In Praise of Failure and Storytelling: A Conversation with Costica Bradatan
By Julien CrockettOctober 11, 2023
In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility by Costica Bradatan
COSTICA BRADATAN’S In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility (2023) is an unexpected book. It is at once a meditation by a learned historian and philosopher on the vital role failure can and should play in our lives and a prescription, recommending failure-based therapy. Failure is, in short, the tool we need to “wake us up” from the slumber that is our lives.
But more than a “tool,” failure is a revealing window through which to perceive a society’s values and rules. Using the lives of several colorful historical figures, Bradatan investigates failure and its role in the stories we tell as we journey in search of ourselves.
JULIEN CROCKETT: I want to start with a quote from the end of your book where you discuss the final stage of life—death—and what happens with the failures we accumulate along the way:
An odd party indeed, but when you think about it, a better arrangement is hard to imagine. For when we finally make it to the door, we know exactly what we leave behind—what we have been. We exit clean and unattached to anything, scar-covered and worn out, yet whole. With some luck, even cured.
“Cured” is an interesting word choice, implying that we are sick. What do you mean by “cured”?
COSTICA BRADATAN: Of course we are sick. For what is life, after all, if not a genetically transmitted disease? This is an old, indeed timeless, insight. When Socrates was about to die, he asked one of his disciples, Crito, to perform a sacrifice, on his behalf, to Asklepios, the god of healing. In ancient Greece, you did that whenever you recovered from an illness. As Socrates was about to be cured of the sickness that had been his life, he felt grateful and wanted to thank the god of healing. A bit earlier, and in another part of the world, the Buddha had suggested something similar when he said that “to live is to suffer.” Indeed, life is no ordinary sickness, but a highly addictive one: the more of it we have, the more we want, and the more entangled in it we become.
And what are the symptoms of the “disease,” life?
Consider our incessant need for possessions, wealth, status, social influence, and power over others, and then the fierce determination—even the violence—that we use to satisfy this need. All stem from our primal biological setup: to stay alive, we must assert ourselves, incessantly, against the world around us. The acquisitive drive is a manifestation of our survival instinct, and so is our quest for power. Of course, we don’t like this unflattering picture, and would rather see ourselves in a different light, but when all is said and done, we are Homo rapiens, rather than sapiens. Violence lies at the heart of all life, and human life is no exception. As we give in to these instincts (which we do almost all the time), we become more and more entangled—sicker and sicker.
And the cure?
The cure can only come from detachment, from disentangling and distancing ourselves from the febrility of life—in a certain sense, yes, from the negation of our survival instinct. To become properly human, you must first silence the animal in you.
How does failure fit into this cure?
Failure helps because it disrupts the smooth running of the world, it slows things down a bit and, in so doing, it undermines our entanglement. And that can give us access to a different perspective on the world and on our place in it. And with a new perspective comes a new attitude. Properly internalized, failure can wean us off our addiction.
So through failure, as you write, we start to see the “cracks in the fabric of existence.”
When something stops working in our proximity, that failure shows us that things are not as solid and reliable as they seem. If more of this happens, we start to suspect that, beyond its nice-looking facade, the physical world may in fact be a darker, messier, less reliable, and less substantial place. And that’s a good suspicion to have because it only confirms an important philosophical insight: human existence happens against a background of nothingness. Brutally put, we come from nothing, and we will return there. It’s with that in mind that I write in the book that the experience of failure allows us to see the “cracks in the fabric of existence.” In the experience of failure, should we pay enough attention, we can have a glimpse of the nothingness that stares at us from the other side. The plane engine that has just stopped midair, the brakes of your car that no longer seem to be working—such humble happenings can be carriers of important metaphysical messages. Failure, then, exposes the world, and our existence in it, for what it is: a brief accident in the history of nothingness. That may sound depressing, but the important things in life are in the habit of being depressing. Yet a truth, no matter how harsh, is always preferable to a lie, no matter how soothing.
You identify four types (or “rings”) of failure—physical, political, social, and biological—and tie each to a central character: Simone Weil, Mahatma Gandhi, E. M. Cioran, and Yukio Mishima. Why did you organize your book in this way?
