The vividness and pungency of the images we apply to failure show how much it preoccupies us subconsciously. Not so with success, which preoccupies us during the daylight hours. School teaches and preaches success while keeping failure in the dark: out of sight, out of mind. Failure represents the return of the repressed and threatens the governmentality of the academic system.
Notice how we treat people who “fail” as if they had a contagious disease, and how we cozy up to “successful” people, hoping that some of it might rub off. Everyone wants to have their picture taken with a winner. Everyone talks about Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals but nobody talks about the other swimmers who got to the finals and raced against him, only to “lose” by mere hundredths of a second. One can split hairs down to the quantum level, all to maintain the fiction that if you don’t medal, you don’t count (and as far as the media are concerned, you don’t even exist).
I can’t imagine a more corrosive attitude. As in science: if you don’t win the Nobel prize, you’re a failure. As in authorship: if your book doesn’t make the best-seller list, it’s a failure, and you don’t count as a writer. As in business: if you don’t rise to VP or CEO, you’re washed up. As in education: if you don’t teach in the Ivy League or a top ten research university, you’re no better than second or third rate. Ditto if you’re not on the tenure track. It is a heavy burden, always looking over one’s shoulder, envying this man’s art or that man’s scope, always calibrating one’s own position against that of one’s contemporaries, blaming the victims, ignoring Fortune and her wheel. It makes a fertile ground for deadly sins, especially avarice, gluttony, or anger in addition to the inevitable, habitual envy.
I remember an English Department meeting where we discussed the disappointing annual raise. A senior colleague wryly opined that we should all receive “injured merit raises.” Despite the sardonic tone, he seemed quite comfortable in his tenure and his tweeds, though he did not publish and refused to teach anything more recent than Jane Austen. He had harsh words for students who didn’t measure up to his expectations, some of whom, perversely, even expressed their gratitude “to Professor J. for proving to me that I am not a writer.” His teaching copies of texts were always carefully annotated, and the key passages underlined with a ruler. Yet in relaxed moments, after dropping the mask of irony, his face had a weary and slightly haunted look. I sometimes wondered what he was afraid of.