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Why I Came to America to Fail

I wrote a book in praise of failure, which is like a fish praising water. I’ve been swimming in failure for as long as I can remember — even before that. Quite a lot of who we are, what we do and especially what we cannot do is determined well before we are born — by history, geography, the rise and fall of empires, that farcical god we call “luck.” I came into this world with failure in my blood and bones. Sometimes I wonder if there is anything else there.

I come from Romania, a country as insignificant as it seems cursed, a place that has been submerged in failure for as long as it has been in existence. Failure seems to be everywhere: in the air people breathe, in the water they drink, even in the language they speak. Especially in the language. Romanian is any linguist’s dream: Layer piles upon linguistic layer like geological strata, indicating the foreign armies and empires that have at one time or another colonized the place, exploited it at length or merely marched through it — raping it in haste: Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Hungarian, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, then Soviet.

As with the local cuisine, which is so rich because it combines all the neighboring culinary traditions but has no clear identity of its own, the Romanian language is a purely Babelian affair: a dozen tongues in one. There are countless words for failure in Romanian, of different origins and verbal constructions so exquisite that you want to fail only for the pleasure of putting your experience into words. Coming from such a place, how could I not write in praise of failure?

At the time I was born, in the 1970s, the country was in the middle of an intense affair with utopia. Nothing breeds more failure than an obsessive quest for purity. The closer you get to perfection, the more abject the failure. We were supposed to reach the communist paradise any day, even as people’s lives were becoming progressively more hellish. The state was supposed to wither away, per Friedrich Engels’s prophecy; yet it was becoming more and more oppressive. Everything was owned in common, even though there was nothing much to be owned. For good measure, the utopian experiment was run largely by a gang of thugs. That strikes me now as a logical arrangement. You had to be either an incurable idealist or rotten to the core to believe in utopia, and idealism was never a plant to grow roots in that part of the world.

The Romanian state did everything — from the repression and surveillance to the police beatings and windows broken in the middle of the night — in the name of the working class. The regime was called “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” but that must have been a grammatical error: It was most obviously a dictatorship over the proletariat. The workers were kept deep in misery, ignorance and poverty. They were treated like beasts of burden and told that they were lucky, that under capitalism their lives would be so much worse. In school, many subjects were covered, but the discipline most widely taught was the art of cognitive dissonance: how to look at all of this and pretend to see none of it. If you mastered the craft, you could survive, even though you were left seriously broken inside. I lived in “1984,” knew it like the back of my hand,long before I discovered the book.

Books. It took me a while to discover them. For if there was one social class even worse off than the working class in the communist utopia, it was the peasant class.

I came into the world in a family of barely literate peasants, and there was not one book in the home where I grew up. Later in life, I would collect books compulsively, thousands of them, in an impossible effort to fill up the haunting emptiness of my bookless childhood and adolescence. You could in principle borrow books from the village’s library, but it was risky. You could get punished if you were caught reading. That was precious time stolen from productive work; child labor was routine in that quasi-paradise.

In the home in which I grew up, few words were spoken. The use of words was a too-demanding affair for people whose main job was sheer biological survival. An angry look, a jolt or the occasional beating were much more effective means of communication. Intellectual atrophy in that environment was a social epidemic. My own early socialization was largely with the cows I attended. Later in life, I embraced the craft of words in a desperate effort to fix, retroactively, all that was wrong with my wordless childhood.

By the late 1980s, some of the thugs got bored with the communist experiment and realized that it would be more fun if they turned capitalist. That’s how the regime collapsed, under the weight of its own absurdity, catching us, the children of utopia, amid its ruins. Not that this hurt us (by that point, we were too damaged to be hurt by anything), but it left us with a privileged relationship to failure, an affinity for it, even a special flair for it. Once in utopia, you are doomed; you carry its nothingness in your bones wherever you go.

Given Romania’s masochistic history, a venerable tradition has taken root there: You do everything you can to distance yourself from the country, to shed it off like a serpent sheds its skin, and to adopt a new identity — any identity. The philosopher E.M. Cioran, a brilliant exemplar of Romanianness, in his book “The Trouble With Being Born,” wrote: “I have spent my whole life wanting to be something else: Spanish, Russian, cannibal — anything, except what I was.” In other writings, Cioran admitted that he loved Romania “with a heavy hatred,” and that leaving it for France in his late twenties was “by far the most intelligent thing” he had ever done.

Apart from a remarkable gift for failing, Romanians have a knack for living in a state of painful separation, leaving a place and missing it unbearably. Dor(from the Latin dolor, pain), the word used to express that state, is one of the most defining in the Romanian vocabulary. Many a folk song, countless poems and even works of philosophy have been built around this one word.

When my turn came to follow this tradition, it was a relatively simple decision. I would emigrate to the United States. For I knew right away that America’s noisy worshiping of success, its mania for ratings and rankings, the compulsive celebration of perfection in everything served only as a facade. Behind the optimistic veneer there lies an extraordinary fear of failure: the horror of going down and going under, of losing face and respectability, of exclusion and marginalization. It’s not success, but failure — the savage fear of it — that lies at the heart of the American dream. The country is custom made for an aficionado of failure like me.

Costica Bradatan is a professor of humanities in the Honors College at Texas Tech University, and the author of the new book “In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility.” His essay, “Democracy Is for the Gods,” appears in the new anthology “Question Everything: A Stone Reader.”

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