“For taking my career as seriously as I do in this book, I will no doubt be accused of self-inflation and therefore of tastelessness,” Norman Podhoretz writes in the Preface to Making It. “So be it. There was a time when to talk candidly about sex was similarly regarded as tasteless—a betrayal of what D. H. Lawrence once called ‘the dirty little secret.’ For many of us, of course, this is no longer the case. But judging by the embarrassment that a frank discussion of one’s feelings about one’s own success, or the lack of it, invariably causes in polite company today, ambition (itself a species of lustful hunger) seems to be replacing erotic lust as the prime dirty little secret of the well-educated American soul.” “Such a book,” he notes in the concluding sentences, “ought properly to be written in the first person, and it ought in itself to constitute a frank bid for literary distinction, fame, and money all in one package; otherwise it would be unable to extricate itself from the toils of the dirty little secret. Writing a book like that would be a very dangerous thing to do, but some day, I told myself, I would like to try doing it.
“I just have.”
The analogy between sex and ambition that Podhoretz makes in this passage seems to me appropriate and, in its context, illuminating. He is quite right in considering ambition to be as ubiquitous—and, in itself, as morally neutral—as lust. The same questions arise with reference to both drives: To what kinds of relationships to other persons does it lead? How does it affect one’s perception of the world in which one lives? Either drive may lead to violent and destructive abuse of others or to affiliation and mutual respect—though only sex may lead to love, which does give it a certain edge in human importance. Podhoretz would, perhaps, deny sex even this point of primacy over ambition, for he complains in Making It of “the privatized universe of most American fiction, with its increasingly boring emphasis on love as the be-all and end-all of life”—an emphasis he certainly avoids in Making It. But ambition, though very different from sexual lust, may be almost as effective in involving a person deeply and authentically in the lives of other persons. Both lust and ambition may lead to a heightened interest in and awareness of others—in the spring, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnished dove—or to the dullest and most passive preoccupation with oneself.
Moreover, both lust and ambition may be derivative expressions of anxiety and poor self-esteem rather than expressions of healthy, though ruthless, animality. That much—perhaps most—sexual activity in our society is itself motivated by ambition is a commonplace. But it is equally true that the ambition so served may be as stale and puerile as the sexuality through which it seeks expression. Yet,…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.