We Are Failure
And a few other things
[Eugène Delaplanche, Eve après le péché/Eve after the sin, Musée d’Orsay]
At year’s end, I try (only occasionally successfully, usually giving up after a few days’ or at most a week’s effort) to winnow through magazines and journals collected over the course of the year that I have been unable to read as thoroughly as I’d have liked.
In the midst of that task, I find Karl Keating has a lovely and affirming piece in a summer issue of the New Oxford Review on failure that has me thinking intensely about my own life and my own failures, which accrue daily.
Between starting this and now, I’ve somehow already managed to misplace the NOR issue with Keating’s piece in it, so cannot directly quote from it (and it’s unfortunately paywalled in the link above), but the spirit is that failure is not only inevitable. It is the very fabric of what it is to be human. We are not made for anything else in this world. Try something; you will fail. Work at it hard enough, and you will improve (and this is not negligible!), but it’s essential to remember that any improvements will eventually melt away with a bit of time, as the days of your life grow ever shorter and your strength, your intelligence, your will decrease accordingly. The world, in short, is too much for us. We are not its masters, however fervently some people apparently believe that to be so. We are not even our own masters, as our capacity to vigorously fail despite our intricate plans to do other things instead demonstrates.
And yet Keating’s message is affirmative. We must endeavor to learn not how to fail (we hardly need to be instructed in how to achieve something we naturally do, all the time!) but how to use our constant failure to properly understand ourselves and the meaning of our lives. Full acceptance of failure requires a view of self that begins and ends with profound humility. The greatest height a human can achieve is the level at which, even when he stands atop some human hierarchy or other, or wins some medal, or makes so much money, or wields a certain quantity of power, status, and prestige, he sees himself in proper perspective: as yet another poor soul whom death is mercilessly stalking. How could anyone with that vision have even a spare moment for thinking or expressing sentiments of superiority over others?
The humility, note well, works several ways. It should be a barrier not only to the feeling of superiority over those “below,” but also to the feeling of inferiority before those “above.” The one who properly inhabits failure addresses all his fellows in the same tones, as fellow travelers on a ship headed to the bottom of the sea. What those fellow doomed voyagers should receive is compassion and love, which attitudes will inevitably lead one also to endeavor to hold and share the faith that the shipwreck which cannot be prevented is still not unbearable because it is not the final act in the human drama.
Humility before the inescapability of failure does not of course mean leveling of all effort. Those who have hopelessly given up on the pursuit of an unachievably perfect model have failed more seriously than those who diligently and faithfully continue the work even with this knowledge, and those who not only give up but then bitterly turn to denouncing those who do not and the beliefs that drive them are still greater failures.
Compare this to the academic philosopher’s view of how to think about failure, which winds up inevitably as an embrace of nihilism. Note the pomposity with which the philosophy professor (yes, I am just about incapable of using that term without a sneer—there are philosophers, and then there are philosophy professors, and some rare quantity of beings are both, but in most cases the two animals could not be more different) dismisses those who would see failure as Keating does, that is, as something to be “praise[d]” insofar as it teaches us essential lessons about who we are and to what we ought direct our attention. These fools have not yet reached the proper point of despair and pessimism, preferring the “snippet” of Samuel Beckett on “fail[ing] better” instead of embracing Beckett’s fuller statement here: “Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.”
It’s the intolerable academic cynic, taking as a statement of his merit that he is prepared to shovel manure over every ideal and hope rather than recognizing this love of desecrating as a sign of the sickness unto death. Those who would take the black nothingness of Beckett’s moral outlook as worthy of emulation shouldn’t stop with “throw up for good.” They must adapt too the odiously misanthropic things he thought about not only his own life’s meaninglessness, but also the string of zeroes he saw when he looked at other human beings. Somewhere, he avowed that he could not stand looking at children because he saw only the tragedy of ruin and death in their futures. He lived this philosophy, dying childless and noting that his only real regret was being born.
A culture with such a perspective as this, our philosophy professor’s, would be extinct in short order. Keating’s view, on the other hand, is undergirded by a symbolic system that might preserve a people if only they could be bothered to shake themselves from their narcissistic somnambulism and get serious about things.
A brilliant statement on the leveling of artistic work in contemporary America by Anthony Esolen in a recent Touchstone. Paywalled, but you can at least see for free his wonderful intro paragraph on the frivolous embrace by cultural elites of sophomoric Woke poems that should have stayed on the post-it note on which they were scribbled in five minutes.
More on failure, from my journal of March 1999, reflecting on how poorly I felt about the work of my thesis while it was being done, and how eager I was then to avoid the professional life that is now mine. This former me is too sharp-edged to follow all the way, but I do like to go back to him to humble the self I now inhabit.
