From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").
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“Being”, Emil Cioran wrote in one of his states of depressive pique, is “a pretension of nothingness”. As mortal beings poised between being and nothingness, inextricable from our existence – from our tormented self-consciousness of our existence – is what he aptly calls “the feeling of some essential failure”. Inspired by Cioran’s jabs to the boundless self-centredness of our species, Costica Bradatan wryly observes in In Praise of Failure, his insightful, meandering meditation on failure, that “human existence is something that happens, briefly, between two instantiations of nothingness. Nothing first – dense, impenetrable nothingness. Then a flickering. Then nothing again, endlessly”. Sandwiched between the nothingness before us and the nothingness after, we wait, suspended in the most precarious of interims.
By way of illustration, Bradatan begins with a distressing hypothetical. Imagine yourself in an aircraft, at high altitude, and one of the engines fails. For good measure, the other engine seems set to fail too, and so the pilot readies the plane for an emergency landing (usually a euphemism for smashing into either the sea or the earth at a rate of speed that will crumple the aircraft as easily as if it were a sheet of tin foil). What do you realise in this heart-stopping moment? Nothing less than the apprehension, usually suppressed, of your “next-to-nothingness”: that your life swings upon a hinge that could give out at any moment, as a consequence of doing just about anything, or possibly nothing at all. As with any delicate piece of machinery, the body, a finely-balanced system whose organs require constant maintenance to remain in smooth working order, could break down at any moment: some vital component could malfunction, causing a cascading and eventually total catastrophe. Or it could fall foul of some faulty technological contrivance – a lift, an aeroplane, a bridge – that suddenly fails to function as intended. It might perish due to a preventable accident: any number of mishaps involving ordinary household items could result in our untimely demise, and simply falling over leads to a surprising number of deaths each year. And that’s before you get to the victims of carelessly driven vehicles, climatic disasters, or air pollution.
Coincidentally, I no longer need imagine Bradatan’s scenario, since I experienced an approximation of it on a flight from London to Mexico City earlier this year. One of the two engines on the aircraft failed hours into the flight, and we promptly diverted to Iceland. The other engine trundled along, perfectly capable (as I later learned) of keeping the plane airborne and of landing safely, which, as in Bradatan’s example, it eventually did. But in the moment, I was of course afraid: my existence seemed so tenuous, so fragile, that I could only marvel at how easily we manage to go on each day as though we were to live forever, and at how universal the potential for failure in both ourselves and the things around us truly is. We stand to lose everything, all the time. Bradatan’s book takes this starting point and proceeds to offer a meditation on failure that seeks to show how the apprehension of it can help us live lives of genuine humility. Without this apprehension, he argues, without the acknowledgement that failure attends and defines all lives, life can neither be truly appreciated nor made sense of.
Bradatan describes his book as “Beckettian”, and so it seems only fitting to quote the man himself. Certainly Beckett had a remarkable gift for capturing our “next-to-nothingness”, for portraying history as a plotless outpouring of confounding absurdities. Written in hiding in the early 1940s while the sound of jackboots could be heard marching all over Europe, Watt expresses the traumatised Beckett’s raw perception of not only fascism, but of the senseless and unending madness of human history:
The whacks, the moans, the cracks, the groans, the welts, the squeaks, the belts, the shrieks, the pricks, the prayers, the kicks, the tears, the skelps, and the yelps. And the poor old lousy old earth, my earth and my father’s and my mother’s and my father’s father’s and my mother’s mother’s and my father’s mother’s and my mother’s father’s, and my father’s mother’s father’s and my mother’s father’s mother’s and my father’s mother’s mother’s and my mother’s father’s father’s and my father’s father’s mother’s and my mother’s mother’s father’s and my father’s father’s father’s and my mother’s mother’s mother’s and other people’s fathers’ and mothers’ and fathers’ fathers’ and mothers’ mothers’ and fathers’ mothers’ and mothers’ fathers’ and fathers’ mothers’ fathers’ and mothers’ fathers’ mothers’ and fathers’ mothers’ mothers’ and mothers’ fathers’ fathers’ and fathers’ fathers’ mothers’ and mothers’ mothers’ father’s and fathers’ fathers’ fathers’ and mothers’ mothers’ mothers’. An excrement.