Failure is such an immense, labyrinthine territory, and I needed some device to help me not get completely lost in the labyrinth. The circular structure proved to be such a thing. It has the double advantage of reminding readers of Dante’s circles and of making the book’s argument a bit easier to visualize. The reason I chose those four “heroes of failure,” rather than others, was that the finalists looked so fascinating, and yet I knew so little about most of them. That’s why I ended up writing about them.
As I read your book, I admit I felt an almost embarrassed glee in learning about very private aspects of each of these characters’ lives—but aspects that they wanted on display! Their motivations, however, all seem quite different. Starting with the French philosopher Weil, can you tell us how she represents the first form of failure, physical failure, and why she sought to fail publicly?
Simone Weil was by nature a very clumsy person, to an almost life-threatening degree. She could have been killed by her clumsiness, and sometimes she came very close. And yet, she behaved as though her clumsiness had nothing to do with her—she went to work in a factory as an unskilled laborer, she went to fight in Spain, she wanted to be a front-line nurse during World War II. In a certain sense, however, she was right to behave like this.
Because our clumsiness has nothing to do with us—or we with it. Clumsiness reveals a foreign presence in us. When we are clumsy, there is a part of us over which we have little control, like some rebellious province that refuses to collaborate with the central government. That’s why clumsiness is a peculiar kind of failure: it is at the same time your failure, because it’s you who fails to perform this act or that, and it’s not yours, because there is an alien force in you that prevents you from behaving differently.
Gandhi took performing failure to another level. As you write, his autobiography is a form of performance art, as was the way he lived his life—from his choice of clothing to his “army of aides, assistants, disciples, and private secretaries.” What seems to differentiate his motivation for performing failure from Weil’s was his personal ambition. They both wanted to transform society, but Gandhi wanted to be known as the one who did it—is that right?
Weil was the embodiment of self-renunciation. She lacked social ambition. She didn’t pursue a “career.” She didn’t want recognition and she didn’t seek anything for herself. She wanted to understand what life was about by living for others. Eventually, even that was too much, too ambitious a goal, and she stopped living altogether—she starved herself to death. Gandhi, too, lived for others, but in a different way. He very much wanted the others to know that he lived for them, and what he did on their behalf. He was an extraordinarily vast soul—they didn’t call him Mahatma, “the great soul,” for nothing—and yet sometimes he could be an extraordinarily cunning politician as well. “I have a strain of cruelty in me,” he confessed once, “such that people force themselves to do things, even to attempt impossible things, in order to please me.” Among the things Indians wanted to do to please Gandhi was die for his cause. And he didn’t always stop them.
Another theme in your book, adjacent to ambition and central to your second form of failure, political, is power, and the strange ways humans gain power over other humans. One example you use is the rise of Adolf Hitler and how he achieved power in the most educated society in the world at the time. Quoting you:
To address someone is to engage in some form of communication conducted along rational lines. But what the speaker is doing to these people is anything but rational: he is not speaking to them, lecturing them, or even preaching. He is seducing them. […] What he gives them may be nothing but worn-out phrases, flat-out lies, ludicrous conspiracies, yet coming as they do from someone who has offered them such an intense emotional experience, they exude a strange coherence and somehow manage to make narrative sense […] Thanks to him, there is now a promise of meaningfulness in these people’s lives, and they would do anything that to fulfill that promise.
As religion recedes—as our historical sources of meaning generally recede—we must be careful with what replaces them. As you point out, politics and histrionic figures in particular step in to instantiate themselves as sources of meaning. What is the danger here, and how can we correct it?
I can’t emphasize enough how important this question of collective meaning is. As you suggest, I start from the assumption that meaning is narrative in nature. Something is worth doing if I can tell myself a convincing story within which doing that thing is a coherent act that follows a certain logic and achieves a certain purpose. The things we do “on a whim” are meaningless precisely because we cannot come up with coherent stories in which to place them. That’s how meaning in general is born in our lives. Indeed, we find our life worth living to the extent that we can weave a narrative in which all—or at least most—facts of our biography can be plausibly connected following a certain inner order.
How does that work for collective meaning?
