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Home Uncategorized A Fetish for Failure

A Fetish for Failure

Eva Kenny
In midsummer 2016, as I drew ever closer to finishing a long doctoral dissertation on Samuel Beckett, I described to a friend’s boyfriend my alarm at the trend towards portraying a popular, uplifting Beckett that I kept reading about in the New York Times weekend supplement. I was worried I would have to change my topic. The lines that appeared again and again, everywhere, as if in a nightmare, are: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Taken from the first page of Beckett’s late prose work Worstward Ho, the phrase was, for a while, Silicon Valley’s mantra, along with “Move fast and break things.” Richard Branson, Tim Ferriss, John C Maxwell and other entrepreneurs have cited it as inspiration and, despite the wealth of competing options from the same text ‑ “Till then gnaw on. All gnaw on. To be gone” for instance ‑ it is tattooed across the forearm of Swiss tennis player Stan Wawrinka. Within this corporate logic, the fashion for failure, particularly for failing forwards or upfailing is “an essential stage in the individual’s progress toward lucrative self-fulfillment”, as Mark O’Connell put it in one of the many think-pieces that responded to the craze. To “fail better” means to take risks, accept imperfection and get up again after every knockback or rejection. It means, really, to try again and to keep going, despite persistent discouragement. “So your job, as a grad student,” this boyfriend quipped mercilessly, “is to make Beckett gloomy and depressing again.” He was right, and that is exactly what I will now try to do. Worstward Ho, as The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett reminds us, is where Beckett’s “aesthetics of failure coalesce into pursuit of the worst. If language by definition fails, paring it down to the ‘meremost minimum’ may result in better failures, as in SB’s working title, ‘Better worse’. The starting point was King Lear, most notably ‘The worst is not so long as one can say, This is the worst;’”: another pitiless mantra for when nothing else will cheer you. To put it in a sentence: when, in 2016, an infomercial about opiate-induced constipation aired during the Super Bowl, one might well have said “This is the worst.” And yet Donald Trump had not even been elected. These “aesthetics of failure” were a persistent preoccupation for Beckett. Between fagged and faint in the New Oxford Thesaurus of English lie some of his signature verbs:…

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