The Consolations of Failure

Two new books look at what failing can—and cannot—teach us

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen

View of graffiti by David Wojnarowicz of a TV set and a house on a wall in SoHo, New York, New York, 1984. Rita Barros/Getty Images

As an adolescent, I burned through belief systems. Where once I had leaned on my parents’ copy of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981) to muddle through anything that threatened my view of the world as a fundamentally hospitable place, my growing aware­ness of human suffering made the explanations provided by reli­gion seem unsatisfactory. I swapped Job for John Stuart Mill and latched on to an unsophisticated understanding of Enlightenment philosophy. Its exaltation of progress and the capacity for human perfectibility provided a ready answer for a range of perceived wrongs: they were tiny, if necessary, setbacks in a cosmic narrative of historical improvement. Then came college and, with it, more opportunities to behold the persistence of calamities in modern history. Claims of “historical progress” began to look willfully ignorant, ridiculous. And so I spent the first two decades of my life cycling through frameworks of meaning that failed when they were confronted with failure. It would take me longer to learn that, as an American, I was not alone.

As Americans, we find ourselves in a culture that so fetishizes success that it cannot tolerate failure. So it deals with it in one of two ways. The first is to view failure in individualized and atom­ized terms, blaming the losers for their losses. The second, which is equally insidious, is to be so disdainful of failure that it insists that what looks like failure in fact is a mere “stepping-stone to success,” in the philosopher Costica Bradatan’s phrase. Thus the platitudinous self-help bromides that we find adorned on a framed poster in a bank teller’s cubicle (“Failure is success in progress”) or shouted by a fitness influencer hawking protein powder on TikTok (“There’s no failure that willpower can’t turn into success”). In a culture that demands overcoming against all odds, even failure has been commodified by the American self-help industrial complex: rebranded not as a devastating and possibly life-altering event but as a blip en route to a chest-thumping achievement, accomplish­ment, or acquisition.

Into this landscape arrive two new books that enjoin us to, as Bradatan puts it, “take failure seriously.” Bradatan’s In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility (2023) and literary scholar and cultural critic Sara Marcus’s Political Disappointment: A Cultural History from Reconstruction to the AIDS Crisis (2023) argue that we might need to reimagine not only failure but also the meanings we derive from it. Both authors want us to mourn failure as gen­uine loss, while also beholding what value it might offer for our lives. Taken together, they raise the question of how we might fail well, in an age that all too often shoehorns failure’s insights into pom-pom clichés. And they force us to confront what happens to those who neither worship the Great God of “Success” nor rely on religious or philosophical metanarratives for solace. Can they—can we—find meaning in failure and loss? And should we even try?

Bradatan’s In Praise of Failure argues that “failure’s reputation is in tatters” and that, in a modern world in which many of us have no restorative pillar of hope to cling to, the best approach, ironically, is to embrace what he calls “failure-based therapy.” Failure, properly understood and utilized, can strip us bare of our hubris and con­ceits, summoning us to confront our “imperfection, precariousness, and mortality.” Almost always unwelcome and uncomfortable, fail­ure is no doubt falling, but in Bradatan’s reconstitution of it, it is a form of falling awake. It “reveals something fundamental about the human condition: that to be human is to perform a tightrope walk with no safety net.”

Bradatan advocates for this therapeutic awakening through a study of figures as various as Simone Weil, Mohandas Gandhi, E. M. Cioran, Yukio Mishima—none of them, tellingly, American—who saw failure as necessary for making their life’s meaning leg­ible to themselves. What is distinctive about Bradatan’s dramatis personae is not only that they failed but also that in some sense they courted defeat. And they did so not simply as a form of self-abnegation and self-annihilation but also to consider how failure “defines us.”

