One reason that books about failure remain rare is that the occupational and psychological hazards of the topic are too great. The very best books fail splendidly, somewhere in the inexorable gap between ambition and completion, and as for the rest, almost all books fail to win large sales or readerships. No matter how few people want to read about failure, they will always outnumber authors willing to write about it.
Avital Ronell, the philosopher and literary critic, has written more than a dozen books, including one called Stupidity (2003). And yet even she confesses to having "stopped counting the years" spent on her latest book, which finally she did not so much finish as quit. Her preface (titled "Wrestling a Bad Object") owns that it was "so long in coming - it staggered and stalled so many times ... until today, it just stops and I feel I can't go on".
You go on reading because the book at hand, Loser Sons: Politics and Authority, sounds so apt and timely amid the epochal losses of the new millennium. At her best, Ronell meditates on the outsized historical damage done by overgrown boys who fell short of their big daddies, eg, "little Bush, Osama Bin Laden, Mohammed Atta, and other tyrannical types who mirror one another within the firm grasp of a reciprocal enmity that sustains their history". Whatever the second half of that sentence means, the first half makes Ronell's title and polemic relatively clear. Appalled by "the Bush-Cheney defamations of history", she became "determined to check out the MO of sons who ...steal something from history because they themselves feel grievously ripped off - a little like Hamlet, but not quite".
Here, the author also describes herself - as if, unable to bring herself to complete the book she imagined, neither could she bear to write another instead. "I start off by conducting nano-analyses," she explains, "following minor or minoritarian tracks that may lead nowhere or, suddenly, they may flip into 'the big picture' to function as the rush of canaries in a political coal mine". Even if this were good writing, Ronell's analyses of, say, Goethe, Plato or (of course) Freud are sometimes maddeningly "nano" or predictably drawn back to her own personal and intellectual history. "Before continuing the reflection on authority, it may be useful for me to reintroduce myself," she offers after only one chapter. And on the very next page, "Let me explain myself, and, then, let me explain why I need to explain myself."
Except for a brilliant reading of Franz Kafka's withering 1919 missive (later published as Letter to His Father) and its allusions to The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Ronell's idiosyncratic mix of literary analysis, philosophical musings and reflexive asides never coheres as a book called Loser Sons. Chapters made of loosely connected sections run into orphaned paragraphs - some trailing off in long lines of ellipses (to "interrupt myself to question the choices I have made") and others breaking away to alternative narratives, offset on grey paper and placed between chapters or interleaved within them, every other page. Such indulgences attempt to make a virtue of indigestion, by overlaying incompleteness with rebelliousness. After a final, brief eulogy to enlightenment, Ronell's book "just stops" - as forewarned.
Somebody should reclaim the word loser, as Ronell says she set out to do, so as to forgive the armies of well-intentioned dummkopfs" we know and (mostly) love in everyday life, and to indict the "blood-soaked losers" who keep making and breaking history. But a book about failure, of all subjects, cannot be as self-important as Loser Sons and yet succeed.
Loser Sons: Politics and Authority
By Avital Ronell
University of Illinois Press
Published February 2012