Samuel Beckett—Original manuscript drafts of Worstward Ho

Selected by Michael John Gorman

For Beckett, failure was the ultimate goal of art. As he wrote in his Three Dialogues, “to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion”. His works play constantly with failure of narrative, dialogue and language itself. Beckett’s most memorable formulation on failure was presented in his late novella Worstward Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”.

Beckett’s vision of heroic failure as the vocation of the artist has a strange contemporary echo in the current Silicon Valley mantra, “Fail Fast, Fail Early, Fail Often”. Beckett’s idea of ‘failing better’ is seductive. What does it mean to fail better? When Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969, he reportedly declared to his wife that the news was “a disaster” as the publicity would undoubtedly distract him from his writing, and he did not travel to Stockholm to collect the award. Fame and conventional success were abhorrent to Beckett.

Years ago I happened to be living in an apartment building in Paris which Beckett used to walk past every day at precisely the same time, as he traced an identical route past the Observatory and towards La Closerie des Lilas and the Place de l’Odéon. He used to disguise his lanky frame in different ways with assorted hats, scarves and sunglasses, but was as regular as clockwork so people would spot him and look at their watches and exclaim “C’est Beckett! ”. Even in his quest for anonymity, he was a failure. For me, Beckett is the ultimate poster-boy of failure. As for Sisyphus, for both the artist and the scientist, failure is not an end point but an essential component of a cyclical process. What I especially love about this manuscript of Worstward Ho is that it shows that Beckett attempted multiple revisions of his text: even he couldn’t get it right first time around.

About Michael John Gorman

Michael John Gorman, one of the FAIL BETTER curators, is the Founding Director of Science Gallery and the CEO of Science Gallery International. Currently, through a gift of €1M from Google.org, he is developing an international Science Gallery network in partnership with leading universities in urban centres worldwide. Michael John is also Adjunct Professor of Creative Technologies at Trinity College Dublin, Director of the Idea Translation Lab (in partnership with Harvard University) and Coordinator of the European StudioLab project. Prior to coming to Trinity College Dublin, he worked at Stanford University where he lectured in science, technology and society, and has held postdoctoral fellowships in Harvard University and MIT. He has authored numerous publications and articles on aspects of the relationship between art and science and the history of science. He holds a Ph.D. in 17th century history of science from the European University in Florence.