Thursday, October 11, 2007

The catastrophe of success

Glass Menagerie

Kay Allmand plays Laura Wingfield in Theatre South Carolina's 2003 production of The Glass Menagerie.

Professorial life has its rewards. From those to whom much has been given, however, much will be expected. Academic freedom and lifetime tenure are not entitlements, but rather solemn obligations to be discharged by those of us fortunate enough to teach, write, and serve in higher education.

Consider Tennessee Williams's essay, "The Catastrophe of Success," written in response to the critical and commercial triumph of The Glass Menagerie:
One does not escape that easily from the seduction of an effete way of life. You cannot arbitrarily say to yourself, I will now continue my life as it was before this thing, Success, happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation. Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to — why, then with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies.

Glass MenagerieYou know, then, that the public Somebody you are when you "have a name" is a fiction created with mirrors and that the only somebody worth being is the solitary and unseen you that existed from your first breath and which is the sum of your actions . . . — and knowing these things, you can even survive the catastrophe of Success!

It is never altogether too late, unless you embrace the Bitch Goddess . . . with both arms and find in her smothering caresses exactly what the homesick little boy in you always wanted, absolute protection and utter effortlessness. Security is a kind of death, . . . and it can come to you in a storm of royalty checks beside a kidney-shaped pool in Beverly Hills . . . . Ask anyone who has experienced the kind of success I am talking about — What good is it? . . . .

Then what is good? The obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction, that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that's dynamic and expressive — that's what's good for you if you're at all serious in your aims. . . . [P]urity of heart is the one success worth having. "In the time of your life — live!" That time is short and it doesn't return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.
Glass Menagerie


Blogger Marie T. Reilly said...

Thank you for this.

10/11/2007 8:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this, Jim. It's a rare legal academic -- let alone Dean! -- who values the life-affirming insights of writers such as Williams.

10/11/2007 2:35 PM  
Blogger DivineGisell said...

is this the whole essay... of williams?

10/21/2008 1:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

to be precise, this essay was written in response to the success of his play: A Streetcar Named was originally an essay he wrote for the New York Times, he added to it and re-released it with The Glass Menagerie

11/26/2008 3:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This should be required reading for anyone taking charge of anything involving people lest we forget from where we came, or true importance and the equalizing destination of eventual sickness and death.

4/16/2011 2:04 PM  

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