“I feel sometimes like my life is disappearing so quickly and, instead of doing something while I can, I'm sitting here on my ass working on a pathetic dissertation which means nothing, wasting the precious few moments I've got left to me. Must get this loathsome thing done as quickly as possible, get it behind me, and never think about it again.
More and more, the tiny little bit of a real life I might have had has completely disappeared. I now do nothing except get up, eat something, then sit down in front of the computer. If nothing else, this period has taught me that I do not want to do this the rest of my life. I simply will not face a life like this--never leaving the house, feeling constantly pressured and fearful over the writing to be done, ashamed of every moment spent doing or thinking of anything else, all this and still feeling unhappy and dissatisfied with the quality of the work.
This is the great lesson of this thesis--the lesson that I do not want to live my life in such a way as is necessary to produce a lot of written work. I will not enslave myself to anything in this way, at least not to something which so poorly rewards the sacrifice. When this is finished, no more. I'll write no books, at least no books like this, scholarly bullshit reinforced with endless footnotes and labored prose which serve solely to defend oneself from the five pedantic readers the text will have. I only want to end this and to rejoin the world in whatever paltry capacity is available to me….”
Beautiful piece by the late Roger Scruton on mourning in recent First Things (rejoice, it is not paywalled!).
Something profound in Crisis (also readable without a subscription)—perhaps the last published work by its author—on the recently deceased Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s worldview. In brief, our age as the attempt to move Christian eschatology into politics, with predictably disastrous results.
And, incidentally, should you need any evidence as to how much the MSM hated Benedict, here’s CNN loathsomely inserting an attack on him from the perspective of its left sexual politics into the Pope Emeritus’s call for forgiveness in his spiritual testament.
In Touchstone early last year, Clara Sarrocco wrote the following: “One day many years ago, in a moment of adolescent hubris, I said to my mother, “Why is such a fuss made over burying the dead? After I am dead, I don’t care what happens to my body.” After a pause, she responded, “I had to sweat blood to bring you into the world, and that is what you think of it.” My mother knew the corporal works of mercy.”
One of the first academic book reviews I ever wrote was on a book about cremation. I struggled mightily to keep my visceral feeling about the practice out of the account, with limited success. Cremation has always seemed an outrageously callous, contemptuous form of treatment of the dead to me.
I have assured everyone close to me that if they allow the authorities (at some point, I imagine, cremation will become a mandatory “ecologically-friendly” practice in the West) to burn my body up like a pile of old clothing, I will certainly be back to haunt everyone involved.
From the 1999 journal: “Saw Fellini's Amarcord tonight. Hilarious scene in which students in class construct a tube from paper so that someone in back of room can urinate down it into the front row and the puddle magically appears beside the teacher, who is tutoring someone at the blackboard and thinks it’s that student who’s pissed himself in fear! An uproariously funny family fight around the dinner table in which both mother and father get so angry they're slapping themselves and swearing to kill everyone in the family. There's also an insane uncle who's locked away in an asylum--they go to get him for a ride in the country every month or so, and on one such occasion he climbs a tree and won't come down, shouting "I want a woman!" and throwing rocks at those who attempt to climb up to collect him.”
Two moving poems I ran into during the year-end high-speed journal reading session, one in First Things, one in Chronicles. As with my reading in other genres, the only poetry that really interests me is that which deals with The One Problem:
Adam Rich was a child TV star on a program, Eight is Enough, that was big when I was a kid. He just died in his mid-50s, a long history of drug abuse and related crime behind him.
Is there a single example of the individual who comes to Hollywood early in life and gets out sane and sound? Someone must be writing or must already have written an updated Hollywood Babylon that doesn’t need to resort to Kenneth Anger’s exaggeration and fictional creativity. The place is about as close as one gets to a recipe for how to destroy a human life.
Something by Henri Dutilleux, whose music I do not know very well at all, that I first heard in the concert hall 25 years or so ago, just reminded of it by a note in my journal from the time. As title indicates, inspired by Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.
I am not much enamored of Van Gogh or of this particular painting, but I enjoyed this effort to sonically capture those swirling spaces and colors.
Two universal rules about how hierarchy works in human societies:
1) Everyone (or nearly so) tries to move up whenever they can, as high as they can, and;
2) Everyone (or nearly so) pretends they’re not trying to do that and claims to be in a position much lower on the ladder than they actually are, and frequently they lie about these things so well that they even half-fool themselves into believing it’s the truth.
