Most of the people I know in Cambridge-Boston and whom I knew in Hanover, N.H., either gracefully possess or are afflicted with some sort of vast, all-over-leaping ambition – whether like that silently chugging engine of subtle ambition that Abe Lincoln is described as having or more overt and Machiavellian. I know that I myself have plenty of ambition – not so much for my own fame as for the fame of what I create, to try to “leave a scratch on the wall of oblivion,” as William Faulkner put it. But fame always does prove to be “the last infirmity of noble mind.” There are certain few people in the world (not me), who, from birth, found that their greatest passion was to realize reality, and instead of dithering and learning much about brilliant yet peripheral matters, they aimed for the heart of the sun. No egotistical distractions or ambitions penetrate into the consciousness of this kind of person – there is only the desire to realize Truth, and then to help others – no desire to be seen and heard, oneself. Any popularity accruing from their noble deeds and words is merely incidental (as in the case of Buddha or Jesus). When we can find them, we call such people saints.
But the creative personality is trapped: not a saint, the poet or artist spurns many of the same things that the saint spurns – the ambition to make a lot of money, to run a business, to wage and win wars – all of the traditional enemies of the bohemian. But the creative personality is in a fix, for its ego has not yet dropped out of the picture, and in many ways, it remains just as hungry, just as acquisitive, as the business-making personality, swept up in the currents of “the world” – as the saints and martyrs call that dread network of delusion. It is hungry for communication, to some degree—which can be as egotistical a desire as one is willing to make it or not make it—but it is very hungry to leave a lasting impression.
Yet the creative process is, itself, not a particularly egotistical one. In fact, it is one of the least egotistical of all occupations – perhaps second only to that of the aforementioned saint or of a healer. The ego tends to drop out when art is really being created – in the intensified, particular passion of the moment. We don’t know who Shakespeare was because he is famously “everyone and no one” in his plays – there are not too many hints (that we can discern) of what Shakespeare really thought or felt (his religious beliefs, for example, are still a total puzzle,) yet his characters manage to think and feel everything. But, although Shakespeare was notoriously tight with money (in fact, despite his portrayal of Shylock, Shakespeare was himself a usurer), I think it would’ve been impossible for him to rub his hands with greed while simultaneously channeling the thoughts of an Iago or a Falstaff. Those base thoughts and emotions fade out as the actual work of creation takes place and then re-intrude once it has finished.
But, it seems to me, that, to some degree, the poets of other countries, like Persia and India and Japan, seem to have healed this division between the poet and the saint – if in relatively rare yet fairly numerable instances. Rumi and Kabir, for instance, seem to have been true saints – and for Basho, the poetic vocation was synonymous with poverty and homeless wandering. For him, it was a kind of direct engagement with the emptiness of existence – and with the seams of poetic wealth stitched throughout that great impoverished whole. Walt Whitman, I think, successfully portrays a character (which he calls his “self”) who would’ve overcome these difficulties – whose ego has melted into an Emersonian Oversoul – but the merely actual Walt was intensely ambitious – though his reasons for being so ambitious were among the greatest ever, namely, to get people to read Leaves of Grass.
In other times and places, abandonment of ambition – or, more broadly, the renunciation of worldly desires – seems to have been a factor that was actually directly involved in the creation of great art, rather than serving as its death knell. When the will to stampede others with one’s own ego has vanished, the impulse to pick up a pen or sit in front of a keyboard evidently does not. We are all familiar with the Norman Mailers and Gore Vidals – writers who used the pen as the very vehicle of the stampeding ego – but there are notable instances of the reverse, of writers who used their art as, at least, a form of needed life-support, and, at most, a form of communion with God – no particular worldly ambition polluting it. The so-called “reclusion” of Emily Dickinson and J.D. Salinger is notable. And William Blake toiled in relative obscurity, while remaining sustained by his imagination – his failed attempts to get the public to notice his work were not founded on an attempt to gather attention for the ego, but rather as part of an altruistic attempt to “restore the Golden Age,” the mission with which he believed he had been charged by Providence. (This might seem like egotism, admittedly, unless you accept that Blake actually was charged with this duty by Providence.)
But, despite all these digressions, the point I’m making is that the artist is a creature often sorely divided at heart. No longer deluded by the claims of “the world,” and its ambition, he or she is still often completely deluded by some of the ego’s own appetites. Despite the examples of saint-poets—extremely rare birds, in the first place—it is not likely that most major poets are going to suddenly become extraordinarily selfless and admirable people. But since the ingredient of ego-less-ness is so important to the creative process, it may be that – to avoid the pitfall of becoming a kind of lesser Norman Mailer – cultivating just a smidgen of selflessness might actually be personally and artistically beneficial. I was recently reading a W. B. Yeats essay where he describes the half-awakened nature of the artist and poet, which I have just been attempting to articulate. One passage serves to sum things up very nicely: “When life puts away her conjuring tricks one by one, those that deceive us longest may well be the wine-cup and the sensual kiss, for our Chambers of Commerce and of Commons have not the divine architecture of the body, nor has their frenzy been ripened by the sun. The poet, because he may not stand within the sacred house but lives amid the whirlwinds that beset its threshold, may find his pardon.”