Under the microscope: the notion of the ambitious man
In recent times we’ve witnessed a gradual shift away from what’s become known as “great man history” - the theory that history can largely be explained through the impact of great men, heroes; highly influential and unique individuals who, due to solely their natural attributes, such as superior intellect, heroic courage, extraordinary leadership or divine inspiration, define the tale of history. Great man theory suggests that great leaders are born, not made, and that in most cases they’re God’s gift to the world. Modern conceptualisations of leadership typically refute this idea, using that as a springboard off of which to explore far more rigorous and nuanced models of leadership. There is an urge to immediately dismiss great man theory as simply being caused by patriarchal egotism, and while that may be the case, I do think that there are other factors at play: the notion of history’s great men doesn’t only tell us about the way we remember major time periods; it also sheds a light on how we’ve chosen to view ambition throughout them. Great man theory is not, however, confined to politics - it finds one of its most ardent expressions in the literature we read.
Before moving on, it is worthwhile to note that not only do our historical narratives favour ‘great men,’ the way in which prominent figures are remembered treads heavily along the lines of gender. Where great men are seen to rise to prominence as a product of their unyielding ambition - see Drake’s ‘started from the bottom now we here’ for further reference - historically remembered women are more often than not viewed as being afforded opportunity, or seen to occupy their space as a result of the times shifting to accommodate women. The disparity in those views is a dynamic that needs interrogation in its own right, but my intention in this piece is to tackle that initial premise through which we view history’s men, more specifically the archetype of the ambitious man, through literature.
Almost every contemporary Western embodiment of the great man finds its roots in the man so fortunate as to have the word ‘great’ precede his name - Jay Gatsby. Of course we know that that isn’t even his name - the journey from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby has become the American-centric lens through which we universally see ambition: as the tale of a rugged individual making his way from dirt poverty all the way to a life of limitless prominence. And yet still we find ourselves with one of literature’s most fiercely debated questions - is Gatsby great? Beyond that, is his quest heroic? Many of us side with Nick on that one, in that “Gatsby turned out alright at the end, it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams.” And while a complex reading of The Great American Novel might lend itself to this multifaceted view of the text, Gatsby himself is certainly not exempt from criticism in the conventional wisdom. After his death, Nick reflects on men who would “sneer most bitterly at Gatsby on the courage of [his] liquor.” The way that I see it, our contempt for Gatsby begins and ends with “the courage of his liquor” - the dubious way in which he acquired his wealth - because we do share his ambition.
He continues, "it's got to keep going up"
It is that same foul dust that Nick speaks of that forces us to broaden our definitions of ambition, or greatness, or any derivative of those words. We see that foul dust prey on another paragon of greatness in literature: Okonkwo, from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo is a man who, “in spite of his disadvantages, began to lay the foundations of a prosperous future and threw himself into it like a man possessed.” - an apt representation of what that caricature of ambition looks like from an African perspective. Of course we can go even further and trace all of these back to the Brutus, "the noblest Roman of them all." Of course Gatsby gets shot in the back for something he didn’t do, Okonkwo’s demise has become literature’s quintessential fall from grace and Brutus suffers an almost identical fate to his. In spite of all that, this same notion of the self-made, virtuous man continues to reverberate through literature, through history and through society.
For a long time, I too subscribed to the view that great men were the product of their relentless ambition. I wanted to believe that I could ascend to greatness if I willed myself toward it, that “tomorrow I could run faster, stretch out my arms farther...and one fine morning-”That was all until I read Behind the Beautiful Forevers - Katherine Boo’s documentation of three years spent with the residents of Annawadi, a slum in Mumbai. The book tells the gripping human stories of the dreams and disappointments of impoverished families in contemporary India. She writes:
“there was too much wanting at Annawadi lately, or so it seemed to Abdul (the book’s titular character). As India began to prosper, old ideas about accepting the life assigned by one’s caste or one’s divinities were yielding to a belief in earthly reinvention. Annawadians now spoke of better lives casually, as if fortune were a cousin arriving on Sunday, as if the future would look nothing like the past.”
The book tells the story of what to many of us is an unfamiliar struggle - the challenge of reconciling high hopes with a multitude of constricting factors. My favourite quote from the book comes from when Abdul’s father, Karam Husain, goes and says:
“Everybody in Annawadi talks like this - oh, I will make my child a doctor, a lawyer, and he will make us rich. It’s vanity, nothing more. Your little boat goes west and you congratulate yourself, “What a navigator I am!” And then the wind blows you east”
Both of these quotes force us to recognise that ambition is not this linear economic pilgrimage that comes wrapped neatly in a bow. Abdul is great in his own right - he does everything in his power to help his family transcend poverty. And so whether our societies recognise it or not, that eastward wind in Annawadi is essentially the same as that foul dust that floats in the wake of American dreams. Our perceptions around ambition cannot be limited to the stories of ‘great men’ because not only is that disingenuous, it’s fundamentally not true. There have been many conceptualisations around how we clear that foul dust and let ambition run its course freely - Behind the Beautiful Forevers is one. When we look back to American society - heralded as a haven of equal opportunity - we see that this recognition is there, as when James Baldwin debates whether “the American dream has come at the expense of the Negro?” or when Fredrick Douglas interrogates “What to the slave is the fourth of July?” Both of these provocations show us that the story of American men ascending to greatness is not as simple as it’s been made out to be, and that it hasn’t been equally applied. And so we will be quick to assert solutions - this is what equality looks like, this is how we should implement justice and equity - but those ought to be reimagined too. In a crucial moment of the book, Abdul is forced to reflect on “The law, justice, concepts in which his limited history had given him no cause to believe. He would try to believe in them now.” The challenge is to think of upliftment and empowerment in ways that do not exclude those who most need them.
The success narratives that we hear are almost always privileged narratives, and they almost never acknowledge that privilege. Moreover, they hardly stop to consider the amount of luck that goes into them, and the fact that for every success story we hear about there are hundreds of untold ones which are equally as worthy. The problem comes in the tension between idealism and reality. We want to cling onto wholesome narratives that chart genuine upward social mobility from a point A to a more desirable point B. But if that is the only way in which we acknowledge improvement, then we render ourselves naive. Not only do we need to expand who we include in our stories around ambition, we need to redefine ambition itself. One consistent model of ambition can’t exist because our social orders and our governments don’t treat people consistently. As Abdul points out, wanting will continue in Annawadi (and everywhere like it in the world). We must be able to listen to people who have had to live in poverty and suffering yearn for a better future and we must do all that we can to realise those dreams for everybody who has them. In order to truly realise this prosperous future for all, we need to look through the privilege that clouds our vision and keep in mind that just because certain ideas of ambition aren’t as commonplace, or just because they don’t come from the lips of great men, it doesn’t make them any less worthy of our attention.