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"The Art of Failure"

Jeff Woodgate

The best humour is based on failure. The protagonist of the comedy, or the joke, has to essentially fail at life’s ‘grotesque situational comedy’ while all the while ‘bargaining in good faith with destiny’, to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut in Slapstick.

There is never anything particularly funny about triumph or success, either well-earned or by chance. On the other hand, failure is the stuff of guilty laughs at someone else’s expense, as with Homer Simpson or Seinfeld’s regular collection of losers.

This is not to say that the answer to life’s failures is always to laugh at them, but laughter requires an element of reflection, a stepping back from the shame or guilt or whatever immediate emotion is being experienced, and seeing things differently.

Our society lacks the capacity to reflect upon failure (Lopez-Pedraza: Cultural Anxiety), and this lack of reflection is unsurprising given the culture’s focus upon success at all times, and sometimes at all costs. Failure is counter-intuitive in our aspirational society. From the earliest years our egos want naturally to master their environment. How easy for the eternal child (puer) to hover and soar high above those grounded below, reinforced by updrafts of endless promises of success. Many of those left on the ground remain suffocated either by external conventions or the internalised views of others, or are empty and numbed. None of these types can laugh at themselves.    

Failure is a signal that something isn’t working. It galls when others don’t appreciate us as our egos want. Failure is an opportunity to question our current values, that have been endorsed or adopted from others but that don’t really suit us.

I can easily sense that I haven’t succeeded at something, but that is very different to really feeling that I have failed. A real sense of failure is humbling, or at least sobering. The Japanese monk Dogen once said that the life of a zen master is one continuous mistake. I can at least identify sometimes with that part of his statement about life being one continuous mistake, even as I am not a master of anything.

Our successes are seldom as interesting as our failures, nor are they particularly enlightening, let alone funny. As for analytical psychology, our failures are cracks through which seeps new forms of hitherto unconscious awareness. Engaging with life is a grotesque situational comedy at times. Engaging with the Jungian process is one form of bargaining with destiny in good faith.


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