According to the best estimates, 99.9 percent of all the species that ever existed on earth have gone extinct. A similar fate awaits the extant ones. A lot has to go right for a new species to establish itself, yet even then most of its members do not partake in the species’s success, for they either die early, fail to reproduce, or get eliminated by enemies, competitors, or nature’s adversities. Given the great quotient of failure in the struggle for life, one could say that every living organism descends from ancestors that beat the odds—that were “winners.” However, in this sense “winning” means little more than the perpetuation of loss. If the measure of success is survival, even the fittest members of a flourishing species are losers in the long run.

In antiquity humans were referred to as “mortals,” which meant that they were destined not only to die but also to suffer loss, misfortune, and disaster. By comparison with the immortal gods, even the loftiest mortals are losers in the long run (as Achilles realizes in Hades). In his book In Praise of Failure, the philosopher and essayist Costica Bradatan reminds us that we flash into existence between “two instantiations of nothingness,” namely the nothingness before we were born and the one after we die. Each one of us, ontologically speaking, is next to nothing. And each one of us, despite our precarious condition, has something to lose. “Myths, religion, spirituality, philosophy, science, works of art and literature”—all, according to Bradatan, seek to make our next-to-nothingness “a little more bearable.”

To seek to make our condition more bearable is one thing. To anxiously take flight from its reality is another. In American society’s glorification of winning and worldly success, Bradatan sees a virulent and self-defeating psychology of evasion. America’s well-attested tendency to view secular success as a measure of triumph over the essential abasement of the human condition leads to a particular pathology: the fear of failure. In a New York Times article in January 2023 titled “I Know What Savage Fear Really Lies at the Heart of the American Dream,” Bradatan wrote about growing up in Romania, “a place that has been submerged in failure for as long as it has been in existence.” He decided to immigrate to the United States because it “is custom made for an aficionado of failure like me”:

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 optimist 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.

That savage fear is part of a vicious circle whereby the more we exalt success, the more we dread failure. Arthur Miller once remarked that in America, “people who succeed are loved because they exude some magical formula for fending off destruction, fending off death,” adding that this is “the most brutal way of looking at life that one can imagine, because it discards anyone who does not measure up.” Bradatan reminds us that things are not that simple, given that “winners” cannot do without losers, since “it’s not enough for you to succeed; the other has to fail,” to which he adds, “your success does not have much meaning in the absence of the loser’s concomitant failure.”

Of course, whatever one can say about America that is true, the opposite is also true. Thus while the American psyche equates success with grace and failure with disgrace, its literature and popular culture tend to exalt misfits, outsiders, casualties, outlaws, and, yes, losers. Miller’s salesman is a case in point, as are Bartleby, Dick Diver, Midnight Cowboy’s Joe Buck, the Cuckoo’s Nest inmates, Jeff Lebowski, Dewey Finn, and the assorted characters in the “loser lit” canon. We love losers when they are romanticized or humorized.

There are two ways one can deal with the next-to-nothingness of human existence, according to Bradatan: denial or acknowledgment. The former includes escapism, religious notions of an afterlife, and the transhumanist creed that technology and human ingenuity can “cure the disease of death.” In Praise of Failure rests on the assumption that life, not death, is the disease: “Life is a chronic, addictive sickness, and we are in bad need of a cure.” That cure, or “failure-based therapy,” as Bradatan calls it, begins and ends with acknowledgment—a head-on confrontation with the defeat inscribed into our human condition. Unlike some pessimists who believe that only illusions render life bearable, he puts his faith in open-eyed realism: “To see things as they are, as opposed to how we would like them to be,” has a healing, if not redemptive, effect, for it “allows us to extricate ourselves, with some dignity, from the entanglement that is human existence.”


The great extricator is failure, which Bradatan defines broadly as “whatever we experience as a disconnection, disruption, or discomfort in the course of our patterned interaction with the world and others.” Only by taking our distance from the world do we gain insight into the mortal, fallible, and ultimately doomed nature of embodied life. Through the crucible of disconnection, disruption, and discomfort we acquire the one virtue that inoculates us against the pathology of existence: humility. Humility in turn gives us “a chance to be healed of hubris and egocentrism, of self-illusion and self-deception.”

Bradatan’s subtitle, “Four Lessons in Humility,” refers to the four major subjects of the book: Simone Weil, Mahatma Gandhi, Emil Cioran, and Yukio Mishima. (A host of minor characters populate its pages as well.) The lives and works of these four figures metabolized failure in different manners, all of which were underpinned, in Bradatan’s telling, by a loosely shared vision of the vanity and superfluity of human existence. The French philosopher Simone Weil serves as a lesson in physical failure. Gandhi serves as a lesson in political failure. The Romanian essayist and nihilist Emil Cioran serves as a lesson in social failure. And Mishima, embracing the Japanese tradition of noble failure through suicide, serves as a lesson in biological failure.

