swallow the sea. Unable to hold the sea any longer, he disgorges it, which leads to the accidental drowning of a boy. When the brother who swallows the sea is about to be executed for causing the death, each of his brothers surreptitiously takes his place in succession and defies the means of execution. The brother with an iron neck can't be beheaded. The brother who stretches like rubber can't be drowned. The brother who only feels pleasantly warm at the stake can't be burned. The brother who continues to breathe anywhere at any time can't be suffocated. Eventually the judge declares that since he can't be destroyed, the brother who swallowed the sea must be an innocent man.
As Iris Murdoch's protagonist in The Black Prince says, "Language is a comic form, and makes jokes in its sleep." The writer swallowing the sea defies death with every means. Such a writer's capacities, to the civil authorities, keep changing. Such a writer is an escape artist, even to herself or himself. The sea can't be swallowed forever, not even in that wonderful story from China, but whoever imagines swallowing the sea imagines powerfully.
* * *
When we were children, one of my sisters and I played a game: Who Can Think the Thought Never Thought Before. Neither of us, presumably, ever won. One of my problems was that my answers always involved elephants.
* * *
What writer, at least secretly, doesn't harbor some variety of ambition? Every time we take pen to paper or press a series of keys, something absolutely unanticipated can occur. In other words, for many of us, writing is a spectacular form of gambling.
Have You Finished Your One Thousandth Book Yet?
This is unavoidable: We must face connotations. A sense of disconcerting double-dealing attaches to the word ambition. According to Dictionary.com, ambition is "an earned desire for some type of achievement or distinction, a power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment." Note the focus on "earned desire." Good writing is earned and made visible through craft. Writing, after all, is one of the occupations that reveals its practitioners in full light. We stand exposed, with our foibles and fixations and our "earned desires" in view.
Immediately following that definition, however, is a sample sentence that sounds a warning note: "Too much ambition caused him to be disliked by his colleagues."
More often than not, multiple warnings attach to ambition. The phrase "vaulting ambition" that "overleaps itself" comes from Macbeth, where ambition gallops in the most hideous direction. There's even a word, ambitionist, according to Webster's, for "one excessively ambitious." The etymology of ambition comes from "to go around (for votes)." and thus the term connotes a noxious bid for popularity or the gaining of favor through crafty political means. As an example, Webster's presents a particularly disgusting sentence from Trumbull: "Pausanias, ambitioning the sovereignty of Greece, bargains with Xerxes for his daughter in marriage." Or we might cite the chorus of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus:
Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise
Only to wonder at unlawful things
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practice more than heavenly power permits.
* * *
Conventional evidence of writerly ambition turns up as prolific output and work habits of incredible steadiness measured in hours or pages, and stated desires calculated in terms of outrageousness.
Who can avoid thinking of ambition as measureable achievement? In My Unwritten Books, George Steiner recounts a line that he heard J. Robert Oppenheimer "fling" toward "a junior physicist": "You are so young and already you have done so little." Jorge Luis Borges, one of the most self-deprecating of writers, also made quantity a measure of accomplishment—in terms of committing errors: "I think I have committed not all the possible mistakes—because mistakes are innumerable—but many of them." Then too, there is the abundant productivity of canonical writers, such as Shakespeare (despite his middle-age retirement), Milton (blind, dictating to his daughters), and Homer (whether he existed as one person or several). Closer to our own time, there's Prentiss Ingraham (1843-1904), who boasted of having written roughly thirty-five thousand words in a single day, composing in his lifetime a total of more than six hundred books. He's outdone by one of our contemporaries, the Judaism scholar Jacob Neusner, who has an oeuvre of roughly a thousand books.
Sometimes, in lieu of a thousand books, an attitude will do. The New York Times obituary of Norman Mailer noted that "[h]e was the most transparently ambitious writer of his era, seeing himself in competition not just with his contemporaries but with the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky." Mailer spurred himself on to re-imagine no less than the life of Jesus in The Gospel According to the Son and to narrate the life of Hitler through the voice of a devil in The Castle in the Forest, two feats that testify to the span and scale of his ambitions.
Of course writers have their forebears to measure themselves against. Decades ago, Donald Hall called for heightened aspirations in striking terms: "If our goal in life is to remain content, no great ambition is sensible ... If our goal is to write poetry, the only way we are likely to be any good is to try to be as great as the best."
Franz Kafka dung to writing with desperation and a form of torturous ambition. In 1913, "out of boredom and despair," he had his cards read by a Russian woman. He stated to Felix Weltsch in a letter that the cards, while not to be taken "literally," may impose "clarity into what is otherwise a confused and opaque realm." The cards gave him a reading unlike anyone else's in the room. "[T]here constantly revolved around me 'Troubles,' 'Wealth,' and 'Ambition,' the sole abstractions, outside of 'Love,' known to the cards." In 1922 Kafka wrote to Max Brod of his pained conviction: "The existence of the writer is truly dependent upon his desk and if he wants to keep madness at bay he must never go far from his desk, he must hold on to it with his teeth."
