Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
— Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho
I’ve been thinking about failure all month, ever since I wrote about it in the context of the life and work of Delmore Schwartz. December is an annual invitation to celebrate failure, particularly these days right before the New Year, as we wade through the shallows of one year and up onto the shore of the uncharted next. I’m far from the only one to turn failure on its head these days — in fact, it’s become almost a cliché to embrace failure; read Ned Beauman’s piece that appeared a few years ago in The New Inquiry for a hilarious take on the business and self-help world’s commodification of Samuel Beckett’s dictum to “fail better” (“Fail Worse”):
Watching a liturgy from such a gloomy and merciless author getting repurposed to cheer up mid-level executives is like watching a neighbour clear out their gutters with a stick they found in the garden, not realizing the stick is in fact a human shinbone. When Beckett talks about failure, he’s often talking about how language can’t withstand the weight of the meaning you want to put into it, and in that sense his unintended ubiquity is ideal: What better argument for the feebleness of determinate meaning than the tawdry afterlife of “fail better”?
A real failure does not need an excuse. It is an end in itself.
— Gertrude Stein, Four in America
This past year, Columbia University neuroscience professor Stuart Firestein took inspiration from Gertrude Stein in writing his new book Failure: Why Science Is So Successful (Oxford UP, 2015). A few weeks ago, NPR’s “Science Friday” aired a conversation with Firestein, along with an excerpt from his book, which opens with Stein’s quote:
Stein seems to be complaining about the common response to a failure—which is apology. Failure as mistake, unintended or unavoidable or because of some shortcoming that you are responsible for. Failure as the result of stupidity and naiveté that requires excuses and apologies. Why did you let that fail? Can’t you do any better than that? Or, perhaps less antagonistic but no less disappointing, failure as inevitable. Well, that wasn’t likely going to work. What did you expect? What a stupid thing to have even tried. And so forth. Stein, in that first simple sentence, identifies all these bad failures, useless failure, failures that demean failure.
Instead, how about failure that stems not from ineptitude, inattention, or incapacity. (True, even those occasionally turn out to reveal something unexpected and sometimes wonderful. But I wouldn’t depend on them. Sloppy indifference can get you only so far.) A real failure is different from all those that need or are accompanied by an excuse—because it needs no excuse.
So what are good failures? Ones that need no excuse and are an end in themselves? Not really an end in the typical sense—that is, not an end where you give up trying anything else. Rather an end in the sense of something new and valuable. Something to be proud of and therefore requiring no excuse, even if it was “wrong.”
Are there really such failures? Of course there are the mistakes we learn from, the errors that can be corrected, the failures that can be turned to success. But I’d like to take a chance here and venture that Stein meant something deeper than that. That she really meant meaningful failure. In the limit, this could mean that you might produce nothing but meaningful failures for your entire life and still be counted a success. Or at least never need to apologize. Is that really possible? What are these magical failures?
Earlier this month, poet Lauren Camp read “Failing and Flying” by Jack Gilbert for The Sundress Blog as part of “Lyric Essentials,” a series in which “writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is ‘essential’ to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer.” Here’s Gilbert’s poem “Failing and Flying” in its entirety:
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
Of the 25-line poem, Camp says, “To my mind, the poem has 25 critical lines. Take any one out, and the poem lacks a center and confirmation of its purpose.” Though the whole poem is, as the title says, about “failing and flying,” Camp turns from the subject matter and themes to the actual word-by-word construction of the poem, the wood and glue that lets us fly (for a while). Here, the potential dead wood of an “inconsequential” word blossoms for Camp:
Lately, I’ve been contemplating the adverb “just.” The editor in me wants to take it out of my work, but Gilbert proves, as I’ve been re-discovering, that sometimes seemingly inconsequential words hold power. “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph.” Including that adverb softens the fall. In this instance, “just” means “simply, only, no more than.” It is not full failure, but the result of taking the journey.
Earlier this month, Tin House‘s “The Open Bar” released “Instead of Sobbing, You Write Sentences: An Interview with Charles D’Ambrosio.” Part of this conversation between D’Ambrosio and Leslie Jamison first appeared in the The New Yorker on November 26, 2014. In thinking about writing the personal essay, D’Ambrosio says:
I can’t imagine absenting myself from the story. It’s not possible, so I don’t waste my time. I’m there, I’m witnessing, I’m thinking, I’m struggling to understand, I’m making connections or failing to make connections, I’m excited by errors that then, somehow, usher in a little truth, and so on and on, and all of that influences, distorts, and colors the material. The story doesn’t exist separate from that encounter, that collision, and I inevitably bring to it all the corruptions that come with contact.
Later in the interview, he says:
The essay isn’t a form for know-it-alls, though it’s often used that way . . . Mostly I try to write about what I don’t know, which is so vast . . . Sometimes I’m just surprised to learn that I think what I think. It’s kind of an article of faith for me that if you aren’t taken by surprise in the process of putting words on paper then you’re only writing about what you already know, you’re trucking in conclusions. I need a crisis, I’m courting failure, the possibility of silence, because it’s only at that moment that I actually need to find words, new words hopefully. This is a writing thing, a method, however harebrained, but it’s also personal, a way of being—and they’re related, I think.
Somehow, all of this drops me off at the door of James Wright’s not-read-enough prose poem “Honey.” Enjoy:
My father died at the age of eighty. One of the last things he did in his life was to call his fifty-eight-year-old son-in-law “honey.” One afternoon in the early 1930’s, when I bloodied my head by pitching over a wall at the bottom of a hill and believed that the mere sight of my own blood was the tragic meaning of life, I heard my father offer to murder his future son-in-law. His son-in-law is my brother-in-law, whose name is Paul. These two grown men rose above me and knew that a human life is murder. They weren’t fighting about Paul’s love for my sister. They were fighting with each other because one strong man, a factory worker, was laid off from his work, and the other strong man, the driver of a coal truck, was laid off from his work. They were both determined to live their lives, and so they glared at each other and said they were going to live, come hell or high water. High water is not trite in southern Ohio. Nothing is trite along a river. My father died a good death. To die a good death means to live one’s life. I don’t say a good life.
I say a life.