Motivation and Excellence

          In our post-Freudian world view, it is conventional to assume that a person’s actions and obsessions today play out motives that were seeded years ago, in his childhood or adolescence.  So when we seek to understand a person’s behavior, especially when we find it alarming or simply unfriendly to ourselves, we speculate about his relationship to his father or her early experiences with loss.  And even when the behavior is harmless, such as a scientist’s obsession with finding a link between a gene and a disease or a friend’s obsession with bird-watching or growing African violets, we ask what childhood episode explains the current behavior.  Thus we reduce magnificence to manageable triviality; Monet is not a great impressionist who rethought the basic premises of art but a man who was merely nearsighted; Dickinson was not a great poet who dedicated her life to rethinking the forms and subjects of poetry but an agoraphobic spinster who was disappointed in love.  The crudity of such explanations is a symptom of our own obsessions rather than of hers.

          But people do grow; they do leave behind the disappointments and wounds of the past and take up new interests and occupations without necessarily doing so to “heal” or “re-enact” the past.  And even if the initial motive for an interest or occupation was exactly that, to heal from some “trauma” or to relive a childhood idyll, it is not necessary that the initial motive be the continuing one.  I am thinking of a particularly good example:  The eminent E. O. Wilson has written of his childhood hours exploring the wild places around his childhood home, observing and collecting specimens of the living creatures, especially insects, which populated the fields and woods.  He has further noted that, because he is blind in one eye and therefore does not have good depth of field, it is easier for him to observe small creatures close at hand rather than larger creatures at a distance; thus his initial motive for becoming an entomologist rather than, say, a primatologist or ornithologist.  But it is very unlikely that those initial conditions were sufficient to keep him interested in the scientific study of ants for the entirety of his decades-long academic career.  Absent any additional, mature motive, surely he would have grown tired of the tedium and exhausting work required to achieve so much.  Something had to stimulate his mature intellect to keep him going, just as it must for any adult human being to attain genuine achievement.

          We are not talking here about any commonplace pathology of obsession and behavior.  The true obsessive has no idea why he has a particular obsession, and he gains nothing from it.  If we take the hoarder as the exemplar of obsessive behavior, because he or she might function at superficial glance as an analogy to the dedication of a committed scientist or poet, we find that he accumulates things in a willy-nilly manner; anything can constitute the things in a hoarder’s “collection”:  clothing, tin cans, periodicals, foodstuffs, cats, wrapping paper, shampoos.  It seems not to matter what, because the things hoarded appear to have no meaning, other than as things to hoard.  Thus the mishmash of the typical hoarder’s premises; and the justifications offered by the hoarder for keeping this thing or that are transparently rationalizations—excuses thought up after the fact.

          Dedication, on the other hand, seems to originate in that which one is dedicated to.  The detailed study of insects reveals some of the secrets of the world, as does the minute attention to form and word, and both the scientist and the poet share these secrets with the rest of us, thus making them secrets no longer.  The scientist and the poet are humble in the presence of the objects of their study.  We learn nothing from the obsessive, who, at least in the case of the hoarder, prefers not to share his things.  Hoarding is a kind of reclusiveness and self-centeredness that is the very opposite of dedication.  A poet such as Dickinson may seem, to the run of the mill rest of us, to be a common garden-variety agoraphobic, while in fact the social life expected of a woman of her class and time may have been incongruent with her desire to achieve something new and illuminating in poetry.  We remember her because she was a great poet, not because she was reclusive or disappointed in love; as we also remember Darwin because he was a great scientist, not because he too became reclusive or suffered from Chagas or some other malady, such as “an innate or acquired neurosis,”[1] that kept him from the world of fashion of his day.  The world of fashion can be very distracting and voracious of one’s time, not to mention impermanent by its very nature. 

          Today it is the fashion to find neurotic explanations for great achievements (and even for more modest ones), perhaps to cut those who achieve down to digestible size. Or perhaps to convince ourselves that we are just as good as they are.  In psychologizing someone like Wilson, Dickinson, or Darwin, in choosing to treat them as analysands, we mediocritize ourselves by taking permission to avoid the effort of understanding their work, or of doing such work ourselves.  As the writer Lance Esplund of the Wall Street Journal has written, “Great biographies of artists are rare. The most important story to tell is that of the subject’s engagement with art, but biographers are generally ill-equipped to read the formal language of the works and instead attempt to use them as illustrative proof of the artist’s life.”  This is as true of the biographies of poets and scientists.

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