‘Little Clouds’ and ‘Enemies of Ambition’

Children leave you little time for ‘work.’ Children are work. They displace priorities; many a career ambition runs aground on the shoals of their demands and needs. So goes an exceedingly common complaint, especially from those who consider themselves ‘creative types’: writers, artists and the like. As Cyril Connolly once noted, ‘That enemy of ambition, the pram in the hallway.’ (Wikipedia reports this quote as ‘There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’)

I think I know the feeling. Both my reading and writing have suffered ever since my daughter was born last December. A serious philosophy text looks frighteningly impenetrable, and the very thought of constructing a rigorous argument is enough to induce severe anxiety in me. The unread books pile up; the drafts remain drafts. Meanwhile, I’m reduced to reading book reviews and those books on my shelves that seem the most accessible. As for writing, all I can pull off is some dilettantish blogging. My sabbatical awaits, but how will I get any writing done in this sleep-deprived, consumed-by-baby, always-consumed-by-distraction state? I cast envious glances at those who are either free of the cares that consume me, or have, even worse, figured out, somehow, the precarious balancing act that lets them be as prolific as ever without letting their children go to seed. My academic CV isn’t a particularly distinguished one in any case, and now, it appears set to stagnate even further.  My ‘career’ seems to have come to a grinding halt.

Resentment, envy, jealousy and anxiety; I am a fine candidate to be advised to have some cheese with my whine and count my blessings. Which I do, quite often, as I think my posts on my daughter make clear. But human nature being what it is, the anxieties I relate above surface from time to time.

James Joyce‘s ‘A Little Cloud‘–a member of the Dubliners‘ collection–captures an almost pathological variant of this bundle of sensations quite well.  Its ending is worth a re-read:

A dull resentment against his life awoke within him. Could he not escape from his little house? Was it too late for him to try to live bravely like Gallaher? Could he go to London? There was the furniture still to be paid for. If he could only write a book and get it published, that might open the way for him.

A volume of Byron’s poems lay before him on the table. He opened it cautiously with his left hand lest he should waken the child and began to read the first poem in the book:

Hushed are the winds and still the evening gloom,

Not e’en a Zephyr wanders through the grove,

Whilst I return to view my Margaret’s tomb

And scatter flowers on the dust I love.

He paused. He felt the rhythm of the verse about him in the room. How melancholy it was! Could he, too, write like that, express the melancholy of his soul in verse? There were so many things he wanted to describe: his sensation of a few hours before on Grattan Bridge, for example. If he could get back again into that mood. . . .

The child awoke and began to cry. He turned from the page and tried to hush it: but it would not be hushed. He began to rock it to and fro in his arms but its wailing cry grew keener. He rocked it faster while his eyes began to read the second stanza:

Within this narrow cell reclines her clay,

That clay where once . . .

It was useless. He couldn’t read. He couldn’t do anything. The wailing of the child pierced the drum of his ear. It was useless, useless! He was a prisoner for life. His arms trembled with anger and suddenly bending to the child’s face he shouted:

“Stop!”

The child stopped for an instant, had a spasm of fright and began to scream. He jumped up from his chair and walked hastily up and down the room with the child in his arms. It began to sob piteously, losing its breath for four or five seconds, and then bursting out anew. The thin walls of the room echoed the sound. He tried to soothe it but it sobbed more convulsively. He looked at the contracted and quivering face of the child and began to be alarmed. He counted seven sobs without a break between them and caught the child to his breast in fright. If it died! . . .

The door was burst open and a young woman ran in, panting.

“What is it? What is it?” she cried.

The child, hearing its mother’s voice, broke out into a paroxysm of sobbing.

“It’s nothing, Annie . . . it’s nothing. . . . He began to cry . . . ”

She flung her parcels on the floor and snatched the child from him.

“What have you done to him?” she cried, glaring into his face.

Little Chandler sustained for one moment the gaze of her eyes and his heart closed together as he met the hatred in them. He began to stammer:

“It’s nothing. . . . He . . . he began to cry. . . . I couldn’t . . . I didn’t do anything. . . . What?”

Giving no heed to him she began to walk up and down the room, clasping the child tightly in her arms and murmuring:

“My little man! My little mannie! Was ‘ou frightened, love? . . . There now, love! There now! . . . Lambabaun! Mamma’s little lamb of the world! . . . There now!”

Little Chandler felt his cheeks suffused with shame and he stood back out of the lamplight. He listened while the paroxysm of the child’s sobbing grew less and less; and tears of remorse started to his eyes.

3 comments on “‘Little Clouds’ and ‘Enemies of Ambition’

  1. James Hoff says:

    Thanks for this Samir. My wife and I both just started our academic careers with a 16 month old daughter and its been rough for us too. I think we’ve both experienced a little of the guilt and frustration that Joyce captures so well here. Frankly I’d be delighted if I had the time and mental energy to write a blog post everyday, however! I can barely find the time to write my syllabi and do the readings for my classes. As she gets older, though, things are most definitely getting easier, so hang in there. If you look at the bigger picture, its really only two or three years of lost productivity. And learning to be more productive in fewer hours, as all academic parents have to do, will no doubt pay for itself once you have more time.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      James,

      Thanks for the comment. I hear you – in many ways. I’m glad the post resonated with your experience. I’m finding that I’m becoming better at utilizing naps, so hope springs eternal and all that! And thanks for the dispatch from the advanced years!

      Cheers,
      Samir

  2. James Hoff says:

    And then there’s this from Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”:

    “Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side, Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm, Fill up the intersperséd vacancies And momentary pauses of the thought! My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart With tender gladness, thus to look at thee, And think that thou shalt learn far other lore, And in far other scenes!”

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