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Monday, August 01, 2016

ambition and the novel

The first novels examined in Peter Brooks’  Reading For the Plot come from the nineteenth century, and in particular, the French nineteenth century. Putting such enormous critical stress on Balzac, Stendhal and Zola helps Brooks maintain his historical thesis  - that the novel is in rapport with the bourgeois revolution in values, which changed the meaning of ambition in the stereotypical life cycle. It isn’t that the bourgeois ethos encourages unilaterally the valorization  of ambition, in contradiction to the norms of the ancien regime; but ambition becomes an intrinsic part of plotting.
“The ambitious heros of the 19th century novel – those of Balzac, for instance – may regularly be conceived as ‘desiring machines’ whose presence in the text sustains narrative movement through the forward march of desire… Etymology may suggest that the self creates a ‘circle’ – an ambitus – or aureola around itself, mainly in front of itself.”
This interesting but awkwardly phrased notion of the ambitus (is the circle in front of the self a projection?) is, to my mind, a potent hint at the role ambition plays both within and without the novel. Ambition is a capturing passion – it doesn’t desire to incorporate the circled objects so much as to hold them, to an extent, hostage. Outside the novel, ambitiom is given now a positive, now a negative meaning, an ambiguity generated in a commercial society that has secularized charisma as salesmanship without quite being comfortable at the fundamental substitutability of all things – including the self – implied by the universal dissolvant of capitalism.
Joanne Bamberger has written that Hillary Clinton’s ambition is negatively coded, in contrast to the praise male politicians receive for being ambitious. I’m not sure that she is right about all male politicians – especially her example, which is Obama. Obama’s ambition to be president in 2008 was regularly mocked as overreach for a man whose whole experience in politics was rather shortlived. However, Bamberger has a point that ambition for a woman is often viewed as a negative – the archetype of Lady Macbeth is just below the surface in certain attacks on Clinton.
The shift in the value attached to ambition derives I think from the way the social unconscious invests in the the image of the ambitus. On the one hand, we within the circle participate, by proximity, to the charismatic and, ultimately, divine. On the other hand, reverse the values and we within the circle participate, unwillingly, in the abject and the soiled.  Aversion transforms proximity into infection.
In the American novel, under the sign of ambition, there is a pattern of such transformations from infatuation to aversion. You can see this kind of mechanism at work in Dreiser’s novels. And yet that novel type is, to contemporary readers, I think, a little too transparent. Or at least it is in the novel – it lives happily in film.

Outside of the sign of ambition, though, a strange thing happens in the novel. The protagonist falls into despair – or at least the threat of despair becomes one of the great patterns in the non-realistic novel. That despair arises from the fact that, without ambition, the novel itself, and the narrative logic of the world by which the protagonist parses the world, is fundamentally threatened. The spirit around the social that makes acts and events meaningful, in commercial society, is exorcized, but no ready replacement comes into view. The non-ambitious self confronts a world of pure, baseless induction, of sequences that are purely conjunctive, but void of life. In fact, without ambition, the self confronts its own routines as malevolent and other. This is the dark side of the futurist exhiliration in de-routinizing the given – without some utopian ambition that lends to the de-routinized moment some satisfying sense of  authenticity, the de-routinized just becomes a reminder of hopelessly one is bound to routine, as an intimate enemy, an irrational tic for which there is no cure. 


Mongo, At The Moment said...

So (given yesterday's date), where in all this would we set Melville, or James? I'd bet Ahab saw himself as valorous (in some Old Testament sort of way), but he sure wasn't motivated by bourgeois ambition; and as much as James' characters seem proscribed by the dictates of their class and culture, their ambitions seem to be about itches they can never really scratch.

Roger Gathmann said...

Great question! In fact, it is a question that becomes Jamesian plot in the Ambassadors, with a child of factory built fortune (a fortune built on some material so humble James can't even summon the will to tell us what it is) loses his native aspirations in Paris, and must be summoned back. Can ambition be sublimated into some higher striving - I think that was one of James's great questions, no? It is interesting, given the different value of ambition for males and females in the sexist culture, that James always awards the sentiment to the non-ambitious woman - Kate Croy seems all too vulgar compared to Milly Theale, although I think most readers, like me, like Kate much better. Anyway, a very good question.