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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Will, Ambition, And Determination–Private Success And Public Failure

Henrik Ibsen is often thought of as a social playwright who championed the cause of women, civic responsibility, and promoted the importance of morality as the bedrock of community integrity.  His early plays did indeed herald these causes.  An Enemy of the People is a story of a principled man who runs afoul of the powerful, monied interests in his town. Thomas Stockmann, the Medical Officer of the town, has discovered that the town’s baths, its principle source of revenue, have been polluted by the effluence of an upstream tannery.  He sets out to tell the town of the danger it faces, and expects to have the support of the Mayor, his brother; the town paper, and most importantly, the citizenry.

He is surprised to find that despite initial concern in the community, the support he expected does not materialize.  When the Mayor raises the issue of jobs and the local economy, and the impact shutting down the baths would have, few people back Stockmann.  Nevertheless he persists until the Mayor threatens to take away his medical license, disparage and humiliate him, and in short, ruin him.  Stockmann begins to vacillate between principle and practicality and decides to leave all behind him and emigrate to America.  In the final scenes of the play, however, he comes to his senses, regains his moral equilibrium, and decides to fight.

Ibsen began to turn away from social realism with Rosmersholm, a play about a Norwegian aristocrat who is determined to shake of his family’s long history of political conservatism, and become a political progressive.  Rebekka West, a young woman of uncertain origins and passionate progressive beliefs, insinuates herself into the Rosmer household, and in an exercise of indomitable will destroys Rosmer’s wife, takes control of the weak and indecisive Rosmer who, because of his family and conservative reputation can help her cause. 

Rebekka is an early model for Hedda Gabler and Hilde Wangel (The Master Builder), women who are untroubled by the guilt that complicates Rebekka’s life and impairs her ability to reach her goals.  Both Hedda and Hilde express pure Will, an absolute, unstoppable desire to manipulate, control, and dominate others.  Hedda is Ibsen’s most complete heroine, for not only is she of singular and frightening purpose, but when her plans go awry, she take her own life in a final statement of individual heroism.

August Strindberg also created strong, willful women.  Laura is as much of a Nietzschean heroine as Hedda, and frustrated by 19th century social norms and restrictions on the rights of women, destroys her husband to get control of their daughter.  She preys upon his fragile male ego, sows seeds of doubt about the paternity of their child, and disassembles him as completely as Iago does Othello.  She is implacable, remorseless, and heroic.

Shakespeare who was a contemporary of Machiavelli and, like Christopher Marlowe, who also lived and wrote at the same time, was fascinated with willful characters.  Machiavelli’s amoral theories of power disrupted traditional Elizabethan society and forced a complete rethinking of every aspect of civic and military life.  Marlowe in Tamburlaine the Great and The Jew of Malta created willful, amoral, guilt-free characters who embodied Machiavelli’s potent and revolutionary ideas.

Shakespeare’s villains – Richard III, Macbeth, Goneril, Regan, Iago, Tamora, Dionyza, and Edmund – were Machiavellian characters.  There was no stopping any of them in their pursuit of power or their expression of individual will.  Even his heroes, like Cleopatra, were unshakeable in their desire to protect and expand their kingdoms, wealth, and families.

These playwrights and the political philosophers like Machiavelli and Nietzsche who influenced them understood that regardless of anything else – intelligence, breeding, canniness, or intellect – people succeeded in achieving their goals through ambition, will, and determination.  Iago was no luminary in Venice, no valiant soldier, brilliant strategist, or battlefield hero.  He was a minor officer in Othello’s army; but was endowed with a strong, unshakeable will, and an unquenchable desire to destroy his General.  Margaret, the wife of the weak, pious, and ineffectual King Henry VI dons battle gear and takes on the French in defense of his – and her – kingdom.  Constance  is unstoppable in her willful demands for the rights of her son, Arthur; and despite lacking in power, status, and authority, fights for him like a she-bear.

Tolstoy in an elaboration of his theory of ‘accretive history’ – that every historical act, every individual decision, action, or enterprise is so conditioned by deliberate and random precedents that individual decisions are meaningless, still lionized Napoleon.  His characters in War and Peace like Pierre, Andrei, and Nicolay are in awe of the Emperor as a true, unfettered, brilliant hero.  Only on the battlefield of Austerlitz does Andrei realize that the great man is just a man, a bit of history, bound for the same end as the rest of mankind.  Nevertheless, despite this insight, and despite Napoleon’s ultimate strategic military errors and defeat, Tolstoy acknowledges the unique value of this willful, indomitable man.

