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A Fetish for Failure

Eva Kenny

In midsummer 2016, as I drew ever closer to finishing a long doctoral dissertation on Samuel Beckett, I described to a friend’s boyfriend my alarm at the trend towards portraying a popular, uplifting Beckett that I kept reading about in the New York Times weekend supplement. I was worried I would have to change my topic. The lines that appeared again and again, everywhere, as if in a nightmare, are: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Taken from the first page of Beckett’s late prose work Worstward Ho, the phrase was, for a while, Silicon Valley’s mantra, along with “Move fast and break things.” Richard Branson, Tim Ferriss, John C Maxwell and other entrepreneurs have cited it as inspiration and, despite the wealth of competing options from the same text ‑ “Till then gnaw on. All gnaw on. To be gone” for instance ‑ it is tattooed across the forearm of Swiss tennis player Stan Wawrinka. Within this corporate logic, the fashion for failure, particularly for failing forwards or upfailing is “an essential stage in the individual’s progress toward lucrative self-fulfillment”, as Mark O’Connell put it in one of the many think-pieces that responded to the craze. To “fail better” means to take risks, accept imperfection and get up again after every knockback or rejection. It means, really, to try again and to keep going, despite persistent discouragement. “So your job, as a grad student,” this boyfriend quipped mercilessly, “is to make Beckett gloomy and depressing again.” He was right, and that is exactly what I will now try to do.

Worstward Ho, as The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett reminds us, is where Beckett’s “aesthetics of failure coalesce into pursuit of the worst. If language by definition fails, paring it down to the ‘meremost minimum’ may result in better failures, as in SB’s working title, ‘Better worse’. The starting point was King Lear, most notably ‘The worst is not so long as one can say, This is the worst;’”: another pitiless mantra for when nothing else will cheer you. To put it in a sentence: when, in 2016, an infomercial about opiate-induced constipation aired during the Super Bowl, one might well have said “This is the worst.” And yet Donald Trump had not even been elected. These “aesthetics of failure” were a persistent preoccupation for Beckett. Between fagged and faint in the New Oxford Thesaurus of English lie some of his signature verbs: abort, decline, degenerate, die away, dim, dissolve, dwindle, fizzle, give up the ghost, grow dim, miscarry, wane etc. His first separately published work, a long poem about Descartes called Whoroscope, took its thesis statement from St Augustine: fallor, ergo sum. In the 1940s and ’50s, Beckett articulated failure as the failure to stop, and wrote the three novels Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable as if possessed, as if the inability to halt the flow of language was an affliction or curse. The words are uncensored, uncensorable; he changed the last lines of the last novel of the trilogy from just “I can’t go on” to the now well-known formulation “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” This “failure to implement” the former phrase gave occasion to the next work, Texts for Nothing, and the ones after that. In “Three Dialogues”, an essay on art from 1949, failure takes the form of an inability to represent. Whereas “the history of painting, here we go again, is the history of its attempts to escape from this sense of failure”, he wrote, “my case is […] to admit that to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living”. When Beckett wrote Worstward Ho in 1983, the last in a second trilogy of texts called Nohow On, he was therefore working with a set of ideas around the failure and endurance of language that had been sanded down to a state of prehistoric refinement over thirty years. Classical in syntax and primitive in phrasing: “No try no fail”, each word is circulated and rotated and inspected from every side like a three-dimensional object in a CAD program. The most important and most frequently used word, “No”, finds its literal and figurative inversion in “On”. “Fail again. Fail better” is, therefore, an encapsulation of a lifelong effort to show the tension between wanting to stop and not being able to, failing to stop but giving less to go on with.

Outside the Grove Companion, in the broader Anglophone culture, Beckett’s legacy has taken a bit of a rest since his death in 1989. Although Waiting for Godot is perennially popular, it is now through these lines, “Fail again. Fail better”, drawn from a resolutely difficult short text from Beckett’s most minimal late period, that he is best known. What has made his work resonate again, particularly in the run-up to 2016, in the form of this recuperation of failure as a positive, even vital phase in the development of the neoliberal subject? And what kind of failure, or whose failure, is being advocated for so adamantly? Something in the culture is expressing itself through our continuous election of self-professed non-experts, reckless outsiders and notorious losers; the greatest examples of this dynamic are, of course, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and the vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in 2016. Although Trump lost the popular vote and Leave was carried by the ailing population of the United Kingdom, an enormous number of people voted for these carnivals of lies and mediocrity.