Here the succession of generations constitutes only the pointless extension of history’s purposeless void. Copious lives are sacrificed with cruel caprice, tremendous quantities of food is eaten, a simply incalculable number of words are uttered, and power – cunning and relentless in the hands of charlatans and demagogues – bends people to its will using the most idiotic and meaningless of slogans. Senseless but stirring gibberish motivates the most horrific forms of criminality, while wise and generous words barely muster a round of polite applause. People can become transfixed by the transcendent beauty of Beethoven in the morning and obediently eliminate – shoot, starve, gas, burn, blow-up – their fellow human beings in the afternoon. A portion of the human species live lives of privilege and contentment due to a geographical quirk of fate, their every material need fulfilled; others a few hundred miles away languish in grim poverty and abjection. Some of us become wretched victims of sadistic sociopaths, and still others live happily untouched by violence or suffering. More fortunate individuals live to a ripe old age, while others are struck down in their prime by pestilential pathogens, or simply die in infancy of acute malnutrition.
It is this arbitrariness that appears to have struck Beckett most forcefully: the contemporaneous conjunction of contradictory things; the proximity of incommensurable ideas, actions, beliefs; the tortuous repetition of nonsensical tasks. People find jobs, then they do them (for decades!). People receive bills, then they pay them. People prepare dinners, then they eat them. It’s all very tiring. And think of all that tedious moving about from one point to another. No one captures the hilarious near insanity of it all quite like Beckett:
From the fire to the window, from the window to the door; from the window to the door, from the door to the bed; from the bed to the door, from the door to the window; from the fire to the bed, from the bed to the window; from the window to the bed, from the bed to the fire; from the bed to the fire, from the fire to the door; from the door to the fire, from the fire to the bed; from the door to the window, from the window to the bed; from the bed to…
The most immediate question he prompts is this: what overarching order or intelligibility is there in the arbitrary actions of billions of fallible beings, possessed of incongruent convictions no argument or evidence can shake? If one could cobble together the innumerable atrocities, stupidities, spiritualities, certainties, fantasies, manias, nullities, niceties, ideologies, indignities, and philosophies, what would one have? Merely “a foolish heaping”, as H. G. Wells calls it, with the spectre, hanging over it all, of vainglorious failure. That’s why human history, being what Paul Valéry so appropriately described as “a horrible confusion”, is a sequence of shapeless happenings. Human beings may well be haphazardly informed by the vanities and vagaries of reason, but are nevertheless unable to predict the madly metastasising consequences of their growing technological armature, now globally applied, or adequately anticipate the future ramifications of their own existence. The more strenuous our efforts to act or intervene, the more severe the sense of maddening ambiguity. The more means we create, the lesser our ability to control the ends. If nothing else, history testifies to the human failure to conceive of what we are creating until it is too late.
If nothing else, history testifies to the human failure to conceive of what we are creating until it is too late.
In this sense, failure occurs whenever expectation and reality are unable to synchronise; when cause is disproportionate to effect, or outcome veers off wildly from intention. It is a discordance in our relationship to the world that alerts us to our inadequacy – biological, conceptual, societal – and when there develops an increasing crevasse between human beings and the complexity of the world they have created around them. As Bradatan defines it, failure “is whatever we experience as a disconnection, disruption, or discomfort in the course of our patterned interaction with the world and others, when something ceases to be, or work, or happen as expected”. Broad though it is, his definition captures the notion of failure as involving something deeper than a mere lack of success.
Standardly, we want success because success means status, recognition, reward for effort, admiration for our skills and abilities. We want to be a success because it implies the fulfillment of a moral and economic ideal concerning what a flourishing human being ought to look like. Being a failure, with all the moral disapprobation it entails, implies the very opposite: that some fundamental deficiency of character incurably afflicts us. But discerning who is a success and who is a failure isn’t always a straightforward calculation, because success and the quality of a person’s character often fail to align. Because success is unfairly distributed, there are subtleties in our intuitions about success and failure that complicate their reduction to the mere attainment, or not, of whatever we desire. Boris Johnson, an intellectually feeble narcissist better suited to writing drivel for a national newspaper (his first career), succeeded (made a lot of money, got a lot of status) because he triangulated, charmed, and lied his way to a position of great power. But he also failed, because the attributes that meant he attained power also ensured he wielded it unwisely; which is to say, arrogantly, selfishly, carelessly. His personal success in attaining the position he wanted came at the price of a deeper, moral failure to act in such a way as to be worthy of the success he had attained.
