Tuesday, March 15, 2005


This wish to make a difference in people's lives.

I seldom think only of them, when I want to help other people, More often what I really think, under the surface, is, "how can I make them feel better in such a way that they will regard me as the source of their happiness?"

And so far do these fantasies of influence carry me that I make extravagant and silly estimates of how much I could and should be able to do for people. And I focus, inevitably, on people I know less well and am actually far less able to help -- or to know how to help -- than, say, my wife, my children, or my parents.

There is a strong impulse toward aggrandisement in it. Those of my immediate family are old news: I'm not likely to change how much I matter to them. My claim on them is staked already. What I want is to lay claim to new people. Much of the impulse to write comes from that place, that desire to extend my territory, to have more people under my sway.

Oh, I desire of course to be a benevolent dictator. But the impulse is not, at bottom, much different from what moves a tyrant to invade a neighboring country. The desire for empire. It takes various forms, but the hankering is almost always there, to mark the world with my own insignia, to propagate my self, in the form of children, or poems, or public policy, or lovers, or drawings, or blog-readers. It reveals itself in things as small as the pleasure I take in seeing my name on seven-year-old source-files at work, or in going back to reread my comments on someone's blog.

Possibly this will strike people as me, again, being hard on myself, but it is actually the opposite. In trying to undo this habit of aggrandisement I am trying to be kind to myself. Because this is a gull's game. A game that I will always lose. The value of every new conquest dwindles; it drops the more sharply the complete the aggradisement. It's not just that no satisfaction remains satisfactory. It's worse than that. It grows by what it feeds on. I become more hungry, not less, with every meal.

This insignia is my prison. I am bound inside it. It is not really the sign of my imperium -- it's the sign of my servitude. All these territories need to be served and defended; all these "masks of command" need to kept in good repair and worn -- whether they express what I feel and think or not.

Underneath all of this, the desire for communion and understanding, for beauty and clarity, languishes. Suppose I got my heart's desire. Suppose my glory was acknowledged by everyone, my face was on every magazine page, every footnote mentioned me, my tune played on every radio, every woman adored me, and every man envied me. Suppose I got that. Then what?

I would be miserable. Isn't that the horror of Nero's life? What could be more horrible than to actually succeed in turning the world into airless hall of mirrors, and to meet nothing but my own image at every turn?

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