Bragging Rights: How they saw themselves – and said it first
How certain great writers and thinkers have predicted their posthumous fame in different ways.
By Manfred Weidhorn
A modern reader of Dante will, while celebrating the uniqueness and grandeur of the Commedia, usually find many anomalies to quibble about. Why, for instance, are embezzlers assigned to a lower circle in Hell than murderers? Why are Paolo and Francesca, that famous adulterous couple, punished by being in each other's arms forever? Why, in the Inferno XXXIII, does Dante, the pilgrim journeying to the beatific vision, actually break his promise to Fra Albergo? Why is Virgil, whom Dante idolises as a writer and who in the Middle Ages was regarded as a semi-saint, lodged in Hell (however accommodating the lodgings)?
The impulse to accuse Dante of erratic thinking must quickly be corrected by the realisation of how much has changed as a result of the transformation of traditional society into modern. Seen from his vantage point, as well as that of his major sources – Aristotle, Cicero, St Thomas of Aquinas, and other Christian thinkers – each of these moral-aesthetic choices makes perfect sense. It is rather the modern reader, who, for better or worse no longer sharing these old values, must adjust accordingly.
So the reader who is thus apprised of the role of the donnee in literature is better prepared to cope with another jarring incident early in Dante's journey. When entering Hell, Dante confronts the greatest poets he has read or at least heard about. They greet him and then do something surprising:
Dante is here asserting nothing less than that he will be among the greatest poets. At first blush, this is somewhat shocking. Regenerating Christians are not supposed to exhibit such vanity, especially about so earthly a matter as achieving renown by writing poetry. Like Milton later, Dante will indicate in the Purgatorio that fame is what God knows about you, not what people think about you; on earth, fame, as transient as grass, is but the empty air of rumour.
This time the modern reader might have less trouble adjusting to the anomaly than in the cases cited above. In our age of self-conscious and proud individualism, we are more liberal about "healthy" self-esteem, more willing to give Dante his due. And not only modern readers. The pagans were not impressed by humility either. This sort of self-celebration can be traced as far back as to Aristophanes. While he did not overtly predict future greatness for himself, the Greek comic writer came close to doing so when the chorus of one of his plays addresses the audience:
Such words sound more like bribery than prophecy, but whatever his thoughts about posterity may have been, he was sure he was good enough to win now. Then, among the Romans, Cicero looked with pride on his own achievements and seemed to imply that the future might take note of him:
Cicero's fame is a matter of impressing not just his peers, but also, he appears to hope, future generations. Some major Roman poets agree: Horace proudly asserts his achievements in poetry, which are monuments more durable than bronze and which keep a portion of him safe from death. Ovid even more fervently expects to be read, after his death, in all Roman places and through the centuries; if poets' predictions are reliable, the immortal part of him will live forever.
Jumping to a different era and locale, in the mainly pre-Christian world of Beowulf, one discovers boasting (with a touch of prophecy about one's upcoming success) to be de rigueur. It actually still is that way with us when, like Beowulf in Denmark, we submit a job application which often cosmeticises the truth. While on an individual basis, among friends and relatives and peers, we honour humility, on the large public stage in a democracy, we rarely do. How much humility do the contenders for public office show when claiming that they are better than their rivals and predicting greatness for the polity if they win? And what presidential candidate does not assert to a roaring crowd of followers, "We are going to win!"?
So if pre- and post-Christian people accept public self-glorification, can we find a basis for accepting the same from Dante, not on our terms but on his, as a Christian medieval soul who is not inconsistent or hypocritical? Yes. One reason for forgiving Dante is that he was aware of his shortcomings. Besides confessing near the middle of the work to being a lapsed Christian sinner, he also indicates the nature of his defects: concupiscence (in the Paolo and Francesca scene, he faints) and pride. When, in the Purgatorio, he is on the terrace of the souls guilty of pride, he voluntarily for a while administers to himself the purgative punishment, like the other souls there, of walking bowed down as if under a weight.
