“The morning brings back the heroic ages,” at least, that’s what Thoreau said. I’ve always agreed in principle, even though in practice, mornings make me feel more fugitive than hero. The thing is, I readily assume the hero’s survey of the world–a relatively easy task given my gender, color and class–but never the hero’s purpose. Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is all about that, disaffected white guys with a hero’s survey, that is, with an Achilles burning in their breast. The book was fine, though I wouldn’t recommend it to people who enjoy reading. I would, however, recommend it to people that don’t. That may sound snide, but it isn’t meant to be. If you only read for the story or the pornography, you’re okay by me; some of the best people in the world aren’t “readers.” Besides that, honestly, the movie was better than the book–mostly, I suspect, because the book was written with a movie in mind. It was basically a gangsta’ film bearing the white-man’s burden. Think Boy’z in The Hood, except the proverbial Laurence Fishburne character, with his noble but limited rule, trying to spare one or two souls, is Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden, whose global vision is going to save you whether you like it or not.
In Durden’s role of prophet, the gangster’s destructive impulse is recast as social reconstruction: Tyler Durden is here to give your life meaning and bring order to the unenlightened masses, because, although it’s not your fault, you’re all leading “lives of quiet desperation,” and from that you must be delivered. That’s Thoreau, the “quiet desperation” part, except that Thoreau went to live in a cabin, and Durden went to blow the cabin up. I liked the movie, as I tend to like all movies that show sphincters with conviction, since conviction is the first thing to slip when you start rambling.
As I was saying, the hero’s vantage is an easily assumed one, any college, any career, anything you put your mind to, and even though it’s not true, it feels true. But the hero’s purpose, that’s something else. Something else entirely, a world with clear and particular relations, a Great Chain of Being, a Celestial Court, a Westward Expansion and a Monroe Doctrine. One can easily see the appeal. The great narratives not only clarify the grand inequalities that have at every time and place offended our prefrontal cortex, they make sense of the mundane. The relevance of this isn’t just intellectual titillation, however. Once we lose those relations, we become mere hunters, rather than heroes. I suppose that’s not so bad though, since the hunter archetype underlay the heroic–setting off into the bush, away from the tribe, totem in hand, the ritual of blood, the vanquished night, blah, blah, blah. Heroes are just hunters with dreams.
Normally, that would be my M.O.–a half-plea, half-rant for a return to heroic projects–arguing some imaginary literary theorist into a corner with my punch-drunk ramblings about a revivified romanticism. An argument so self-involved that after I finish with it, I have to grab a tissue to wipe up the semantic fluid I’ve mentally masturbated all over the web. Let me, by the way, be the first to apologize for those episodes. Really, I’m sorry. I’ve been working my way through The Rambler without any clear purpose, just a survey of what could be done. The blank page, a nearly unlimited print run of pixels and bits, a few beers and enough self-deprecation to sugar-coat my ridiculously outsized ego. And even though my aspiration is downright koan-like in its purposeless purpose, it’s not without some value.
According to the scholar, Edward Mendelson, when W.H. Auden’s college roommate asked him what he wanted to be, he told him, “a poet.” And when his roommate seemed skeptical of his future financial prospects, Auden replied, “No, you don’t understand. I want to be a great poet.”
If you’re ever in Washington D.C. and happen to be visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library, take a look at Walt Whitman’s copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works. Not only is it signed by Whitman, a not uncommon practice at the time, it also has Whitman’s picture glued to the inside cover. Anyone yawping barbarically over the roofs of the world probably didn’t have much use for modesty.
Dante used Virgil as a sherpa and relegated all of classical learning to an outer circle of Hell.
I’m talking about ambition. Great ambition. The precursor to great art, and soberingly, great failure–great failure, of course, being far more common. Indeed, the only thing that makes such ambition tolerable, if it is at all, is its proper relationship to the rest of life. Being a generous father, friend, husband, mother, lover, daughter and son is of far greater consequence than any sentence ever written or idea conceived. At least as much good is accomplished when burping an infant as when filling your mouth with Whitman.
And yes, in spite of my profession, I actually believe that.