The style of In Praise of Failure reflects the humility Bradatan advocates at the moral level. His clear thinking and erudition come through in limpid, simple, yet highly articulate sentences. A quick glance at the index reveals a galaxy of writers, thinkers, theologians, actors, and political leaders beyond the book’s main protagonists. Each of the four chapters contains an admixture of biography, social and political history, philosophical reflection, and existential commentary, without academic grandstanding.

Simone Weil was the closest thing to a saint, albeit a highly unorthodox one, in a century that did not have many of them. Along with Simone de Beauvoir, she was one of the first women to graduate from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. (She finished first in the exam for the certificate of “General Philosophy and Logic,” while de Beauvoir finished second.) From 1931 to 1938 Weil taught philosophy at the high school level. Physically clumsy to the point of comedy, with a particular distaste for food, she seemed bodiless and otherworldly to those who knew her. In 1934 she took a leave of absence from her lycée and, after submitting several applications, landed a job in a factory as an unskilled laborer. It did not go well. For more than a year she struggled mightily to meet the work quotas, experiencing firsthand the abuse and dehumanization of factory workers by machines that turned them into tools in the mechanical production process. Her year of quasi slave labor gave Weil a heavy dose of the spiritual petrification she would later associate with the state of “affliction” (malheur).

Clumsiness is a form of physical failure that belongs to practical life. It is different in essence from moral failure in matters of character, judgment, and social relations. “It is precisely its brutal thingness that makes it so disturbing when found in humans,” writes Bradatan. It is like being born with a thorn in your flesh that prevents you from inserting yourself smoothly into the flow of things. This discomfort, however, yields insights:

Your clumsiness puts a distance between you and the world, and the depth of your insight is in direct proportion to that distance…. At the limit, as the thorn becomes of a piece with your flesh, your understanding will have reached uncanny proportions.

I doubt that most clumsy people reach uncanny levels of understanding, yet Weil, by any measure, was not like most people.

For Weil the misery of the afflicted had to do precisely with this debasement of humanity to thingness, of which clumsiness is a foretaste. Affliction surrounds us on all sides in the indentured, the homeless, the forlorn, and the very poor. The unafflicted mostly pretend it doesn’t exist, since its privations are repellent and demoralizing; nevertheless, the loss of humanity in the afflicted creates tears in the fabric of existence through which, every now and then, despite ourselves, we catch glimpses of the leering void both around us and within us.

Weil wanted not to shrink back from but rather to plunge into the void. “We have to fix our will on the void—to will the void,” she wrote in Gravity and Grace. “First there must be a tearing out, something desperate has to take place, the void must be created.” The theological concept Weil alludes to here is kenosis, a Greek word that means emptying out: “To empty ourselves of the world. To take the form of a slave. To reduce ourselves to the point we occupy in space and time—that is to say, to nothing.” Bradatan would say “next to nothing” rather than “nothing,” and the distinction is an important one, for “next-to-nothingness” keeps us in the world, while Weil’s willing of the void sought deliverance from the world altogether. “We must give up everything which is not grace…detach our desire from all good things and to wait…. It is then we touch that absolute good.” The absolute good has no correlate in the world. We can neither picture it nor define it, hence it is nothing for us, she writes: “The good seems to us as a nothingness, since there is no thing that is good. But this nothingness is not unreal. Compared with it, everything in existence is unreal.” For Weil a turn toward the void was the only adequate moral response to the essential injustice of our human condition.


In Weil’s suggestive lexicon, detachment and “decreation” are cognate: “Attachment is a manufacturer of illusions and whoever wants reality ought to be detached.” Detachment begins the process of decreation, or the total undoing of one’s embodied being in order to return the soul to God in its essential nothingness: “May God grant me to become nothing. In so far as I become nothing, God loves himself through me.” Weil eventually found a way to become nothing by starving herself to death at the age of thirty-four. Whether God loved himself through her self-annihilation we’ll never know.

Those who find Weil’s metaphysical outlook bleak will find Emil Cioran’s all the more so, for he did not believe that God awaits us in the void. As in his other three chapters, Bradatan combines biography, exposition, and critical analysis, along with distilled authorial reflections that in this chapter have a special intensity, perhaps because Cioran was a fellow Romanian. While some of us see in Cioran’s philosophy of inaction only a defiant pessimism and devaluation of all values, Bradatan sees a heroic antiheroism. Cioran was nothing if not resolute in his desire to remain désoeuvré—idle and aimless. From 1937 on he lived in Paris, returning to Romania only once, in 1940. He hardly worked a day in his life for wages, and when he did—as a high school teacher in Braşov in 1936—he made a mockery of it. When Cioran quit, Bradatan writes, “the principal, to celebrate, drank himself into a stupor.” “The main thing for me was to safeguard my freedom,” Cioran declared late in life. “I preferred to live like a parasite than to destroy myself by keeping a job.” There is something both endearing and provocative about Cioran’s Belacquaism, if I may call it that, Belacqua being a character in Purgatorio whom Dante portrays as a paragon of indolence. Asked about his working routines, Cioran answered, “Most of the time I don’t do anything. I am the idlest man in Paris…. The only one who does less than I do is a whore without clients.”