Discerning who is a success and who is a failure isn’t always a straightforward calculation.
Commonly, we think of failure and success as existing relative to clear standards: you land that job or you don’t; you finish the marathon or you don’t; you pass your exam or you don’t. We are induced to judge others harshly when we perceive them to fall short of success – the “loser” in its most pejorative sense, as Bradatan remarks, proves particularly useful as a social archetype against which the putatively successful can measure their riches (which are usually assumed to be just rewards for hard work and effort). He draws a useful parallel between the “patterns of thinking” of the early Calvinists and “we late capitalists”:
Today’s successful relate themselves to the losers of the social and economic game not very differently from how the communities of chosen believers treated the reprobates in their midst. The same assumption of damnation defines both cases: it’s who you are, and not what you do or say or think, that seals your fate. The pattern exhibits several features: a primary need for differentiation, a good measure of self-righteousness, an obsession with purity and a fear of contagion, a compulsion to exclude, a great anxiety over personal salvation. Most important, in both cases there is the same postulation, through an act of societal fiat, of a group of people as ‘bad’ human material, something the others single out and ostracize.
The persistence of such attitudes show we are imperfect creatures mired in nasty assumptions, wading through the detritus of other people’s bad moral intuitions and ludicrous economic experiments, coming up with ever new ways to sort and distinguish people so as to better praise or condemn them: the good from the bad, the ugly from the beautiful, the saved from the damned, the workers from the shirkers. But this is only attained at the expense of other people who are recognised in relation to what they are not: who are measured against all the things they should have done, but didn’t; the sort of person they ought to be, but aren’t.
Unfortunately, due to this attribution of qualities that mark people out as deserving or undeserving, we are prone to mistakenly ascribing failure to ourselves and others in irrational ways, in ways which attribute responsibility unreasonably. We do this because we forget the fact that much of what we are able to do or accomplish in life is to some extent contingent on factors beyond our control. Much depends on the parents to whom we are born (in particular their wealth), the whims and biases of other people, inherited cultural norms and social conventions (many of which exclude “difficult”, cantankerous, or oppositional personalities unable to masquerade as diligent professionals), the extremely large number of competing individuals attempting to attain a finite number of coveted positions in any given institutional hierarchy, and so on. These nuances suggest that the inability to attain an ideal or standard should not necessarily be confused with a personal failure to do so (that is, a failure of character), if the attribution of failure in such cases is made conditional upon having the power to succeed. If I do all in my power to attain a standard or achieve a goal, and yet fall short regardless, to what extent should this failure be said to belong to me alone? Our instinct might be to reserve the idea of failure in this sense for specific cases in which we could have succeeded, but didn’t, because our attitude, preparation, or effort was inadequate to what success required. But this too is an unforgiving venture as it frames success and failure as a matter of better conforming our mental states, and even our entire personalities, to suit the insatiable demands of capitalism.
If I do all in my power to attain a standard or achieve a goal, and yet fall short regardless, to what extent should this failure be said to belong to me alone?
Failure – the experience, perception, and constant anticipation of it – shadows human lives not only because we are creatures of limited power who sit in perpetual judgement upon ourselves and others, but also because of the kind of world we inhabit. We live in a world focused unrelentingly, punishingly, on the achievement of goals, on the fulfillment of promise, on constant action in pursuit of what we desire. Yet at the same time, this is a world in which a vast number of ideals, goals, and possibilities seem open to us, if we would only, or could only, seize them; and we are simultaneously constantly aware, through digital media, of what others do, the choices they make, the dreams they realise. Success is a spiteful, perpetually dissatisfied master: no sooner have we accomplished something than we’re reminded that we haven’t really accomplished much at all, in comparison to what could be accomplished if we only possessed the time or the opportunity, the determination or the connections, the money or the luck. As constantly striving, or at least desiring, beings, who are at the same time mortal (and so unable to attain all we desire), self-critical (and so unable to remain content), and constantly comparing (and thus fall short of the standards others set), we appear doomed to a constant cycle of discontent.