Now, if an individual life—my life or yours—doesn’t acquire meaning because the one who lives it cannot place it within a coherent story, that’s a tragedy—a “wasted life,” as they say—but the damage is limited to one person. When a whole community cannot do that because it can no longer produce a narrative in which most of its members can easily recognize themselves, then the tragedy is immeasurably larger, because it’s so much more than the total sum of all the wasted lives of its individual members. For the longest time, religion was the source of such collective meaning. You sense that as you read the classical myths, the Bible, the Qur’an, the Upanishads, and so on. Whether we are personally religious or not, that’s irrelevant here. What matters is that any mature religion has this power to supply its followers with narratives within which their lives can be envisioned and lived meaningfully. Now, with secularization, all that is gone—yet our need for meaning does not go anywhere. We are stuck in our crisis of collective meaning, and it’s only getting worse.
In what sense “worse”?
Because if people no longer find meaning in the places where they used to, they will find it elsewhere—anywhere. They will look for it, for example, in the mouth of populist politicians who will promise them anything. If the mode of delivery is entertaining enough, if those politicians are sufficiently histrionic, success is almost guaranteed. Have you noticed how some of the most successful populists are entertainers, clownish figures? The crisis of democracy is, at its core, a crisis of collective meaning—triggered, in turn, by a crisis of collective storytelling. It’s for the same reason that people will—alternatively, or even concomitantly—look for meaning in conspiracy theories, even in the craziest of them.
Can you give an example?
Do you remember how conspiracy theories mushroomed during the COVID-19 epidemic? The pandemic was nothing but a government plot to take away our liberties, or a diabolic plan to control population growth, or whatever. Once a vaccine was discovered, it was painted as a tool devised by Big Pharma to make ever more money, or as a means to turn us all into zombies, easier to control and manipulate (as if it was not easy enough already). And many other, equally crazy stories. However, if you read between the lines and listened more attentively, what the proliferation of these theories revealed was just an enormous, desperate collective need for meaning. Something terrible, unprecedented, was happening: a force of nature was causing havoc in people’s lives, and all of a sudden, they had to dramatically alter all their practices and daily routines. They found the scientific explanation (assuming they understood any of it) unsatisfactory and not very reassuring, because science, being science, involves a large amount of relativity and humility and even ignorance. In short, they were in no way equipped to make sense of what was going on. And such a total absence of meaning can drive people crazy—almost literally. You could tell how secularized our society is by the fact that religion, the traditional source of collective meaning, could not help these people in any significant way. Indeed, conspiracy theories often proliferated within religious circles—another proof of secularization, if one was needed, this time coming from a rather unexpected corner.
Staying with storytelling, you also tie it to failure. You write, “Failure and storytelling are intimate friends, always working in cahoots.” What do you mean?
Well, for one thing, I can’t think of a good story without some degree of failure in it. Can you? Failure is what pushes the plot forward, structures it, and keeps the reader interested. Failure moves heroes to act and to reveal themselves as individual characters. The way they fail and respond to failure defines them. But failure is tied to storytelling also in a deeper and more consequential way, for a lot depends on how we narrate failure into who we are. If, for example, I tell myself that my failures are nothing but “stepping stones to success,” thus ignoring what failure is fundamentally about, I position myself in a rather superficial relationship to the reality of things. If instead I see failure as essential to who I am, something that defines me, I place myself in a better, more realistic position, and I can therefore act upon myself more effectively. Not all stories are equal.
When I think of the experience of failure, I think of it as part of the beauty of being human. And I agree that storytelling plays a large role in that, particularly in the story we tell about ourselves. Growing up, I remember having a distinct sense of being on a journey—and by being on a journey, I found meaning in even the dullest moments of daily life. Do you worry that people are losing this sense of purpose, of being on a journey?
To be on a journey is to be telling a story—your own. As long as you are on the road, and your story is still unfolding, you have a life ahead of you. And, as you say, this can be an extraordinarily empowering feeling, no matter how powerless we may be at one point or another of the journey. What I am worried about is that we’ve stopped telling our own stories—living our own lives, making our own journeys—and instead we are content with the stories that are constantly thrown at us by the dominant ideologies (left or right), by our consumerist culture, by social media—by the all-pervading economic and social system in which we live. That’s how we end up living not our own lives but the lives prefabricated for us by political parties, corporations, ideologues, conspiracy theorists, influencers, Hollywood, and, more recently, AI bots. The loss is immense because this capacity to narrate ourselves into existence, which is thus taken away from us, is the most valuable thing we have. We are nothing without it.
