Our new age of heroic striving

Books that tell you everything’s OK don’t usually sell many copies, so publishers give preference to those that are full of bad news. And you don’t have to roam through too many bookstores – actual or electronic – to learn how sadly we have fallen away from our far superior ancestors. We’re full of weird quirks and odd habits, goes the litany, and we love to think of ourselves as helpless victims who bear no responsibility for the ills that beset them.

Meanwhile, our illiteracy and ignorance reach new highs every year. Past ages can only stare in disbelief as we massacre, each day, not only polite behavior but the English language.

And so much for best-sellers. I myself have developed a somewhat different point of view. I see our main species-wide problem as being the fact that each of us wants to be Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Newton and da Vinci combined.

Once upon a time, our history books tell us, the human population was divided into a few people with large ambitions and a lot of people in quest, mainly, of contentment. Then everybody started to go to college, which meant that everybody caught sight of Genius with a capital “G.” Soon, the notion of a career conducted in the spirit of Genius was something to which every human being had easy access. Not thousands, but millions of people spent large amounts of time writing poems and novels, painting paintings, dreaming up new theories and trying to play music.

But of course, the listeners and the watchers in our society can only pay attention to a small part of all of this literary and artistic production. The result, inevitably, has been that an awful lot of people live their lives in a state of perpetual disappointment. The awards they hoped to pile up around themselves are soon replaced by rejection slips. Competitiveness gives way to bitter envy. And that, it seems to me, is something to which universities are sooner or later going to have to pay attention.

There are actually several different options available for the writer whose work no one reads and the artist whose work no one looks at. There is the route of William Blake, for example, who basically saw the establishment of his time as a band of thieves and rascals. Some form a small group in their home town, which meets regularly to debate matters of the spirit and may even try its hand at publishing a newsletter or magazine. (The small pond soon produces fish who feel big.) And some, alas, sink into and sometimes succumb to depression.

What’s less easy to see is that it is a global problem. Everywhere on our planet, current generations are learning to read, write, type and e-mail. If not they then their children will soon be submitting manuscripts to The New Yorker, or Granta, or The New York Review of Books, or The GW Hatchet, or the equivalents of those publications in Beijing, Kabul, Antwerp and Oslo.

A few will see their work in print. The others will experience the spectrum that runs from anger to despair. And if the “losers” start getting together electronically and physically, we could find ourselves in bad collective trouble.

So perhaps what we need to do, not for the first time in human history, is to define an aesthetic standard that’s independent of an audience. Never mind the status of “superstar,” which probably didn’t hold much appeal for the living Jesus. Maybe what you create is the natural flowering of your soul, that needs only you personally as its connoisseur.

The thought seems so alien because we – you and I – are so market-oriented. We just don’t believe that anything has value until we see our fellow human beings actually paying for it. How then can we expect to maintain our literary or artistic self-respect if no one is buying what we have created?

Well, then, let’s try another approach. Suppose that every day, when we have written or painted or composed what we regard as a fine piece of work, we carry copies of it around with us. When we meet each other, we exchange these most recent examples of our creativity. “Ah,” says our friend, looking at our watercolor, “your soul appears to be in fine form today.” Which gives you the chance to reply, after scrutinizing your friend’s sonnet: “And you, you are touching the edges of a new metaphysical sensuality.”

The trouble obviously is this strategy favors brief as opposed to epic length and size. One can see carrying a watercolor around, but what about a canvas 20-feet high by 15-feet wide that took three years to complete? Would Tolstoy have trotted around Russia dispensing copies of War and Peace? If we try using our creations as calling-cards, aren’t we condemning ourselves to trivial status?

Then perhaps our heroic strivings will have to be conducted via the Internet. But what I absolutely insist on reaffirming is that everyone on this planet will soon be doing something or other to try to achieve heroic status. And if we don’t find a way of dealing with a species like that, then will we be able to feel anything but grouchy when all of our neighbors on planet Earth start showing their personal and democratic frustration?

-The writer is president of The George Washington University and a professor of public administration.

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