So Dante admits to vanity, conceit – precisely the sort of failing that manifests itself in his placing himself among the greatest poets. That admission is a Christian enough gesture, for self-confrontation is, we recall, the necessary first step to atonement. But setting aside Christianity, where does he find the temerity to write like that? Well, the main non-religious reason we forgive him his failing is that the s.o.b. was right, and he knew it, and he made sure that the reader knew it. The modern consensus, after all, is that there are three supreme writers in the West – Homer in Classical Antiquity, Dante in the Middle Ages, and Shakespeare in (relatively) modern times. That is, although the membership list of that elite club has changed since 1321, Dante, along with Homer, is a holdover. His prediction was accurate.
This vindication raises the interesting question of whether Dante's self-selection is idiosyncratic or is a tendency that comes with being a supreme artist; does inordinate talent automatically beget vanity? Confining one's answer for the moment to the "big three", one finds that, while the impersonal, virtually anonymous Homer is a negative example, Shakespeare does indeed also venture into making such a prediction about himself, albeit far less overtly than does Dante. In a way, Shakespeare's doing so is surprising. The English playwright differed from Dante in many ways. Where Dante was personally vain, politically engaged and philosophically outspoken (see the Monarchia, De Vulgari, etc.), Shakespeare was a private person who left behind hardly any traces about himself (setting aside the much-debated last speech of Prospero). We cannot even be sure that he thought his own writings were "not of an age, but for all time"; unlike his contemporary Ben Jonson (who said they were), he appears to have made no effort, even in retirement, to publish his poems and plays (half of which were unpublished) as "Collected Works", so that they not disappear.
Yet this wall of silence is broken in Julius Caesar, on the occasion of the assassination. Cassius, when urging the assassins to proudly smear their hands with Caesar's blood, proclaims,
This remark, of course, is spoken in character; it is what the historical Cassius could have uttered, or should have. Cassius means to emphasise the idea that, far from being cold-blooded murderers, the assassins are principled heroes bent on preserving the republic from the aspirations of a would-be dictator. Rather than feeling any possible guilt, they are to take comfort in the awareness that that is how they will be perceived by posterity. There is, in addition, the frisson of having a character in a work of historical fiction, especially onstage, briefly drop the pretence of metaphysical reality and indicate awareness of his being, or becoming, a persona in a play. (Indeed Brutus seconds the theatrical observation, "How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport.")
Still, one cannot help wondering if Shakespeare's self intrudes here. Is he predicting immortality not just for the assassins but for his rendition of the participants and the deed? Is he suggesting that this play of his, presumably along with his other ones, will be around forever? Note that Cassius is not saying, as he might have, that their action will be presented in that noble light in classrooms, or in chronicles, or in legal briefs; no, it will be staged, implying theatrical dramatisations made by one William Shakespeare, whose artistry will render his play, and, by extension, the author of the play, immortal by means of repeated performances through the ages.
The same situation of a character possibly speaking for the author confronts the reader of Don Quixote. Although writing a novel rather than a play, Cervantes, like his English contemporary, is virtually invisible. Dante and Milton in their different ways cast a shadow over their tales, but Cervantes not only is rarely, if ever, present in his own voice (other than in occasional perfunctory asides to the reader) but actually goes out of his way in the opposite direction by appearing to divest himself of any trace of authorship of this huge novel. Don Quixote is alleged to be the work of an Arab historian, C.H. Benengeli, translated into Spanish by a Morisco and merely edited by the humble Spanish "author".
Just as Cassius is perhaps a stand-in for Shakespeare, so is the protagonist, Don Quixote, possibly for Cervantes, when he says,
Notice the confidence that his famous deeds will be recorded in books, which are of course central to perpetuating fame. The Don knows about the knightly ways only through the old chivalric romances, the credulous reading of which rendered him eager to emulate their deeds. Just as these books portrayed the knightly values of fighting evil, succouring the good, etc., so he in imitation would carry the torch into the present. But contemporary fame by word of mouth is not enough to have one's meritorious deeds transmitted to posterity. One needs a chronicler of those deeds, a good-enough writer to carry the renown into the future. That implies that, if Don Quixote expects such a fate, it is because his author, along with Dante and Shakespeare, is confident of the imperishable quality of his own work. If this author does not make predictions of immortality for self or work, his protagonist at least does.
