The Cradle Rocks Above an Abyss

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by Neil Godfrey

There is much in Costica Bradatan’s In Praise of Failure that I would like over time to address but let’s begin with the portion of Prologue that I quoted yesterday:

. . . . human existence is something that happens, briefly, between two instantiations of nothingness. Nothing first—dense, impenetrable nothingness. Then a flickering. Then nothing again, endlessly. “A brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” as Vladimir Nabokov would have it. . . . 

That remark followed from his description of the feeling that we imagine would follow from surviving what at the time felt like plummeting to a certain death. I was reminded of that feeling from a real-life experience when I listened to the news last night about the death of the commander of 108 men who had fought off an attack of a 2500 strong enemy in the battle of Long Tan in 1966. He was quoted as having said that it was only a short time after the three hour battle that the full realization that he was “still alive” fell upon him.

I turned to the source of Bradatan’s quote. Here it is in (disturbingly colourful) context:

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged— the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.

As I quoted yesterday, Bradatan sees our “myths, religion, spirituality, philosophy, science, works of art and literature” as products of our efforts to make an “unbearable fact a little more bearable.” Continuing that thought, he writes,

One way to get around this is to deny the predicament altogether. It’s the optimistic, closed-eye way. Our condition, this line goes, is not that precarious after all. In some mythical narratives, we live elsewhere before we are born here, and we will reincarnate again after we die. Some religions go one step further and promise us life eternal. It’s good business, apparently, as takers have never been in short supply. More recently, something called transhumanism has entered this crowded market. The priests of the new cult swear that, with the right gadgets and technical adjustments (and the right bank accounts), human life will be prolonged indefinitely. Other immortality projects are likely to do just as well, for our mortality problem is unlikely to be resolved.

But this approach is not for everyone…

No matter how many of us buy into religion’s promise of life eternal, however, there will always be some who remain unpersuaded. As for the transhumanists, they may know the future, but they seem largely ignorant of the past: “human enhancement” products have, under different labels, been on the market at least since the passing of Enkidu of Gilgamesh fame. Compared with what the medieval alchemists had to offer, the transhumanists’ wares seem rather bland. Yet thousands of years of life prolongation efforts haven’t put death out of business. We may live longer lives today, but we still die eventually.

Simone Weil (Wikipedia photo)

The Bullfighting way?

Bradatan finds himself siding with the views of Simone Weil:

Another way to deal with our next-to-nothingness is to confront it head-on, the bullfighting way: no escape routes, no safety nets, no sugarcoating. You just plow ahead, eyes wide open, always aware of what’s there: nothing. Remember the naked facts of our condition: nothing ahead and nothing behind. If you happen to obsess over your next-to-nothingness and cannot buy into the life eternal promised by religion or afford a biotechnologically prolonged life, this may be “right for you. Certainly, the bullfighting way is neither easy nor gentle—particularly for the bull. For that’s what we are, after all: the bull, waiting to be done in, not the bullfighter, who does the crushing and then goes on his way.

Hardly a higher form of human knowledge . . .

* Quoted in David McLellan, Utopian Pessimist: The Life and Thought of Simone Weil (New York: Poseidon Press, 1990), 93.

Human beings are so made,” writes Simone Weil, that “the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening.”* Pessimistic as this may sound, there is hardly a higher form of human knowledge than the one that allows us to understand what is happening—to see things as they are, as opposed to how we would like them to be. Besides, an uncompromising pessimism is superbly feasible. Given the first commandment of the pessimist (“Whenever in doubt, assume the worst!”), you will never be taken by surprise. Whatever happens on the way, however bad, will not put you off balance. For this reason, those who approach their next-to-nothingness with open eyes manage to live lives of composure and equanimity, and rarely complain. The worst thing that could befall them is exactly what they have expected.

Above all, the eyes-wide-open approach allows us to extricate ourselves, with some dignity, from the entanglement that is human existence. Life is a chronic, addictive sickness, and we are in bad need of a cure.

The bolding is my own. I think that is worth taking in …. “there is hardly a higher form of human knowledge than the one that allows us to understand what is happening – to see things as they are”.

Somewhere in there we can find the real gift that can come from failure, or from the humility that it brings.

Bradatan, Costica. In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility. Cambridge, Massachusetts: *Harvard University Press, 2023.


In Praise of Failure

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Two interviews:

With Philip Adams: A new approach to failure
With David Rutledge: The lessons of failure

The opening words of the book — “a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness”

Picture yourself on a plane, at high altitude. One of the engines has just caught fire, the other doesn’t look very promising, and the pilot has to make an emergency landing. Finding yourself in such a situation is no doubt shattering, but also illuminating. At first, amid the wailing and gnashing of teeth, you cannot think in any detached, rational fashion. You have to admit it, you are paralyzed by fear and scared to death, just like everyone else. Eventually, the plane lands safely, and everybody gets off unharmed. Once you’ve had a chance to pull yourself together, you can think a bit more clearly about what just happened. And you start learning from it.

