Sunday, December 11, 2016

Success and Failure

Watching this interview with Dinesh D'Souza, I regained a lot of the respect for him that I had lost in recent times. (I'd lost respect for him because of his apparent flip-flopping from Catholicism to non-denominational Christianity, and because of an attitude towards his marriage which seemed rather cavalier for a self-professed Christian conservative. I'm not sure of the facts of the matter, though.) He is, at the least, very insightful. I like the way he talks, too.

One thing that jarred on me a little, though, was when the discussion moved to the question of skin colour. The host pointed out the obvious point that D'Souza's skin is brown, but that Indians are rarely given the same 'social justice credibility' as other non-white groups. D'Souza says: "The Indians are seen as honorary whites, and this is what happens to successful communities. The left in order to protect its narrative of oppression, has to redefine successful people as belonging to the master class, because otherwise it would totally disrupt this idea that you have to be white, and preferably male, in America to succeed."

I don't disagree with that, but it made me think of how those terms 'success' and 'failure' are bandied about, and how many conservatives-- perhaps provoked by leftist arguments that every kind of failure is society's fault-- often find themselves taking up the role, which would seem somewhat redundant and unchallenging, of champions of success. (At other times, conservatives position themselves as the champions of Joe Sixpack against liberal elites, so it can be quite confused and confusing.) 

D'Souza's comments reminded me of similar comments from other conservatives. Michael Medved once said that the left turned against Israel after the Six Day War, since the Israelis had been underdogs up to that point, but ceased to be the underdogs after their spectacular victory and its outcome.

Successs is a difficult subject. It would obviously make no sense to take failure as society's ideal, since presumably everything would grind to a halt and we would all die.

But making an idol (or even an ideal) out of success seems almost as problematic to me.

Personally, I have always felt a deep tenderness and affinity for the underdog. But who is the underdog?

For instance, when you have a dissident priest in Ireland being censured by the Vatican (which happens oh-so-rarely), the media has no difficulty presenting a romantic picture of a lone figure standing against the might of the Church establishment.

Fr. Brian D'Arcy with Terry Wogan, one of his many celebrity friends
But if you take one step back and look again, you realise that the lone heroic figure is backed by all the 'great and good' of Irish society, lionized by rock stars (apparently Bono once asked Fr. Brian D'Arcy "Why are you still a f***ing Catholic priest?", as Fr. D'Arcy does not fail to mention in his name-dropping memoir), and so on. Meanwhile, the ordinary Catholics who are trying to uphold the teaching of the Church are swimming against the cultural tide.

Was Lucifer the ultimate underdog? After all, he was fighting (and is still fighting) a battle that was literally unwinnable. Milton in Paradise Lost has articulated this romantic aspect to Lucifer's rebellion so well that some people have mistakenly thought he was on Lucifer's side, unbeknownst to himself. (But Lucifer's rhetoric is obviously dshonest.)

Did Christ choose to be born in the humble state in which he was born, and to endure all the humiliations and agonies he endured, to prove that God himself was willing to be the underdog? G.K. Chesterton, in the last chapter of The Man Who Was Thursday, seems to be suggesting this, and earlier in the novel he takes a swipe at the 'eternal rebel' mentality:

“There again,” said Syme irritably, “what is there poetical about being in revolt? You might as well say that it is poetical to be sea-sick. Being sick is a revolt. Both being sick and being rebellious may be the wholesome thing on certain desperate occasions; but I’m hanged if I can see why they are poetical. Revolt in the abstract is—revolting. It’s mere vomiting.”

Mr. Pickwick

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am re-reading The Pickwick Papers. Charles Dickens is an interesting study when it comes to attitudes towards success and failure, because he was a spectacular success who never idolised success. Dickens taught himself shorthand, became the best parliamentary reporter in the newspaper world, and was a publishing phenomenon in his mid-twenties. He is a perfect example of the 'self-made man'. His motto was 'whatever your right hand finds to do, do it with all your might."

And yet, he wrote with tremendous sympathy and understanding of people who were not in any way successful, driven or hard-working. In fact, The Pickwick Papers is one long idyll of leisure. Nobody seems to work very hard (if they work at all), and the narrator seems to view their languor with great affection.

Chesterton summed up the philosophy of the novel thus, in one of his most brilliant formulations: "The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn."

In terms of recent Irish history, success and failure are hard to evaluate. The Irish state was, notoriously, a 'failure' up until the nineteen-sixties; Irish society could only survive through a constrant stream of emigration to America and other places.

And yet, in these decades, I would argue that Irish society was a success in cultural and social and religous terms. The entire society seemed more interested in novels and novenas than in economic growth, and we produced writers and holy men and women in abundance.

Since the sixties, I would argue that the situation has reversed. Ireland has become more prosperous and business-oriented, but culturally and spiritually it has become crasser and more sterile.

Does this mean that Goldsmith's famous couplet is inevitably true?

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

I hope not. I wouldn't like to think that the cultural and spiritual wealth of post-independence Ireland had to come at the cost of its economic stagnation.

One way in which I am an admirer of success is when it comes to institutions and customs. The wave of modernism in art came when, at the end of the nineteenth century, artistic and storytelling and poetic conventions which had been revered for generations suddenly became disreputable. To take the simplest example, rhyme and metre in poetry was considered clapped out, and the fact that it was so successful in terms of its immediate appeal to an ordinary person was held against it.

Sells millions, must be a hack
We all know the artistic snobs who think any work of art is necessarily bad because it is popular and accessible.

(My recent post about a poetry pamphlet is relevant to this topic. It's rare that anything in the field of art can be declared a definitive failure or success. T.S. Eliot famously declared Hamlet an artistic failure.)

In the same way, post-nationalism and gender theory  (to take only two examples) seem to hold the enduring popularity of the nation, and of received ideas of gender, against them. They become a kind of secular equivalent of original sin.

The summing-up is this; I don't think success vs. failure is a very productive way of analysing anything. It's not the hinge of anything. The terms are too general and are used in too many different senses to use them abstractly.

When it comes to traditions and customs and works of art, I think success is a good and a healthy thing.

When it comes to money-making and productivity, I think success is a good thing, but one which has its dangers and which is often in danger of suffocating other important things.

When it comes to chivalry for the underdog, I think it's a good thing, but in danger of degenerating into victimology and the culture of resentment.

Christianity is a religion whose central image-- our Blessed Lord crucified on the Cross-- seems like an image of the most ignominious failure, but is in fact an image of the most glorious triumph. Isn't it fairly obvious that Christians should not subscribe to any simplistic philosophy of success and failure?

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