The Aspirational Self, or, Canceling Banality!

Photograph Source: Ralf Steinberger – CC BY 2.0

“These [the social equalizing effects of heaven] are the consolations which the wretched have peculiar to themselves in which they are above the rest of mankind; in other respects they are below them.”

– Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield

I am not a mechanism….and it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill. D. H. Lawrence

The man or woman who risks his or her life for the sublime in the age of banality and all his/her works leave us with hope that we can overcome the trauma in our lives without harming young and old, even if doing so goes against Society’s expectations. Jack Zipes, introduction: E.T.A. Hoffmann, the Wounded Storyteller

Strange coincidence! The very day I began this piece on “the aspirational self,” I learned in the NYTimes that Donald Trump’s lawyer is basing Trump’s defense in the Jan 6 attempt to overturn the lawful election on the attempt’s being being “aspirational” only. His actual deeds should be considered harmless “aspirational asks!” Such a degrading use for this word that has associations with aiming higher, that is, to nobility of character, human greatness! I here mean to restore it to its truer, “aspirational” connotations.

For year, I’ve struggled with believing in myself – not me “just as I am,” nor as my “better self,” but as my fuller aspirational self. This self is me, Kim, plus what I best can call my yearning. To sum it up, the yearning is to be used for larger, glorious purposes. (Impulsively I interject here Don’t laugh! I anticipate the collective attitude toward the aspirational self that makes it so difficult to believe in it.) I think people who search their heart may find there a similar longing, to be recognized as having something god-like, intrinsically worthy in oneself, confirmation of one’s own shaky belief. (Is this why they made halos?) In its lesser iterations, this yearning leads to mere competitiveness, the ambition to be “above the ordinary, standout, “popular,” famous for 15 minutes, “uncommon,” etc. But that’s a vulgarization, not it.

The aspirational self, by rights should simply be one’s human identity. Just like biological existence, aspiration comes in the package at birth. The consciousness of our aspiring, “sublime” selves that seems like an “extra,” is an add-on, compared to the other animals, but is the distinguishing feature for human beings. (Sidenote: It’s nice that we now acknowledge that animals, too, have souls, meaning, we must not treat animals as if they were merely objects, but what does “having a soul” mean for our human selves? How can we even talk about animals’ souls as if we knew something about them?)


For many years I sent out a letter with my annual Christmas cards to geographically distant friends and relatives that wasn’t just newsy catching up, but attempted to say something “extra.” Not having fully granted myself permission to be a writer, these were creations on-the-sly, expressions of my aspirational self. Every year I mailed them out with extreme dread, expecting the worst: silence. I now understand my writing in this “speculative” vein to be the words I want to hear; my writerly hope (if I allow myself one) is, just maybe, other people want to hear them too, and so they are glad I spoke. That is, they’re glad I’ve brought them good news from the universe. But if the words go out, and nobody responds, I interpret the silence not as people being ignorant, or just careless, as a stronger ego might, but as if my words had repelled, as if a malevolent spirit were coming back at me like bad news from the universe! The silence says I’m completely wrong, utterly mistaken; I am not me plus my aspirational self, but just “Kim” without the add-on.

To me this is the condition of wretchedness.

Though I risk repeating myself, for readers who’ve read my previous essays, on behalf of my aspirational self I must venture into the mythic zone of my childhood again. For I attribute this sensitivity to silence to the “Rocking Horse Winner” (D.H. Lawrence) hauntedness, the displacement of aspirational wanting on the part of us children to make room (apparently) for the ego needs of my father the artist. For my father there must have been some kind of torment, some illegitimacy, some shame for him in his aspirational self, his artist self, for the joy he surely took in art-making did not “trickle down” to his children.

His students, as often happens in cases where a teacher is particularly adored, tell a different story! One former student, Betty, now an elderly widow and a well-known area watercolorist, wrote to me recently: “He taught me to be free! And ‘splatter!’ Not knowing I was in the throes of anxiety and fear he always brought out the positive first! His tutelage…plus faith in a positive God set me FREE.” No accident she put my father the painting instructor and God together in one sentence; to his students his encouragement of their aspirational selves was god-like! But I ask, whose teaching, in the end, for everybody, is more powerful, one’s father’s (God #1) or one’s excellent teacher’s (God #2 or 3)? I suspect Betty’s own father’s “imprint” trumped her teacher’s, but this is unverifiable of course.

In our case, “God #1” discouraged aspiration. Perhaps out of concern that we fit into the society (delight being at least suspect!), Dad’s fathering belied all romantic aspiration “to be used for larger, glorious purposes.” Thus, his children’s aspirational selves, dependent as we were on his recognition, sank like lead. The children of this artist who followed his delight, and was actually for a time bold in his painting were neither curious nor bold.

But this is the way my narrative tells it. Inclusion of my brothers is conjectural: though they may grumble about the kind of Dad he was, none of them has ever corroborated my perspective that in learning to deny aspiration we endured trauma. For, when aspiration is missing, it’s nothing! Aspiration is not to be confused with ambition which, prized in our competition-based world, is the mark of one’s individualist success at “fulfilling one’s potential” (or failing to do so). As a matter of fact, my siblings and I were not particularly endowed with ambition, either. My hunch about that is, our aspiration denied we had no inclination whatever to its meaner substitute – ambition. Thus, aspiration was a given in our familial context, but cruelly so; unavailable to our conscious minds, it was useless to us, unreal.


In the end, of course, for any aspiration, it’s practically necessary there be a roadblock; otherwise, to aspire is unnecessary! But I use the word aspiration to talk about human reality at the D.H. Lawrence level! For that I may have had the right father! For the obstacle to aspiration becomes trickier when the father is not one whose prohibitions suggest there’s something tantalizing out there that you’re forbidden, but a Dad who seemed, in a banal way, to equate being a good artist with being a good boy. A Dad who betrayed no awareness that, in fact, there was some table-tipping, some iconoclasm, some daring demanded in pursuing delight.

