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In Praise of Failure by Costica Bradatan

Paul J. D’Ambrosio looks at the sorts of successes to which failure can lead.

Scholars are under pressure to write books for general audiences: so-called ‘trade books’. These are books that not only can be read by non-academics, but that people would actually want to read. It’s a hard sell – in every sense.

Many who write such books court popularity by appealing to a sort of authenticity-based ‘celebrate who you are’. Not that scholars should not be in the business of self-help – indeed, it might just be one of the humanities’ most important functions – but kitsch stories about ‘My experience with my Grandma one summer’, clichés like ‘How I learned to appreciate small things’, and anodyne tips like ‘It’s really up to you what you want to take from such-and-such philosophy’ do not really challenge readers. Such unabashed subservience to the reader’s existing opinions and feelings has nothing to do with philosophy. Or to write in that very fashion, I would say: “Those phrases make me sick!” By contrast, In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility (2023) is a book that nearly anyone can read, and yet it will spark reflection in even the most seasoned professor. Both highly readable and thought-provoking, Costica Bradatan challenges readers theoretically, but also, and perhaps more importantly, challenges them on a more practical level. And the topic is as unusual as it is timely.

In our times of multiple crises, and especially for us who live in cultures where success is directly analogous to dignity, failure is something we all experience in penetrating ways. We viscerally felt the pangs of successive lapses in the normal patterns of life through the impact of Covid-19. Other large-scale challenges, including those to democracy, to world order, and to the very survival of the planet, can cause us to fear failure across its full spectrum – from the harsh everydayness of our own blunders and defeats, to the broadest ‘failure of the human race’. In Praise of Failure speaks to our crises, to failure, and to everyone’s ability to take a step back and think – or to humbly think again.

The Titanic
The Titanic leaving Southampton on April 10th 1912. Good luck to her!

Bradatan places this work squarely in the tradition of ‘self-help’, and claims to offer ‘failure-based therapy’ (p.2): Failure always humbles, and “ In Praise of Failure is not about failure for its own sake… but about the humility that failure engenders, and the healing process that it triggers” (p.5). In this context, Bradatan offers four lessons about physical, political, social, and biological failure, to trigger reflection and ultimately healing in his readers.

Failure is understood as a breakdown of predictability and control. It is experienced as “disconnection, disruption, or discomfort” in the face of our expectations. When normal or expected patterns break down, and we then feel empty, this is failure. Everyone experiences failure; it is part of each person’s past and future, and probably their present as well. However, the author is not interested in giving specific advice for dealing with general ways in which people fail; nor does he suggest particular strategies for developing humility. Instead In Praise of Failure traces the lives of those who lived with failure, and who learned from it.

Today, ‘learning’ often refers to the acquisition of rules, theorems, principles, or facts. Even when we think of, for example, learning to drive, we imagine the driving instructor telling a young driver what to do and testing their knowledge. Yet experience is paramount, and more time on the road is the best way to become a better driver. But before an adolescent ever sits in the driver’s seat, there is much they already know about driving. Having been a passenger for countless car rides, the youngster already knows a lot about the rules of the road, including the unwritten ones.

Bradatan tackles the various arenas of failure through his well-honed biographical sketching skills. Drawing on diverse sources, from the French mystic Simone Weil, to Mahatma Gandhi, to the nihilist Romanian writer-philosopher E. M. Cioran, to Japan’s famous writer and failed coup instigator Yukio Mishima, and even the suicidal Stoic Seneca, Bradatan’s lessons are transmitted through learning about the lives of those who lived well in failure.

Not a nihilist himself, the messages Bradatan draws out are, as he puts it, from someone who doesn’t always know how to smile. “We can,” he writes, “use the experience of failure to extricate ourselves from the entanglement of existence (physical, political, social, biological), with a view to gaining a better understanding of it, and in the hope of leading a more enlightened and wiser life” (p.232).

In Praise of Failure does not promise potential lemonade from the bitterness. Sometimes failure is just failure, nothing more. We do not always ‘turn a new leaf’, ‘understand that everything happens for a reason’, or extract that ever-evanescent ‘silver lining’. We can learn that some demands are unreasonable, that our world and ourselves are ridden with cracks, and that there is a fundamental precariousness in all expectations of success.

As the back cover blurb goes, Bradatan “breaches the boundaries between argument and storytelling, scholarship and spiritual quest.” In Praise of Failure will spark critical reflection in any reader, and provide lessons that are not merely parochial. Most refreshingly, it is not a mere celebration of the self and all the things one already thinks and feels. Rather, it challenges the assumption of success in a most cynical, upsetting, and (possibly) redemptive way: you will fail, and that might just be that.

Despite lavishing praise on failures of all types, Bradatan fails miserably at failing. In Praise of Failure is, by any account, a great success.

© Paul J. D’Ambrosio 2023

Paul J. D’Ambrosio is Professor of Chinese Philosophy at East China Normal University, Shanghai.

In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility by Costica Bradatan, Harvard University Press, 2023, 272pp, £21.95 hb, ISBN: 0674970470

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