This is the only example, moreover, of an author recording something like fulfilment of the prediction. In Part II, published 10 years later by Cervantes in order to take back possession of the work from pre-copyright-age imitators, a character informs Don Quixote that a book about the hero written by a Moor has sold 12,000 copies in many lands. That revelation gives the Don satisfaction over seeing "his good name spread abroad during his own lifetime, by means of the printing press" and of translations into many languages. Later, Don Quixote remarks,
On this fact, he builds a sort of compound-interest prediction: "Unless heaven forbid, they will print thirty million of them." They did, give or take a few million.
The next 17th-century major writer to make such a prophecy, John Milton, avoids the coy indirection of Shakespeare and Cervantes and is as explicit as, if less presumptuous than, Dante. The conjunction with Dante is not accidental. If Shakespeare is the number one man of English poetry, Milton is the number two man, but temperamentally, Milton was much closer to the transparent, religious, opinionated, combative Dante than to his inscrutable countryman.
Early in his life, Milton planned to devote his poetic talent to God by creating some major literary work. Conscious of his humbleness among learned men, he yet expects to garner the ivy and laurel of a winner and aspires to win glory at least among English readers.
But because of his political engagement, his desire to see religious and political reform in England, to see a reformation of the Reformation, he had to shelve his literary plans and involve himself in the polemical pamphlet wars of the period as a theorist and propagandist of the Puritan rebellion. At one point, he felt himself accused of temerity in contesting with eminent elders while still in his "green years". This criticism stung Milton enough to launch him into a sketch of his life and aspirations, in the course of which, he remarked, about his own youth,
He sensed then that, long before he had done anything to warrant such confidence, he was assigned to create something important both as literature and as worship.
Needless to say, he kept his word – but just barely. So alive was he to the mission of writing someday a monumental celebration of God that, when blindness overtook him, he underwent a greater than ordinary let-down. Now that he was disabled, he was tempted to retire from the literary quest. In a distinctly human reaction, he felt as if a burden had been removed from his shoulders; or, more rebelliously, as if he wanted to retaliate on God by petulantly saying that if God takes away Milton's sight, Milton will not feel bound any longer to keep his end of the bargain, not because he loves God less (though that might have been an unconscious motive) but because God has apparently cancelled a promise by crippling him.
The ensuing self-disciplining – as recorded in his sonnet on his blindness (one of those personal poetical utterances that characterise the man) – involved a resignation to the idea that one could retain one's devotion to God without having to create the great work. He would worship rather by means of the two supreme Christian virtues, obedience and patience. "They also serve who only stand and wait." Yet, on the strength of that self-discipline, he of course went on to write that epic anyway, through the iron gates of blindness, in an act of heroism that must be set beside Beethoven composing (albeit without Milton's strong faith in God) his most profound music while completely deaf. Milton had, after long detours into politics and blindness, adhered to his mission after all and had predicted his fame correctly.
The next major English writer to harbour what Hamlet calls "a prophetic soul" was William Wordsworth. The period between Milton and Wordsworth saw a great paradigm change. The sort of obsession with the self or with the towering ego we associate with Dante and Milton becomes a way of life in the culture of the late 18th and the 19th centuries. The Romantic thinkers turned celebration of the self from a moral defect or a personal idiosyncrasy into part of a revolutionary new philosophy. The traditional view of life as being devoted to service of God and, in the furtherance of this goal, to a rich participation in communal life was replaced by the new sense that the ego eclipses both God and community in importance. A symptom of that change was the rise of autobiography, a genre which addresses the important new question of "Who am I?" Versions of that genre had of course appeared earlier, though only sporadically, as in the cases of Augustine and Montaigne. But now what had been a quaint trait became widespread. Wordsworth went so far as to compose a long poem, 'The Prelude', which is more autopsychography than autobiography in tracing his spiritual evolution. And in the course of writing about his younger years, he vividly recalls an entire summer night spent dancing in a village. As he walked home at dawn amid the glories of nature, he fell into a profound euphoria:
This incident is very much like what young people experience when they realise, after many doubts and false starts, what is to be their aim in life. Wordsworth had found himself, and what he had found was that he had been assigned a special future. And so it was to be.
