I remember a couple of years ago someone protesting against something we had written, suggesting that “not everything in life can be boiled down to man’s struggle with success or failure.” While one could certainly see where such a rejoinder might come from–Lord knows we are no less immune to projecting a comfortable schema on the world than anyone else–my internal response, which I’m glad I didn’t let slip at the time, was a clear, “Um, yes, it can.” After all, the question is never if you’ll use an ideological filter to interpret and reduce your experiences, but which one and does it ultimately jive with reality. And while all those terms are obviously up for grabs, still, to understand guilt and love and death as being the chief subjects in life (and, not coincidentally, Christianity) does not strike me as particularly far-fetched. Anyway, along these lines, The Guardian asked seven prominent writers to comment on Failure, and a few of their reflections were too wise and relevant not to post here. First, there’s Julian Barnes’ brilliant paragraph, which is bound to become a new go-to distillation on the subject, ht MS:
When I was growing up, failure presented itself as something clear and public: you failed an exam, you failed to clear the high-jump bar. And in the grown-up world, it was the same: marriages failed, your football team failed to gain promotion from what was then the Third Division (South). Later, I realised that failure could also be private and hidden: there was emotional, moral, sexual failure; the failure to understand another person, to make friends, to say what you meant. But even in these new areas, the binary system applied: win or lose, pass or fail. It took me a long time to understand the nuances of success and failure, to see how they are often intertwined, how success to one person is failure to another.
And then there’s Will Self’s brazen yet surprisingly hopeful declaration about what creative (and dare I say spiritual) freedom looks like. Sounds like he and Kanye have been consulting:
A creative life cannot be sustained by approval, any more than it can be destroyed by criticism – you learn this as you go on. People say my writing is dreadful, pretentious, self-seeking [malarky] – they say it a lot. Other people say my writing is brilliant, beautifully crafted and freighted with the most sublime meaning. The criticism, no matter how virulent, has long since ceased to bother me, but the price of this is that the praise is equally meaningless. The positive and the negative are not so much self-cancelling as drowned out by that carping, hectoring internal voice that goads me on and slaps me down all day every day…
This is the paradox for me: in failure alone is there any possibility of success. I don’t think I’m alone in this – nor do I think it’s an attitude that only prevails among people whose work is obviously “creative”. On the contrary, it often occurs to me that since what successes I do manage are both experienced and felt entirely in solitude, there must be many others who are the same as me: people for whom life is a process to be experienced, not an object to be coveted. There may be, as Bob Dylan says, no success like failure, but far from failure being no success at all, in its very visceral intensity, it is perhaps the only success there is.