The art of ‘achieving’ humility
IN PRAISE OF FAILURE: Four Lessons in Humility
Author: Costica Bradatan
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Failure, as Costica Bradatan puts it in his bracing new book, is good for you, but not for the reasons you might think. In Praise of Failure is maddening, disturbing, exasperating, seductive — I found myself turned around at so many points that even as I was closing in on the last chapter I wasn’t quite sure where I would land at the end.
This isn’t because the writing is convoluted; Bradatan, a philosopher, writes with elegance and wit, his every thought and sentence slipping smoothly into the next. But this very ease is what makes In Praise of Failure a wild ride. There you are, taking in what Bradatan is telling you, accepting his introductory promises of “failure-based therapy” and a “journey of self-realisation,” when before you know it you are so startled out of your expectations that you have to ask, What did he just do?
It all starts out innocently enough, with Bradatan saying we need to “take failure seriously.” He extols the virtues of humility while lamenting our “worshiping of success.” This sounds fine, if a bit familiar. There are any number of books that teach the art of “failing forward” and “turning trials into triumph.” The kids of overachieving parents will achieve even more if they’re given “the gift of failure.”
But Bradatan swiftly dismisses those who try to “rebrand” failure as “a stepping stone to success.” They have plucked Samuel Beckett’s line to “fail better” out of its dark context, shearing it off from what follows: “Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.” Against the emollient platitudes of self-help, Bradatan encourages actual, painful humility — what Iris Murdoch called a “selfless respect for reality.”
This, then, is an extreme book — but not an extremist one. It isn’t a manifesto or even a treatise; those revolve around argument, of which Bradatan offers surprisingly little, or little that is stable enough to pin down. In Praise of Failure is mainly structured around storytelling, as Bradatan recounts the lives of people who not only faced down failure but actively invited it.
There is Mahatma Gandhi, the anticolonial leader and radical pacifist, abstaining from clothing, from food, from sex; failure, for him, was a forge: “I can only learn when I stumble and fall and feel the pain.” There is Simone Weil, the brilliant and sickly French philosopher, taking on physically demanding factory jobs, joining the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War and eventually dying at 34 from tuberculosis and self-starvation. The Romanian-born philosopher E M Cioran wholeheartedly supported fascism before wholeheartedly identifying as an idler, a self-described “parasite.” The Japanese writer Yukio Mishima was determined to be a “noble failure” by becoming a militant arch-nationalist and staging his own “beautiful death.”
The work of these thinkers could be invigorating, but they themselves were often unpleasant and downright cruel. Bradatan does not try to redeem them. To the contrary, he draws our attention to everything about them that was disappointing, disgusting and deplorable. “As Hitler was wreaking havoc in Europe, Gandhi proved to be remarkably supportive,” he writes, describing how Gandhi urged the Jews “to pray — for Hitler.” (“If even one Jew acted thus,” Gandhi said, “he would save his self-respect and leave an example which, if it became infectious, would save the whole of Jewry.”) Mishima’s suicide, a meticulously planned seppuku, turned out to be a spectacular mess. “He wanted to will himself into humility,” Bradatan writes, “an act which in itself betrays significant pride, and he thought he could get away with that.”
This turns out to be a running theme — how a strain of perfectionism can doom a pursuit of failure to, well, failure. None of Bradatan’s characters cared much for the kind of democracy in which imperfection would be embraced and contained by institutions. Even Gandhi, in Bradatan’s telling, talked about democracy in spiritual terms: “What he envisioned was not new political institutions, but a transformed humanity.”
But institutions themselves don’t make for political salvation either. Bradatan recounts how ancient Athenians were so committed to democratic rules that public officials were chosen by random lots. Their reasoning was straightforward enough: Elections, which we consider a mainstay of democracy, would have allowed such variables as wealth and charisma to come into play. Yet a fetish for institutions didn’t protect Athenian democracy from mob rule. There were supposedly 501 Athenians on the jury that condemned Socrates to death. According to the political logic of the day, it would have been impossible to corrupt them all; the majority decided he should die, and so their decision was institutionally flawless.
In fact, it’s when something seems “to work” that we are prone to take it for granted. Failure is what seizes our attention, shakes us out of our complacency, makes us alert. I was absorbed by Bradatan’s book even — or especially — when I felt uncomfortable with its implications. Political democracy emerges precarious and even battered, not so much a state of salvation as a constant struggle, whose greatest accomplishment is that it has “occasionally reduced the amount of unnecessary suffering in the world,” as Bradatan puts it.
He makes repeated reference to “achieving humility,” though there’s something fundamentally absurd in the notion that humility, of all things, is something that can be achieved.
But absurdity, along with irony and comedy, is like failure’s shadow.
Once you recognise your own insignificance, “you realise the magnitude of your accomplishment,” Bradatan writes, “and you get the joke.”
©2022 The New York Times News Service