Among the three major poets of the generation that followed Wordsworth, Keats would seem to have been prima facie the least likely to succeed. The other two, Byron and Shelley, came from the patrician class, had (or at least began) a privileged education at Oxbridge, knew their Greek and Latin, and had the financial resources (however precarious at times) to travel abroad instead of having to earn a living. Keats came from a lower-class background, had to work as an apothecary, lacked a classical education. His fate seemed notably different from that of Byron, who went on to become, along with Napoleon, one of the first celebrities in the manner of modern movie and rock stars. One would therefore expect the wildly successful and multi-talented, multi-faceted, adventurous Byron to predict greatness for himself rather than to have the obscure, gentle Keats do so. Instead, Byron in his last years wrote of being burned out; of the freshness of his heart being gone; of renouncing charms of maid or wife; of broken ambition; and of the futility of fame, which is but "uncertain paper… a wretched picture". He even turned from poetry to revolutionary activism.
Keats, on the other hand, with far fewer worldly experiences, did not lapse into cynicism and weariness but retained hope about his poetic future. The test came when he received merciless hazing from reviewers in the leading journals. Byron had faced that problem as well and characteristically gave as good as he got. A boxer, literally and figuratively, he wrote his hard-hitting 'English Bards and Scotch Reviewers' as a riposte. No thoughts beyond the present for him. Contrast that with the other's stoic reaction; Keats felt unbruised because he had the consolation of believing that the future would be kinder to him than this "mere matter of the moment". As he put it in tentative, poignant, whisper-like tones in one of his letters, "I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death." Indeed, while the reputation of Shelley and Byron sank in the first half of the 20th century, Keats's did not. Even when the other two subsequently made a comeback, a common view now is that Keats is the greatest poet between Wordsworth and Yeats. Not bad company; he had been right.
The romantic emphasis on self over God and community reached a climax in the Victorian era with the flowering of a movement which made a fetish of what came to be called "rugged individualism". A rich literature was produced by the likes of Tocqueville, Mill, Herzen, Nietzsche and Ibsen. But the seed really took hold in American soil, the land of pioneering experiments in democracy, with the writings of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman. In the early days of the American republic, political independence was not immediately followed by cultural independence. American writers and artists were still dominated by the erstwhile mother country overseas. Men like Noah Webster and Emerson looked forward to the development of a national language and literature. By the mid-19th century, the first group of writers – Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville – were finally presenting an American vision in substance and writing style.
In poetry, Walt Whitman had the field to himself. By vastly enlarging, if not inventing, the scope of free verse, he expressed not only a new American poetic, his long lines perhaps reflecting the geographical vastness of America, as well as its freedom and iconoclasm, but also prepared the ground for many of the innovations in "modern poetry" in the West. His celebration of democracy and of America, no less than his sensuality, his recognition of the body, his homoerotic feelings, his compassion for all human beings – white or black, slave or free, straight or gay, rich or poor – cultivated or not, broke many Victorian taboos, even as his style looked ahead. He was a true visionary, a cultural heretic and pioneer, and he knew it. Whether because of that innovativeness or because of the unique content of his poems, he declared proudly of his posthumous prospects, in words Dante would easily recognise: "It is I who am great or to be great."
