‘Fail Better’ – Samuel Beckett’s Spreading ‘Catchphrase’

Tattoos, tennis and shinbones - the unstoppable failure of Samuel Beckett

‘Fail Better’ – Samuel Beckett’s Spreading ‘Catchphrase’

“Ever Tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The often-quoted but rarely questioned line from Samuel Beckett’s late work Worstward Ho crops up in all sorts of unlikely places. It has become an optimistic ‘keep trying’ meme, it has been tattooed to the forearm of the French Open tennis champion Stan Wawrinka (by choice, it should be stressed), and used as corporate jargon as ‘work harder’ by executives and ‘innovation leaders’. My personal favourite is seeing it amongst Runners World’s ‘five inspirational Beckett quotes for runners’ , which are something between terrifying and genius. As Beckett was obsessed with the physical pains of the body, runners have a lot of material to choose from. I’ll limit myself to ‘Finished, it must be nearly finished’.

But how has Dublin’s bleakest son had a line from one of his most unreadable works turned into a chirpy catchphrase? And does it matter? The author Ned Beauman captures the unnerving side of misappropriating ‘fail better’:

“Watching a liturgy from such a gloomy and merciless author getting repurposed to cheer up mid-level executives is like watching a neighbour clear out their gutters with a stick they found in the garden, not realizing the stick is in fact a human shinbone.”

Depending on your feelings about Beckett, there is something disturbing or hilarious about the memeification of ‘fail better’, as it slowly becomes modernist literature’s response to ‘keep calm and carry on’ t-shirts. The whole process resonates with a line from Beckett’s mentor of sorts, James Joyce, in Ulysses where the pompous English headmaster Deasy tries quoting Shakespeare to advise Stephen on fiscal responsibility: ‘put but money in thy purse’, he smugly recites. Yet Stephen, well-versed in literary matters, points out the line is Iago’s, aka the baddy’s…

Yet there is something deliciously fitting about the perverse popularity of ‘fail better’. Beckett prided himself on eliding definitive answers in his works and they are full of plays on the slipperiness of language (Worstward Ho has a lot of fun with homophones, ‘know nothing no’). There’s also something comically apt about Wawrinka’s particular ‘fail better’ tattoo, as Beckett played a lot of tennis himself and even met his wife on a Parisian tennis court. He failed even better playing rugby in Paris, and an old team mate recalls Beckett’s unique tactics:

“Since he wasn’t wearing his glasses, he could not make out his opponents’ movements very clearly and he charged ahead blindly with grim determination. This made his attacks very penetrating but exposed him to some brutal tackles. He’d complain after these painful collisions: ‘Never again, never again’ as he picked himself up.”

‘Never again’ could soon catch on as the newest mantra in rugby and tennis tattoos, though Worstward Ho boasts many other suggestions.  ‘No choice but stand. Somehow up and stand. Somehow stand. That or groan.’ Anyone who has ever heard Maria Sharapova play might be wondering where she’s got that tattooed. And Andy Murray is considering getting one around his ankles for when he wants to stop blaming his trainers for the shape of his feet:

‘The boots. Better worse bootless. Bare heels. Now the two right. Now the two left. Left right left right on. Barefoot unreceding on. Better worse so.’

I’ll give him a hand with the tattooing. He can even use my shinbone.