On Failing In Our Own Style

In Flaubert’s Parrot (Vintage International, New York, 1990, pp. 39) Julian Barnes writes:

But then Ed Winterton liked to present himself as a failure….

His air of failure had nothing desperate about it; rather, it seemed to stem from an unresented realisation that he was not cut out for success, and his duty was therefore to ensure only that he failed in a correct and acceptable fashion.

We are reminded, in many walks of life, that it is not only winning that is important, we must lose, if such is our fate, with dignity too. This ‘American academic,’ whose biography of Edmund Gosse will almost certainly never be completed (perhaps because the weight of its own ambition drags it down and renders onward movement impossible), has found his own unique realization of that state of grace–a state not suffused with bitterness and resentment. Success is not imminent; failure is highly probable; better to not rage against the dying light if that rage were to result in further indignities being heaped upon an already bowed head, a knee already bent.  Cut the line; sink gently to the bottom.

A realization that many dreamed of projects–members of the dreaded ‘bucket list’–will not ever be made manifest is sometimes said to dawn in ‘middle age.’ (The scare quotes indicate that ‘middle age’ is not a precise chronological quantity.) Then, our bodies betray us with ever greater frequency, we realize–thanks to a clear remembrance of the past–that a pattern of behavior we have been trying desperately to modify has been an ever-present feature of our selves, and that new habits are increasingly harder to form. Self-improvement becomes intractable; we become tired of the role of Sisyphus we have been cast in. We had imagined for ourselves an endless and infinitely renewable plasticity; we had extended ourselves and pushed against the bounds of our being and capabilities; but we find familiar barriers blocking our path onwards and upwards.

Under such circumstances Ed Winterton’s strategy is an eminently respectable one–even if not beloved of those who compose inspirational quotations for calendars and internet memes. At some point, we cease the straining and start to find greater comfort in homilies that urge us to accept ourselves for who we are, to not live for the future, but for the present. These now appeal to our sensibility–a more ambitious version of which had scorned them in the past. Now they appear to speak to a truth previously unglimpsed.

The notion of ‘a correct and acceptable fashion’ for failure introduces a wrinkle of course. It is unclear whose standards of correctness and acceptability we are to follow as we decide to settle for failure. Surely, we cannot imitate and emulate other failures; they are failures after all. The ambiguity of such a description provides hope then for one last signature gesture. If we are to fail, then we must fail in our own distinctive style; we must choose its manner and time and mode of expression. (Remember the bit about unhappy families being unhappy in their own particular way.) If we cannot succeed, then let us not at least fail at failing.

Mary McCarthy on Madame Bovary as Neurotic

Among the most famous descriptions of Emma Bovary are Mary McCarthy‘s cutting lines:

[She] is a very ordinary middle-class woman, with banal expectations of life and an urge to dominate her surroundings. Her character is remarkable only for an unusual deficiency of natural feeling.

Ouch.

But what follows these lines is a perhaps more interesting set of observations:

Emma is trite; what happens to her is trite.  Her story does not hold a single surprise for the reader, who can say at every stage, ‘I felt it coming.’ Her end is inevitable, but not as a classic doom, which is perceived as inexorable only when it is complete. It is inevitable because it is ordinary. Anyone could have prophesied what would become of Emma–her mother-in-law for instance. It did not need a Tiresias. If you compare her story with that of Anna Karenina, you are aware of the pathos of Emma’s. Anna is never pathetic; she is tragic, and what happens to her, up to the very end, is always surprising, for real passions and moral strivings are at work, which have the power of ‘making it new.’ In this her story is distinct from an ordinary society scandal of the period. Nor could any ordinary society prophet have forecast Anna’s fate. ‘He will get tired her and leave her,’ they would have said of Vronsky. He did not. But Rodolphe could have been counted on to drop Emma, and Leon to grow frightened of her and bored.

Where destiny is no more than average probability, it appears inescapable in a particularly depressing way. This is because any element in it can be replaced by a substitute without changing the outcome; e.g., if Rodolphe had not materialized, Emma would have found someone else. But if Anna had not met Vronsky on the train, she would still be married to Karenin. Vronsky is necessary, whereas Rodolphe and Leon are interchangeable parts in a machine that is engaged in mass production of human fates.

This is certainly an acute way to capture the contrast between a tragic fate and a merely pathetic one. It also, quite perspicuously, makes us cast Anna Karenina as the heroine of an existential drama, one not driven to her destiny, but one who remains in command till her tragic end. Societal compulsions may seem to have exerted inexorable pressure on her life, and made it hew to a precise trajectory, but as McCarthy notes, there remains a great deal of surprise to be found in each fork of the path she traveled. This sense of surprise ensures Anna Karenina works as a suspenseful novel; we are aware of tragedy looming, but still unclear about its exact contours. Of course, even in Emma’s case, her ‘end’ is not precisely determined, but that she would be forever condemned to her relentless, misery-making dissatisfaction seems preordained. In so doing, Emma resembles nothing as much as Freud‘s neurotics, destined to endlessly, helplessly, repeat a recurring pattern, and indeed, finding their only comfort in its reenactments.

Note: Excerpts from the 1964 Signet Classic edition of Madame Bovary featuring a translation by Mildred Marmur, a foreword by Mary McCarthy and excerpts from Gustave Flaubert‘s trial on obscenity charges in 1857.