We are entering that portion of the semester when things are insanely busy and I am buried in both class prep and grading and grading and grading and in all my wisdom, I decided to have a departmental seminar on a paper that perhaps I shouldn’t be writing. So this bit from the Guardian chatting with writers on failure seems to be pretty apt to me, as I grapple with thinking about myself now as a bit of a middle-aged failure.
“Success in old age, when things have stopped really mattering, has a frivolous sort of charm unlike anything one experiences in middle age. It feels like a deliciously surprising treat. Perhaps as one advances into second childhood one recovers something of first childhood’s appetite for treats. Whatever the nature of the feeling, it allows me to state that it is possible to recover from failure: to digest it, make use of it and forget it. Which is something to remember if you happen to be experiencing it.”
But such adolescent slippages come within the normal range. Something more epic, perhaps? A failed novel? Much time expended, many floor-pacings and scribblings, nothing achieved; or, as they say in Newfoundland, a wet arse and no fish caught.
There have been several of those.
I went to the funeral. Some of his early, highly skilled poems were read out, and I was saddened again by the subsequent offence against his talent. Then others spoke. Finally, his son and daughter addressed the small gathering. They had turned out well; both were charming and intelligent. They spoke with proper roundedness and affection for their father; the daughter described how he had coached her to get into Cambridge, how patient and helpful he had been. It was very touching. And I had been wrong, or had only partly understood. As I left the crematorium for the wake, I was saying to myself – and to him – “No, you didn’t fuck up after all.”
“If you keep going and stay on the right side of all this, you can be offered honours and awards, you can be recognised in the street, you can be recognised in the streets of several countries, some of which do not have English as a native language. You can get some grumpy fucker to say that your work is not just successful but important, or several grumpy fuckers, and they can say this before you are quite dead. And all this can happen, by the way, whether or not your work is actually good, or still good. Success may be material but is also an emotion – one that is felt, not by you, but by the crowd. This is why we yearn for it, and can not have it, quite. It is not ours to hold.”
Success for him didn’t mean making money or excelling at anything in particular – it simply meant being at home in the world and fearing nothing. So it wasn’t because he wanted me to be a footballer or a cricketer that he objected to the notes my mother wrote every Wednesday, requesting I be excused from games. He would just have liked me to be everybody’s friend, the way he was. And I failed him. I failed my mother too by taking far too precocious an interest in sex. And I failed myself by not knowing how to get any.
“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.”
“Yet most people fail. In the big picture, few of our careers live up to the dreams we nursed when we were young. In fact, one underside of success is that it’s nearly always penultimate, and so every accomplishment merely raises the bar. Each new success conjures new standards we can’t meet, thereby inventing ingenious new ways to fail.”