The wish to have power over others is altogether alien to me; I just don’t get it, any more than I get why anyone wants to have kids or play Settlers of Catan. Even sexual fantasies based on power dynamics don’t particularly appeal to me. Why would I want to boss other people around? What would I make them do? My taxes, maybe? It just sounds awkward, and like a huge hassle. I don’t even like being waited on by people I’d rather have a beer with; I’m uncomfortable holding the meager (and mostly illusory) power of grades over my students.
However: Doing what/want, and not being made to do things Idon’twant to do, has been one of my main priorities in adulthood, the principle around which I’ve structured my life.
I would definepoweras the ability to makeother people do what you want; freedomis the ability to do whatyouwant. Like gravity and acceleration, these are two forces that appear to be different but are in fact one.Freedom is the defensive, or pre-emptive, form of power: the power that’s necessary to resist all the power the world attempts to exert over us from day one. So immense and pervasive is this force that it takes a considerable counterforce just to restore and maintain mere autonomy. Who was ultimately more powerful: the conqueror Alexander, who ruled the known world, or the philosopher Diogenes, whom Alexander could neither offer nor threaten with anything? (Alexander reportedly said that if he weren’t Alexander, he would want to be Diogenes. Diogenes said that if he weren’t Diogenes, he’d want to be Diogenes too.)
Ambition for the more obvious and boring forms of power — political, financial — may not always be inherently evil, but it does tend to have unfortunate side effects in the form of poverty, slave labor, pogroms and unwelcome territorial advances. My own ambition takes the comparatively benign form of artistic ambition (inevitably alloyed with various impurities — desire for recognition, for status, for enough money to get by, for women to like me). Though to be honest, even this seemingly innocuous form of ambition serves an insidiously dictatorial desire: to change what other people think, and how they see.
As with most artists, my fondest worldly goal is to be left alone: I dream of an empire the size of my apartment. Which is less attainable than it sounds. Since I was a teenager, my primary artistic role model has been the film director Stanley Kubrick, who was rare in his artistic genius but almost unique in his ability to secure the space necessary for that genius to operate to its maximum by establishing a financial autonomy and a degree of control unheard of in the brutal ecosystem of Hollywood. Autonomy and control: These are indispensable to any artist. Because I lack either the ruthless business savvy or the Napoleonic charisma of a Stanley Kubrick, I’ve tried to solve this problem by keeping my own artistic endeavors low in overhead, devoid of collaborators and as free from editorial interference as possible.
Of course freedom, as is written in the bumper sticker, is not free: I decided long ago that the greatest freedom is the freedom to command one’s own time, and to that end I’ve forfeited a regular salary, home ownership, a retirement plan and any credit rating whatsoever, as well as the cozy fetters of family. Most days it’s worth it.
Issues both timely and timeless
So freedom is a kind of power; but a certain kind freedom also comes with powerlessness. I was never freer as an artist than when I was drawing a cartoon for an alternative weekly newspaper, a job whose salary maxed out at $20 a week. Because no one paid any attention to what I did, I could call a lie a “lie” at a time when the rest of the press was still tentatively venturing the term “misled.” I could draw a man using a burrito as a sex toy. Once I started publishing essays in one of the most widely read and prestigious newspapers in the world, there suddenly seemed to be many obvious and true things I could no longer write. Needless to say there were to be no more burritos.
The more power you attain, the more circumscribed that power becomes. I’ve often thought that, in a sense, one of the least free people on earth must be the president of the United States — an office no one can attain without becoming beholden to campaign donors, lobbyists, party leaders and other invisible fixers, and whose policy options are constrained to the narrow slit of the American political spectrum. Any cabdriver, barber or internet troll can mouth off about his crackpot hypotheses; but if a president accidentally lets slip an authentic, uncensored thought it's called a "gaffe" and costs him approval points.
But the most essential freedom to secure is the power to move freely within the borders of your own skull. Doing what you want is predicated on knowing what you want. The world’s most insidious power is that which infiltrates your own brain, constricting and deforming what’s permissible to think. It’s almost impossible to writhe out from under the crushing weight of cultural consensus, ideology, propaganda, conventional wisdom and the deafening chatter of other people’s opinions, to harbor your own samizdat thoughts — as Virginia Woolf describes an artist in “To the Lighthouse,”“struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say ‘But this is what I see; this is what I see,’ and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.”
Underlying the pathetic quest for all power is fear: the fear of death. Some billionaires are building posh survival compounds and funding Frankensteinian research programs to defeat genetic decline and death. Pretty much everything there is to be said about the vanity of this ambition — vanity in the sense of both egotism and futility — was said by Percy Shelley in “Ozymandias.” The hope of being remembered by getting your name on a book or a cornerstone, a disease or a species, an equation or a star, is no less pitiful and silly than any other stratagem to outsmart mortality, from having children to invading nations. Per Woody Allen: “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”
The sanest people, I think, are those happily unafflicted with ambition — whether for power, wealth, fame or achievement — who want only to work at some useful job, to love someone and to live in a nice place with some wind chimes on the porch. Maybe a bird feeder. A friend of mine, a fellow writer, once had a hallucinogenic epiphany in which she understood that her own ambition was a displaced craving for affection and approval, for the love of strangers — which, now that she had a loving family of her own, she no longer needed. But that misguided desire had made her what she was, a writer, and that’s what she’ll remain even now that her original motive is obsolete, just as the Parthenon outlasted the faith that built it.
Ambition has led me to spend 20 years of my life in a clamorous, filthy city I cannot afford, and to devote far too much attention to the soul-shriveling business of self-promotion. Like a lot of artists in New York, I keep imagining that this will be my last year here. I daydream about abandoning all this: moving back to the country, reading a lot, writing something only when I feel like it. I aspire to be — someday, if I have the courage for it — less ambitious.
New York Times