On Failure

The first time I received an “F” on an exam was in my third-year as an undergraduate, in a Statistics course. Since I never understood the universal language of mathematics, perhaps the grade did not come as a surprise. But failure, when materialized as a letter on a piece of letter, felt surreal, even though we live in a reality that canonizes success and productivity.  Ten years and three degrees later, I am no closer to understanding the meaning of success or the possibility of survival after failure.

As children, as students, the idea of failure was clear. Failure was low grade point average; failure was the mischievous classmate who was always being scolded by the teacher; failure was detention and straight F’s; failure was suspension for drug abuse. We could categorize the failed as “others”, and safely enclose ourselves within the fences of the “saved”. But as adults, we grow to realize that the fence had never existed in the first place, that success was illusory and glory unrealizable. I can no longer claim anything, the prestige of institutions can no longer protect me, and hard work sometimes amounts to emptiness.

Although I do not miss exams, success seemed easier as a student. The goals were attainable and visible, taking the form of a row of A’s down a sheet. The criteria were clear-cut, and once I reached a goal, I moved forward in the game. At the time, the game seemed interminable and I yearned to grow up. But as professionals, we work towards elusive goals that slip out of our grasp. When is it ever enough?

“I am a failure”. That is the phrase to which I wake up every morning and from which I attempt to escape by burying the mind beneath hours of easy entertainment. Having extensive experience as a failure, I’m not sure whether it is possible to “fail better”, as Beckett says. Failing is a lonely place to be, because it is not something one can articulate to others, regardless of whether they too have failed.

I recently learned that the literary community bears more an uncanny resemblance to the academe from which I longed to escape, and the fear is that writing is yet another item to add to my infinite list of failures. Perhaps some artists thrive on failure – Van Gogh and Herman Melville comes to mind. And literature is to some extent fascinated with characters who are failures, who exist on the margins of life. There are countless films about the unremarkable life, quietly lived and quietly erased. Readers might desire to be voyeurs of such lives, but they might not want to be the protagonist.

In my research days, I was fascinated by stories about artists who battled the anxiety of accomplishment. Self-defeatist mentality and a lurking sense of inadequacy meant that works of art were often left incomplete. Fragments are alluring and metaphorically meaningful, and like architectural ruins, they point to wholeness eluded and completion thwarted. The nineteenth-century English architect John Soane, for example, imagined his own construction as a magnificent ruin, prophesying the inevitable triumph of time and self-doubt (more on this in another post, maybe).

soaneruin1

Thomas De Quincey, another Romantic preoccupied with thoughts of failure, lamented his own ability to complete a project:

“[The work] was now lying locked up […] like any Spanish bridge or aqueduct […] instead of surviving me as a monument of wishes at least, and aspirations […] it was likely to stand a memorial to my children of hopes defeated, of baffled efforts, of materials uselessly accumulated, of foundations laid that were never to support a superstructure, – of the grief and ruin of the architect.”

“The grief and ruin of the architect” – this is something I feel keenly. Unfinished stories and a ruinous novel lie somewhere in the labyrinth of notebooks and computer files, next to a thesis that never saw the light of publication. Does the possibility of failure diminish the writing and thinking process in any way? Does it rob the project of meaning? How do I shore these fragments against my ruin? More importantly, how to keep on writing in spite of failure?

In my notebook, I keep a printed copy of a Guardian article in which seven writers recount their experiences of failure. I always keep the sheet with me because I cannot anticipate at what time of the day these words of consolation might come in handy. I read a little, drink some tea, nap or go for a walk, chat with a friend, and eventually some of the fragments coalesce just a little so that writing can continue. So this is the daily process, and every day there is a tiny window during which creativity seems like salvation and I actually consider myself a writer. The next day, I wake up to find the boulder at the bottom of the hill. No matter. Try again. Fail again.

 

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Reflections on London

The process of crossing over into a new year seems to put many in the mood for reminisces. This year, as in previous years, I found myself thinking about London. 2015 was the year I returned to London, after a three-year hiatus, but the journey felt very much like a dream, as if it never occurred. The London I remember is still the home I knew years ago, not the spectacle I encountered as a visitor.

In the early days of my stay in London, everything was fresh and precious. London was like nowhere else. The university seemed an interruption, and in the interstices between seminars, I rushed from museum to museum, shop to shop, with the urgency of one who was all too aware of mortality. It was impossible to stop – every day presented new opportunities and new temptations. The city was with me even in the confines of my room – first a small dorm room in Camden with a view of the ubiquitous London planetree; next an elegant Regency house in Hampstead, with a partial view of the Heath; and finally, a flat in Bloomsbury, with a view of Georgian rooftops and the BT Tower which, when seen from afar, always signaled the location of home. Those were solitary days of urban wanderings, bookshop-hopping, instant noodles and freezing winter nights. I was always conscious of my luck and privilege, as I am now conscious of the impossibility of returning to those abodes.

The London I knew was a city of words. There are scrolls of paper that run down the sides of buildings, along the columns or pinned to the doors, inscribed with the words of Londoners. On overcast, foggy days, on buildings by the Thames, we read about Dickens’s ubiquitous fog, “up the river…down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside of a great (and dirty) city.” Crossing Westminster Bridge, we read Wordsworth’s love song to the “ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples” of London, “bright and glittering in the smokeless air.” On weekdays during rush hour, pushing past the crowd, we glimpse Eliot’s “Unreal city” inscribed on the Golden Jubilee Bridge. During the daily commute, we read Heaney’s words on the walls of the Underground, describing us, the commuters – “half straggle-ravelled and half strung/ Like a human chain”. While running errands on crowded Saturdays, we see Shelley’s lament scrawled on the greyish façades of Oxford Street: “Hell is a place much like London”. On Primrose Hill, we find Blake’s words, now engraved in stone: “I have conversed with the spiritual Sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill”.

One walks through the streets wrapped in words. The walls are palimpsests and each generation adds new words by new Londoners. Layer upon layer of text, until nothing is decipherable.

For a period of time, I lived opposite Dickens’s old house; two minutes from Yeats; five minutes from the Shelleys’ temporary abode; two squares away from Virginia Woolf; three squares away from Eliot’s Faber office. For one year, I also stayed in the house that once belonged to the painter Paul Nash. True to my role as a bibliophile, I frequented bookshops new and old, and compiled my own catalogue of literary spots. That was one of the best parts about living in such a city, the cultivating of pleasant associations with spots in the metropolis. In London I understood the power of psychogeography, the ways in which places trigger something in the mind. Spots became sacred for their connection with beloved writers and artists. Visits to churches and graveyards became pseudo-pilgrimages. London was thus, for a time, a place of love.

There are places to which it is impossible to return, places barred by impenetrable walls of immigration policies, walls built higher and higher each year; places that have changed beyond recognition; places that have sunk beneath the weight of memory. I have always known that London, like some mythic destination, was a place I would lose as soon as I left. In my final months in the city, right before the London Olympics, I took in the city with a kind of frenzy or hunger, like one who did not have long to live. The photos from those months are still unsorted. It is difficult to think about London, or write about it, even though I continually attempt to do so. The city is irrepressible, even as I try to evade its control of my imagination.

After my departure from London (and after failed attempts to apply for another visa), I came to the despairing realization that not only can I not return to London, I do not belong there, have never belonged there; that this city, grand, literary and inspiring, belongs to others; that the words which have guided me for so long have never been intended for one such as I, an outsider, foreigner, alien. The city is not mine, and its narratives – contemporary or past – will never be mine. To whom does London belong? That is a question for another time.

Vestiges of London are always with me – in the hundreds of books on the shelves; in the clothes collected from the shops I frequented; the postcards on the walls; the book bags that can only be found at Daunt Books. Perhaps it is there in the words I write, or perhaps the writing is an ongoing attempt to reclaim a place that has never been there, a place to which it is impossible to return.

Paris and the World, November 2015

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer

utters itself. So, a woman will lift

her head from the sieve of her hands and stare

At the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth

enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;

then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth

in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales

console the lodger looking out across

a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls

a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –

Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

Carol Ann Duffy, “Prayer” (1992)

 

Out of Hibernation

I must have at least eight excuses for not having written on this blog for month after month, but perhaps none of them are compelling enough to mention. The office became manic, the streets chaotic and the slush pile of to-dos accumulated. But since this January was meant to bring a new phase in life, then now is as good a time as any to start posting more regularly. Blogging as a form of serious thought is, after all, one of the less nefarious things that the internet has offered us. Besides, being productive on the blog might displace less productive activities, and gradually draw me away from the likes of Facebook. To quote Jonathan Safran Foer, ‘The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits.’

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