Now, is there any alternative to this? I think the Western tradition shows us one glorious alternative, and that is tragedy. Tragic art, as it developed in the theaters of ancient Greece, in the fifth century B.C., was essentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail, and also according them a level of sympathy, which ordinary life would not necessarily accord them. I remember a few years ago, I was thinking about all this, and I went to see “The Sunday Sport,” a tabloid newspaper that I don’t recommend you start reading if you’re not familiar with it already. And I went to talk to them about certain of the great tragedies of Western art. I wanted to see how they would seize the bare bones of certain stories, if they came in as a news item at the news desk on a Saturday afternoon.
I talked about Othello; they’d not heard of it but they were fascinated by it. I asked them to write a headline for the story. They came up with “Love-Crazed Immigrant Kills Senator’s Daughter.” Splashed across the headline. I gave them the plotline of Madame Bovary. Again, a book they were enchanted to discover. And they wrote “Shopaholic Adulteress Swallows Arsenic After Credit Fraud.” And then my favorite — they really do have a kind of genius of their own, these guys — my favorite is Sophocles’ Oedipus the King: “Sex With Mum Was Blinding.”
In a way, if you like, at one end of the spectrum of sympathy, you’ve got the tabloid newspaper. At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got tragedy and tragic art. And I suppose I’m arguing that we should learn a little bit about what’s happening in tragic art. It would be insane to call Hamlet a loser. He is not a loser, though he has lost. And I think that is the message of tragedy to us, and why it’s so very, very important, I think.
The other thing about modern society and why it causes this anxiety, is that we have nothing at its center that is non-human. We are the first society to be living in a world where we don’t worship anything other than ourselves. We think very highly of ourselves, and so we should; we’ve put people on the Moon, done all sorts of extraordinary things. And so we tend to worship ourselves. Our heroes are human heroes. That’s a very new situation. Most other societies have had, right at their center, the worship of something transcendent: a god, a spirit, a natural force, the universe, whatever it is — something else that is being worshiped. We’ve slightly lost the habit of doing that, which is, I think, why we’re particularly drawn to nature. Not for the sake of our health, though it’s often presented that way, but because it’s an escape from the human anthill. It’s an escape from our own competition, and our own dramas. And that’s why we enjoy looking at glaciers and oceans, and contemplating the Earth from outside its perimeters, etc. We like to feel in contact with something that is non-human, and that is so deeply important to us.
What I think I’ve been talking about really is success and failure. And one of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. If I said that there’s somebody behind the screen who’s very very successful, certain ideas would immediately come to mind. You’d think that person might have made a lot of money, achieved renown in some field. My own theory of success — I’m somebody who’s very interested in success, I really want to be successful, always thinking, how can I be more successful? But as I get older, I’m also very nuanced about what that word “success” might mean.
Here’s an insight that I’ve had about success: You can’t be successful at everything. We hear a lot of talk about work-life balance. Nonsense. You can’t have it all. You can’t. So any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on, where the element of loss is. And I think any wise life will accept, as I say, that there is going to be an element where we’re not succeeding.
And the thing about a successful life is that a lot of the time, our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people; chiefly, if you’re a man, your father, and if you’re a woman, your mother. Psychoanalysis has been drumming home this message for about 80 years. No one’s quite listening hard enough, but I very much believe that it’s true.
And we also suck in messages from everything from the television, to advertising, to marketing, etc. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. When we’re told that banking is a very respectable profession, a lot of us want to go into banking. When banking is no longer so respectable, we lose interest in banking. We are highly open to suggestion.
So what I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas, and make sure that we own them; that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want, and find out, at the end of the journey, that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.