Consider, for instance, Weil, a French philosopher who, driven by zealous empathy for the afflicted, flung herself unsuccessfully into revolutionary causes and factory work in the early 1930s before developing her own brand of ascetic Christian mysticism as a sort of cultivated failure in living. She sought a form of failure that she called “decreation,” namely, making “something created pass into the uncreated.” For her, this meant, ultimately, to “consent to death” (something she achieved at the age of 34 as her body finally suc­cumbed to self-starvation and tuberculosis) as a way to bring one’s self “closer to God,” in Bradatan’s phrase. Though extreme, Weil’s quest for ecstatic erasure reminds us that we are all fragile, embod­ied creatures, wobbling on a tightrope over an abyss.

Good failures, Bradatan observes, come in a variety of forms, but all involve taking more honest account of our most consequen­tial botches rather than seizing on those of comparatively minor significance. Mohandas Gandhi, he argues, failed to do this. In his autobiography, Gandhi offers the reader a heavily curated view of his “Himalayan blunders,” including his poor performance at mul­tiplication tables as a student, an early experiment in meat eating, and a “miscalculation” during a satyagraha campaign. The chap­ters of his book are narratives in “tragedy” and “shame,” offering to teach Gandhi’s readers “how to live with failure;… how to turn failure into the source of a more meaningful life.” But Gandhi’s self-narrative, Bradatan astutely points out, leaves out his most damning failures: his appreciation of Hitler, his insensitivity to Jewish suffer­ing, and his “cavalier attitude toward the death of others,” including those of his own followers. By highlighting Gandhi’s promiscuous, though misguided, self-flagellation, Bradatan shows that we are not always the best judge of our own failures and that even when we are, we should not mistake performing penance with the harder task of vivisecting a self shorn of its false pride and comforting illusions.

Bradatan’s most interesting accounts of failure concern two very different writers: the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran and the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima. Cioran is the sort of character Bradatan would have had to invent had he not, in fact, existed, for Cioran turned bucking the outward marks of a successful life into a fine art. Flagrant loafing, caustic misanthropy, and grizzled pes­simism were his fortes. In fact, Cioran thought man’s first mistake was being born and that living was a form of failing. Life meant “learning to be the loser”; once life is pursued “to its natural end, failure is no longer tied to success as to an ugly twin.” But here, Bradatan argues, is the payoff from Cioran’s insights: if done right, failure isn’t something the loser looks at, but rather through. It is a process that has the potential to yield its own form of transfigura­tion and transcendence. It confronts us with “the deadly emptiness we carry within,” a realization that is the poison-turned-balm cru­cial for “our recovery.”

We should not mistake performing penance with the harder task of vivisecting a self shorn of its false pride and comforting illusions.

Mishima, however, functions as a cautionary tale about how eas­ily a zealous embrace of failure can become a form of hubris. After Mishima failed in an absurd attempt to organize a coup against the Japanese government, his carefully planned suicide—what he had hoped would be his own “beautiful death”—went awry when his “magnificent” seppuku (ritualistic suicide through disembow­elment) was not matched by an equally magnificent kaishaku (rit­ual beheading of the disemboweled person) by his assistant. His carefully crafted plans ended in “an unsightly site of butchery and clumsiness,” as Bradatan puts it. Failure is tricky. It turns out that it is easy to fail at failing: Bradatan finds in Mishima’s carefully orchestrated death a form of “willing himself into humility” that, ironically, turned out to be “the most unhumble of projects.”

Though Bradatan clearly has his reservations about his figures’ passion for the pornography of their own pain, he underscores their belief that failure has the power to lay bare the “naked facts of our condition” by forcing a hard reset on our sense of perspective and proportions. Failure, he argues, awakens us from our “umbili­cus mundi syndrome, a pathological inclination to place ourselves at the center of everything, and to fancy ourselves far more important than we are.” He goes on: “Most of the time we behave as though the world exists only for our sake.” But failure humbles us. It forces us to behold a truer picture of ourselves on a larger “cosmic scale.” When we do that, we cannot help but see that “we are utterly insig­nificant creatures.”

Bradatan makes a persuasive case for failure’s generative abil­ity to knock us out of our self-centeredness. However, he does not consider the uneven appeal and applicability of his “failure-based therapy.” One’s ability, and perhaps even inclination, to try to turn screw-ups into self-knowledge depends, after all, in no small measure on one’s economic conditions, social capital, educa­tion, gender, and race, which play an outsized role in determining who succeeds and who fails and even in defining what constitutes success or failure. The likelihood and burdens of financial failure, for example, are not distributed evenly across class lines. Some businesses, financial institutions, and affluent families with gen­erational wealth are “too big to fail”; others are not. In this respect, Bradatan’s moving paean to failure’s power to liberate ourselves from our selves risks doubling as an apologia for a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps conservatism.

Similarly, the rewards of selflessness that Bradatan endorses may be promising, but only for those who have not long been denied sovereignty over their selfhood. To pick an obvious example: one can imagine applying Bradatan’s “failure therapy” to Donald Trump by pulling him aside and counseling him on the therapeutic benefits of accepting his defeat in the 2020 election, both for himself and for the country. But it would be another thing altogether to sidle up to Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Birmingham jail cell in 1963 and tell him that “from a cosmic standpoint” there is “something irrepressibly hilarious” in his inability to see himself for the “utterly insignificant creature” that he is. It is also not clear that the “patho­logical inclination to place ourselves at the center of everything” is as universal as Bradatan makes it out to be. Richard Wright, for one, argued that many oppressed people see the world by “looking upward from below.” Those who are systematically subjugated and disenfranchised may not need to awaken to the precariousness of their existence; this awareness may well be their constant companion.

Nevertheless, Bradatan’s book is a tonic for readers who are sick of a culture that sees worldly success as a mark of moral supe­riority. A common slogan like “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” isn’t only wrong, it testifies to an impoverished soci­ety where ninth graders feel obliged to take AP classes for college credit, a society that created the word overachiever to identify an idealized success phenom, and then invented the position of the “life coach,” because one’s “life” as it is simply is not good enough—it needs to be executed smarter, faster, better.

If Bradatan is correct and there is some recompense for personal and private failures, does that also mean that there is something to be gained from collective and public ones? This question, which seems especially timely for any reader choked with rage and despair over mass shootings or Dobbs v. Jackson or gerrymandered political maps, is the urgent core of Sara Marcus’s new study of political disappointment in American life. Her previous book, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution (2010), rousingly explores the world and cultural influence of radical feminist punk bands of the 1990s. Political Disappointment is a very different study, characterized by longing and mournfulness rather than defiance.

Marcus posits that “political disappointment was the defining political experience of the United States in the twentieth century.” This is a provocative and intriguing claim, albeit one that she can­not fully deliver on, given her limited and curated source material. Nevertheless, her book has the power to rouse readers out of their disenchantment long enough to consider how a variety of writ­ers and artists since Reconstruction repurposed their sense of fail­ure and frustration into new forms of artistic expression. Political Disappointment is, in a sense, a history of the left getting sucker-punched time and again, while working to find creative resources in those defeats.

Like Bradatan’s book, Marcus’s Political Disappointment is built around case studies in constructive frustration and anguish. It begins with W.E.B. Du Bois’s analysis in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) of African American “sorrow songs,” which he described as “the music of an unhappy people, the children of disappointment.” It recounts the struggles, in the 1930s, of the novelist Tillie Olsen and singer Lead Belly, both of whom were Communists whose hopeful proletarian commitments animated their work. But as the Communist Party expanded into the Popular Front and slowly abandoned its vision for imminent revolution and a multiracial working-class solidarity, both worked to capture the experience of disappointment in their experiments with sound. For Olsen, it meant creating transcriptions of the sonic expression of her female characters’ unmet revolutionary desires, while for Lead Belly it meant performing in his songs the labored breath of Black workers, who, he worried, were being left behind. Marcus goes on to track forms of political disappointment from episodes in the civil rights movement through second-wave feminists’ uneven and belated effort at multiracial coalition-building. She rounds out her study with a look at Marlon Riggs’s and David Wojnarowicz’s aesthetic activism during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, a crisis that ravaged gay communities in no small part because rampant homophobia hampered the efforts to deal with it.