Like Kafka, Balzac refused to be torn from his writing. Purportedly he wrote fifteen to eighteen hours each day, generally while on his feet and stomaching endless cups of coffee, over his lifetime producing roughly one hundred full-scale novels and plays. Less well known: Balzac is the author of the phrase "A flow of words is a sure sign of duplicity."
At the same time, we may want our writers to display an Olympian resistance to measuring ambition by any means. Who is the best candidate for that honor? Off the top of many heads the answer would be Emily Dickinson. It's hard to imagine Dickinson, at least past her early years, in a parlor balancing both a glass of sherry and a posse of admirers. Recall her famous line, "Publication is the Auction / of the Mind of Man—." Although the number of her individual poems published while she lived can be disputed, it's generally recognized to be under a dozen. Sensitive to the point of view of the powerless and irreconcilable to settled patterns of belief, she wrote over a thousand poems but published no book in her lifetime. Imagine what we would tell Dickinson if we could visit her in the past, and if she let us into her house: Your words will be emblazoned on a coffee cup, your face on a stamp, your dress on a doll named after you. Publicity is the auction of your mind, believe me.
Then again, who could actually think they've bought Dickinson's mind, no matter how often the auction occurs? As if Dickinson's mind could be a shapely bauble. "The Brain—is—wider than the Sky—," she wrote. No one yet has auctioned the sky ... entirely.
* * *
Mary Shelley's psychologically complex author's introduction to Frankenstein is one of the most compelling assertions of writerly ambition, given that Shelley, then only a teenager, was competing with masters of her era (with one of whom she had eloped) as well as cultural resistance to female achievement. Bored by gloomy weather, anxious to prove her worth before the luminaries around her, she realized her desires.
"We will each write a ghost story," said Lord Byron, and his proposition was acceded to. There were four of us. The noble author began a tale, a fragment of which he printed at the end of his poem "Mazeppa." Shelley, more apt to embody ideas and sentiments in the radiance of brilliant imagery and in the music of the most melodious verse that adorns our language than to invent the machinery of a story, commenced one founded on the experiences of his early life. Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady who was so punished for peeping through a key-hole—what to see I forget: something very shocking and wrong of course; but when she was reduced to a worse condition than the renowned Tom of Coventry, he did not know what to do with her and was obliged to dispatch her to the tomb of the Capulets, the only place for which she was fitted. The illustrious poets also, annoyed by the platitude of prose, speedily relinquished their uncongenial task.
I busied myself to think of a story—a story to rival those which had excited us to this task.
Mary Shelley was determined to avoid becoming Polidori's lady peering through the keyhole. If she peered (and the monster she creates is often a voyeur), she resisted being drawn by her rivals to the tomb of the Capulets. And what is her monster but an embodiment of unquenchable, unappeasable striving that can't be destroyed by any hands but his own? Frankenstein is a warning not only about unlimited ambition, about unintended consequences, about scientific adventurism, about parental abandonment, about a daughter's fear of being monstrous, but also about the dread of failing to fulfill a dare that begins with a writing prompt. This is a story, in some ways, about being a writer. Dr. Frankenstein, like a writer, excavates the dead (the past, memory, literary legacy); connects and rearranges the parts; conducts further experiments; tightens the screws; and waits for a miracle. Despite his labors he deems himself a failure. When his creation doesn't live up to his expectations he abandons it. Any writer knows: he should have revised.
Fear of failing to meet one's own expectations, let alone anyone else's, or fear of mortality and decay and oblivion—those fears propel writers. Think of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, that scourger of regret and hesitancy, that laureate of nostalgia. Or recall Proust's essences decanted with a slow but obsessive urgency. Or sickly Robert Louis Stevenson in A Child's Garden of Verses putting to bed an ill child who imagines his way into other lands:
I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.
Or Keats, struggling with the tuberculosis that doomed him, and who is heartbreaking in "To Autumn" in his disguised desires "To bend with apples," and "fill all fruit with ripeness to the core." His ambition is made into exalted and struggled-for dignity in "When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be":
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love; —then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
Less well known is "Floating Bridges" by Federico Garda Lorca, who would die by Franco's firing squad in 1936:
Oh garden of white
of all I am not, all
I could & should have been!
Paying Tribute to the Unappeasable
Once at a retirement home I watched a woman clutching a fithy stuffed animal—Big Bird—and talking into its frothy yellow face with such swelling intensity that everyone around her was half in tears. A man I knew tried to fight loneliness by going to auctions to make friends but acquired only antiques instead, until his garage filled and he began stuffing everything under his porch.
There's a loneliness that even social interaction doesn't alleviate. I confess to being so lonely for a year that nothing would help, not even helping others (the usual antidote), not even meeting new people. At about that time, I discovered a second-hand copy of Rachel Ingalls's Mrs. Caliban.
The cover of the Laurel edition of the novel shows a drawing of an eye-less, nipple-less, naked orange woman rising across from a green man with brown spots, yellow eyes, and webbed feet. Under the monster's arm is the seal of approval from the British Book Marketing Council: ONE OF THE 20 GREATEST AMERICAN POST-WORLD WAR II NOVELS!