Having such a father the danger is one will not challenge the exceptionalist status quo (that was beneficent enough to include him!). For banality, with its erasure of differences, is liberal society’s unspoken rule to which my father-the-good-boy conformed. Thus he could convince his children the non-banal aspirational self is not real even as he sat at the banquet table of the imaginal world. What’s left for the children is to depose not the patriarchal authority but the very context of banality, a task that can only be inward and imaginal. Thus, though I hesitate to justify what I wish to call “abuse,” there having been so much luck involved in my escaping a life sentence to aspiration-less wretchedness, this familial unfairness may have been the perfect stimulus. It pushed me into madness (or, as called by its survivors, “spiritual crisis”), a decidedly inward condition!

Aspirational abuse is so subtle, the world our parents socialized us in so hollow that, even as floundering adults, my siblings and I could not see what had been done to us. And – important to emphasize for writing that has a politics – the world was absolutely syntonic with that! For to have no aspiration to be used for larger, glorious purposes – unless to die for your country or win a chanpionship – is certainly no crime! It’s no shame, in the neoliberal context, to be machine-like, instead of human beings-complete-with-aspiration. It’s no shame to have a screen in one’s face constantly, or to dull one’s soul-pain with xanax, or pot, or microdoses of hallucinogens so long as one can function (and is functioning “the new aspiration?”)

To make matters worse, ultimate recognition of the aspirational self cannot come via social relations or “influencers,” even though occasionally we might receive “news from the universe” that tells us we’re free, let that paint splatter! Rather, it has to be won by the individual willing to defend her aspirational self with her art, but not only with that. Because we are not separate existences, but interconnected and interdependent, she must defend her aspirational self in relationships beginning with those closest (i.e., in marriage). In intimate space one is most likely, during tough times, to join forces unconsciously against the whole and holy selves, either uniting in banality or dividing into camps of dissension, fear and anger. In these ways, marriages, thoroughly institutionalized, come to serve imperial reality, not aspiration’s utopian reality.

Ultimately, the prizing of the aspirational self in banal liberal reality comes down to me, to my subjective discernment, and to how deeply I will go in negotiating differences between human beings aspirationally traumatized, beginning with just a pair. Soul-based discernment does not divide, zero-sum, into enemies, but unites in non-banal aspiration. Although art-making is necessary to know the aspirational self exists and to sustain its reality, the intimate relational life, the home, domestic life, the couple in its archetypal dimension, is a (there may be others; I’m experienced only in the one) crucial/crucible for the resuscitation of the aspirational selves, to e pluribus unum.

The aspirational self will never be defended, only betrayed, under the umbrella of smiling liberalism. And affluence, also, although it provides a wondrously effective cushion against the worst kind of hard times (poverty!) also can deceive us into the false condition of “aspiration achieved.” Though a few may hear and respond to the truth of my aspirational self, spoken or written ( grace!), its truth resides with me and exists to the extent I’m willing to actively defend it. To my mythic imagination, this is an act of “father strength” that, if not an act of “killing the father,” revives my true strength in a way that does not need to cancel yours.


Religion, the traditional domain for protection of the aspirational self, has always been most effective as a consolation for the wretched of the earth. As such, it has been looked down upon at least since Marx, as an obstacle to revolutionary change that would turn upside down the entrenched power imbalance in western society on behalf of those made wretched by it.

While the modern part of me scorns the idea of the poor man fixated on his heavenly reward, the “pie-in-the-sky, as Joe Hill dubbed it, except for my writing that keeps me imaginatively in the “better reality,” I do not feel so different from those blokes pathetically hungry for Goldsmith’s vicar’s consolation. For the wretched inmates in the gaol in which the vicar of Wakefield was also imprisoned, to whom he preached, the dream of heaven must be real if they were to escape sub-human existence as criminals and be human. Not unlike them, I too need the consolation of imagination. I need to know that the world the heart’s imagination conjures is real if I am to hold to utopian aspiration instead of resigning to machine-hood.

What keeps me going in my foolish defense of the human, is the realization that there are more people like me, incapable of inflating our self-worth by means of the rewards offered by our monolithic reality; i.e., fellow nobodies who must keep faith in a better reality by our own means. In the modern case, the “lowly” condition is due not (only) to rigid class differences but to awareness that one’s soul is being deformed and brutalized in soulless aspiration-denying reality. It is for the sake of my soul alone, for its relief which I can feel, that I take consolation from faith in utopian impossibility.

Just as liberals scratch their heads over resentful working class peoples’ support of the oligarchs whose vicious policies will only increase their wretchedness, radicals of the left cannot fathom why, or for what purpose, a person with a radical political perspective would want religion. That is, the need for the consolation of religion makes no sense whatsoever to people who are not wretched, and therefore don’t need it. The problem this makes is, how can one who isn’t herself wretched work on overturning the very system in which she is not wretched?

To the truly wretched, the “help” – other than meeting basic human needs – that would mean anything can only be a complete overturning – revolution – in social-economic relations as they are. Obviously, there are activists precisely doing this, whom we admire. But so far they are exceptions. For the unexceptional, the opening to activism must be creative, transforming wretched “thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live.” (Nietzsche) Awareness of the true condition lies no further away than the aspirational self. Some people fantasize what would happen if all the cell phones lost connection at once, or if all the Walmarts were blown up (after making sure there were no people inside) or suddenly gas shot up to $100 per gallon. Instead, fantasize that the one in you that aspires to larger, glorious purposes is not delusional, but the real-est realist.


Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: