By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Book Reviews

Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

Weil, Gandhi, Cioran, and Mishima on humility.

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

From left: Simone Weil, Ewa Klos, Agence Opale/Alamy; Mahatma Gandhi, imageBROKER/Alamy; Emil Cioran, Ewa Klos, Agence Opale/Alamy; Yukio Mishima, by Lautir.

There is a memorable scene in the miniseries based on Lonesome Dove, the Larry McMurtry novel about the exploits of two former Texas Rangers, life-loving Gus McCrae (Robert Duvall) and silent-type Woodrow F. Call (Tommy Lee Jones), on a cattle drive to Montana. After the burial of a young cowboy who drowned during a river crossing, “Captain” Call announces, “The best thing to do for death is to ride off from it.” Reeling with grief, the other men visibly want something more than this clipped advice, even as they resignedly turn their horses to ride after Call.

Whether in cataclysmic losses, trials and tribulations, or just everyday disappointments, life offers opportunities for it to fall short and for us to fall short. Isn’t it bad enough that we fail so often, and fall so hard, with such devastating consequences? When it comes to failure of whatever stripe, can’t we just follow in the footsteps of the stoic Captain Call and “ride off from it”?

The philosopher Costică Brădățan, who is also Los Angeles Review of Books religion and comparative studies editor, answers with an unequivocal no. Instead, he asks us to hold our horses and embrace failures of all kinds, from mere shortcomings to death. And in In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility, he devotes his considerable powers of observation to the distinct potential of the acceptance of failure to liberate.

The book begins with a moment of panic in an imagined scenario in which a plane engine has caught fire and passengers face the possibility of their imminent demise. In this case, all are fine after a safe landing, but such scares, according to Brădățan, make us realize that our life is just a brief moment between “two instantiations of nothingness”: “Nothing first—dense, impenetrable nothingness. Then a flickering. Then nothing again, endlessly.” His premise is that the reality of death and the individual human’s smallness in relation to space and time—“We are next to nothing, in fact”—lies behind most of our endeavors, from religion to art, which “seek to make this unbearable fact a little more bearable.” Yet many such endeavors only obscure the fundamental reality of things. Instead, Brădățan calls for an “eyes-wide-open approach” that can remove us from our immediate surroundings and allow for the contemplation needed to transform this reality. Far from being an occasional exception, failure is an inherent part of human life. He suggests that direct confrontation with failures large and small can provide a “failure-based therapy” to help us handle this fact.

The book interweaves philosophical meditations on the meaning of failure with stories of particular people who experienced notable defeats in their lives and in their thoughts. Each chapter focuses on a case that illustrates a particular form of failure: physical (French philosopher Simone Weil), political (Indian anticolonialist Mahatma Gandhi), social (Romanian-born French philosopher Emil Cioran), and biological (Japanese author Yukio Mishima). These minibiographies, and those of others whom Brădățan mentions more briefly, such as George Orwell, Leo Tolstoy, and Seneca, provide vivid illustrations, in all too painful detail, of the failures of their subjects and, by extension, humankind more generally. By turn, these chapters give attention to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, totalitarianism, and the rise of capitalism, status anxiety, and consumerism—and still other historical developments.

In Simone Weil, Brădățan sees an exceptional thinker whose lifelong struggle with chronic illness and physical limitation informed her practice of self-starvation and her unique spiritual interpretations, which he sees as having much in common with Gnosticism. Raised in comfort, Weil spent a year as a factory worker, discovering, Brădățan writes, that she felt a “fundamental empathy toward the underprivileged” that she cultivated throughout the rest of her life. On the basis of this and other experiences, she concluded that modern industrialism essentially turns workers into slaves by requiring not only physical obedience but a vacating of the mind, causing a category of pain and oppression beyond ordinary suffering, which she called “affliction,” a thoroughgoing enslavement of the soul. A further conclusion she derived from this factory experience was that such hardship—her own and that of others—should be understood in spiritual terms as redemptive. While she drew on Christianity, she took it in her own direction. As Brădățan puts it, “Weil clearly had a religious calling, but hers was a heretic’s vocation.” She endeavored to nurture within herself a radical humility, but to the extreme in her concept of “decreation,” a kind of spiritual justification for self-annihilation, or at the least for a concept of living as being mainly about dying.

In Mahatma Gandhi, Brădățan finds the exceptional leader of nonviolent resistance whose personal failings and political blind spots conflicted glaringly with his usually irreproachable public persona. In An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth, Gandhi lays out failure after failure, to the point that, in Brădățan’s judgment, he “is swimming in failure, and sometimes coming close to drowning,” in an extended set of confessions that amount to “more self-flagellation than literature.” Critics have since added to this litany of failures still others, even more disturbing than those Gandhi recounted himself. Just one example Brădățan cites entails comments, some anti-Semitic, some more generally cruel, denoting “a cavalier attitude toward the death of others.”