At the moment it seems as though we not only expect but demand a tremendous number of mistakes from our leaders. David Cameron, who, as prime minister of the United Kingdom, called for the referendum on Brexit, walked away from office singing when his political gambit failed on a spectacular level. Boris Johnson, as new prime minister, makes a huge spectacle of incompetence and carelessness. An archetype of old Etonian eccentricity, he is, according to members of his family and former employers, a control freak and pathological liar. He glosses over facts with little attention to detail, uses inflammatory language regarding women and minorities and, much like Beckett himself, pretends to speak French badly “pour faire remarquer-moi”. As Frances Ryan put it in a recent Guardian column, for Johnson “failure has no consequences”. But what does this display of failure cover? What does it reveal?

As with Johnson, Donald Trump shows us that failure itself has become a hallmark of privilege. Trump has had a successful career for someone who is not very good at anything. His children aren’t skilled either: their cheap clothing lines have gone bust, they’re not exactly acclaimed as diplomats. It is public knowledge that there were thousands of lawsuits against Trump at the time of his election: he had just settled with victims of his fake university racket for twenty-five million dollars. His businesses, which combined have lost over a billion dollars, were bailed out by his father many times. As the staggering revelations regarding his taxes by The New York Times show, Trump has had more opportunities to fail than perhaps anyone in America has ever had. Watching the American late-night television talk shows, the hosts keep pointing out spelling errors in Trump’s tweets or his lack of awareness of protocol when meeting Queen Elizbeth. Making fun of Trump’s grammar, his bad taste, the fact that he bragged lamely about sexually assaulting women to impress other men, his casinos closing down, is all supposed to appeal to the good sense of ordinary Americans. But their attempts at demystification fail to understand that these errors are not inconsistencies. The vote for Trump is, in large part, a vote for the loser. Trump is the enormous boil on the neck of America, a celebration of its crappiest, rapiest and most average ambitions. He represents not having to work hard, your wife slapping your hand away in public, making crude remarks about your youngest daughter, eating junk food and still being the president of the United States. In other words, people don’t vote for Trump despite his failures but because of them. This large-font president is a relief, to many people, in contrast to the shiny new brand of premier that Obama inaugurated: Macron, Trudeau, Varadkar etc. It’s easy to compare yourself favourably to Trump, instead of constantly having to compete with a perfect black Harvard-educated lawyer, a good husband and father who can also play basketball. Like the election of George W Bush to a second term, four years after he was first elected in very controversial circumstances and embroiled the United States in wars that continue to this day, a vote for Trump is a vote for a supposedly average American who will protect American averageness. This is the definition of compassionate conservativism in the twenty-first century: compassion for someone who, like you, is not perfect, as long as they’re from roughly the same background. It’s a kind of failure dependent on nativism and entitlement; it implies the right to be terrible at your job and still get to keep it. And although perhaps failure should be a right for everyone, it is in fact a privilege, and one that currently provides a veneer of anti-elitist relatability for the elite. The default position of privilege is to refuse to admit that privilege exists, relying instead on the illusion of ahistorical meritocracy. Our current political emphasis on failure means that we are now living in a kind of Beckettian meritocracy ‑ better failures; better worse. Where the notion of meritocracy pretends that everyone has the same degree of opportunity and succeeds purely on strength of skill, Trump, Johnson, Cameron et al insist that everyone has the same access to constant, inconsequential failure.

Despite the tiresome funny-failure schtick, the dangerous contours of Trump and Johnson’s policies are by now discernible to everyone and not just the demographic groups that they targeted first: people of colour, immigrants, people in need of international protection and other non-citizens. Because of their increasingly amplified appeal to racist and anti-immigrant sentiment, it is important to know that the title of this much-quoted work of Beckett’s, Worstward Ho, was a play on Westward Ho!, Charles Kingsley’s novel of 1855, a violently anti-Catholic satire of Elizabethan colonial exploration in the Caribbean. It also refers to Westward Hoe, the name of a 1607 play by Thomas Dekker and John Webster about the relentless expansion of London westwards in the early modern period, and to Westward Ho, the name of a 1935 John Wayne film about the American frontier that opens with a dedication “to the Vigilantes ... builders of the New Empire of the West ... stern frontiersman of the days of ’49. Men who gave their lives to purge the new frontier of lawlessness.” In recalling the battle cry of the insatiable settler spirit known in the United States as manifest destiny, what Beckett’s perversion of this title shows us, therefore, is how the impulse towards geographic colonial expansion, or pursuit of the west, has been transformed into pursuit of the worst.

