The International Writers Magazine: The Mountain of Optimism
I am a failure. I am not boasting. I speak seriously and soberly, based on a modicum of self-knowledge painfully acquired. I don’t claim to have reached the summit of failure-hood, only to have begun the ascent. Even beginning was hard, though nothing, I’m sure, to what lies ahead.
Many begin and turn back. Many more quail at the mere approach. No one should blame them. No one will, who has ever looked up and surveyed those heights, when they are not veiled in mist, as they often are. There is no profit in conquering this mountain; no glory either. What, then? I don’t know. The discovery, I suppose, of something beyond profit and glory. Might the word I’m groping for be... Quality?
Yes, it is hard to fail. For one thing, failure is decked out in such unattractive colors. Success has the advantage there. It is beautiful, and much sought after. It is elusive, but loves flattery, and yields to it at last – sometimes at first. On those who court it adroitly, success showers irresistible favors – riches, honor, fame, power. Failure offers nothing.
Nothing? Let us consider this more closely. There is a book about Japan’s heroic tradition whose title expresses my theme in a nutshell: The Nobility of Failure. Japan is personally relevant – I live there and in a sense grew up there, though I was nearly thirty when I first arrived. The book was written by the late Ivan Morris, an eminent British Japanologist. What does he mean by “the nobility of failure”? “Even we in our success-worshiping [Western] culture,” he writes, “can recognize the nobility and poignancy of those eager, outrageous, uncalculating men whose purity of purpose doomed them to a hard journey leading ultimately to death and disaster.” True, and yet our failed heroes are few, while in Japanese culture failure seems only to enhance and deepen a hero’s heroic ethos. The noble failure “is the man whose single-minded sincerity will not allow him to make the maneuvers and compromises that are so often needed for mundane success.”
Morris’ heroes are primarily military men serving causes they know are doomed – a knowledge which, far from dampening their ardor, only enflames it. Classic in that regard is Saigo Takamori – living embodiment, in life and in death, of yamatodamashii, Japanese spirit. Saigo was a samurai of the arch-conservative school who in 1877 led a rebellion against the national headlong plunge into scientific and industrial modernity. The rebellion was crushed, as Saigo had known from the start it would be. His death poem, written shortly before his ritual disembowelment on the battlefield, shows the spirit of the man, and helps us understand his undying appeal to a nation that even in his own time had largely rejected what he stood for: “What joy to die like the tinted leaves that fall in Tatsuta before they have been spoiled by autumn rains!”
But I am no samurai, and no hero. I am a timid failure, a reluctant failure. I confess: I would rather have been successful. Success spurned me, not I it. My courtship was found wanting. Only then did I begin my present ascent – casting even now an occasional backward glance at lost hopes, lost dreams. It will not do. On a mountain like this a backward glance can be fatal. Forward!
Forward. Herman Melville, crushed by the failure of Moby Dick, wrote to his friend and fellow-novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I would die in the gutter... What I feel most moved to write, that is banned – it will not pay. Yet, altogether write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.” This from the supreme genius, belatedly acknowledged, of American letters!
Novice climbers take heart from such titans. Closer to our own time (not that time matters) there is Robert Pirsig, whose Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is, among much else, a paean to failure and its offspring, freedom. Admitted to the university at 15 as a science freshman, Pirsig was expelled for failing grades at 17. Prodigy he may have been, but not a compliant one. His restless intellect had detected an apparent flaw in scientific method. While his solitary investigations proceeded the class moved on, leaving him behind. When the trauma passed he recognized his good fortune: “He [his semi-fictional alter-ego] came to see his early failure as a lucky break, an accidental escape from a trap that had been set for him... His early failure had released him from any felt obligation to think along institutional lines and his thoughts were already independent to a degree few people are familiar with.”
He was, in short, like the ancient Chinese sage Lao-tzu (c. 500 BC), who in a famous passage of the Tao Te Ching described himself as “like a baby who is yet unable to smile; forlorn as if I had no home to go to. Others all have more than enough, and I alone seem to be in want. Possibly mine is the mind of a fool...”
Friends have asked me why I keep writing, since my books don’t sell and are mostly unread. Why indeed? Possibly mine too is the mind of a fool. Melville, another fool, said, “Better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” Yes, but... am I original? Is there any originality in me? Failure, after all, does not make one a Melville. Failure is no proof of originality. You can’t say, I am a failure, therefore I am original – though many failures who fail merely because they are second-rate do indeed say so, or at least think so, or talk themselves into thinking so.
You can talk yourself into thinking anything. You can look at what’s going on out there in the world and say, “Space has been reduced to cyberspace, life to virtual life; thinking has degenerated into tweeting, writing into blogging, the search for truth into ranting. I can say, My fiction serves no purpose, advances no cause, provides no useful information, offers no advice or wise counsel, teaches no moral – in short, it is useless, and readers today have no use for the useless, no patience for it, no sensitivity to it. A case can be made for all of that, and yet none of it proves that I am original or artistic and that my useless fiction would be worth reading even in a quieter, stiller, less utilitarian, more receptive world.
I understand that. I accept it; I accept my failure graciously – nay, triumphantly! – and proceed with my ascent. My past books are failures, my future books will be greater failures still! Melville, a generation after his death, was rediscovered in time for his great-grandchildren to savor their ancestor’s fame. I will not be, and my great-grandchildren will not know I existed. Good! Freedom! Freedom from ambition, from the shackling need to please; freedom to go my own way, to walk the path that only I among mortals can walk, to write what I and only I have it in me to write, its reception be damned! In an age deaf to all but the most raucous noise, I will not scream in order to be heard. As for my great-grandchildren, it will be enough if they know that this mountain exists, and find their own path up it. Mountain of Failure is perhaps a misnomer. Let us, taking a cue from Pirsig, call it – the Mountain of Quality.
© Michael Hoffman May 2011