Mrs. Caliban is an exquisite little book that pays tribute to the unappeasable. And the novel tells us as much about ambition as it does about a particularly desperate form of adultery.
The plot of Ingalls's 1983 novel is simple: A lonely Californian in grief over a miscarriage and the death of her young son, and numb from her husband's adulteries, begins hearing radio messages addressed only to her. When a monster, escaped from an experimental lab, invades her kitchen, the encounter between woman and monster is brilliantly rendered as a collision between mundane and fantastic acts:
She came back into the kitchen fast, to make sure that she caught the toasting cheese in time. And she was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen, when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face.
She stopped before she knew she had stopped, and looked, without realizing she was taking anything in. She was as surprised and shocked as if she had heard an explosion and seen her own shattered legs go flying across the floor. There was a space between him and the space where she was standing; it was like a gap in time. She saw how slowly everything was happening.
What can the woman do but offer the monster celery and have sex with him in every room of the house?
Like the heroine of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Ingall's protagonist is named Dorothy. She, too, finds hope in the color green, but her dog, a Toto-like companion, has died before the action of the novel begins; one of her friends is truly made of tin; and she has been lied to longer than Baum's little Dorothy was ever lied to by her wizard.
The book is a revenge fantasy. Despite neurological evidence indicating that acts of revenge light up pleasure centers in the brain, revenge in Mrs. Caliban doesn't feel particularly good. Yet Dorothy does escape her predatory sister-in-law and wipes her life clean of principal betrayals.
The monster is a fallible replacement for all Dorothy has lost. He's curious, helpful, incapable of lying, and as confused by her world as she is. Whether or not Dorothy has invented her green beast, her loss of him at the end of the novel means loneliness is renewed and duplicities reverberate:
She drove down in the evenings to the beach. Sometimes by moonlight and sometimes only by starlight, she stared at the line where the water ran over the sand. He never came. She got out of the car and walked up and down the beach, hour after hour. The water ran over the sand, one wave covering another like the knitting of threads, like the begetting of revenges, betrayals, memories, regrets. And always it made a musical, murmuring sound, a language as definite as speech.
But he never came.
The experience of reading Mrs. Caliban is so deeply interior as to feel almost shameful, like the passivity endured in a nightmare when the murderer appears at the top of the stairs and you can't run but find your feet planted on the lowest step. At points the narrative could handily illustrate Freud for Dummies. An umbrella, particularly a retractable one, is not just an umbrella. Then, too, in this novel we are allowed to entertain a guided daydream, cloud-propelled, on the other side of the nightmare. The novel's despair and hopelessness are shot through with an eerie pleasure that isn't exactly pornographic but is stirringly evocative of secret angers and even more secret resentments.
There's elevator fiction and there's escalator fiction. The latter takes its time and you see more along the way. By contrast, Mrs. Caliban is high-rise elevator fiction. Before you know it, you've arrived at the top floor and the ride is over. Although vaguely comical, the novel is capable of re-igniting a sensation close to heartbreak—the kind most of us have armored ourselves against.
The novel is ambitiously constructed, merging elements from romance, science fiction, metaphysical revenge tragedies, and fairy tales, meanwhile making sure its heroine scours the earth of her every enemy. Despite the Shakespearean reference in the title, most prominent are Ingalls's debts to fairy tales, and thus the novel is propelled by a potent force. Among those English-language verbal arts not claiming to be Shakespearean or Miltonic or Dickinsonian, and not inspired by anyone's god, mystic, or saint, the most inexhaustible are nursery rhymes, folk songs, and fairy tales. There's little in literature that doesn't pale before their economy and durability. Almost any nursery rhyme or fairy tale can be tugged for any occasion or mood or even debility-including the writer's anguish:
Oh dear, what can the matter be? That's our subject.
Little Blue Readers: You can blow your own horn, but they're still fast asleep.
Gleeful malice runs through nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Most of them are anonymous memory bundles, born in oral tradition, seldom betraying the identity of an original individual voice of invention. As such, we don't think of them as "ambitious," even though they straddle cultures and colonize the mind, even though they probe the most sinister instincts. That is, they're not ambitious in the generally understood sense, for ambition is a word we experience as most often connected to individual actors. Faust is not, nor ever was, a committee. In order for Ingalls's novel to stake its claims to ambition the novel has to wear personal idiosyncrasies, which it certainly does. But by drawing from the deep well of the fairy tale, Ingalls makes her betrayed housewife a more encompassing and more powerful force of destruction.
To flirt with literary failure presumes ambition: avoiding the sure thing, responding to an ideal vision that may keep disappearing as we approach, like the mirage that idealizations tend to be. The endeavor is exciting, unless we persecute ourselves with the imperative of the grandmother in Isaac Babel's story (titled by the grandmother's words to her grandson) "You must know everything."
* * *Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition, Boredom, Purity & Secrecy