Soaring High on the Wings of Ambition

“As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his
fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his ambition.”

Brutus’ speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

Two excellent movies I have seen recently – Birdman directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Whiplash directed by Damien Chazelle- seem to revolve around the theme of ambition, marked by single-mindedness of purpose, cut-throat competitiveness, extreme exertion and toil, the willingness to prove oneself and achieve greatness with a total lack of consideration for relationships, by way of contradiction accompanied by a need to be recognized and admired. Narcissism seems to be at the etymological root of the word “ambition,” which is connected with going around to solicit votes; ambition is “a striving for favor, courting, flattery; a desire for honor, thirst for popularity” (via http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=ambition). In both movies, the shadow side, the price paid for the desire to soar above the ordinary is blood, sweat and tears of suffering and a poignant feeling of alienation. The question that occurred to me was this: can excellence and mastery be achieved only through merciless tyranny? In order for the wet soulful emotionality to be translated into the geometrical order of crystallized ambition, some amount of ruthless despotism seems to be indispensable. The root of the word “discipline” hides penitential chastisement, physical punishment, teaching, martyrdom and military drill.

In Birdman, I was particularly impressed by the ingenious deconstruction of the superhero archetype. By having played Birdman in his younger years, a superhero able to fly, move objects and destroy his enemies with the power of the mind, the actor underwent an inflation: he has acquired all of these superpowers, and yet he is still struggling with the usual human depression, listlessness, powerlessness and old age. Ostensibly, the actor seems to want to shake the mantle of the superhero and go back to being human again. However, his inner Birdman is not willing to go away and the two seem to be in symbiosis now. The young protagonist of Whiplash – an aspiring jazz drummer – has a similar task to fulfill: he needs to integrate the fierce taskmaster represented by his teacher into his own personality. The master is a projection of the student’s own soaring and unrelenting ambition. Without this crucial integration, no success will ever be possible for him. In the final exhilarating drumming scene, we are pulled back to the primal roots of music: the ecstatic, “phallic” drumming. I was left with this thought: dreams of success and ambition are not social constructs. They are natural and instinctual primal expressions of the soul. The hypocrisy of Brutus’ justification for assassinating Caesar is very apparent.

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14 Responses to Soaring High on the Wings of Ambition

  1. Katalina4 says:

    I think about this theme a lot – whether or not you can be excellent at something and still be a nice person.
    In my industry – the film and television industry – we get so used to egomania, to narcissism, it seems like a necessary part of the package of having a vision and then convincing a bunch of people to help you make the vision reality, that it never surprises me when someone’s ego raises its massive head.
    In fact, on weekends I’ll go to shamanism and dreaming type events, and they’re workshops filled with nurses and the like, and I find I’m disoriented to be surrounded by kind, loving, genuine people who are not striving and self-centred.
    But so many of the egos of my industry are not producing exceptional work, so sometimes I wonder if the inverse isn’t possible, if it isn’t possible to be at least a little bit of a sweetheart and still create something original.

    • I also wonder about that a lot. In both these movies these are men who are on massive ego trips. I actually hope and believe that the (genuine) sweethearts of this world will prevail over egomaniacs.

  2. Pingback: Soaring High on the Wings of Ambition | lampmagician

  3. lampmagician says:

    Reblogged this on lampmagician and commented:
    “As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his
    fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his ambition.”

    Brutus’ speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

  4. litebeing says:

    I wonder if this relates to what we see in American politics. It is the most ambitious and often ruthless ( in addition to most wealthy) who become prominent fixtures in government. Talent and expertise as a leader or legislator have less to do with success. So perhaps the same is true with other fields where ego is dominant: the most driven and competitive rise to the top, not necessarily the best or the most original.

    • I would say this is definitely true for politics, but I feel in art it must be different, though. And yet, I feel also that there will be cases also in the arts where you would be right.

  5. geokalpataru says:

    both are good movies. What a coincidence..last night i watched Whiplash (it reminded me of Black Swan)

  6. bertwells says:

    This is an interesting and thought provoking blog. I am enjoying following it. Thank you.

  7. Fantastic posting with some beautifully evocative turns of phrase. The ego thing in art is a huge thing to wrestle with. This idea of individualized ‘genius.’ Emily Dickinson had an interesting definition of genius as (rough paraphrase) ‘the ignition of affection.’ Meaning, I think, love and empathy. Which doesn’t take away from the idea of striving to develop one’s craft to the fullest of one’s capabilities. But does put ‘self’ into a bit of perspective. Bob Dylan gave full credit in a speech the other day to those who infused him with inspiration. He saw himself as ‘translating’ what had gone before.

    • Dear Steven,
      I feel volumes could be filled on that topic. Affection and the fires of inspiration do make all the difference in softening the stern stuff of ambition.
      Thank you.
      Monika

  8. Don says:

    I can relate so well to the post because of my own personal history. I was flooded by ego and ambition and followed a path that eventually led to a breakdown. It was a terrible thing to go through and I nearly lost it completely, but let me say it was the most healing thing I ever experienced. That integration you speak of became a reality for me and changed my life. Wonderful post.

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