Noted for his aphoristic style—he called himself “un homme de fragment”—Romanian-born French writer Emil Cioran produced The Trouble With Being Born, among many other works. Brădățan says Cioran was drawn to people who might be considered failures in the sense embodied in modern usage of the word loser, and that he practiced this kind of failure himself “in style.” A modern-day Diogenes, Cioran never took another full-time job after an early (failed) stint as teacher, and he would dine in any house that might host him on a given night in return for his philosophical conversation. For a time, he was besotted with Nazism for its “cult of irrationality” and virility, and, responding to what he saw as the mediocre culture of his country of birth, deemed even terror and dictatorship acceptable methods for putting country first. But after the Second World War, and for the rest of his life, he felt profoundly ashamed of his earlier views. He is perhaps the best exemplar of Brădățan’s idea that confronting failure can be a path to somewhere.

Yukio Mishima published scores of books, plays, short stories, and essays, and was known for many other activities from bodybuilding to directing movies. Although Mishima was a success in the world’s terms, Brădățan writes that he spent his life obsessed with death, particularly his own, which he envisioned in the “very Japanese tradition of ‘noble failures.’” In this tradition, the perseverance of heroes in the face of inevitable tragedy gives them a special allure, a pathos earned from the fear that all of their heroics will be in vain. Fascinated by this tradition, in which heroes ended their lives by ritual suicide, Mishima sought to die like a samurai. “Mishima was not a humble man,” Brădățan explains, though he tried to make himself one through the death he had imagined for himself.

Perhaps because of the nature of the kinds of failures Mishima and the others came up against in their lives, many episodes of In Praise of Failure are hard going. But this also has to do with those failures they brought on themselves. Brădățan’s portraits lean toward the sympathetic—perhaps even the empathetic—but now and then his observations about the sheer arrogance of some of these spine-chilling projects of self-creation (often via self-destruction) provide precious rays of light. Brădățan argues that we should not run from failure, but face it, clear eyed, because facing our failures makes us humble, and, by becoming humble, we can live better lives. The tantalizing possibility he holds out is that the philosophy of failure might help heal some of the deepest wounds to our souls.

This book is about the art of living a good life, and Brădățan’s voice is like a steady and charming guide through a moonless night. He seems certain of his premise—that a human life is just a brief and beautiful interval with gaping nothingness on either side. He dispatches with simplistic notions of a kind of unaltered, endless life-extension found in various forms of religious fundamentalism and philosophical posthumanism. But this is perhaps a false choice. The options, after all, are not limited to the wishful thinking of literal immortality, in a triumph over human limits, or complete absence in the universe. Whether an atheist, an agnostic, or a person of faith, one can accept the reality of physical death and still grasp that this is not the end of the story. Even those who might find all talk of the spirit counterfactual might also remain convinced that loves rooted deep within us take us beyond ourselves.

This premise of nothingness might reflect a genuine Gnostic notion of the material world as inherently a failure. But why take the Gnostics’ word for it? They saw the universe as divided between cosmic forces of good and evil and the creator God as a malign divinity inferior to the real supreme force. Only certain humans possessed of a divine spark—their special knowledge, or gnosis—could awaken from the illusory world of ordinary existence and reunite with the ultimate divine spirit. Not exactly a recipe for humility.

But Brădățan’s argument in praise of failure rests on its ability to make us humble. We err. Others err. The world falls short. We will die. And knowledge of this liberates us from what? Seemingly from the notion that there is anything besides failure.

Brădățan’s praise of failure is brilliant precisely because there is something besides failure. But perhaps the opposite of failure in this case, when defined as nothingness, is not success as much as presence. Brădățan seems to hint at this in his epilogue, an ode to the vital potential of narrative to transform us. A story presupposes not nothing but something before and after, as soon as we grasp that we are not alone in the universe: Our story is inextricable from those of others, and our attachments transcend the brief moment of our lives. The death of a human being is not failure, but one of the most vivid signs of the certainty of presence. As anyone grieving a lost loved one will attest, it is hardly nothingness that follows death.

What is so painful about the thought of death, whether our own or that of others, is not that unending nothingness precedes and follows each life. It is, to the contrary, the sheer abundance of it all, despite—some say because of—our inevitable suffering: the multitudinous moments leading up to the particularities of a single existence, the staggering intricacies filling to overflowing our moments of living, whole new resonances sounding well after the body has given out, stirring others in countless mysterious ways. This is the real infinity. Being humbled by our failures is a necessity, and we can achieve this state of humility more readily with Brădățan as our guide. Yet our failures can ultimately be borne only through disciplined remembrance of the plenitude of presence. And the only true failure would be to forget that.