In the field of philosophy, Whitman's younger contemporary, Friedrich Nietzsche, was very much like Whitman in the sense of being an iconoclast, a thinker who literally took nothing for granted and who challenged all systems of thought and values (though, if Nietzsche had known about Whitman, he would have been deeply contemptuous of the American's celebration of democracy and of the common man). No man ever boasted of his own uniqueness as much as Nietzsche, to the point of sounding at last unhinged, and no one was so sure of his posthumous fame:
In one of his last books, Ecce Homo, the strangest autobiography ever written, is a chapter with the modest title, 'Why I am a Destiny'. Here he seems to give candour a bad name:
Then he begins to sound like (as we will see) Galileo having discovered a new science:
This is either the rant of a lunatic or a daring visionary prediction. At first it seemed to be the former: Nietzsche wrote his books in a cultural vacuum. Few copies of them were sold, and he had only a few acolytes. His grating anti-Christian screeds (he proudly saw himself as the Anti-Christ) in a time of at least overt piety guaranteed rejection or obscurity.
But then came modernity, and Nietzsche was found to have been in the vanguard. Just how important did Nietzsche then become? Modern culture has been shaped by four giants: Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. Of these, Marx and Freud, whose frenetic claim to being scientists gradually evaporated, have taken a bad tumble. But Darwin and Nietzsche are more influential than ever, as hardly any contemporary essay on a serious topic does not conjure either one's name. Some rant! Some lunatic!
James Joyce is another writer of fiction who makes his claim to literary immortality through a character he has created. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a bildungsroman, as well as a transparently autobiographical work. It is about Stephen Dedalus, a young man growing up in an impoverished lower middle-class family and finding his vocation in writing. If the work ends with the protagonist about to depart for Paris to pursue medical studies, the next volume, Ulysses, picks up the tale two years later, with Stephen back in Dublin as a school teacher, having turned from the medical vocation to philosophising and writing.
At one point, two of his friends are conversing about Stephen; one says, "Ten years… He is going to write something in ten years." The other responds, "I shouldn't wonder if he did after all." This remark is echoed in the scene in a hospital waiting room, when another of Stephen's friends says to Stephen that merit will accrue to him:
Ulysses is set in 1904. At the end of the novel, Joyce wrote, "Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914–1921", meaning that in exactly the above-mentioned 10 years after the fictional time of Ulysses, he began his major work. While those details do not directly prophesy the iconic status Joyce's book was to attain, they do represent a cryptic self-proclamation (which few readers are likely to catch). If Joyce imitates Shakespeare and Cervantes in using a character in a work of fiction to predict his own greatness, he offers the added twist that that character is a thinly-veiled version of himself, as Cassius and Don Quixote are not versions of their author. The last pages of Portrait dramatise how Joyce made a high-risk leap into the unknown by abandoning the comforts of the bourgeois life he was expected to join and opted rather for the unremunerative and dicey life of art or, in his words, of "silence, exile, and cunning". In doing so, he did not fear "to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too". It turned out to be no mistake at all.
Joyce's French near-contemporary, Marcel Proust, came to his vocation by a different route. He sprang from an upper middle-class Parisian family and did not have to worry about money or work. After spending a considerable amount of time as a social butterfly in Parisian high society and then growing weary of aimlessness, he finally came to write his major work, In Search of Lost Time, which dramatises his experiences. But what is interesting in the closing pages of his huge novel is their description of the epiphany (a word adapted to secular matters by Joyce and applicable here) which made the narrator realise, after a psychological or spiritual crisis, that his true vocation was to be a writer and that his subject matter was to be his own life. He has confidence that this will put him into a literary Hall of Fame.
Like Joyce, he indeed went on to form a unique style that dramatically enlarged the perception of what a novel can do. The two men are generally cited as the greatest novelists of their century.
It goes without saying that the sense of being singled out for greatness in one's field of endeavour is not limited to literary folk. Persons in the sciences, indeed in business, the military, the clergy, may feel a similar chosenness. Take the case of Galileo. He early showed, whether as a mathematics professor or designer of scientific instruments like the telescope, a strong ego, a desire for fame, not to speak of a combativeness that eventually was to bring him grief. When his first spectacular use of the telescope to scan the sky resulted in dramatic findings, he quickly published the earth-shaking and heaven-altering Siderius Nuncius [Starry Messenger]. He boasted in the frontispiece that his discoveries were his alone and were rewriting the astronomical wisdom of the ages. So it comes as no surprise that in a letter of that same year, he concluded that, on the basis of experiments in motion which he had made in the early 1600s, "I may call this a new science, and one discovered by me from its very foundations" (Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, 1957). Given the age-old theories in astronomy and physics, given also the power of the conservative Church and the resistance his novel ideas ran into on all sides, the prospects for the triumph of his "new science" were poor. Later, in writing about himself, he even referred to "the odium which his [Galileo's] many new discoveries had already brought him".
