THE PLEASURES OF FAILURE
THE ATTITUDE OF MEN enjoying success to those who are failures has always fascinated me. Businessmen in particular grow uneasy in the company of someone they can see is on the way down. They seem to feel a little chill in his presence; a reminder that success is a slippery pole.
The failures men run from are not failures on a grand scale, like the general who lost a great battle, or the industrialist whose schemes put him into temporary bankruptcy. Nor do I have in mind the stupid man who has been devoting his life, say, to trying to sell insurance when it is pathetically obvious that he was never cut out to be a salesman; or the man whose life may be a series of passionate failures worth far more to him in enlarging his life than a series of cautious little triumphs. No, the one the success boys shy away from uncomfortably is the man who, obviously having gone down in the world, has le* the sense of failure get into his blood so anyone can almost smell the panic in him.
When I was fourteen I caught a glimpse of how the conviction of failure could demoralize even a healthy boy. A chum of mine, a good-looking, imaginative, active fellow, had invited me to his house for dinner. At the dinner hour we came together to his place, entering by the back door, and we could hear his father saying vehemently, “No, it’s another failure, and I don’t mind saying I’ve lost all faith in Alec.”
My chum tried to smile at me, but he looked desolate and bewildered. It was as if he had suddenly found himself entering the wrong house. At the dinner table he was subdued, pale and brooding. While I talked to his father and mother, my chum was trying to accept the fact that those who knew him best, those he loved, knew he was marked for failure. I remember that his eyes were scared. It may have been that his father had found him a little hard to handle, but he wasn't a dunce; he was an intelligent boy. Within a year he had dropped out of school. He became a mechanic.
Later on, whenever I met this boy’s father, I used to look at him uneasily and vow that if I ever had a son of my own I would try and convince him he hadn’t failed, no matter how disastrous were the reports from his teachers. Years passed and I used to listen with distaste to fathers who would say of a son, “I’m taking the boy away from school. He had his chance and he failed.” One failure! And it would seem to me that these fathers themselves had been desperately afraid of failure in their own lives.
Since the classroom is indeed the first arena for public failure, I used to wonder why all high schools weren’t required to have one teacher who could give a yearly lecture on how to handle failure. Of course, in our society, no high-school teacher would want to be known as an expert on failure. His fellow teachers might shy away from him uneasily. But if such a teacher could be found, he might say to the students, “Some of you will make a lot of money. Others won’t. But whether you are ever to have any inner security in your lives will depend on your ability to cope with your failures. Never hide from them. If you are any good, you are bound to fail a hundred times. Get used to the idea. Anyway, failures are often more interesting than successes. They can toughen your spirit. But no matter how you fail, never let them see you have your tail between your legs. Console yourselves by taking a good look at some men who are called successful. They are often driven, restless and neurotic. They nurse their blood pressure and their heart attacks because they are scared stiff — of failure.”
And this teacher would go on: “To fail again and again is merely to lead a normal life. Judge a man by his ability to cope with failure. Look at the lives of so many great men. Take Winston Churchill. If
The bad time began when this successful author suddenly found he could no longer write the stories that had made him famous. But broke and in despair he learned what success could not teach—that anyone can fail, but to be a true failure you must admit that you are
he had been a poor boy he might never have got to college; he didn’t seem to be too bright at his public school. And Einstein had difficulty getting into universities. And the great dramatist, Eugene O’Neill, flunked out of Princeton, as did Scott Fitzgerald. The thing is that these men never accepted the fact that their academic judges had marked them for defeat. Besides, there is a hairline division between success and failure which the life of Scott Fitzgerald makes very clear. He had all the early success and wealth of a golden boy of his time; then his audience rejected him. No one wanted his work. But he couldn’t believe he was a failure; he writhed, groaned, debased himself, tormented his spirit, but kept on crying out that he was as good as he had ever been. Though he died alone and half forgotten, as soon as he had died, his work immediately made him a greater figure than he had ever been in the days of his early triumphs. He was right about himself.”
And the teacher would also say, “The main thing to remember is this: the sense of failure begins in a feeling of panic. Get used to it. Play around with it and other men will never smell it in you.”
Some men can’t hide it. It gets into their blood. A few years ago I was talking with one of our Ottawa statesmen, an old friend, about men from our year in college and what had happened to them. “What about Johnny Henderson?” I asked. Henderson is not the real name, of course. The powerful politician, looking genuinely distressed, told me Henderson had had no luck, one job then another, a marriage and four children. One day he had heard that Henderson was living in Ottawa. He asked him to come and see him and was sure he could give him a lift up in the world.
Next afternoon Henderson, now seedy, but neat, and with an apologetic air, came to the office in the Parliament Buildings. The politician, busy at the moment with someone else, greeted him warmly and asked him to wait in the outer office. When he returned to this outer office, Henderson had gone.
“Where’s Mr. Henderson?” he asked his secretary.
