Samuel Beckett - Inspirational Guru?
In Britain, and now across the world, it is common to see a mug, tea towel, T-shirt etc., which proudly displays the inspirational message, “Keep Calm, and carry on.” Words taken from a poster created by the British government in 1939 which was intended to raise the moral of the British public following the declaration of war. The poster was never used, and the slogan remained forgotten until discovered in 2000, when it came to be used by design companies to sell all kinds of products.
The slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” sums up what many think of as the British spirit – a stiff upper lip that will not make a crisis out of an emergency. Of course any British person who has lived long enough knows that we Brits are quite capable of making a crisis out of anything, let alone an emergency. However, to argue that the quote is not truly accurate seems rather pedestrian. It hardly matters that it does not describe British behaviour – it is inspirational advice that we would all do well to follow, if capable.
However, there is another phrase which is beginning to be used in a similar way, and in this case it is a complete misuse and is far more likely to lead to despair than hope – especially since hope was never the intention of its author.
The phrase is Samuel Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Just as ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has been used to sell all kinds of products – mostly disposable or at least short-lived ones, so Beckett’s quote is now being marketed in a similar way. However, the original meaning of the phrase was never inspirational, Beckett is not a person who was known for his optimistic, get up and go spirit, after all the man said of his life, and of ours by inference, “No, I regret nothing, all I regret is having been born, dying is such a long tiresome business I always found,” and that could be described as one of his more life affirming comments.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better” is from Beckett’s “Worstward Ho,” which anyone who has ever attempted to read this very short and impossible to decipher novella, will testify that inspirational is not a word one can use to describe the work.
So is my objection to the marketing of Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,” simply because it would leave the great man laughing at what he would see as the futility of its ‘inspirational’ use?’ Yes, partly, but my main objection arises because it has become part of the glib new-age inspirational ideology that life is about success, and success is only one more ‘try again’ away.
For example, Stanislas Wawrinka, the tennis pro who defeated Rafael Nadal at the 2014 Australian Open has the phrase tattooed on the inside of his left arm, no doubt so he can get a shot of ‘inspiration’ during a long-drawn out tennis match. However, it simply is not true that if I as a child had taken up tennis and persevered I too may now be a Grand Slam Prize tennis player. The inevitable “Must try harder” comments from the PE Teacher on my school reports were certainly not an acknowledgement by him that I was a latent sport genius.
In the popular TV show “Dragon’s Den,” young entrepreneurs have to sell their ideas to a group of successful business people. Beckett’s quote is not saying to these young contestants keep trying and one day you too will become a successful business Tycoon. Beckett would say of both the tycoons, and the wannabee contestants: “For me there have always been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible a little further on.” While I would not endorse Beckett’s pessimistic brand of existentialism as a life philosophy, it clearly shows that the playwright would strongly disapprove of the facile way his phrase is used as if it is a lesson in life-coaching.
So if “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better” was not an uplifting piece of inspiration from Beckett, what did he mean by his words.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,” Beckett is saying all human attempts at authenticity will include some level of alienation, and this is especially true of artists who spend their days trying to present the human condition. He is describing the creative drive that makes a novelist write, a poet take up his pen, and the painter his brush. The artist is trying to put into form an idea, an emotion, something intangible yet so incredibly real and human. As one modern author wrote, “Art is the overflow of emotion into action.”
What Beckett is telling us is that no matter how good the attempt, art inevitably fails, but then one must make another attempt and another, and the art is in the attempt, not in the product. If one hopes to capture the human spirit in morbid bound words on a page, or a scene in a play, then you have already killed the human spirit. No, if art is to live, it is in the effort that is made to give it expression; it is in the trying and failing, trying and failing. As the Australian art critic Robert Hughes said, “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.” This is not true of the artist alone, but also of us as the observer. Even when looking at a finished painting we bring our own perception and life experiences with us. The painting may be ‘finished,’ but the action of looking and understanding is ongoing.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better” as ‘inspirational’ guru advice for artists would be disastrous. A young playwright thinking that his successful play will come if he keeps trying has missed the whole purpose of art. Art exists for its own sake, it is never a commodity. Art is self-expression, and for that reason the artist can do no other than produce art, regardless of its reception.
So, if you are a playwright, actor, director struggling to produce a ‘successful’ production in some small fringe theatre, take Beckett’s advice to heart. He is saying there is no success in art, only the struggle to create, and if you are creating, even if your efforts are never commercially recognised, you are an artist.
In Beckett’s Worstward Ho, a few paragraphs after his famous “Fail Better” quote, he writes “No choice but stand. Somehow up and stand. Somehow stand.” And that is what artists must do, “somehow stand.” Even if commercial success does come your way, all you can hope to achieve is to “Fail Better.” If you manage to do that, you are producing art. And if you are trying to ‘Fail better,’ than an insightful audience will recognise your ‘success,’ even if the mighty dollar does not.