You learn, for instance, that human existence is something that happens, briefly, between two instantiations of nothingness. Nothing first—dense, impenetrable nothingness. Then a flickering. Then nothing again, endlessly. “A brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” as Vladimir Nabokov would have it. These are the brutal facts of the human condition—the rest is embellishment. No matter how we choose to reframe or retell the facts, when we consider what precedes us and what follows us, we are not much to talk about. We are next to nothing, in fact. And much of what we do in life, whether we know it or not, is an effort to address the sickness that comes from the realization of this next-to-nothingness. Myths, religion, spirituality, philosophy, science, works of art and literature—they seek to make this unbearable fact a little more bearable.

A little further on in the Prologue — “how we relate to failure defines us”

The failure-based therapy that I offer in this book may seem surprising. After so much worshipping of success, failure’s reputation is in tatters. There seems to be nothing worse in our world than to fail—illness, misfortune, even congenital stupidity are nothing by comparison. But failure deserves better. There is, in fact, much to praise about it.

Failing is essential to what we are as human beings. How we relate to failure defines us, while success is auxiliary and fleeting and does not reveal much. We can live without success, but we would live for nothing if we didn’t come to terms with our imperfection, precariousness, and mortality, which are all epiphanies of failure.

“Only humility”:

In Praise of Failure is not about failure for its own sake, then, but about the humility that failure engenders, and the healing process that it triggers. Only humility, a “selfless respect for reality,” as Iris Murdoch defines it, will allow us to grasp what is happening. When we achieve humility, we will know that we are on the way to recovery, for we will have started extricating ourselves from the entanglement of existence.

So, if you are after success sans humility, you can safely ignore this book. It will not help you—it will only lead you astray.

We come to the Epilogue:

Every morning, when we wake up, there is a moment—the briefest of moments—when our memory hasn’t come back to us. We are not yet ourselves because we don’t have a story to tell. We can be anyone at this stage, but right now we are no one. We are a blank sheet of paper waiting to be written on. As our memory gradually returns, we start recalling things: where we are, what happened before we fell asleep, what we need to do next, the tasks of the day ahead. We start becoming ourselves again as the memory of these things comes back and slowly forms a story. When everything has fallen into place, and the story is complete, we can be said to have come back to life. We now have a self. The sheet is covered with our story—we are our story.

This is the most significant moment of every day, and philosophically the most gripping: the process through which we come into existence, and our self comes back to us, every time we wake up. If, for some reason, things failed to fall into place and form a coherent narrative, we would never find ourselves. The sheet would remain blank. We would miss ourselves in the same way we would miss someone who didn’t show up for a meeting.

Human beings are fundamentally narrative-driven creatures. Our lives take the shape of the stories we tell; they move this way or that as we change the plot. These stories are what gives our existence consistency, direction, and a unique physiognomy. We are irreducible individuals not because of, say, our DNA, but because no story can be told in exactly the same way twice. Even the slightest change of rhythm and diction produces a different story. Another person.

At our most intimate, then, we are what we tell ourselves we are. The German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey called this process the “coming together of a life”—Zusammenhang des Lebens. The stories we tell about our life are sometimes more important than life itself. They are what brings that life together and makes it what it is: our life. Without them, we would remain only some insignificant occurrence in the planet’s biosphere.


As storytelling animals, we need stories not just for coming into existence every morning, but for pretty much everything—for things big and small, important and trivial, ennobling and shameful. We need a good story to live by and to die for, to fall in love with someone and out of love with her, to help us fight for a cause or betray it.

We likewise need a story to cure ourselves of the umbilicus mundi syndrome. To achieve true humility it is not enough just to be humble. We also need to weave a story that structures our self-effacing efforts and gives them sustenance, continuity, and meaning. We have to narrate our way into humility. And that’s what renders humility one of the most difficult stories to tell. For the self that narrates is the same one that longs for self-effacement and seeks to be lowered and subdued. The narrator’s voice, so vital to storytelling, has to be silenced. But how are we going to tell a story with silence? How can we narrate ourselves and reduce ourselves to dust at the same time? Dust has never had any stories to tell. That puts humility and storytelling seriously at odds with each other.

Costica Bradaton reminds readers here of the stories he has told in the previous pages: of Simone Weil, of Mahatma Gandhi, of E. M. Cioran, of Osamu Dazai, of Seneca, of Yukio Mishima.

The final words:

At any given moment, we may find our life to be empty and our existence meaningless, but we know, at some deeper level, that we are not done yet. Our story is just not over, and it’s frustrating—profoundly, viscerally so—to quit a story before the end, whether it’s a book, a film, or your own life. Once we have reached that point, we may decide that there is nothing left to tell, but quitting the story while it is still being told is a violation not just of narrative but of nature. The longed-for meaning may be revealed at the very end, and we will no longer be there to receive the revelation. It is written, after all, that the “pearl” we are supposed to retrieve can only be found at the story’s end.

Can a story save my life, then? Yes, it can. The truth is, only a story can redeem our lives. And not just our lives, but life itself. That’s the reason why, in case you’ve wondered, there are so many stories in this book, from beginning to end. Without stories, we would be nothing.

There is enough to think about in the above to make it superfluous to add any of my own commentary at this point.