“I don’t know what happened to him,” she said. “He was sitting there, and suddenly he looked sick. He had such a funny, scared look in his eyes. It was downright panic, absolute panic. He half stood up, then mumbled something and hurried out.”
I could understand the man’s panic: I had once felt it myself.
Back in 1938 l had begun a period of spiritual dryness. The rise of Hitler and the Spanish war had made me profoundly cynical about the Great War that was approaching. For years I had been writing stories for The New Yorker. Suddenly I couldn't write such stories. Any story I attempted was done half-heartedly. Soon no one wanted my work. I had either lost my talent or no longer had anything to say. But I had a wife and two children. I tried to borrow money, using my car as security. No one even wanted my car.
I can remember the summer night when 1 was out on the street at twilight, walking slowly up and down in front of my house, asking myself what was going to happen to me. I was broke. I couldn't write anything anyone wanted to read. Was I a morning glory? After all the quick early success, was I all washed up? I remember wondering if I could start to practise law, and what would be required of me. Going back to the fold would be like a public proclamation of failure, of course. But wasn't it too late anyway? There on the street I felt an apprehensive chill, thinking of the life ahead, and then a moment of blind panic that bewildered me and left me in a sweat.
Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, it is this panic that is the classic condition for the establishment in the heart of the sense
of failure, and as I was to learn, too, from watching other men, it establishes the condition for a nervous breakdown. This panic is like a little old guy, who, if he gets into your house and is offered any kind of a welcome, stays around forever. But the little old guy has one weakness; he can't bear to have you get bored with him. As soon as you can say, “Here he comes again, and exactly as betöre,” he gets the hell out.
For a few weeks I was morose, depressed, incapable of doing any work, and then, hating my own apathy, I did the right thing. Accepting the fact that I couldn’t write stories in this period, I turned to something else. I took out an old play that had once aroused some interest in New York, borrowed money on an insurance policy, and went to work. Within the year the Theatre Guild in New York had taken an option on the play. For a year and a half they paid me advance royalties. Buoyant again. I wrote another play, sold it to two charming young producers named Curtis and Blackwell, drew option money on it, and was billed to have two plays produced in New York in the one season.
In the theatre, even after the contracts have been signed, you live in a state of uneasy hope, but it did seem ridiculous to me that I had been able to tell myself and believe, if only for a few weeks, that I was from now on marked for failure. They were exciting days. I remember meeting Lawrence Langner, who, with Theresa Helburn, was the Theatre Guild, under the clock at Grand Central Station so we could go to his home at Westport, Connecticut, and that night look at an actress who might be right for my play. It was a little after the time of Dunkirk, and on the train, still being coldly objective about the war, I told Langner that the British, having been driven off the Continent, had lost the war, but they could still be on the winning side, if the U. S. entered the war. He was angry. We had a violent argument. Yet we looked at our actress that night and rejected her, and l could still believe all was going well.
All those days were lively and exciting. Days crowded with theatre people, new faces, men-about-town. I would meet my agent sometimes for breakfast so we could exchange the gossip of the night before, and try and figure out just when my plays would open on Broadway. I remember I often met William Saroyan at three in the afternoon and did not leave him till five in the morning. I sat around with the boys in Lindy’s. The word was that the Guild people were trying to get two well-known movie stars so the production cost would be mainly covered in cities on the road before the play came to Broadway. I returned to Toronto.
But the movie star, who had quarreled with his studio and who said he was interested in my play, suddenly returned to the movie field. The Guild dropped my play. Shaken though I was. I told myself I still had the other play. I had read in the New York papers that my two young producers were now casting this second play, a director had also been signed, and I waited to hear when rehearsals would begin.
But a letter from the producers seemed to me to be so evasive I grew uneasy. Now I was looking around superstitiously for little signs that my luck was running out. 1 had strange hunches that I was in trouble. I wondered if that sense of failure I had experienced on my street, which I had ducked away from neatly, hadn’t really belonged in my life and was now to have its inning.
One night I got on a train for New York, and in the morning I appeared in the office of my two producers. It was early. Neither one of the boys was there. But at the sight of me, a startled expression had come into the secretary’s eyes. / continued on page 34
continued on page 34
continued from page 13
Then she smiled, fiercely bright, fiercely quick, fiercely cheerful, and she might just as well have screamed at me, “Trouble. Trouble.”
While I waited for the producers I tried to tell myself that all the odds were against the collapse of two plays at the same time. Then the two boys arrived. When they saw me there was such embarrassed pain in their eyes they made me feel 1 had played a dirty trick on them, being there, waiting in their office. But they were men of sensibility and gentleness, and they took me into the big, inner, broadloomed office and confessed that one of the principal backers, just before putting up the money, had got drunk and boarded a plane for the west coast, and his wife, having tracked him down, had had him committed to a sanitorium as an alcoholic, and, of course, had cancelled his investment in my play.
