“No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self—except for that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself, when all thought of your name is obliterated and all you want is the poem, to be the means wherein something of reality, perhaps even something of eternity, realizes itself. That is noble ambition… So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.”
—From Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss.
I was strolling through the Vatican Museum in Rome last weekend, casually surveying the artistic riches of centuries of Papal dominance, when the terrifying reality of true anonymity hit me harder than I was ready for. The thought had surely crossed my mind before—that at the end of my life, after all the toil and ambition and striving to live well, to create at least one beautiful thing that spoke of something greater than myself—that my name could be wiped from the long scroll of human life, that everything I’d ever said or done would soon become irrevocably detached from my own existence. Or that, somehow, however unlikely it may seem, something that I made, with words or with actions, could outlive my own meager legacy. My apologies for the slightly dramatic tone, but Rome has a way of encouraging one to speak in eternal turns of phrase. It just feels right.
More specifically, I was staring across a velvet rope at the twisting torso of the Laocoön, one of the most immaculate pieces of sculpture of all time, when it hit me that the man who had carved this terrifyingly beautiful thing from marble—over 1,500 years before Michelangelo carved his David—was literally unknown to the millions of people who laid eyes on it. Not the Roman officials who would have sauntered past it in the Ancient Forum, or the tourists, like me, who snap photos so they can hold on to its miniature image forever. Considering the culture of the day, which tended to view visual artists as tradesman rather than creative masters, it’s likely that the man who carved this statue knew as he was carving it that no one would ever know he did. I have a hard enough time writing a haiku in my notebook without a place to display my signature. This guy carved the Laocoön, probably without so much as a nameplate.
I leaned in as close to the body of marble as I could, trying to convince myself that this figure torqueing heroically from the grip of serpents, was, in fact, stone. To believe that it was once a formless mass of rock requires a suspension of reality. It’s that good. Why would anybody endure the infuriating labor that this thing must have required, if not to have at least some scrap of recognition for his efforts, even the softest pat on the back? Surely, no one was holding a spear to his head. Who knows—maybe they were—but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s still standing, still beautiful, still nameless.
I read the above passage from Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss (an incredible book, I might add) just a few days after returning from Rome, a city where so much of its beauty is anonymous, and his words could not have rung more truly. As you stare at a painting on the ceiling of a Christian Catacomb, painted there in secret within one hundred years of Christ’s death, you have to ask yourself: what if the person who painted this flat out didn’t do it? What then? What if every sculptor, painter, and architect in this city stared at its blank spaces, and said, “This is too much work, too much risk, to go unknown”? Rome, or any beautiful thing for that matter, would not exist. Rome intensifies the reality that Wiman urges us to see: that if the original spark that fueled the creation of those beautiful things—what he called “that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself”—can persist admidst the endless barrage of the ego, the desire to be known, heard, recognized, proven worthy of attention, then that beauty grows beyond human proportions.
Certainly, the Laocoön is beautiful purely because it exists. My dentist could have made it yesterday and it would still be one the most incredible things I’ve ever laid eyes on. Granted, it would be a very different kind of incredible if my dentist made it. But doesn’t its pure, mysterious existence make it that much more incredible? Doesn’t it feel somehow bigger without a name?
I find this thought both terrifying and invigorating. The thought that if I were so lucky to make, or say, or do something that people will still see, or hear, or know of, even 50 years from now, that they might not ever know I did it— that’s scary. It cuts to the core. It makes me ask myself why really I do what I do. But then when I really think about it, when I really get to the nitty-gritty of why I want to write at all, I know that somewhere deep in the mire of my own selfish ambitions to be known through my own words, “to stamp my existence upon existence,” there was once the faintest inkling of a pure desire to speak a truth of something bigger, better, more beautiful than I could ever imagine taking credit for. I desperately hope that I would remember that the impulse to make beauty is not my own. That if I ever I stumble upon the words to move somebody towards a more beautiful experience of this life or of God, that I would recall that first spark. That spark doesn’t care what kind of feeble recognition lies ahead. But what really scares me is how long it’s been since I’ve even considered that type of pure impulse. In all the chaos of post-graduate life, of searching for a “vocation”, I’ve bought into the bogus notion that in order to prove my own existence, I must be heard. And what a burden in this age of noise!
I realize the blatant contradiction here, considering you’re probably reading this because I lambasted your Facebook newsfeed. But do I really have I choice?
Of course I do. In this case, I’m choosing to acknowledge the fact that it is damn near impossible to make or do something with absolutely no ambition to be known. But the Laocoön, the city of Rome, and the million other beautiful things made by unnamed makers, exist to prove that the work we do will outlive our selfish ambitions. Our names are known in other, better ways. On second thought, maybe that’s not so terrifying. Maybe the threat of total anonymity in this life can remind us that there is some remnant of a flame, one that burns to shed light on better things than names.