In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility by Costica Bradatan - review by Alexander Raubo

Alexander Raubo

The Art of Losing

In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility


Harvard University Press 288pp £26.95

If failure has anything to teach us, it is how to avoid it. This is, I believe, a common view. Those of an entrepreneurial mindset preach in addition the need to overcome a fear of failure and open oneself up to taking the calculated risks that promise the biggest returns. Start-up gurus and lifehackers are fond of quoting Beckett’s ‘Worstward Ho to express their attitude to failure: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Costica Bradatan, who calls his book ‘Beckettian’, chooses another fragment from that work as his mantra: ‘Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.’

‘Life is a chronic, addictive sickness,’ Bradatan tells us in his prologue, before offering up a ‘failure-based therapy’ for this dispiriting ailment. The cure, as detailed in the book, is exemplified by the lives of four figures: a mystic who starved herself to death (Simone Weil), a loincloth-wearing fakir assassinated for his political failures (Mahatma Gandhi), a philosopher tramp for whom the highest ethical principle was never to work (E M Cioran) and a Japanese Don Quixote who committed suicide by seppuku (Yukio Mishima). These remarkable people ‘teach us how to live well – spiritually well: that is, how to break the deadening patterns with which life continuously entangles us’. It’s a morbid-sounding cure, though Bradatan sets it out in an entertaining way, interspersing biographical sketches of the main figures with analogous stories involving other figures – Gandhi is compared to Robespierre, Cioran to Orwell, Mishima to Seneca – and short philosophical essays sprinkled with moral maxims.

The book is structured as a ‘Dantesque’ journey through concentric circles, dealing with, in turn, physical, political, social and biological failure. We begin with Weil’s frailty and her short stint as a factory worker before moving on to the ironies of Gandhi’s non-violent political programme by way of a digression on Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens. In the two chapters covering all this, an argument emerges: failure induces humility and humility is necessary for democracy. The persuasiveness of this argument is undermined somewhat by Bradatan’s concurrent discussion of Hitler, in which he quotes Thomas Mann’s description of the Führer as ‘a man ten times a failure’. To deal with such a troubling counterexample, Bradatan resorts to the No True Scotsman fallacy: ‘Failure always humbles. If it doesn’t, it’s not real failure.’ There might be no reliable causal link between failure and humility, but we can still assert that failure ought to humble. What he offers is a normative argument for why we should be humbled by failure rather than, like Hitler and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, see failure as a mere ‘stepping-stone to success’.

Humility turns failure into an escape from the forces – economic, social, biological – that define the terms of success but obfuscate the nature of being. The dualism of nature and spirit characteristic of Gnosticism is fundamental to Bradatan’s argument: nature must be overcome; only then can we live spiritually well. ‘Life’, the aforementioned ‘sickness’, is characterised by a fundamental drive to differentiate and thereby stratify beings. We are wired biologically to compete with each other in a zero-sum game where one person’s success is another person’s failure. To succeed in this base game for resources is to fail at another, more significant game: that of being human. Humans in Bradatan’s eyes are not featherless bipeds or rational animals but the only creatures who can recognise failure. It is this failure-detecting faculty, rather than, say, Aristotle’s nous, that makes us fully human.

Bradatan’s Gnostic anthropology is at odds with the modern paradigm of Homo economicus – the instrumentally rational agent whose actions are based on the extent to which they will help achieve his ends. He quotes Cioran: ‘Only one thing matters: learning to be the loser.’ While Weil’s and Gandhi’s worldly failures aided their spiritual quests and Mishima had a seemingly lifelong obsession with noble death, Cioran’s bumbling was more prosaic, his poverty and senescent Alzheimer’s unredeemed by personal faith. Yet of all the figures here, Cioran casts the most light on the condition of modern life. As we read in the third chapter, the term ‘loser’ used to designate someone who has suffered a material loss, whether through accident or in business, but it has come to mean, as Scott Sandage explains in Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, something more akin to ‘lost soul’.

Bradatan borrows from Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to explain modern attitudes to failure: a vulgarisation of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination – salvation for the few – makes the laity think that grace is manifested in wealth and worldly success, thus marking socioeconomical losers as fated for damnation. Bradatan contrasts predestination and its friendliness to the accumulation of capital with the early Christian heresy, promulgated by Origen, of apokatastasis, or universal salvation. ‘We may be in this world, but are not of this world,’ Bradatan states in the prologue, but it’s only three quarters of the way in that we understand what he means by this. The true doctrines and supreme goods of democracy and apokatastasis go against our biological and social natures: we need to follow Cioran and learn to be losers to secure them.

At times a philosophical essay, at others a political pamphlet framed with a Gnostic sermon, In Praise of Failure is an entertaining, thought-provoking and sometimes bewildering book that gets better as it progresses. While many books overpromise and underdeliver, In Praise of Failure does the opposite. In this regard it should be considered a success.

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