To return to “collective meaning” for a moment, it’s interesting—and scary—to think that historical lessons must be learned again and again by each generation. That society can (hopefully) develop a memory that allows it to learn from past failures. Quoting you: “Civilization is only a mask, and a precarious one at that.” So, in a sense, your book is a call not only for self-transcendence but also for group transcendence, right?
This tension lies at the core of the human drama: we are meant to live together with others, to form communities, large and small, to share things and ideas. We are social animals. And yet, ultimately, when all is said and done, we can only redeem ourselves (in whatever sense) individually. I have only one life to live, and I am the only one responsible for living it meaningfully. No form of political or social organization, no matter how decent or civilized, can do that for me. And not just because, historically, democracy is rather a state of exception and that, if you take a broad view of history, you will see that politically decent societies are few and far between. But primarily because, at our most intimate, we are irreducible individuals. We are born and we die alone, and that solitude defines us. Any deeper meaning we may find in our lives is the result of individual, solitary, irreducibly personal work—we cannot delegate that labor to anybody else, nor can we make others, not even our most intimate friends, responsible for it.
In writing about political failure, you discuss several historical moments where a society has desired a clean break from the past, a revolution. Do you think we are living through such a moment today in the United States—or that one is coming? You identify certain parallels with sentiment before the French Revolution (i.e., the ancient regime is not just unjust and irrational but also something to be ashamed of; we have to recreate everything).
I don’t think we are anywhere near a revolution today. Because of linguistic inflation, we tend to call many things “revolution” and “revolutionary.” But true revolutions are rare, and that’s probably a good thing. For they are terrible events—you don’t want to be anywhere near a real revolution because you will end up burned, regardless of whom you side with. Our current infatuation with revolution has much to do with linguistic inflation, and with our ignorance of history, but strictly speaking, this infatuation happens only at the rhetorical level. A true political revolution would mean, truly, that everything is turned upside down, that the ruling class is displaced by the ruled class. Do you see any of that happening? Some individuals elbowing their way to more influence, power, and money, and employing noisy revolutionary language as they do so, is not revolution; it’s just the old political game. Nothing revolutionary in our infatuation with revolution then. Just a device used by the ruling class to remain safely in power.
Today, common enemy number one tends to be “capitalism,” which you discuss regarding your third form of failure, social failure. Your definition of capitalism is a bit different from the ones I think most people are familiar with. You write that the most important characteristic of capitalism is “ranking.” What do you mean?
Out of fear of social failure, of being labeled a “loser” and stigmatized, we work ourselves to death. We enslave ourselves just to make sure we have a spot, however precarious, among the socially “saved.” And for this “salvation,” social failure is vital: we are constantly reassured in our social “election” by the awareness that others are not elected. Very much like how Calvin’s “regenerated” needed to have “reprobates” around to have a sense of their own salvation. As long as we can look behind us and see others less fortunate than us, we feel good, no matter how bad our personal economic situation actually is. What’s important here is the feeling that you are not the loser, but someone else is. And since everybody is playing the same game, hoping for the same thing—even the most unfortunate—the system is kept in perpetual motion. In all this, ranking proves a godsend: thanks to it, you know, at any given moment, where exactly you are in relation to others, what you have to do to stay ahead or to catch up, who is up and who is down, who moves forward and who goes under. That’s why we rank everything. Not only corporations are ranked, but also countries, high schools, universities, football teams, hair salons, pet hotels, brothels, and philosophy departments. And, of course, individuals.
Using “ranking,” you tie capitalism to more primal roots. “Historical progress,” you write, “does not remove differentiation; it only makes the markers more insidious.” How has “differentiation” or the status game become more insidious under capitalism?
It becomes more insidious not necessarily under capitalism, but under a democratic ethos. For a long time, capitalism was (and it still is, in some parts of the world) all about “conspicuous consumption,” about wealth displayed in a flashy, vulgar manner. Nowadays, especially in the West, the wealthier one is, the subtler the mode of displaying one’s wealth has to be. The flashy ties, the expensive cars, and the golden toilets are for the nouveau riche and for the pathologically insecure who print out their names, in big letters, on their private jets. The really wealthy will display nothing of the kind. They will even be humble-looking, and it will not be easy to tell them apart from ordinary people. However, they cannot afford not to signal their differentiation—that’s a crucial part of their game. The signals will be discreet, pour les connoisseurs, but there will always be signals.