In American society, when you ask people what social class they are in, more than 7 in 10 of us say “the middle class.” Some of this is certainly ignorance of what the socioeconomic demography actually looks like. Survey data indicate that few of us who don’t study the phenomenon for a living are even remotely aware of e.g., how much yearly income you need to be in the upper class. But a good deal of what’s going on is systematic deception of others and self about our deep desire to be above others.
When we are at the top of status hierarchies, we tend to believe they are just, even if we sometimes pretend otherwise in order to avoid attracting too much critical attention. When we are not at the top of status hierarchies, boy, do we think they are unfair. Almost no one in contemporary America can be found who both a) inhabits a lower position on the hierarchy and b) believes the populating of the hierarchy is done in a just manner.
Thesis: A society with no cultural plan to make hierarchy seem at least relatively acceptable to those who are not at the top—and especially to those at or near the bottom—is unsustainable long term. Eventually, the whole thing has to fall apart.
I sometimes give students this bit of research on capuchin monkeys and inequality to show them not only that concern for hierarchy preexists our species, but also to show how our own entrapment in hierarchies informs how we understand data like these.
In both the account of the research given here and almost all the popular media and scholarly write-ups of it, it is spun according to an “all inequality is obviously bad, full stop.” What is almost never noted is that capuchins think about inequality and the injustice of reward systems just about as we do: it’s only cucumber-receiving monkey who is upset. Grape-receiving monkey is not in the least troubled by the unfairness of the system that put him on top. Maybe if he could speak or write a book about his feelings, he’d learn to prevaricate about them as expertly as we so often do.
Update from Lee Jussim on the insane situation of an entire psychology journal melting down because of a Woke mob demanding heads.
I have not been a member of my discipline’s national professional organization for more than a decade now and I cannot see myself ever paying any attention to anything they do again. I haven’t looked at any of their journals in years, as they are nearly all thoroughly infected by the Woke cancer. I would not dream of attending their conferences or in any way giving any indication that I took them intellectually seriously.
Of course I have no illusions that they miss my presence, but I sometimes wonder how many others there are like me—scholars trained and pedigreed in a discipline who have been forced by intellectual integrity to excommunicate themselves fully from the professional church.
Something in an issue of Academic Questions I was going through (and by the way if you want to understand what’s happening in higher ed and don’t read this source already, you are cheating yourself) puts the matter as perfectly as it can be put. Michael Wesley Suman cites Thomas Sowell with commentary: “In the essay “Behind ‘Publish or Perish’” Sowell noted that “It is hard to imagine how the world would be any worse off, on net balance, if the entire output of the sociology profession over the past fifty years had never been published.” Again, this cuts too close to home as I am a sociologist, but I had to admit to myself “By Jove, he’s right!” His point still rings true today more than twenty years after it was written.”
Thomas Merton: “The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!”
This, based on something I wrote here a while back, just up last week at Intellectual Takeout.
More from the 1999 future constituent part of my Nachlass: “What I realize more and more is that the intellectual, in Péguy's and Maurras' pejorative sense, is hateful in precisely the sense that he desires to understand all the possible positions for living without ever having the courage to actually live any one of them. He wants a vampiric knowledge of them while cynically sitting outside in his lecture hall and judging them without knowing anything at all about them because he's never been committed to any of them--or to anything at all, for that matter.”
What would Nietzsche, that most serious of spirits, have made of all the ironic post-modernists who flee sincerity and seriousness while slavishly shouting his name?
One last note from the ‘99 journal: “Pathetically bad Jane Fonda performance in Roger Vadim (her hubby at the time) segment of Histoires Extraordinaires, speaking a comically awful French and acting with all the subtlety of a book of poems written by an NFL linebacker. It's late ‘60s, so she is breathtakingly gorgeous, but what a lack of artistic talent. Her brother Peter however speaks French reasonably well, and is actually an actor too.”
I note that de Waal claims, in a segment of the Ted talk not in the link above, that some of these experiments in his lab with capuchins demonstrated grape-receiving monkeys who would give back their grapes when they saw that the other monkey was not receiving one.
I would have to see this to believe it, frankly. And I find it…interesting that de Waal claims such evidence exists and yet chose the video excerpt he did. Why wouldn’t you get video evidence of this in order to show doubting Thomases like yours truly that it’s true?
The colleague with whom he did this research, Sarah Brosnan, has her own Ted talk on this same topic and curiously also fails to give any evidence of the existence of this top-down moral solidarity phenomenon in capuchins. I suspect what we have here is secularist left-leaning scientists who are trying to push their own druthers—the existence of true concern for those below us, backed up by moral action, without a moral belief system (i.e., a religion) advocating for it—well beyond the data.