Monday, June 13, 2016

The Good vs. The Great

This is not a question about good books vs. great books.  It's about several books I've read (some lately, some just lately called to mind) in which someone striving for greatness has lost some of what I would call their goodness. So the question before us today is this: is the Good the enemy of the Great?

I talked about this a little bit when I read Roses and Rot, a novel about artists who are competing for an opportunity to live in the realm of Faery for seven unpleasant years and then return guaranteed to be the greatest artist of their generation. The characters feel bad about it, but it is generally considered to be the most desirable thing, and people are turned against each other over this prize.  People cease being good to each other in pursuit of greatness.

Before I go on, let's define our terms.  By "goodness" I mean virtue and kindness, either to oneself or others.  Spending time with your loved ones, participating in the day-to-day life of the people you care about, doing the small things that keep the world running smoothly.  As I type this, I'm realizing that a lot of this is really emotional labor and is coded feminine.

And "greatness," of course, is Accomplishing Something Big.  In a lot of my examples here, it's about art, but there are other areas that are coming to mind--intellectual or research pursuits, politics--any kind of world stage stuff, really.  Big projects that aren't about you or people you know, but about putting something out there into the world that goes beyond yourself.  Though that makes it sound more altruistic than it sometimes is; a concern for your legacy can be tied up very tightly in accomplishments that have their own merit.

I started thinking about this again when I read Scott McCloud's The Sculptor, which is an amazing book and really deserves its own review, except this is the main thing I thought about the whole time: what kind of person would give up living their life to leave a legacy?  There's a lot more going on there, and maybe I'll get to talk about it, but that's the sticking point--the protagonist of that book, David Smith, is single-mindedly devoted to Art, on principal, as an ideal, to the point where he is often not a very good person in his pursuit of his vision.  Aside from the things he gives up for himself, he ignores or lives on the goodwill of his friends, he blows up at people he cares about, he loses most of his ties to the world, because all he cares about is this big, abstract thing called Art.  All he sees is the greatness, his or someone else's, and he's not a very good person.

Look at the female lead in that book--she is a very good person, whose goodness is a large part of what she is and the things she does.  She helps homeless people, she does street art, she wants to touch individual people, not a vast Society.  Her legacy is in a million tiny touches.

Where this really started to come together in the non-art world, though, was when I read the incredibly amazing Raven Boys, which is just a gorgeous examination of privilege and how close you can be to someone and not be able to walk in their shoes at all.  Again, a million things to say about the book in general, but look at Gansey.  Look at his search for the ley line and the lost king Glendower.

Look at how hard he tries to be a good person, and how bad he is at it sometimes--because he treats people who are completely unlike him in exactly the way the he would like to be treated.  They love him for it, because they know that he is being good and generous to them, even when he is hurting them. But in Gansey's desire to do something great--something that makes him worthy of being in the world in a way that he doesn't quite feel--he can forget that the people in his orbit do not have the resilience of safety and money and confidence and privilege that he lives in without even knowing it.

Gansey works hard to be good, even when he doesn't quite understand what's involved.  But whenever his quest comes to the front, everything else takes a back seat, and the greatness he longs for pushes the goodness that he's striving for out of his reach.

And now I'm thinking of Hamilton, and how many hard moments and personal losses are about the obsession with legacy, and how he gave up the trust of his wife to protect his political legacy (more or less). Or even just the vacations that a person doesn't go on with his children in pursuit of a grand ambition.

Or the dinners that a boyfriend misses because he's working on his art.

Or the rift between two sisters when one wins the prize the other wanted.

I suppose goodness here can be seen as the pleasures of the small life, and greatness as the larger life in the public sphere.  When you put it this way, it's very clearly coded as feminine and masculine.  And when you bring these things right down to it, some of the choices are just about resource allocation; a person only has the time and personal energy to devote to a few things, and the more you put into one area, the less you will put into another.  Big things take big personal investments, leaving much less for the rest of life. 

There is an E.M. Forster quote I've always liked: "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." I've always admired this, but I've also thought about it a lot--do I feel that way?  If both are betrayals, isn't my country a bigger one; aren't many of my countrymen also my friends?

I have always chosen the personal over the wider world, and never really doubted it.  Part of that is fear, or lack of ambition.  Part is the value and satisfaction I get from my relationships, more than accomplishments.  But if you start breaking down your values--art, knowledge, your nation, the future--aren't these things enormously important?  And do they have to come at the cost of everything else?

I should have an answer.  I should be able to at least sum up the argument.  All I can give you is that it's a big question, the kind that is better served in the argument than the answering, and the stories that wrestle with it in interesting ways and make unexpected points about it are the ones I want to read more of. 

1 comment:

Lianna Williamson said...

What a fascinating post! This is something I struggle with in my own life, absolutely. I try very hard to be good, and as a wife, mother, teacher, and member of a small-town community, I do a lot of taking care of others-- a million tiny touches, as you put it so beautifully.

But. I also want to be great. Writing for me is partly about the pure joy of creating Story, sure-- but trying to get published is all about taking my shot at greatness. The idea of publishing a book, the idea that others might read my stories and be moved by them, the idea that my book could be someone's very favorite book after I'm dead-- that is a powerful draw for me.

In the balance of my life, I think I've expended much more energy on goodness than greatness. But as I get older, I find the quest for greatness taking up more of my psychic room. Sometimes I'm in my head when I should be present with my family. (Side note: this is the real reason I refuse to get a cell phone: I am distracted enough by my imagination. I don't need a little distraction-tool in my hands all the time.) Sometimes I sit in my car and write while my son plays on the playground after school, rather than chatting with my mom friends and strengthening those community ties. Sometimes I'm annoyed by spending time with my husband in the evenings, because I can't ignore his TV shows enough to work on the things that MATTER to me. But shouldn't just spending time with him matter to me?

I think it is indeed complicated by the female/male coding. Taking care of people is my REAL job; the pursuit of greatness is a selfish side project. My husband has no such "masculine" desire to leave a legacy; he is very much about trying to be the best man he can be, about making those tiny touches. He has many interests and hobbies, but no overarching lifelong passion riding him like a steed. He doesn't get it, in other words. To him, writing is my hobby. It would be amazing in an improbable win-the-lottery way if I got published some day. But why do I take it so SERIOUSLY? And I feel like a tool that the answer is, "Because I want to be great."