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"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Friday, September 24, 2021

On the Abuse of Beckett

Distinguished legal scholar and Obama appointee Cass Sunstein, of Harvard Law School, former spouse of the fabulous Martha Nussbaum and current partner of Samantha Powers, recently contributed a piece to the NY Times on "YOU BET YOUR LIFE From Blood Transfusions to Mass Vaccination, the Long and Risky History of Medical Innovation" by Paul Offit. You can read it here:

It's a decent, even-handed review, which he probably dashed off on a weekend, like we all do.

Sunstein is, as should be obvious,impressively accomplished. I recall reading some of his early work on constituional law when I was in grad school for purely personal reasons I no longer remember. But he was the real McCoy. Now that he's ascended into the upper atomsphere, he's taken to writing trendy books on trendy subjects, no doubt hoping to cadge a trendy prize like so many of his peers (thinking of you here, Stephen Greenblatt and Merve Emre). Isn't one Malcolm Gladwell already one too many?

He may be a brilliant legal scholar but his understanding of modernist literature is, to say the least, lacking -- as I hope I make clear in what follows. This is an expanded version of a letter I sent to the Times. I'm grateful to Sunstein for provoking me to think throgh the logic of Beckett's work, which I've been reading for the better part of 40 years and to which I always and inevitably return.

To the Editor of New York Times Book Review:

Cass Sunstein’s too clever by half hook for his review of “You Bet Your Life” is mistaken on two counts. Sunstein writes, “In his 1983 novella ‘Worstward Ho,’ Samuel Beckett wrote his most famous words: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ The history of medicine consists of trying and failing, trying again, failing again and failing better.” As anyone even slightly familiar with Beckett’s work can attest, his most well-known quote occurs at the end of the 1953 novel “The Unnamable” – namely, “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Despite the phrase “fail better” being co-opted by the tech-bros of Silicon Valley as a mantra for product development, it does not carry an aspirational message about a continual cycle of innovation. To the contrary, “fail better” signifies that the human condition will always be one of failure and that we must learn to accept it, to purify it, as it were, to commit to it fully since there is finally no escape, no alternative to the hopeless plight of our striving. There is hope; there will always be hope. But for Beckett the comedy of our predicament means that it can never be fulfilled.

“Fail better” is a spiritual vow, not a marketing slogan. Please make a note of it.

P.S. The thing about Beckett is that he never extinguishes hope. He makes it clear though that while its attainment is impossible, its fulfillment perpetually deferred, we can never not hope. This is our predicament. The central tension in his work derives from an appeal to hope and the recognition that it can never be fulfilled. This is why Godot never appears. This could aptly describe the films of Chaplin. In “Modern Times,” the film of his I know best, he fails spectacularly at everything he sets his hand to. Yet the final shot shows The Tramp and The Gamin jauntily walking off in the sunset to nowhere.

Failure thus becomes its own achievement, an end in itself, rather than something to be overcome. This is the source of the grim comedy that animates all of Beckett’s work. We are condemned to an utterly bleak situation – the comedy arises from the growing awareness of an surrender to that bleakness. This is why Beckett may finally be understood as a profoundly spiritual writer.

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