Marcus uses these case studies to show how disappointment, which she defines as “a persistent desire for an object that is less available than it previously had been,” has helped artists conceptu­alize and articulate their experiences of loss in a way that fostered a sense of political solidarity. These experiences of “nonfulfillment” can be agonizing. But she argues that for many American artists they have proven generative for creating new cultural practices and forms, and political visions that privileged leftist coalition-building and cultivated progressive, pluralist visions that outshot the reali­ties of their lived moment.

Failure to achieve a hard-fought political goal need not lead to paralysis or despair, Marcus argues. She looks to another example of creatively “metabolized disappointment” in the work of feminist poets and critics in the 1970s and 1980s. Seventies-era feminists—whether poets, theorists, or musicians—focused on the “voice” of women or their forced “silence,” Marcus points out. From Helen Reddy’s “I am woman, hear me roar” (1972) to Michelle Cliff’s “Notes on Speechlessness” (1978), to conference panels such as “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” at the Modern Language Association convention (1977), Marcus shows that this “elevation of voice” in fact “aimed to amalgamate a democratic ideal of rational speech with an embrace of embodied identity.” But women still found themselves excluded and unheard—especially women of color. By the late 1970s, “exhaustion with the old model of voice” crept in. So rather than cling to the failed promises of making the female “voice” more audible, feminist poets like Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich redirected their attention to the untapped possibilities of feminist “vision” and “visuality” in their work. Channeling disappointment into a new emphasis on the gendered dimensions of spectatorship and the ways woman can see and be seen, they turned voice into vision and failure into fortitude.

In his eulogy at Thoreau’s funeral in 1862, Emerson praised his truculent and reclusive friend’s genius, but he also gently upbraided him for being a bit of a loser.

Like Bradatan, who scours modern intellectual history for some psychic or existential consolation among the rubble of fail­ure, Marcus is looking for the creative compensations to political setbacks, in some sense embracing the idea that one’s misfortune can be turned into one’s muse. Readers who are sympathetic to Marcus’s effort to find a saving grace in what otherwise might seem like a historical narrative of leftist decline may feel no need for more clarity about the causation between disappointment and creativity she sketches out.

But for other readers, equally sympathetic, her book may be a reminder of how hard it is to treat failure as failure. In fact, it may be precisely those on the left wanting to embrace Marcus’s account of the creative compensations of collapsed political aspirations who will crave more robust evidence about the causal dynamic at work in each of her historical episodes. After all, it is one thing to suggest that the dismay of artists and activists over a perceived loss of political ground happened adjacent to their new creative prac­tice or product, and quite another to show that the disappointment caused the creative shift. And so pesky questions arise: Did these highly talented people somehow need disappointment to do their creative work? Isn’t it likely that they would have been able to do even more, cre­atively speaking, if they hadn’t had to deal with whatever political or social trauma was disappointing them?

Riggs and Wojnarowicz, for example, had so much talent coiled inside them that they could easily have made subject matter other than their own impending mortality into art. Both died at 37; pre­sumably, they would have preferred more time to work out their vision. So while Marcus effectively shows how her artists and activ­ists tried to make the most out of their bad situations, she is unable to demonstrate that the bad situations were a necessary precondi­tion for their creativity.

