Thursday, March 11, 2010
I. Making Mistakes
The opposite of failure is success - but what's the opposite of a mistake? A success? And what is a success? The word belongs to that peculiar class of abstract English nouns we call "states", which you can travel into and out of without hassle or identification. But then you try to buy gas and the prices are different.
Mistakes, on the other hand, are local as furniture. They have no lexical antonym and are therefore free to roam through English unharassed. Their peculiar combination of flimsiness and power makes them interesting, unlike success - for success is the Velveeta cheese of human conditions: the same no matter where you slice it. All successful men are alike, to paraphrase Tolstoy. On the other hand, when a man tells us that he's made some mistakes, we want to know EXACTLY what they were.
"Everybody makes mistakes."
"Make one mistake and you're dead."
(Success may be something you achieve, but mistakes are made)
The most common uses of "mistake" imply recognition, which in turn point to two separate (-seeming) worldviews. Either 1) error is folded into life, which means success is a matter of overcoming one's errors, or 2) Success is achieved only through the strategic and near Herculian ability to avoid making mistakes.
"You had it all planned out - but you made one mistake" (sardonic, heavy-eyebrowed gangster-voice). In this sentence, as in the two quoted above, the sense of "downfall" is both heightened and strangely mitigated by the inherent domesticity of the "mistake" itself (which unpacks as something like "one little mistake"). The speaker is luxuriating, as choruses do, in the justice of the gods. The sentence creaks comfortably beneath him - for in the rumpus room of his thoughts, everything, even the juice stains on the carpet, contributes to a sense of ingenious inhabitation.
(and then isn't there also a sort of wonderful artistry about mistakes? Don't we appreciate them aesthetically - even when they're our own?)
II. Failure and Floating
To move into failure from this cozy realm is like being shot into deep space - for if mistakes are the most distinctive of nouns, then failure, I would argue, is the most nebulous. It's a "frozen verb": a linguistic/conceptual black hole ("frozen star" in Russian), whose location is fixed but whose axis pulses with mind-bending movement. Failure vibrates, like a fly on flypaper. It moves without moving. Next to the other "states" we occupy, it always seems to have been put into our box by mistake from some other puzzle.
Success is an endpoint, hence our dissatisfaction with its worldly version - for in achieving it, we inevitably discover that we have not achieved it. Being a failure on the other hand is like being stuck on one of the Snakes and Ladders snakes: you're not supposed to be there, but there's a luxuriant satisfaction in floating past the world's ankles with such impunity. You're moving. It's over, but it's not over - it is failure, which is similar to the pre-natal dream in that during it we feel both perfectly responsible and perfectly absolved. We are Jonah, delivered from the small whale of anxiety into the larger, more-predictable whale of God's will. This is the fall-as-rise of comedy - of Hrabal and Svevo and Flaubert and Tolstoy, among many others - which transfigures our inability to do what we want into precisely what God wanted all along.
III. The Mimic Plot
In fiction - from the hackneyed who-done-it to the lofty roman fleuve- the most persuasive mimesis of this transfiguration from mistake to failure to success is plot itself. What - you didn't see it coming? Well relax, and watch your anxiety transform alchemically into a faith that the confusing events of your life (which seemed so distinct at the time) really will, as James said, "hang together". Mistakes will turn out to be not just themselves, but part of some larger failure, which you couldn't see at the time you made them. Likewise this failure, so final-seeming when it fell, will turn out to be inside out.
This is why novels, as a genre, are so particularly powerful: not just because they contain mimeses (characters, settings, dialogue), but because they ARE mimeses. They're "graphs made up of graphs" as Guy Davenport puts it: collections of accurate particulars tilted against one another like dominos, so that the reader's attention might move through it Rube-Goldberg-style, losing - and yet somehow at the same time gaining - energy.
(So, when I hear people talk about difficult (read: "experimental") art pejoratively, I find myself strangely divided. On the one hand, I also hate art that lacks interest and attention. On the other hand, I feel that what these "traditionalists" are freqeuntly missing is the existence of this second-level mimesis. They want trees that look like trees: but the book itself looks like a tree)
A fictional plot, then, really is a sort of distilled failure: a strange-making, to use Shklovsky's phrase, which we live (..."in order to" wants to follow this somehow - but doesn't the Old Testament (that great book of plots) suggest the insignificance of a final clause? Order is in us, as we are in it. With a setup like that, there is no point in looking for a "point")
If the novel has a secret, particularly, it is how natural this plottedness is to it, and how, if we look back at the great novels of the past, we almost always find exactly what Sterne, Tolstoy, Shklovsky, Bolano say we're going to find. In saecula saeculorum, or as the KJB translates it, World without end. For how could we "succeed", in life or art? Likewise, how could a faithful mimesis fail to untie its own knots, no matter how convincingly it presented them? What would we think of its conscience?
IV. (close parenthesis)
(Finally, writing fiction, then, must be a matter both of being willing, and - MUCH more importantly - able to fail.
This is far more difficult than people realize)