Cioran clearly did not share the French Existentialist view that meaning in a meaningless universe comes only from action. “All action is fundamentally useless,” he declared. Bradatan remarks, “The great idlers and mystics have always known (Cioran seems to have been both at once), there is perfection in inaction—the less you act, the closer to the absolute.” And with a subtle trace of his subject’s irony, he adds, “Cioran was a man of deep conviction: in a failed universe, a failure’s life is the only life worth living.” One gets the impression, from remarks like these, that the inspiration for Bradatan’s book came primarily from his countryman’s tragicomic nihilism.

One of the book’s major insights is that Weil’s decreationism, Gandhi’s clumsy quest for purity during the disastrous violence and bloodshed in the immediate aftermath of Indian independence, Cioran’s disavowal of being born, and Mishima’s desire to triumph over life with “a beautiful death” all share a latter-day Gnosticism of sorts. Bradatan includes some insightful pages that associate these figures with the Gnostic doctrine that cosmic creation was a failure, and that the blame lay not with God but with a clumsy, imperfect demiurge. This idea that the world came about through a mistake seems like the submerged or latent assumption that underlies, in one form or another, the metaphysics of Bradatan’s four champions of failure. It seems to me that this assumption extends well beyond those four to a number of other modern figures like Giacomo Leopardi and Arthur Schopenhauer, Samuel Beckett and Thomas Ligotti, Eugene Thacker and various other antinatalists of our time.

Bradatan claims that “In Praise of Failure is a Beckettian book.” One of Beckett’s most famous quotes, much abused and misunderstood, has to do with failing: “Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again.” Beckett once wrote to Cioran, “Dans vos ruines je me sens à l’aise.” If the goal of Bradatan’s “failure therapy” is to make us feel more at ease amid the ruins, it succeeds brilliantly.

When the end is in sight, even the most successful careers seem haunted by the specter of failure. Endings bring us that much closer to our next-to-nothingness. Geoff Dyer’s The Last Days of Roger Federer and Other Endings speaks from within the finitude that holds sway over every human attempt to defy the odds and make a success of one’s life or art. A widely celebrated author whose books have won many awards, Dyer is in some respects the epitome of success. Certainly the authorial voice in Last Days exudes a strong self-confidence as it descants yet again upon the supreme theme of art and song, as well as tennis, the aging body, and “a congeries of experiences, things, and cultural artefacts that, for various reasons, have come to group themselves around me in a rough constellation during a phase of my life.” The phase of life in question is that of a man in his sixties who senses that his life’s narrative, if not biological, trajectory is starting to wind down.

Like Dyer’s other “genre-defying” books (his publisher’s term), Last Days mixes autobiography, literary essay, travel writing, music criticism, and more. The book has numbered sections, à la Nietzsche, plus a postscript and notes; otherwise it follows its bliss without chapter titles, rubrics, or road maps. I should say river maps, for the book is altogether fluvial in its meandering flow through the psychogeography of “last things.” Inspired by Theodor W. Adorno’s essay fragment “Late Style in Beethoven” (“an important early reference point for this book about last things”), Dyer devotes many memorable pages to the late styles of D.H. Lawrence, J.M.W. Turner, Bob Dylan, Friedrich Nietzsche, Giorgio de Chirico, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Rhys, Don DeLillo, and various other writers, artists, athletes, and musicians.

Dyer has edited two collections of essays by and about Lawrence. Last Days contains some scintillating pages on his last years, the most interesting of which deal with Lawrence’s reflections on Turner’s late paintings, in which we find echoes of the Gnostic motifs I mentioned earlier:

Ever, he sought the Light, to make the light transfuse the body, till the body was carried away, a mere bloodstain, became a ruddy stain of red sunlight within white sunlight…. If Turner had ever painted his last picture, it would have been a white incandescent surface, the same whiteness when he finished as when he began, proceeding from nullity to nullity, through all the range of colour.

Fascinated by Lawrence’s line “If Turner had ever painted his last picture…,” Dyer remarks that Turner’s late work came close to, but never succeeded in, painting an unstained, wholly kenotic canvas of decorporealized white radiance. Lawrence wrote, “Only the faintest shadow of life stains the light, is the last word that can be uttered, before the blazing and timeless silence.” Weil, Cioran, the Cathars, and the Gnostics knew the nature of the shadow Lawrence was referring to here. According to Dyer, Turner, “the proto-impressionist and -modernist,” “remained the quintessential romantic, condemned to the corporeal.” It is Turner’s ultimate failure to leave the corporeal behind that makes for the searing beauty of his late work, with its ruddy stains of red sunlight.