Ridiculous things are always happening in the theatre, especially at the time of the financing of a play. 1 didn’t say, “Isn't it incredible that one of our backers should get drunk, get on a plane and vanish.” No, we sat in the broadloomed office, considered the matter as if it were a normal occurrence. It was very comfortable in that handsome office, and my young producers were men of delicate insight and consoling voices. They knew how I felt, I knew how they felt, and though we talked about finding another backer, I could tell they had shopped all around and the jig was up. They had taste, discernment and style, but it was known they hadn’t made money in the theatre.
That night I had a funereal drink in the Algonquin with the man who was to have been the director. It was up to me to tell him the bad news and crush him completely. My own mood bewildered me. I was so heavyhearted I could hardly smile. When I had parted from the director, and was walking over to Times Square, I was filled with superstitious uneasiness, a kind of recognition of the fact that failure was following me; I had seen it coming two years ago on the street outside my house. Now it had caught up with me. For two years I had been kidding myself that my luck had changed. Now I had to go home to my wife and children and tell that all the hopeful plans had collapsed, and I was right back where l had been two years ago. Soon that feeling of panic would possess me again, and this time the little old guy
would really feel at home in my breast. I remember I waited almost impatiently for this touch of panicky fear. 1 could have been saying. “Come on, come on. Here I am. What are you waiting for?”
I had friends, a professor and his pretty young wife, living on 26th Street, and I called on them, and when they had given me a drink I told them of the collapse of both my productions.
“You shock me”
The professor, who had soft blue eyes and a bald head, kept looking at me incredulously, and I thought his nice, sympathetic young wife was going to cry. She understood that all the hopes held out to me after two years of work had vanished; the two years work had added up to this incredible failure. I began to make ironic jokes about the two young producers, and then about the alcoholic angel. I laughed a lot. But finally the professor stood up, staring at me. I remember that he was white-faced,
his mouth twisted. “Cut it out,” he pleaded.
“What's the matter?”
“I don’t know,” and he groped for words and then blurted out, “This offends me. Something is wrong. You shock me.”
“What can I do? What should I be doing?”
“I would be more sympathetic if you were out somewhere dead drunk and lying in the gutter. Both plays! It’s incredible. And you sit there turning it all into a farce.”
Because he was so disgusted, I knew he couldn’t smell failure or panic in me. And I became almost apologetic. I had to explain that I understood indeed what had happened to me. Having tried to change the direction of my work, I had failed. My number hadn't come up. If I was going to go on writing, I didn’t know which way I would turn, and I didn’t know what I would say to my wife and children when I went home. I understood, too, that out of pure sympathy my friends were trying to continued on page 37
continued on page 37
stir up some rage and despair in me. The truth was I felt no real panic at all.
Looking back on that rather memorable night, a turning point in my lile, I think I avoided the dreadful chill a man feels wondering if from now on he has been marked for failure, by saying to myself, “Well, here I am. If I’m going to feel demoralized, let’s hurry and get it over w'ith. It has happened before. It may happen again. I’m still here.” The little old guy, Mr. Panic, didn’t come. I think it was because I had spotted him and was waiting.
I was accepting the failure as a normal part of my life. I was becoming aware that there might be other times that would be like little deaths, dreadful depressions, but if I didn’t get to like these deaths—that’s the great trick; not to have a secret liking for them so you court them as some men do—then the spark in the spirit would flame again just because I very much w'anted to remain alive.
The odd part of it was that I didn’t start in desperately to try to write stories. No, I had a hunch 1 wasn’t ready. I would wait. I would know when I was ready. And I felt strangely in full possession of myself, more than ever my own man.
I went down to Halifax to do some work with the navy. Afterward, I wandered across Canada, doing some radio programs. Often my pride would be stung by a remark made by a chance acquaintance: “You’re not writing anything these days.” And once I met a writer who told me a
famous New York editor had asked, “What in the world happened to Morley Callaghan?” But never again did 1 feel that sense of failure. There wasn't a time when 1 wasn’t thinking about writing. 1 seemed to be quietly waiting to get some new view of things. In 1946-47 I began to write stories again. Editors wanted them. Toward the end of the decade 1 began my novel. The Loved And The Lost, writing with great confidence. 1 began a new productive period in my
career which has been richly rewarding.
Along the way 1 had grown more interested than ever in the successful men who avoid the company of those they call failures. Aside from the fact that they are betraying their own sense of insecurity and are wearing their crowns uneasily, they seem to have a fantastically limited view of personal success. If a man is a financial success they seek him out, cultivate him, hope some of his success
will rub off on them. That such a man may be a dreadful failure in all his personal relationships, unable to love, avoided by his children, neurotic, in and out of sanitoriums, and after the day’s work is done, calling for the hottle just as he did w'hen an infant, doesn’t upset the nervous success boys at all. They regard him with indulgent amusement, an interesting. colorful comrade, loaded with ulcers, who merely happens to have the shakes.