BootsnAll Travel Network

What drives us?

I heard on the radio a news story about David Petraeus, who is about to take over “training Iraqi troops” for US forces in Iraq. He wrote his doctoral dissertation at Princeton on “The Lessons of Viet Nam” and obviously did not have Thich Nhat Hanh in mind. Petraeus believes that greater violence can quell violence. The radio report, which is longer than the written report in the link above, quotes someone as saying Petraeus is “the most competitive man on the planet.” He also sounds like a man who is driven by the desire to prove himself.

There is nothing I hate more than competition. I can’t imagine anyone more different from me than a military general chosen by Bush to force the Iraqi army to do what it doesn’t want to do in order to make it look like the Americans have “won” in Iraq; but for all his cockiness (proving to the “troops” that he can do one more pushup than any of them, proving to his doctor–ahem, Bill Frist–that he don’t need no fucking recovery time)–I wonder if what drives Petraeus is that same deep sense of unworthiness that drives me. What astonishing need or fear or compulsion makes Petraeus “the most competitive man on the planet”?

Or take my friend (now dead) who published a book a year (many of them wildly successful) and believed it was necessary to have sex three or more times a day every day of his life. His wife, who was also my friend, said it was a “hygiene” thing for him, and about as interesting as flossing teeth–she eventually fobbed him off on some of the younger students who were all too willing to help him (and her) out. What was he trying to prove? To whom?

For that matter, what drives any “successful” person? What drives artists and performers (especially dancers)? Sure, love of the work, but what lies beneath that? What makes people love what is difficult, makes them run from wakeup till they fall into a dead sleep, takes every last ounce of effort, causes them to neglect their lovers and (if they have them) children, and dominates their lives? I don’t mean to pathologize “success.” All our lives would be bereft without some of these driven people, not all of whom had horribly unbalanced lives: what if Beethoven or Boito hadn’t been driven, or Van Gogh, Proust, Harriet Jacobs (seven years in a tiny attic!), Judith Jamison (whose performance of “Cry” I saw in NY in 1971 and is still burned into my consciousness), Judi Dench or Fernanda Montenegro, my current favorite actresses, Akira Kurosawa or Odetta, to name just a random few whose work I love. What drove Barbara Jordan? But equally, what drove Stalin? What drives Bush? Who have they had to prove themselves to, and why?

I think of two people whose arms have comforted me and whose lives I have wanted to emulate: Agnes Anderson, who taught me how to read and after a lifetime of putting other people’s needs above hers, finally found her voice and wrote her own story after she was seventy (and how it frustrates me that it is advertised as “a widow’s” story about “her marriage” when in fact it is her story about her life!); and Godwin Samararatne, whose gentleness and ease, whose joy and pleasure in daily life, whose irreverence and grace inspired me more than any other teacher ever has. I would say that Agnes and Godwin were not “driven.” Rather, they seemed to flow.

When does love of the work inspire, and when does it drive us to the brink of madness and self-destruction? Does it matter? Is this all intellectual wankery? Maybe, as my friend Sonny Wainwright said when she got to Stage IV of cancer, “Choice is highly overrated; we are who we are, and that’s that.” Maybe there’s very little we can do to shape ourselves, to point ourselves anywhere. I wonder.


3 responses to “What drives us?”

  1. stephenbrody says:

    That’s a difficult one! I’ve regarded these work-driven individuals myself occasionally, partly with awe and partly with horror. But I doubt that psychological questions, “why does so-and-so do this that or the other”, are either very useful or very interesting. Freud was very perceptive and, regrettably, his influence has been about as momentous as Christ’s, but he disregarded or completely failed to take into account at least half the content of the human consciousness, and the superior ‘poetic’ half at that. There are better ways to understand or judge behaviour or motivation than according to the standards of bourgeois philistinism and social adjustment. What’s the impelling ‘vision’ is perhaps more to the point. We’re back to the question of beauty, I think, what it is and what it means….

    Superhuman activity and dedication is customarily separated into that which is ‘creative’ and therefore commendable and that which is self-promoting or power-seeking, which is not. But you could say that that people like your American general, or Stalin, are driven or even inspired by an ideal of perfection too, except that we call them ‘mad’ because it’s not an honourable one, or we regard them as deluded, not very satisfactory labels. Perhaps this is yet another example when only purely aesthetic standards are meaningfully applicable. Richard Wagner, an unscrupulous and deceitful man and as mad as a hatter in ordinary terms, is condoned because of his immense intelligence and his unquestionably sublime art, whereas Hitler, conceivably no more disagreeable as an individual, is condemned because he botched his aspiration and not just because he made the mistake of using human material in his attempt to realise it – his ‘product’, like himself, was vulgar, silly and stupid (though we might have had to revise that opinion had he actually managed to create the Valhalla that presumably was vaguely at the back of his mind). Napoleon, as competitive and driven as anyone who has ever lived, who caused untold damage and destroyed tens of thousands of lives, comes over as heroic and inspiring because he did it beautifully if no more successfully, his battles and oratory were works of art and he stage-managed to perfection his own presentation. In the end, it boils down simply to a matter of good taste, a frivolous-sounding criterion which is nonetheless fundamental to the serious questions of life. The only answer that I know to the inevitable question, what is good art, is that it’s an expression of true love combined with a relentless determination and a very great deal of hard work; bad artists may work just as hard, but they lack the ultimate spark of sincerity or conviction or intelligence or purity or whatever you want to call it, and it may be nothing more than that that distinguishes, say, a nasty politician from a Proust. I think I’d have to add that your present ‘leader’, for one, fails completely by every possible standard ….

  2. admin says:

    A tour de force, Stephen. This: “an expression of true love combined with a relentless determination and a very great deal of hard work” wraps it up for me. And I couldn’t agree more with your final shot.

    Last night at a small gathering I saw several people who were former readers of this blog and each said, in slightly different words, “You need to go on another trip. I loved your adventures in Portugal.” I think this was a tactful way for them to say, “Your current blog bores me senseless.” It gives me pause, as I do hate to bore anyone, but one of the advantages of blogging is that nobody has to pay for it, and if they find it boring, they can just not read it. I will, however, endeavor to keep my more abstract wonderings to myself.

  3. stephenbrody says:

    spluttering over a quickly-suppressed titter … don’t be so self-deprecating, just a shade more muscular and tight perhaps …..?

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