As Bradatan describes it:
Our unquenchable thirst for social success, our obsession with rankings and ratings, our compulsion to make ever more money only to be able to spend more will bankrupt us in the end – morally, spiritually, and even materially. Outwardly, we may look successful, prosperous, and happy, but we are empty inside. Walking shells. Our lives are as glamorous as they are hollow. We are seriously sick, and we are in bad need of a cure.
What, then, is the “cure” that Bradatan prescribes? Basically, it is to do nothing: to “stand still, and have a good look at ourselves” in order to “see our condition in a more truthful light”. Quite how making out “the deadly emptiness we carry within” will lead to our “recovery”, however, is a mystery to me. This seems to place the burden squarely on the individual to recover from the ill-effects of a socio-economic mania for success by definition beyond any person’s ability to redress. It sounds like a recipe for not only humility, but humiliation. Likewise, the injunction to contemplate one’s failure, to dwell ‘on the nothingness of things’ and upon our ‘inevitable return into the void’ could well provide ‘a more accurate picture of existence’, but we might quibble with the assumption that such contemplation is necessarily ‘enriching’. To the exploited, to the poverty-stricken, to the despairing, to those without hope, how therapeutic would such contemplation be? It would encapsulate their existence as fundamentally irredeemable: the source of their ‘failure’ would be traced back, again and again, to themselves – that is, to a self inadequately engineered to succeed, forever found to be in both material and moral deficit.
Certainly anyone can read with interest about the lives of Weil, Cioran, and Gandhi – Bradatan’s examples of notable ‘failures’ – but if you can’t afford to heat your home or feed yourself, or your livelihood has been destroyed by drought or flooding, the inspiration (Weil’s tenacity notwithstanding) they can offer you is somewhat limited. But in fairness, Bradatan isn’t writing for the poor and the unfortunate, for whom the prescription to cure themselves by contemplating how sick they are would rightly appear nonsensical. He has in his sights the entitled, the self-centred, the self-satisfied. Those who think they sit at the centre of the world and who treat it as a service station designed to satiate their every desire. Those who would rather forget that we are weak, that we are faulty, that we do err, and that these things are part of what it means to be human; things without which, as he points out, there would be no success at all. For it is the ever-present reality of failure which prompts us to strive for something better. And for those people, it’s hard to deny that a dose of existential insight might sober them to the Beckettian reality all around them. A reality from which, at the end of the day, neither their money nor their accomplishments can rescue them.
One of the best expressions of failure as a kind of distance or disparity between ourselves and the world around us appears in Philip Larkin’s poem To Failure, in which he addresses it as a sullen companion, a persistent shadow he cannot shake off:
You do not come dramatically, with dragons
That rear up with my life between their paws
And dash me butchered down beside the wagons,
The horses panicking; nor as a clause
Clearly set out to warn what can be lost,
What out-of-pocket charges must be borne,
Expenses met; nor as a draughty ghost
That’s seen, some mornings, running down a lawn.
It is these sunless afternoons, I find,
Install you at my elbow like a bore.
The chestnut trees are caked with silence. I’m
Aware the days pass quicker than before,
Smell staler too. And once they fall behind
They look like ruin. You have been here some time.
As disconnection, as dissociation between mind and world, thought and being, failure provokes a sense of irrevocable error; a certain staleness that lingers as each day falls into irreparable ruin. Larkin’s point is that failure, or inadequacy, is so tightly bound up with the kinds of beings we are – agitated, impatient, constantly critical of both ourselves and others – that we cannot hope to escape it. He intimates that we can only ever become, at best, more perfect failures: failures who finally understand the failures they are.
We can only ever become, at best, more perfect failures: failures who finally understand the failures they are.