In the end, though, he was vindicated. When held in house arrest by the Church, he managed to send a manuscript to a publisher in Holland, which became the landmark Dialogue Concerning the Two New Sciences (1638). In that book, he again said that he had "opened up this vast and most excellent science, of which my work is merely the beginning" or, yet again, that he had established "a new science dealing with a very old subject… of motion… The door is now opened, for the first time, to a new method fraught with numerous and wonderful results which in future years will command the attention of other minds." The general verdict is that he did indeed inaugurate in that book the modern sciences dealing with the strength of materials and with motion. He did more than that. While what he meant by "new" and even by "science" has been debated by scholars, the fact remains that he has been called the father of modern physics, indeed of modern science, by no less a person than Einstein (as well as by Hawking and many other experts). So whatever Galileo may have meant, he foresaw correctly his titanic role as a trailblazer.
Shifting from physics to music, one finds a similar statement by Gustav Mahler. While pursuing his career as a conductor, he spent his spare time, and especially his summer vacations in the countryside, composing his major contributions to the classical music canon – nine and a half grandiose symphonies. Their size and complexity, as well as a climate of anti-Semitism and the bad feelings left behind by his tempestuous personality in conducting orchestras, begot a mixed reception, but Mahler saw another difficulty – the strong light cast by the bright new star of the musical world, Richard Strauss. Mahler, not despondent over this last fact, harboured that essential inner assurance that all these great men had. On artistic grounds and personal ones – Strauss seemed to be writing music mainly for the money, a trait which offended the purist Mahler – Mahler believed that, as he wrote his fiancée Alma,
Strauss's music has retained a decent place in the repertory, but Mahler did indeed eventually outshine him, though he did not live to see it.
Although they were championed by conductors like Willem Mengelberg and Bruno Walter before World War II, Mahler's symphonies did not take off, especially in America, until Leonard Bernstein, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, played and recorded all of them in the 1960s, a half century after the composer's death. Other prominent conductors followed suit and, as a result of the musical world's contracting a strong case of what has been called "Mahleria", Mahler is now considered by quite a few observers to be perhaps the greatest of all symphony composers.
Politics, as might be expected, has its contribution to make to the discussion. There is the interesting case of Winston Churchill. The grandson of a duke and the son of a prominent Tory MP and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Churchill had the best social pedigree of any of the people in this survey. Yet his somewhat rambunctious, erratic early life left his father with the fear that young Churchill was becoming a "social wastrel". And in fact Churchill never did receive the university education that was standard for members of his class. Seeming to be good for nothing else, he was sent to a military academy. A few years later, several spectacular adventures as a young journalist-soldier gave him fame and helped propel him into a successful political career.
As he quickly began to make his mark in various governmental ways, some early observers saw in him a future prime minister, and he himself thought of himself as a "glow worm" amid "worms". Though he was bent on achieving fame by "notability or notoriety", and though he succeeded by both means, he never explicitly predicted the supreme prize of the prime ministership for himself. Indeed he suffered ghastly setbacks, especially over Gallipoli in World War I and during his political isolation "in the wilderness" in the 1930s, caused by his eccentric behaviour on India, the Abdication, and (as it incorrectly at first seemed to many) on Hitler. Yet he managed to come back at a climactic moment, when England found itself alone facing the undefeated Nazi Juggernaut. Had he not envisioned such a showdown, albeit in an impersonal manner?