The evolution from Go West! to Go Worst! traces the development, in Beckett’s own lifetime, from overseas exploration and expropriation to a colonialism with nowhere to go, its rapacious instincts frustrated and turned in on themselves. Partly in reaction to the constant neoliberal emphasis on glib personal optimisation and global free trade, this fetish for failure is a late-colonial affect intimately tied to settler logic. It combines the worst aspects of the right-wing anti-globalisation movement: trade-protectionist, anti-immigrant, anti-diversity populism with a heightened focus on borders, camps and the restriction of free movement between countries. Reliant on both a closed marketplace and reduced competition via social mobility, the urge for the worst makes failure a function of nativist privilege that only white settlers can afford; everyone else, as the Scots-German with the Slovenian wife announced on Twitter, can “go back where they came from”. An insistence on failure stakes a belated territorial claim, insisting that we do or say these things because we can, because you can’t stop us and because there will be no repercussions. 

Beckett’s work began at the very end of a three-hundred-year period of colonial expansion in Ireland: he started to write just as the tradition he was a part of, the Anglo-Irish literary tradition, came to an abrupt close with Irish independence. His inheritance was an incredible literary edifice, one that he tapped at and observed as it deteriorated, in his own work, into a “tattered syntax”. Failure was, to him, a very literary concern, one compounded by the post-World War Two edict by Theodor Adorno that there be “no poetry after Auschwitz”. It was not a set of guidelines for living, for enterprise, still less for government, and, in fact, in his work he shows remarkable ambivalence as a writer of dispossession, of a truly post-colonial poetics: one that he was on the wrong side of.

For Beckett, however, the right to be wrong was irrevocably linked to another aspect of contemporary fail-better philosophy: his insistence on freedom of speech. The shock, post-independence, of being told that suddenly he could not write or say certain things, did not sit well with this young “postwar degenerate”. The suppression of his own work in Ireland after the 1929 Censorship of Publications Act gave Beckett a lifelong commitment to freedom of expression; his travels in Germany in the late 1930s, where he first remarked in his journal on those lines from King Lear, heightened his lifelong conviction that freedom of speech and anti-censorship were of the utmost importance to the artist. Beckett’s work is often taken as ahistorical, apolitical and anti-biographical, particularly by the French poststructuralist milieu in which he was first received, but his work was actually oriented around specific historical events, as the better recent scholarship has shown. For many of the fail-better boys, I suspect, the insistence on failure is followed by an equal insistence on freedom of speech as an ahistorical truism, one that argues in bad faith that there’s no difference between a government shutting down artistic debate or dissent and a small group of dissenting voices criticising an authoritarian government or institution. But for Beckett, who had seen firsthand the purge of so-called degenerate artworks by the Nazis and who worked as a messenger for the French Resistance throughout the occupation, fascism referred to a specific political form at a particular historic juncture.

In recent years Beckett has been revived, therefore, perhaps unwittingly but with deadly accuracy, in his capacity as a prophet of failure, a writer who demonstrates the cultural trajectory from landlord to edgelord, in which the mercenary logic of colonialism has been succeeded by brinksmanship and closed-set fail-betterism. In one of his more explicit references to postcolonial thought, the conversion from Westward Ho to Worstward Ho designates the terminal stage or endgame of his own colonial culture; a crisis of literary generation. Worstward Ho was one of the last texts in an oeuvre that reflected on and consumed as material the sudden and shocking end to his own literary tradition. Beckett was always writing his own dispossession, the narrative of his own cultural decline. What this means is that “fail better” is not necessarily great advice unless it comes with the awareness and ambiguous purpose that Beckett intended: it’s the coda of those who know that they’re on the way out.

1/1/2020

Eva Kenny is a writer and critic based in Dublin, Ireland. Her BA is from University College Dublin and she was awarded a PhD from Princeton University in 2018. She is currently at work on her first scholarly monograph, Samuel Beckett and the Art of Dispossession, on Beckett’s reception by minimal and conceptual artists in New York in the late 1960s and 1970s, and on a collection of essays.

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