In A Mathematician’s Apology G.H. Hardy estimates that only five or ten people in a hundred can do something “rather well.” Considerably fewer are really gifted. We do not each have a valuable talent waiting for discovery. We may dream of making names for ourselves, but most “talents” are talents only by inflation, and many true talents are never valued. The influence of the cult of achievement extends even beyond its membership. Those who renounce the pursuit of worldly accomplishment often do so with other (more comfortably nebulous) goals in mind: sainthood, perhaps, or self-realization. They’re chasing the same fox by another tail.
Hardy’s calculation is stark, and depressing. I’ve been working on a novel two nights each week for the past four years. I’m well into my third draft and hope to shop it around to agents this summer. Re-reading and re-writing it is a bruising, infuriating, ego-punishing business. What I’ve created is, I think, better than a lot of what gets published today, but that’s saying awfully little when 99% of what gets published is an unjustifiable waste of both writer’s and reader’s time. Almost every book ever written more than deserves its inevitable oblivion.
My book surely will too. Though I’m bold enough to say that it’s “better than many,” I’m not going to fool myself and say “better than 99%.” It may beat fifty or even sixty percent of the schlock printed these days, but I won’t bluff any higher than that. Even if I succeed in getting it published, it’s not something to be too ridiculously proud of. If writing it has taught me anything, it’s that I am no Herman Melville or Henry James. Tonic as it may be to fess up to that inadequacy, my sickness is such that I plod on anyway. I’m even making notes for a second book. Ambition isn’t going to let lack of genius stand in its way.
I may be neglecting avenues for achievement that are better suited to me. Hardy writes that “poetry is more valuable than cricket, but Bradman would be a fool if he sacrificed his cricket in order to write second-rate minor poetry.” I know nothing about cricket or Bradman, but I’ll agree that you don’t give up on a first-rate talent merely because it happens to be for a second-rate activity. I manage to make a living in the business world without much effort. What might I achieve if I focused my ambitions in that direction? But most days it’s a struggle even to fake a tepid enthusiasm.
According to Hardy, first-rate minds care only for creation. If second-rate minds care for it too, so much the worse for them. They would do better, he says, to restrict themselves to the very second-rate tasks of criticism and appreciation. “Appreciation.” The term, as he utters it, drips condescension. But I want to say that Hardy gets it wrong here. He shows his scheme of values to be debased. It may be that I’m too democratic-minded, or just plotting myself an escape from Hardy’s sentence, but I hate the idea that the worthiest of human endeavors is beyond the reach of most people. Surely it’s not only scarce things that can have ultimate value?
Appreciation, in the sense of pure enjoyment, seems to me a better candidate than creative accomplishment for the title of “man’s true work.” It may sound Jeffersonian (“pursuit of happiness”), or Epicurean, or bourgeois of me to say so. I don’t mean that people with leisure are morally superior to those without it. But though it’s not an idea that lends itself to proof by argument, I do believe that, other things being equal, there’s no nobler human aspiration than simply to enjoy and delight in things. To appreciate a particular face, a meal, a tree, a note, a book, a fact, an idea is something available to most of us. To enjoy something to the limit of one’s capacity is better than to create it.