The Relentless Smell of the Self

“I once believed in some notion of a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than for oneself. But now? If a poet’s ambition were truly for the work and nothing else, he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world. No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self–except for that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself, when all thought of your name is obliterated and all you want is the poem, to be the means wherein something of reality, perhaps even something of eternity realises itself. That is noble ambition. But all that comes after–the need for approval, publication, self-promotion–isn’t this what usually goes under the name of “ambition”? The effort is to make ourselves more real to ourselves, to feel that we have selves, though the deepest moments of creation tell us that, in some fundamental way, we don’t. (Souls are what those moments reveal, which are both inside and outside, both us and other.) So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.”

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

In some times, such a sentiment is broadly shared. It is almost unbearable how alien it is in this time.

3 thoughts on “The Relentless Smell of the Self

  1. I’m not sure a simple pseudonym would be enough to preserve that pure space (do we imagine David Cornwell hasn’t invested rather a lot of his own ego in the successes of John le Carré?). You would need a new, disposable pseudonym for each new poem: a burner. But then the culture at large would have to do the work of taking each actual new poem at face value, instead of allowing reputation to build, and that is not at all how cultural evaluation works.

    “terrible, blissful feeling” is right on the money, though. That moment of pure creative flow when everything you are is invested (in all the many echoing senses of that word) in what you are trying to make.

    • How should cultural evaluation function when capital is removed? Do you not think we would of necessity become more attuned to stylistic signatures over time and come to recognise a writer’s work even if every poem was anonymous?

      I’d far rather see criticism presented anonymously as the stench of self and raw ambition is never far.

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