He no doubt thought himself capable of stepping up to the challenge presented here. Those words were written in 1899, almost a half century before history gave him a unique opportunity to live up to his words. That he did have himself in mind is indicated by something he apparently uttered earlier:
This statement, made in 1891, is quite simply incredible. Some of the predictions here surveyed were indirect (Shakespeare, Cervantes, Joyce); some were tentative or mild (Milton, Keats, Proust); but a few were explicit and assertive, notably those of Dante and Churchill. In its preciseness, Churchill's far surpasses all the other prophecies surveyed here. It is furthermore as explicit as Dante's but far more amazing because Dante's words came when he was writing the Commedia and felt in his bones its greatness. But who was this 17-year-old "social wastrel" with no achievement to his name to make such a presumptuous wild prediction? That he proved to be right on the mark could make even an agnostic believe in magic or spiritualism or divine providence.
What are we to make this group of seers? The first and most obvious observation is that this is a mere sample of some famous cases. No doubt there are others who could have been cited, but each of the ones here is among the greatest achievers. Second, we must beware of ascribing magical powers to these men. It is probable that thousands, possibly millions, of other persons have made similar prognostications about themselves, in vain. It is so easy, especially for youth, to be deluded on such matters. How many people leading respectable lives as lawyers, accountants, engineers and teachers recall now their youthful dreams – perhaps even recorded in diary or letter – of making it big as novelist, actor or rock star? Precisely because these obscure souls with high aspirations failed to realise their dreams we do not know about the glowing predictions they had made for themselves. For every person who hits the target, there might well be thousands who miss it. So making a prediction of greatness is not an uncommon act; fulfilling it is.
What is the hurdle? Recall that the same Churchill who made his remarks in 1891 and 1899 had a near fatal traffic accident on New York's Fifth Avenue nearly a half century later; an inch more or less, and Churchill would have died, 1940 and the subsequent course of World War II would have been entirely different, and no one would know or care about Churchill's youthful, seemingly megalomaniacal prophecy. (Or, in a parallel case, suppose that Milton was unable to recover from the setback of his blindness.) So a fair conclusion would be that individuals with a special spark, with a streak of non-conformity and self-assurance, are likely to think big, but many lose their initiative or talent or health or luck and are unable to make good on their promise. The few in this survey are the product of not only aspirations but also diligence, momentum, endurance and, above all, as the case of Churchill dramatically shows, good luck. There are also cases of the reverse. Men like Virgil and Kafka left instructions that after their death their works were to be destroyed. The relevant emotion here is not pride but shame or disillusionment. There may well be many cases in which such instructions were not disregarded, and therefore the achievements and the predictions are equally lost to us. Clearly, not all geniuses think alike about their talent and their future fame.
Another caveat has to do with deviousness. When Churchill became prime minister in a bleak time in 1940, "I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial." This passage appears in The Gathering Storm, his memoir of 1948. One may be forgiven for being somewhat sceptical of its accuracy, considering the dreadful situation he found himself in in 1940 and, more important, the wisdom of hindsight exercised by the author after the victorious outcome of the war. He simply could not have known in that perilous time what the outcome would be and that this would be a triumph of Destiny. (Hitler, incidentally, expressed similar sentiments about Destiny being with him.) The rule in an inquiry like this consequently has to be that for a prediction to be taken seriously it has to be made before fame is achieved. If retroactively inserted into a text, it is a bad faith attempt to assign oneself prophetic powers one does not have, an old trick used by writers like Virgil in having characters of an earlier era predict the greatness of Rome. As the same Churchill mischievously said, "I always avoid prophesying beforehand, because it is much better policy to prophesy after the event has taken place" (Onwards to Victory, 1944).
One last observation returns us to the matter of chutzpah, first raised in the discussion of Dante. Yes, we do resent boasting – except when we do not. Who does not recall Mohammed Ali in his heyday repeatedly announcing, "I'm the greatest!" No one took offence because, in addition to the accompanying wink, he was as good as his word. He indeed made himself the greatest –as boxer, as a wit, as a man of integrity, and as a charming human being. John Milton gave him cover when he defined humility as that which "prevents [a man] from blowing his own trumpet, except when it is really called for." Or in the earthier words of baseball star Willy Stargell, "Hell, if you can do it, it ain't bragging!"QLRS Vol. 18 No. 1 Jan 2019