Samuel Beckett, for all the morbidity in his prose, has credited to him a famous quote that is considered an epitome of optimism towards a successful future. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” The irony here is that the quote, taken out of context from his especially morose short work “Worstward Ho!” is actually about failure in itself, not failure as a rite of passage to success. This following piece is about failure or rather the importance of public failure in the context of perceived success. But before we delve into that, we need to take a cursory look at what success is.
There are 2 broad types of successes. One born out of a multitude of factors (individually and/or collectively) including having exceptional qualities or abilities, being born into privilege, unwavering determination, fierce ambition coupled with a work ethic to match, right place/right time or just plain luck. And the other born of ‘Failure’, failure through repetitious hard work. Yes, that big F word.
Earlier, the connotations of the word raised eyebrows so high that they would blend into head hair if you still had any. But in the recent past, the word has been enjoying legendary status in the context of achieving success – mostly thanks to Beckett’s quote. The term failure has almost come to symbolize a certain ‘cool’ before you succeed. Generally, failure is considered the thing of the underdog. And for failure to be overcome it needs to be romanticized – that the underdog is someone who is an every-person, the quintessential loser, for whom winning or success has always been out of reach. So when the underdog finally does win, there is this almost perverse pleasure in their success that arises due to the already existing, common knowledge of their propensity to fail. So that when people talk about them, their failure is fodder for their conversation and they can ‘sympathize’ with the winning underdogs and expound on how they surpassed all odds to win. So people can feel good about themselves telling each other the underdog’s rags to riches or David Vs Goliath stories.
While failing may be a stepping stone to success, there’s another dimension at play here. There is a need to take the concept of failure one step ahead because not only is it important to ‘fail’ to succeed, it is equally important to fail ‘publicly’ and make a spectacle of failure, than to relegate it to an audience of just a few. So if and when one finally reaches a place of purported success, their success will seem even larger. While it is considered that failure is a rite of passage for success, its public acknowledgement is almost equally a stepping stone to a heightened perception of your success, otherwise one could be written off as an overnight success discounting all the work they put in. Society will not only accept with open arms and lift higher a person who has failed successfully in its eyes (than a successful person who comes from a position of privilege and power) but also exalt the person and accord them a higher level of success. So from the interpretation of Beckett’s out of context quote, failing is good. But then, failing publicly is even better.
Failing publicly may not necessarily mean not achieving a lofty or sought-after goal. But also that you create a work that could very likely be commendable and considered substantial, and yet be criticized, condemned and in more recent parlance ‘trolled’ for achieving that goal. Which is to say that that may also be a ‘failure’ but one that will definitely help in the individual’s journey to ‘greater’ success because, according to society, they have been subject to the rites of passage – the belief that one must suffer to deserve(forget achieve) any kind of greatness. Or should it be, to deserve any kind of success, one must have failed miserably in their journey towards that.
Another type of failing publicly does not have to anything with the intention or trying to achieve success. It may not even be called failing, but in India, it can be considered an essential pre-requisite to achieve a certain category of success. This type involves being humiliated, entangled in scandals and/or crossing over to the other side of the law, simply put, going to jail – phenomena commonly seen in politics or spirituality. A politician formerly embroiled in some form of controversy is more widely known and eventually accepted when he wins an election. Since today many politicians in India have some kind of a criminal record, it would almost lead one to believe that you cannot be as widely successful in politics without a little notoriety.
And in many cases, having a criminal record – a popular form of ‘failing publicly’ among politicians – is almost a guarantee for the same individuals achieving unprecedented success when they return back to their bastions. In India, people almost seem to feel a sense of condescending compassion and bequeath on these very individuals a renewed entitlement to the throne that they think they so deserve. Even in spirituality, god men in India involved in scandals(according them public failure) are actually given a new lease on their popularity with increased vigour. As they say, even bad publicity is good publicity, but there has to be publicity of that bad publicity. And the more dramatic and romanticized the bad publicity, the more one’s propensity to succeed.
The concept of public failure applies very much to art, writing and film circles as well. When an unknown filmmaker’s first film bombs(or gets lost in oblivion), it has to bomb spectacularly and cinematically in the public eye for him/her to amplify the success of their next film, that is, if they get to make it. As they are out with their next, their failed first film needs to be touted and projected almost like a saga of epic failure. And if at all they get the opportunity to give interviews, those too should be dramatic and drummed up. The pain of failure must be talked about, the struggles exemplified clearly. Of course, there should be something redeeming about the work, but it has to be a non-success and people should talk about what pathetic conditions the filmmaker had to endure with the failure of their debut work.
Even in crowd-funding campaigns, project owners are secretly advised to advertise their underdog status aka failures more than their past successes. It is supposed to give potential backers something to relate to when they are considering contributing. That is why even in art, it is considered that artists who suffer the most are the ones that can produce great art. Or again, should we say, great artists metamorphose from suffering artists, artists living in poverty, artists who have all the right attributes of failure. But that calls for an entirely new thread on how to understand and handle failure by romanticizing suffering as evident by the fact that these days on social media, people celebrate, encourage and promote their failures, trials and errors rather than the actual success because once succeeded, they do not need to.
[Stanzin Raghu is an indie filmmaker. He wrote about his first film, Ayynoorum Ayynthum – 500 & 5, on this blog]