Sunday Sport Oedipus

 

How literature has changed.

Alain de Botton does a marvellous presentation at TED (thanks Neil) which re-examines the very notion of success. What influences it, what effects it. Inevitably, Botton veers into the antonymic realm of failure and quite predictably he offers ideas which speak to the embrace of failure. The excerpts shared here below are long for a blog post, but quite a small section of his overall 18 minute talk (emphasis added)…

  • “When we think about failing in life, when we think about failure, one of the reasons why we fear failing is not just a loss of income, a loss of status. What we fear is the judgment and ridicule of others. And it exists. You know, the number one organ of ridicule nowadays, is the newspaper. And if you open the newspaper any day of the week, it’s full of people who’ve messed up their lives. They’ve slept with the wrong person. They’ve taken the wrong substance. They’ve passed the wrong piece of legislation. Whatever it is. And then are fit for ridicule. In other words, they have failed. And they are described as "losers." Now is there any alternative to this? I think the Western tradition shows us one glorious alternative, and that is tragedy.”
  • Tragic art, as it developed in the theaters of ancient Greece, in the fifth century B.C., was essentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail, and also according them a level of sympathy, which ordinary life would not necessarily accord them. I remember a few years ago, I was thinking about all this, and I went to see "The Sunday Sport," a tabloid newspaper that I don’t recommend you to start reading if you’re not familiar with it already. I went to talk to them about certain of the great tragedies of Western art. I wanted to see how they would seize the bare bones of certain stories if they came in as a news item at the news desk on a Saturday afternoon.”
  • “So I told them about Othello. They had not heard of it but were fascinated by it. And I asked them to write the headline for the story of Othello. They came up with "Love-Crazed Immigrant Kills Senator’s Daughter" splashed across the headline. I gave them the plotline of Madame Bovary. Again, a book they were enchanted to discover. And they wrote "Shopaholic Adulteress Swallows Arsenic After Credit Fraud." And then my favorite. They really do have a kind of genius all of their own, these guys. My favorite is Sophocles’ Oedipus the King: "Sex With Mum Was Blinding”.”
  • “In a way, if you like, at one end of the spectrum of sympathy, you’ve got the tabloid newspaper. At the other end of the spectrum you’ve got tragedy and tragic art, and I suppose I’m arguing that we should learn a little bit about what’s happening in tragic art. It would be insane to call Hamlet a loser. He is not a loser, though he has lost. And I think that is the message of tragedy to us, and why it’s so very, very important, I think.”

  • “Here’s an insight that I’ve had about success. You can’t be successful at everything. We hear a lot of talk about work-life balance. Nonsense. You can’t have it all. You can’t. So any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on, where the element of loss is. I think any wise life will accept, as I say, that there is going to be an element where we are not succeeding.”
  • “I think it’s merely the randomness of the winning and losing process that I wanted to stress. Because the emphasis nowadays is so much on the justice of everything, and politicians always talk about justice. Now I am a firm believer in justice, I just think that it is impossible. So we should do everything we can, we should do everything we can to pursue it. But at the end of the day we should always remember that whoever is facing us, whatever has happened in their lives, there will be a strong element of the haphazard. And it’s that that I’m trying to leave room for. Because otherwise it can get quite claustrophobic.”

In just this section, Botton underscores some critical insights to embracing failure. First, success itself is not so clear especially when it is defined by external and often dysfunctional influences. Second, art can be a powerful medium to understand and embrace failure. And finally, as your Mom always chided and as the ups and downs of risk define, ‘Life isn’t fair. Get used to it.’

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