And yet there is a fundamental insight in Marcus’s book about the temporal dimensions of disappointment, which may help us navigate the racism and chauvinism her figures encountered and which are still threatening political disenchantment today. Intentionally or not, she suggests, her figures seemed to channel the temporality of what Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch called “the Not-Yet-Conscious, Not-Yet-Become”—a particular relation­ship to the past and the future, which fundamentally recasts a present moment of despair. The key word in “not-yet-conscious, not-yet-become” is yet—a modest adverb that plays an outsized role in the thoughts of the disenchanted novelist, the disillusioned poet, the distraught artist coming to terms with a political blow. “Yet” allows for a purposeful disjuncture in temporalities between the one given by the clock, the calendar, the economic regime, and the one experienced (or asserted) by the subject struggling to bring about political and social change. If disappointment comes at the end of an affair, when the accounts are shut down and the horizon closed, “yet” keeps them propped open.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell warned about the perni­ciousness of using a dream about the future as a way to evade a bleak present. But he presumed a disjuncture between “the future” and “now” that many of Marcus’s figures did not countenance. In moments of felt powerlessness, drained resources, and emotional bankruptcy, they refused to assume that there was some inexorable march of history that would either stampede over them or pass them by. Rethinking timescales became for them a tool for prying open what might look like a closed door. In their creative responses to having their political aspirations hammered by circumstance, Marcus’s artists and intellectuals made clear that “[t]he world as we inhabit it is not the only possible world.”

Likewise, these books remind us that, as a historical experience, failure and disappointment are as variable and complex as the peo­ple who have repurposed it as therapy and creative work. Bradatan observes that “[e]ach organized society generates its own type of losers”—those who by choice or by constitution do not live up to its idealized vision of itself. “To be a loser today is a different busi­ness altogether” than it was in the past, might be in the future, or is today in a society other than one’s own.

Indeed, it is a voice from the past that provides the best example of how failure and defeat are not final verdicts from the universe so much as provisional assessments that can look positively ludicrous from a different angle of vision. This is the voice of American tran­scendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, well over a century and a half ago, tried, like Bradatan and Marcus, to draw meaning from failure and defeat. In his 1841 essay “Compensation,” Emerson dreamed up “the law of compensation,” which he described as the “absolute balance of Give and Take” and which we might describe as a sort of a Calvinist theodicy without the Calvinism. Sounding cautionary (if not also a little superstitious), Emerson insisted that the universe is constantly on watch to make sure that transgres­sions don’t get a free pass, that unearned favors are penalized, but also, importantly, that unearned suffering is fairly compensated. He was so certain of the consolations of failure and disappoint­ment that he admonished his readers to take refuge in this insight: “every evil to which we do not succumb is a benefactor.”

But Emerson is most relevant here not because he articulated a compensatory view of trial and loss similar to what we see in these books, but rather because he demonstrated, unintentionally, how notions like failure and disappointment can and do change over time. Case in point: Roughly two decades after Emerson first offered up his theory of compensation in print, he put it to work as he tried to make sense of the untimely death of his younger friend and onetime protégé Henry David Thoreau. In his eulogy at Thoreau’s funeral in 1862, Emerson praised his truculent and reclusive friend’s genius, but he also gently upbraided him for being a bit of a loser. He expressed in public an exasperation he had previously reserved for his private journals, namely, that Thoreau could have amounted to something great had he not frittered away his time picking huck­leberries at Walden Pond. “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition,” Emerson lamented to the mourners.

It may have consoled Emerson that the life he worried was somewhat disappointing in 1862 is today considered a triumph; to be sure, it should give us pause and comfort. And more than that, it may even have consoled Emerson that his loser sidekick beat him to his best thoughts on “compensation”; to be sure, it should make us smile. For in Thoreau’s journal entry of September 23, 1838, he jotted: “if we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find com­pensation in every disappointment.” We could join Thoreau here to get the last laugh, but “last” suggests an ending that Bradatan and Marcus show us has not yet come. In fact, they give us good reason to hope that failure and disappointment are better under­stood as preludes, not conclusions, to the messy but fascinating narrative of becoming we call “life.”

*Correction, June 13, 2023: An earlier version of this piece inadvertently omitted a section of text.

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is the Merle Curti and Vilas-Borghesi Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Originally published:
June 12, 2023

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