The Failure of Failure

Since I began writing, I have only ever had one window open when I write. That one window has always been a single piece of paper in a notebook. I still write longhand, so I still write with only one window open.

(How many windows and tabs are open on your computer screen now as you are reading this? More than one? As long as capital keeps you distracted from realizing that you are distracted, the creeps win, and you live the life “they” design for you to live, not your own life.)

"Protect me from what I want." Jenny Holzer

"Protect me from what I want." Jenny Holzer

Having only this one window open allows artists not only to focus and concentrate, but also to contemplate what they are creating and, most importantly, it allows artists to see, to tend to the scene that is being explored, to pay attention to it in visceral, intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic ways. (There is an important difference between looking at something and seeing into something, between seeing a character and seeing into a character. Remember, seeing demands that we forget the name of the thing seen. And forgetting is a difficult journey, one fraught often with remembering displacing forgetting, and with blindness covering over insight.

To see, we need innocent intoxication, and we need to be playful with such innocence.

We need to cultivate solitude, to quiet the noise that pulls us away from the seeing. We need to devote time in our lives to uncertainty. This will require that we make choices, instead of excuses. This will require courage. Thinking and creating art demands uncertainty and frustration.

I decided to teach because I think that any person who studies philosophy has to be involved actively. Angela Davis

I decided to teach because I think that any person who studies philosophy has to be involved actively. Angela Davis

Many young artists rush to quote Old Sam’s delightful witticism: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” As if Beckett himself said this. Think of the hours of each day, the days of each week, the weeks of each month, the months of each year, the years of our lives that we must devote to this practice of failure in order for our failures to lead us somewhere. And, remember, there is no guarantee that all these failures will lead us anywhere. Perhaps these failures will only lead us to other failures.

So we need to love the joy of our process of seeing and thinking our way into the world. Because if we deeply love this process, then there is always a reward, a joy of seeing, in each failure, but if we only do it in order for it to be recognized, if our joy is dependent upon the acknowledgment and acceptance of others, well, then…we may want to do something else.

But even this act of merely quoting Beckett is problematic. Look at the proliferation of pithy quotes used by “people” as status updates on Facebook or on Instagram or Tumblr and so on. (And anyone who knows me knows I would never use the word “pithy” in a sentence, unless I am upset about something. I am from Western Pennsylvania for chrissakes. And after all is said and done, actually before anything said or done, pithy is an adjective, and everyone knows how I feel about adjectives.

"I work with pictures and words because they have the ability to determine who we are, what we want, and who we become." --Barbara Kruger

"I work with pictures and words because they have the ability to determine who we are, what we want, and who we become." --Barbara Kruger

I bet there is a website for pithy quotes of pithy quotes with pithy quotes so that pithy people will never have to read the whole of a book to discover something inside that book that speaks to them; people could just rely on the pithy quotes other pithy people have found for them, so that they can live their lives under the umbrella of pithy quotes found by others.

(This is simply one more way of giving our lives over to others, instead of taking responsibility for living our own lives, for creating our lives, by exploring the world around us. Now, if the pithy quote led someone to read the book that the pithy quote was lifted from, then the pithy quote was not so pithy after all.)

The Beckett quote, for example, is seriously and carelessly torn out of context. (I would, in fact, by matter of fact, by matter of reading, suggest that Beckett never said this.) And most people who quote this “pithy”, easily digested bit of wisdom from Beckett have not read the book it is in. How is it possible to quote something without having devoted the time to reading the whole book? How arrogant is that? How do you even know what the passage is about? How do you even know the quote is there? Or anywhere? Do you know how much writing Beckett had to do in order to find a way to think that thought? Have you experienced the joy of reading the whole of the narrative that Beckett wrote that led to this moment in the book? 

"Are you experienced?"  --Jimi Hendrix

"Are you experienced?" --Jimi Hendrix

You do not have my permission, nor do you have Sam’s permission, to quote anything, unless you have read the whole book. Seriously. On his deathbed, Beckett told Raymond Federman and me this. He even said it in English so that Federman would not simply make up some extravagant French story about what Beckett said. This matters. Beckett said, unquote me, Ray. Federman went home that very day and removed the quotation mark key from his typewriter, and that, my dear friends, was the birth of Federman The Penman. True story. Seriously. Neither Federman, nor Rice, has ever made up a story just to fit a moment in time.

Failure demands a mindful discipline, not casual mistake-making.

Therein lies the rub, you sweet innocents, those of you virginal souls who celebrate what you feel is the meaning beneath Beckett’s “celebration” of failure. Only a fool celebrates failure. That is why it is so easy to post Beckett’s unnameable frustration onto social network pages. The quote "fits" any occasion, and if, as old Bill once said, everything is permitted then nothing is true.

