I don’t know if misery loves company but I’m convinced that failure does. Losers like us are prone to revel in the losses of our enemies and to draw comfort from the failures of family and friends. If they have survived, so can we. When his projects fall flat, my son likes nothing better than to hear about the wreckage of mine: romantic fiascos, flunked tests, athletic defeats.
Joe Moran’s new book could have been written for him. ‘To those who have failed,’ he writes, ‘I offer no advice, only solace.’ The solace mainly takes the form of stories. Appointed in 1897 to a chair at Heidelberg, the sociologist Max Weber suffered a nervous breakdown and eventually resigned. (He went on to write The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, about the moral elevation of hard work.) Moran’s poster child for impostor syndrome, the Italian author Natalia Ginzburg, considered herself a failure throughout her life. (Among other brilliant works, she is known for an essay called ‘Laziness’.) In a final case study, Moran describes a failed artist who ‘neither learnt from his failures nor wished to learn’; he finished few paintings and is most famous for a fresco whose colours began to flake before he died. (This was Leonardo da Vinci.)
These stories are beautifully told, and they are comforting at first. Even angels fall, or feel as though they have fallen. Shouldn’t I be forgiving with myself? But one has second thoughts, since these figures are actually paragons of success. What about those who really fail? To quote the cartoonist