There is a tendency today to downplay individual achievement. In a review of the recent popular Powers of Two a book by Joshua Wolf Shenk, Sarah Lewis (NYT 8.22.14) says:

In order to understand creativity, we must learn from couples, Joshua Wolf Shenk argues in his new book, “Powers of Two.” Defying the myth of the lone genius, he makes the case that the chemistry of creative pairs — of people, of groups — forms the primary (albeit frequently hidden) structural basis of innovation.

Cooperative learning where the individual talents of the creative student are neutered and devalued, subsumed as they must be within ‘community’.  Financial geniuses of Wall Street are pilloried and excoriated by the liberal media for doing what they do best – exposing themselves to risks too frightening and intolerable for others; and engaging in a gladiatorial contest of will and individual power.  The private market is itself challenged for rewarding individual achievement.  Liberal critics say that the unfettered laissez-faire world of Adam Smith has not been transformed into a collaborative economic paradise.  Despite government interventionism, the market still rewards risk-takers, entrepreneurs, and those who leave the battlefield littered with the bodies of dead enemies and competitors.

This criticism is in fact largely true.  American capitalism is so robust and dynamic exactly because national cultural traits of individualism and private enterprise, established long ago in the early days of the Republic, strengthened in the great way West, and nurtured and promoted ever since, coincide with the principles of private economic markets.

Given this potent mix of culture, history, national ethos and identity, and the implacable force of an aggressive human nature, it is no wonder why willful individuals will not go away.

Every aspect of American life and culture is dominated by the willful individual.  The NFL and the NBA are fair game for harsh criticism of the antisocial behavior of its players; but look at who they are.  They are mostly poor, black, badly-educated men from dysfunctional families who have only three things going for them – ambition, will, and determination.  The violence on the football field is perhaps the best and most telling expression of the American ethos. A professional football game is a team sport in name only.  Athletes fueled by a high-octane mix of social drive, hormones, and money are out to litter the battlefield with no less brutality than the wolves of Wall Street or Tamburlaine.

California is always considered a laid-back place by Easterners, and yet Hollywood is perhaps the most bloody-minded industry of them all.  While gross receipts are a function of studio management, publicity, and good marketing; the money is in the stars who have clawed, fucked, and savaged their way to the top with an amorality of which Nietzsche would be proud.

The fashion world is known for its prima donnas with sharp nails and stilettos. The ‘diverse’ mixture of bitchiness, catty jealousies, beauty-egos, and unalloyed ambition in a hyper-competitive industry where only the very few rise to the top make it another American success story.

It seems that only government has lost this collective individual will.  American foreign policy has been driven by the ideal of universal harmony, the cultured beauty of liberal democracy, and a sense of populist democracy.  All out war against enemies who are out to destroy us is unthinkable today.  Considerations for civilian populations, international opinion, and most importantly for an insistence on a special and exceptional American moral rectitude are paramount.  We will never mount the armies of Genghis Khan, nor ever exert the political will of Vladimir Putin who has only the restoration of the Russian Empire in his sights.

In private America the fight for dominance is a no-holds-barred affair.  In public America it is an idealistic generosity and desire for inclusiveness that has contributed to political weakness. In World War II, decades before, and shortly after, all American constellations were aligned.  We were universally committed to individual enterprise; the acknowledgement of genius, talent, and success; the unrestricted and dynamic growth of the economy; and the muscular, committed, and defiant use of military force to defeat the enemy and demand his abject and complete surrender.  There was no difference between individual, private ambitions and visions of greatness and public ones.  Now, while we are still ambitious, determined, and willful in our private lives, our country’s leaders have seemingly forgotten those ideals.

Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Machiavelli and scores of hard-minded political philosophers and economists have always known that unless human nature undergoes structural reform, we will always be aggressive, ambitious, willful, and unstoppable beings.  Dostoyevsky’s ‘everything is permitted’ was a nihilistic but realistic view of the amorality of human nature and human society.  While this philosophy has a frightening downside, it is the only philosophy which acknowledges the core, immutable forces which drive us.  The expression of individual will is the only validation of our existence, said Nietzsche, and we ignore it at our peril.

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