You write that given our “unquenchable thirst for social success, our obsession with rankings and ratings,” we are “seriously sick, and we are in bad need of a cure.” How can the cure be “doing nothing,” as embodied by the Romanian writer E. M. Cioran?
First of all, let me dispel a rumor. Doing nothing is a very serious job—one that involves doing quite a bit, in fact. I am not, in any way, vindicating couch potatoes in the book. They play the capitalist game as desperately as everybody else. They may think that they are subverting the system through their rebellious idleness when in fact they are only reinforcing it. If you do exactly the opposite of what someone is asking you to do, you are still playing that person’s game, not yours. What I am defending in the book is something very different: a life of contemplation and detachment, like Cioran’s, and the metaphysical protest it embodies. Such a life may not involve work in the usual sense (laboring in a factory, going to the office every day), but it demands doing much more important things such as taking awfully long walks every day, observing the world around, and contemplating the nothingness that lurks behind it. I cannot tell you how important that job is.
One of the largest (and perhaps the most visible) risks to society right now seems to be coming from our failure to responsibly incorporate technology into society. Do you worry that we are creating lives with less friction—with less potential for failure?
I am worried that we become less and less equipped to understand what’s going on in our lives. Out of laziness, out of a need for comfort, out of cowardice, we’ve surrendered our autonomy to such a degree that we cannot realize that we’ve lost it already. To realize how much—or how little—autonomy you have, you still need a certain degree of autonomy. But the whole world seems to be conspiring to take that away from us. The situation doesn’t lack irony, you have to admit: we talk increasingly of the autonomy of things—“autonomous cars,” “the internet of things,” etc.—even as we progressively lose ours, without even realizing it.
Are there unique qualities to today’s definition of “failure”? Or, putting it another way, how would you define today’s “loser”?
I wouldn’t risk a strict definition because loserdom is such a fluid thing, especially today when everything is fluid. In traditional societies, you usually knew who the loser was: the sinner, the destitute, the outsider (Jews, heretics, lost women, etc.). Today, instead, a loser is whoever does not seem to fit into the dominant social type. And this dominant type keeps changing all the time. No one wants to be left out and labeled a “loser,” and so everybody acts compulsively, without understanding the purpose of what they are doing.
Closing where we started, with death, with your final form of failure, biological, what can the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima teach us about creating a “beautiful death”?
He teaches us, though in an indirect, perverse way, that we need to become friends with our death. That is, if we are to live a good life, we must make room for death in it, and come to terms, in a very intimate way, with our finitude.
An enormously gifted writer who eventually lost faith in literature; someone who narrated himself into a samurai one century after the samurai class was outlawed in Japan; the leader of the clumsiest coup d’état imaginable, a coup whose failure he did everything in his power to ensure; a profoundly troubled man; and an individual of clear genius, Mishima can teach us something about the length to which one can go not just to befriend death but also to make it his death. A consummate storyteller, Mishima plotted in exquisite detail not only his work but also his life, and especially his death. That’s certainly something to behold, no matter how repelled we may be by it.
You write, “The trouble with Utopia is not that it’s impossible to put into practice (strictly speaking, it may be possible), it is that it is fundamentally alien to what we are.” Is aiming for Utopia then missing the point of life?
I think so. Because of its abstractness and its grounding in a very generic notion of humanity, when it comes to solving concrete problems, Utopia is not going to help us. Indeed, it distracts us from addressing specific issues effectively. The worst thing about Utopia is that when it’s imposed by force, top-down, it does infinitely more harm and creates way more problems than it purports to solve. There is really no place for Utopia in our lives because it usually ignores the nature of our lives. Let’s not forget that in the original utopian story, in Thomas More’s book by that name, Utopia is associated with a devastating failure—a shipwreck.
Costica Bradatan is a professor of humanities in the Honors College at Texas Tech University, United States, and an honorary research professor of philosophy at University of Queensland, Australia. He is the author and editor of more than a dozen books, among which Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers (Bloomsbury, paperback, 2018) and In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility (Harvard University Press, 2023). Bradatan also writes book reviews, essays, and op-ed pieces for TheNew York Times, The Washington Post, TLS, Aeon, The New Statesman,and other similar venues.
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