People desire their friends to click “like” to glorify their public display of failure. Your friends “like” that you failed. No, wait, they “like” that you have the narcissistic “courage” to publicly expose yourself. (Oh, sweet Jesus, bring back the Medieval stocks…) And, they click "like" knowing, or at least hoping, that you will easily succeed the next time, suggesting that failure automatically implies success with the next effort, or that every failure simply leads to growth. (This is one, and only one, of the many differences between you and Saint Teresa de Avila, who insisted that she be locked in her room to experience her tremors privately, rather than be used as a public display of religious ecstasy. I doubt Saint Teresa would have used Facebook status updates to announce her new moments of ecstasy.)

Most people will never truly fail. Failure takes too much work. Most will merely make mistakes, and mistakes are simply careless errors that any fool can make and that any fool can correct. Failure, on the other hand, is soul diminishing. It rips into your heart and muscle. Failure is complex desires run amok by someone trying to go deeper than is possible, and no amount of “correction” can fix failure. Failure tears sentences apart at the very seams, and demands a whole new way of seeing and of being in the world and with their work.

That is the definition of truth, it is the thing you must not say. “The miracle into which the child and the poet walk” [Tsvetaeva] as if walking home, and home is there…The thing that is both known and unknown, this is what we are looking for when we write. We go toward the most unknown and the best unknown, this is what we are looking for when we write. We go toward the best known unknown thing, where knowing and not knowing touch, where we hope we will know what is unknown. Where we hope we will not be afraid of understanding the incomprehensible, facing invisible, hearing the inaudible, thinking the unthinkable, which is of course: thinking. Thinking is trying to think the unthinkable: thinking the thinkable is not worth the effort. Painting is trying to paint what you cannot paint and writing is writing what you cannot know before you have written: it is preknowing and not knowing, blindly, with words. It occurs at the point where blindness and light meet. Kafka says—one very small line lost in his writing—“to the depths, to the depths.”
— Helene Cixous

Reading the whole of a book—instead of relying on someone else to find something important to quote from the book for you, or relying on (and trusting) Google to sort through a book for you—is important for an artist on many levels. Let us go back a bit. Thinking and/or creating art demands uncertainty. To be uncertain demands time, a commitment to time, a devotion to thinking. Answers, or piles of information (which some people mistake for knowledge), do not demand time; too often, answers/information merely require Google, and moderate typing skills (remember, and fear this, Google will autocorrect your desires to fit their needs), and then the “profound” skill of cutting and pasting.

"Money talks. It makes art. It determines what food we eat, whether we are cured or die, and what shoes we wear." --Barbara Kruger

"Money talks. It makes art. It determines what food we eat, whether we are cured or die, and what shoes we wear." --Barbara Kruger

Think of Google as the drive-thru window of a fast food restaurant. (And I use the words food and restaurant in the preceding sentence only in, at best, a Baudrillardian way, as empty as empty can be.) What is lost in such a way of believing that you are thinking when you Google anything, or of believing that you are in the world when you are staring at a screen, is the experience of the mind working through language toward uncertainty.

It is never simply what philosophers have to say, but how philosophers work their way to some hope for understanding and insight. They do not define ideas; they explore ideas. Their movement toward the moment of being matters. The dance of their intellect. The play of their syntax. The desire of their words teasing other words into becoming. Google cannot give you such wonder. Only you can give yourself such a gift. Uncertainty demands time, demands patience. As readers, as humans, we need to experience complexity, not memes.

"Deviants are sacrificed to increase group solidarity."--Jenny Holzer

"Deviants are sacrificed to increase group solidarity."--Jenny Holzer

Remember, even if you are an “intellectual”, especially if you actually think you are an “intellectual”, you have to fight the power. But first you must find the power operating on you even as you believe you are a radical operating outside systems.

Radio Raheem. Rest in power, Bill Nunn.

If you truly want to fail, and not simply make mistakes, my advice is to devote yourself to one window. Invest in a notebook, one that does not have wifi. Here is an example of such a notebook:

"Cultivate courage and bravery and a sense of humor to go on." --Pema Chodron

"Cultivate courage and bravery and a sense of humor to go on." --Pema Chodron

And, invest in a manual typewriter.

One of the advantages of a manual typewriter (aside from slowing a writer down and forcing a writer to actually intend and to mean each letter the writer pounds onto the keys of the typewriter, is that while using a manual typewriter, writers can only ever have one window open at a time. I still remember seeing one page of paper in John Gardner’s manual typewriter—that one window into the world of the fiction that he was creating. Imagine if John were to have five pages of paper, five windows, in his manual typewriter (as perhaps some of you may have five windows open on your computer screen). How could he see into or out through all five windows? How could he concentrate on all five windows? How could he avoid being distracted by one window while looking into another window? I dare you to try to look out five windows at once. And even if you can do this, why would you want to?

I know many of you young ones will say that, unlike those dead artists, who had to, and could only concentrate on one thing at a time, or unlike old-timers like me, you can multi-task. But, well, but, seriously.

"You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time." --Angela Davis

"You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time." --Angela Davis

So, we have come to our end, and I have one final question: how many windows do you still have open on your computer screen while you are reading this? 


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