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Ever so 'Umble: A Critique of Self-Help that is itself a Form of Self-Help

Costica Bradatan, In Praise of Failure. Four Lessons in Humility | Book Review By Anna Katharina Schaffner

Philosophy | Book Review | TLS

Originally published on 21 April 2023 in the Times Literary Supplement

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Samuel Beckett’s lines “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” have become something of a cliché in the literature of self-help. Many entrepreneurs and personal development practitioners now consider failure a necessary stepping stone towards success.

Freed of its ancient stigma – at least in theory – failure has been rebranded as a key component of lifelong learning. It is now seen as both an inevitable and an instructive experience for anyone courageous enough to step outside their comfort zone. Just as the analysis of the black box after a plane crash is mandatory for making air travel safer, so is analysing our failures in helping us to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Commonplace phrases such as “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “there is no such thing as failure, only learning” attest to the pervasiveness of the modern growth-mindset view of failure. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the lightbulb, is famous for claiming: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.

Costica Bradatan takes issue with such an optimistic vision of failure, reminding us of what follows Beckett’s words about failing better: “Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good”. Beckett’s programmatically titled Worstward Hois in fact a deliberate counterpoint to our collective fetishization of success and our belief in progress, personal and otherwise.

Nobody could accuse Bradatan of being an optimist. In fact, he frequently succeeds in making inveterate miserabilists such as Schopenhauer seem positively cheerful. Bradatan holds that our “next-to-nothingness” constitutes the naked truth of our existence. In addition to being cosmically irrelevant, we are fragile, clumsy, conceited, power-hungry, often cruel and, of course, incurably mortal. Failure, he argues, awakens us to the dark reality of the human condition. Tearing the veil of vanity and self-deception from our eyes, it forces us to stare into the abyss of our existential insignificance.

Although Bradatan critiques the literature of self-help, In Praise of Failure: Four lessons in humility is in fact a self-help book of sorts. Advocating a dark form of philosophical awakening, it posits radical humility as the pathway to a more truthful view of ourselves. Only failure can help us to transcend our needy egos, and gain genuine self-understanding. Failure alone can cure us from the umbilicus mundisyndrome, our “pathological inclination to place ourselves at the center of everything, and to fancy ourselves far more important than we are”. It offers a correction to our hubristic delusions of significance and rubs our noses in the dust from which we emerged, and to which we shall inevitably return. Fittingly, Bradatan describes his own approach as a “mud cure” and reminds us that the etymological origin of humility is humus, earth.

He defines failure as “whatever we experience as a disconnection, disruption, or discomfort in the course of our patterned interaction with the world and others, when something ceases to be, or work, or happen as expected”. Bradatan approaches his topic through four main case studies, interspersed with various sub-narratives, additional examples and digressions. Moving through concentrically tightening circles of failure, he begins with the physical – clumsy, frail, failing bodies that let us down. The French philosopher turned mystic Simone Weil is his core example here, with Charlie Chaplin’s tramp in a supporting role. Weil was chronically ill and, apparently, spectacularly clumsy, engaged in a merciless struggle against her disappointing body, which she eventually left behind by starving herself to death.

Mahatma Gandhi, driven by his “compulsive need for purity and perfection”, serves to illustrate the depressing mechanics of political failure, while the Romanian-born philosopher E. M. Cioran features in the chapter on social failure. Cioran prided himself on doing nothing, conscientiously objecting to the idea of social productivity and refusing to privilege work over anything else. The Japanese writer and bodybuilder Yukio Mishima, finally, plays the lead role in the vignette on biological failure. Mishima killed himself in a highly ritualized samurai fashion, committing hara-kiri in public. Yet despite his meticulous planning he died in a tragically botched way. His example sheds light not just on the kinship between philosophy and death, but on the attempt to master our fear of death by planning a “good death”. Cameos in Bradatan’s book include the Cynic Diogenes, George Orwell and the Stoic Seneca, who also knew a thing or two about the art of memento mori and botched suicide attempts.

It has to be said that many of Bradatan’s case studies feature fairly unpleasant extremists, situated either on the far left or the far right of the political spectrum. Three of them openly admired the Nazis at some point in their lives. They do not present compelling visions of being in this world and, in deliberate contradiction to classic self-help fashion, are not presented to us in any sense as role models. They are, however, compellingly corrosive visionaries. All of them, moreover, translated their philosophies of life into action. Weil, Gandhi, Cioran and Mishima practised humility in such a radical manner that it was in danger of turning once again into its opposite – hubris.

Gandhi seems the odd one out in this constellation. Given his success in compelling the British colonizers to leave India through non-violent means, we do not tend to associate him with failure. But Bradatan is more interested in what happened afterwards, homing in on the deep division and mass violence that ensued after the country was granted independence, and on the millions who were killed or wounded. We also learn much about Gandhi’s personal failures and shortcomings, which he painstakingly documented in his confessionary autobiography – a resounding j’accuse against himself. Gandhi’s greatest failure, Bradatan suggests, was arguably “his cavalier attitude towards the death of others, the nonchalance with which he would deploy other people in his own battles, making them martyrs for a cause they were not always sufficiently informed about”.

The author’s compelling plea for moral, existential and spiritual humility is particularly convincing in his discussion of losers – that is, those who fail socially. The manner in which “a community constructs its losers and failures”, he writes, “is never innocent. Tell me how you define social failure, and I will tell you a few things about yourself – about your biggest dreams and your worst fears”. Not only do losers act as a mirror that reveals our greatest anxieties, they also make our successes stand out. Losers are the dialectical counterparts to winners. Remember that a “loser”, for the forty-fifth president of the United States, was the worst thing a person could be. And that, even now, he remains unable to see himself as belonging to that category. How we construct the idea of the loser is related to some of our basic psychological needs for differentiation and purity, as well as to our fear of contagion, our compulsion to exclude and our anxieties about personal worth. Moreover, as Bradatan argues, the process is replete with religious echoes. Losers are the damned, the bad human material that makes the saved shine all the more brightly. In that sense they are reminiscent of Calvin’s reprobates – the eternal losers in the inscrutable game of predestination.

Charming and brilliant as Bradatan’s provocation is, there are occasions when the relentless misanthropy of his intellectual heroes becomes tiring. How many of us would agree that, all things considered, it is better not to have been born, as Cioran passionately argues? Yet, although the visions of his subjects are fundamentally ugly, Bradatan’s prose is anything but: characterized by a savage beauty, it frequently aspires to the aphoristic. On Weil he writes: “She had lived off self-starvation – and thrived”. On death he asserts: “To live well is to know how to accept our finitude, how to conquer our fear of death, and, in general, given our fundamental next-to-nothingness, how to dwell on the edge of the abyss without losing our bearings”. And on fragility he states: “As things fail to perform their function, they expose the fundamental precariousness of the world around us”.

Ultimately, and fortunately, Costica Bradatan transcends the pessimistic visions of Cioran and co, for it is clear that he believes in the possibility of spiritual progress once we have been sufficiently humbled by failure. Above all, humility changes our perspective and broadens our frame of reference. A form of cosmic intelligence, humility, if properly embraced, can be “rejuvenating, enriching, embolding”. It can help us to break with the deadening patterns in our lives and enable us to live more authentic and meaningful lives.

Anna Katharina Schaffner is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent. Her most recent book is The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten timeless truths, 2021

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