By: Rachel Renz
Oscar Wilde writes, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Byron says, “Those who will not reason, are bigots, those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves.” I say, “The intimidation of following in the footsteps of giants is more pronounced upon finding them to have truly been dwarves.”
I find the fear of failing to produce, to express myself, to try and educate or enlighten others, to be an affliction, a spiritual pox upon the soul. With the scholar’s ever present fear of creating a persona laden with condescension and pretension, coupled with the reluctance to conceive of oneself with the self-confidence necessary to espouse knowledge, intellectual ambition can be crippling. To be caught within the chasm of a fear of failure as well as fear of success is the curse of the young intellectual.
The plight of the young adult, our erstwhile would-be creator, is worsened by the understanding that many of history’s most influential individuals who harnessed and employed their intellects to produce masterpieces did so at a shockingly young age. Mozart was composing symphonies at the age most children learn how to count. Alexander the Great had conquered and created an empire before the age of forty. Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron both died before the age of fifty, yet both have made invaluable contributions to the Western literary canon. All of a sudden, the fruits of undergraduate labor, in particular, and perhaps life’s labors, more generally, are eclipsed by predecessors of cosmic talent.
Why does a person want to produce and share wisdom? To have one’s name go down with the greats; to be canonized in the annals of history and literature as a prodigy; to help reshape modernity. All of these are motivations. Yet it appears to me the deepest catalyst for pursuing wisdom is the desire to know oneself, to discover one’s own spiritual limits. All bodies contain physical selves; though lofty, the physical self, in essence, provides a constant definition of who one is and how far one may reach. Yet to find the spiritual, internal limit of a human soul: this is ill-defined, uncircumscribed. So we test our freedoms, our lack of definition and explicit parameters of creativity. We charge ahead with the belief in every range of possibility. However, we experience the weight of gravity when the realization wields itself that others have seemingly reached the echelons of intellectual nobility. It must then be stipulated that all men are capable of greatness, if not by reaching the highest stratums of measurable achievement, then by embracing the awareness of human limitation, something arguably more daring.
It is in lieu of this that another pithy line might be hazarded: “Writing a book is ambitious. Composing a paragraph is daring. Arranging a sentence is valiant. Finding the right word is heroic.” The vision of producing might come in a burst. An initial motivation, enhanced by notions of grandeur and a keen desire to share oneself with others, leads one to first express ambition in the form of a fully formed product: a book written, a film produced, an experiment devised and carried out. Yet only after this is it possible to realize the task cannot be achieved in the abstract, in broad strokes of genius. It requires the forethought and execution of a number of often tedious steps, ultimately coming to grammar, syntax, and the real cores of meaning-making. It doubtfully takes Foucault or Saussere to demonstrate the most basic elements of production to be the most central.
Language becomes the medium, then, through which to publicize as well as personally concretize one’s awareness of human ability, capability, and limitation. Writing becomes the saving grace of both failure and success: while one might achieve and another might not, both have the power of the pen upon the acquiescent page to design the shapes and angles by which these experiences are redeemed through narrative.
Fear of failure has not made people out of men. It does not humanize, dignify, impress. Only confidence coupled with the initially ironic, yet deeply complementary, bedfellow of humility allows the growth and ingenuity that distinguishes human from beast. While many will scoff and mistake confidence for pretension and humility for self-abnegation, they will be terribly humbled if they chance upon one of Wilde’s poems, one of Byron’s verses. How many contemporaries scoffed at those men, as well, demanding submission and self-denial? While nature and society conspired against geniuses, their will was never broken, and the present bears testament to their contributions and tenacity.