As so often, it is literary fiction, not philosophy, that best elucidates this understanding. Fiction exposes our “vertical sufferings”, as Cioran puts it; it illuminates what Borges calls “the pathos of our lives” in order to reveal “our humiliating truth”. Examples abound. Tommy, Saul Bellow’s protagonist in Seize the Day, is a portrayal of a consummate “loser” squeezed in the vice of failure, his life having fallen to pieces: a failed actor, a failed husband, a failed son. Living in the United States, he feels particularly guilty about his failure to have enough money. That’s because in Tommy’s world, as in our own, a capacity to accrue wealth implies a more perfect alignment between self and society, whereas a failure to do so suggests a fundamental cleavage between them. The tendency is to then locate the source of this failure in the insufficient effort of the (now maligned) individual to conform to what society demands. Then there’s Stevens the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, a model of subservience and self-sacrifice who has spent decades honing his role to the point of complete immersion. Finally realising he has given it all he has to the exclusion of everything else, he grasps the futility of his life-long service to his aristocratic employer, and in so doing comprehends his failure to fashion a meaningful life of his own. Stevens’ failure is not one of effort per se, but of effort expended in the furtherance of a dehumanising ideal. His error, or “mistake”, as he puts it towards the end of the book, and which he is subsequently unable to rectify, is one of misplaced priorities.
The spectre of failure also haunts the life of Thomas Buddenbrook in Thomas Mann’s novel of familial decline. His many business losses and setbacks, the dwindling fortunes of his family members, only deepens his awareness of the discrepancies between the great achievements and wealth built up by his forebears in the past and their gradual erosion over the decades. His grand mansion, which he had built to fruitlessly recuperate the grandeur of former generations, falls into decay. Before his banal death following a visit to an incompetent dentist, finally undone by a rotten tooth, he allows himself to hope that, through the efforts of his sickly son, Johann (Hanno), “perhaps, some day, it would be granted to him to look back upon his past from a quiet corner and watch the renascence of the old time, the time of Hanno’s great-grandfather!” This hope proves futile. Whatever riches the glories of the old time yielded, have already been spent. Without the prospect of future achievement to forestall the silent creep of failure, existence becomes a dead and insufferable weight.
William Stoner, too, in John Williams’ moving portrayal of the passing triumphs and mediocrities of an ordinary life, reflects on his death-bed upon his inability to fulfill certain hopes he had once entertained:
Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly […] He had wanted the singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that, too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and he had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality […] And he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance.
Human lives are, as these examples suggest, chronicles of unrealised longings, stifled dreams, unmateralised hopes: the disrepair caused by the passage of time and the inability to comprehensively determine our individual fate becoming etched upon us over the passing years. As Stevens realises, however hard we try, we never know enough to ward off our propensity for failure; we can never be certain of the consequences of choosing one path over another:
But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such a moment turned out differently? […] while it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points’, one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.
That the smallest incident can result in the most profound consequence, or none at all, that past action or inaction can foreclose on future possibilities in a way we may only belatedly realise, deepens the sense of distance between ourselves and the world. We never know what calamity or ecstasy might follow from the need to decide what we shall do, and this inability to gird ourselves against failure defines our existence as finite beings of limited powers and restricted possibilities. We cannot engineer the conditions of our lives in such a way as to know precisely what will happen next, or so that our every wish will be finally fulfilled. So it is better not to dwell upon such things, Stevens muses; better to move forward and forget than allow the hurt of irretrievable opportunities and the lack of time left to repair mistakes to further crush us beneath their weight.
Because literary fiction is composed within, and draws upon, the extra-fictional world, its portrayals of human beings of the sort offered above provide unusually powerful insights into the many kinds of beings we are, and of the many kinds of failure we might experience. Failure shadows fictional lives just as it does real ones. To fail, such fictional lives tell us, is to fall short, to be torn away from the world in some respect – and falling short, failing to “measure up” to an ideal or given standard, or departing from some harmonious alignment between desire and outcome, intention and effect, is what a finite organism is ultimately destined to do. And there are few better examples of this than through the reality of what Bradatan calls our “biological failure”.