The corporeal got the better of Lawrence in a crueler way during his last years, not only because his health was failing but because, after first denying that he was ill, he started insisting to his friends and even to himself that he was on the road to recovery. He blamed his illness not on tuberculosis but on the effects of climate, or the places he was in, or on his own state of mind: “I do believe the root of all my sickness is a sort of rage…. I realize now that Europe gets me into an inward rage…. It’s Europe that has made me so ill.” It was not until two weeks before he died that he mentioned the dreaded word tuberculosis: “There is a very slight tubercular trouble.”

As his body was being defeated, Lawrence was failing to will himself out of his condition. We have here an apposite example of the distinction that Dyer draws between failure and defeat:

Failure always feels like our own fault, not just to live up to earlier promise but when we fail to make the grade. We fail an exam, are not defeated by it. We are always defeated by something, even by bad luck. Failure—to convert break points—leads to eventual defeat, which can in turn give way to a lasting sense of failure. Because it is internalised, failure ultimately trumps defeat.

The phrase between dashes—“to convert break points”—brings us to the curious title of Dyer’s book: The Last Days of Roger Federer. Dyer has a passion for tennis, as both a player and a spectator, and he spends considerable time discussing some of the top professional tennis stars, as well as the significant physical toll the game has exacted on his aging body. For some reason Federer is mentioned only infrequently—by my count in fewer than a dozen of the book’s 180 sections. This is surprising, since he holds a special place in Dyer’s decision to write a testament to last things and endings: “One of the questions that had got me interested in this subject—things coming to an end, artists’ last works, time running out—was the long-running one of Roger Federer’s eventual retirement.” In 2019 Dyer felt that he was at a stage in his writing career similar to Federer’s in his tennis career. (The Swiss star officially retired in September 2022.) “It seemed important that a book underwritten by my own experience of the changes wrought by ageing should be completed before Roger’s retirement.”

It is hard to say why Dyer identifies his own endgame with Federer’s, especially since he emphasizes above all Federer’s failures rather than his successes in crucial moments of his career. In some ways Federer’s career corroborates Bradatan’s thesis that failure is primary, while success is secondary. Being a passionate Federer fan myself, I know that those who love him will always be haunted by those occasions when he came up short in heartbreaking fashion. His fans, who number in the millions, cannot bear to revisit the 2008 Wimbledon final in which Federer, after four hours and forty-eight minutes of play, lost to Rafael Nadal 9–7 in the fifth set as darkness engulfed Centre Court. We cannot bear to remember Novak Djokovic slapping a ridiculous forehand return against him that saved match point in the semifinals of the 2011 US Open, which Djokovic went on to win. Most of all we cannot bear to think about, let alone rewatch, the epic 2019 Wimbledon final in which Federer squandered two match points on his own serve against Djokovic and went on to lose the match.

In his postscript Dyer includes a parenthesis that raises the question of how many times Federer, over the course of his career, failed rather than was defeated: “Among Roger’s many records might he also claim the unwanted crown of having lost more matches, from match point up, than any other player?” During his years as a pro, Federer in fact lost twenty-three matches after having match point, six of them in Grand Slam tournaments. That’s an astonishing number for one of the game’s great players—its greatest player, in the eyes of many. Those twenty-three losses represent 8 percent of his total losses on the ATP Tour, and only 1.5 percent of his total matches, yet I suspect that his failure to win a handful of critical points over the long arc of his playing years will cause Federer more pain in the future than the pleasure he will derive thinking back on the many matches he won after being down match points.

Bradatan would say about Federer that he is a deeper, humbler, more genuine human being for having been denied victory in those decisive moments—that in the end he experienced in his own intense way the essential truth of the human condition. Certainly those of us who love Federer love him all the more for the bitter losses he endured on the court. Without them he would have been a god, and we would love him less.

With his own brilliant career as a writer now winding down, Dyer is especially moved by the pathos of the “red sunlight” that surrounded Federer in his last tennis-playing days. It is the glow that comes when one’s hour in the sun is coming to an end. Yet there is more to it than that. In the one and only revealing statement about what Federer really means to him, Dyer writes, “With Roger’s fading the reign of beauty is coming to an end.” It’s true that almost no one in the history of tennis played more beautifully than Federer, yet reigns of beauty in tennis have come to an end before. When Federer first burst onto the scene, men’s tennis was far from beautiful. The wonder of Federer is that he resurrected a bygone grace with his variety and all-court style of play. If a reign of beauty is indeed coming to an end with his retirement, it will probably be reborn again someday, even if Dyer and those of us his age will no longer be here to witness it.