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failed life

We distinguish in the Norbiton Academy between success, failure, and the Failed Life.

Norbiton: Ideal City is the City of the Failed Life.

But in making that distinction, in saying that the Failed Life is something beyond mere success or failure, we do not deny its provenance. The Failed Life is a pragmatic and coherent, if somewhat oblique, answer to a series of linked questions thrown up by catastrophic personal failure – specifically, our own.

acute and systematic failure

How, we ask, can an individual survive acute and systematic failure? How can you expect to organise a meaningful life for yourself when the organ of Ambition, or Purpose - that by which, perhaps unconsciously, you had been accustomed to grade and sort and filter every aspect of your life - has been lobotomised?

Should we in fact redescribe the problem of failure as the problem of hope, and leave it to the philosophers? And can total failure, and full and clear-sighted acceptance of total failure, be a form of fulfilment? Or is such failure nothing more, in the end, than a crisis of reorganisation, a point of maximal stress in a life of complex torsion? Inevitable, in other words, and therefore banal?

Our answer to all of these questions lies in the Failed Life (a practical and not merely philosophical response, note), and by extension in the whole polity of the Ideal City; and it is laid out in the Anatomy which describes that city. But in making that slightly evasive deferral, it is perhaps also worth stating the plainly obvious: that, whatever else, the answer to the problem of failure is most assuredly not success.



The City of the Failed Life is a city without hope – hope of success, of power, of the future, of an afterlife – and a city without despair. It is a place where all citizens have time: time to look out of the window and have a think, time to pick up a book and put it down again, time to fail again and again at whatever they want, time even to succeed occasionally at something; and in particular the time to allow ambition or aspiration or industry to arise from among the particular detritus of their own existence. Time, in other words, to find or develop or uncover a suitable organisation for their own lives.

Its controlling metaphor is the artisan in his workshop, surrounded by the aggregated junk of a lifetime, from which he can draw out a working, functioning – not finished, not seamless – but perfected (even if not perfect), what? Machine? Work of art?  It really doesn’t matter. You can do what you please. You are invited, not to live a life, with all of the chicanery, delusion and sadness which that involves, but merely to ponder and set in order the facts of your existence.



We have no charters or statutes or ordinances, our citizens can come and go as they please, unannounced, unquestioned, untrammelled.

The one vital and material change we have made to the nature of our polity or, if you prefer, comity, was not by fiat, but by tacit universal assent: we have abandoned forever all hope of success; and we were for the most part able to do this because our failure was not chronic, but acute.

Chronic failure is the normal degenerative state of humankind. It is the state of being buffeted, dissatisfied, trapped; you sit in an office looking out of the window, or in a living room staring at the TV; you know or you do not know that you are depressed, trapped, an underachiever, a loser, but either way you feel it. Perhaps you had no ambition to start with, no clear focus, but you nevertheless see that elsewhere, in different hands, life is more supercharged; that you are a foot soldier in a vast army marching over a dusty plain in search of an enemy and a battle that might or might not happen; but somewhere up at the front there are young brash exhuberent individuals straddling velvet-caparisoned chargers, raised above and riding in front of this eternal dust, their armour a shower of light, ready for anything, lost in the perfection of the moment: youth, adventure, an army at their back.

You could throw down your pike and go home, but they’d execute you for desertion.

Acute failure is when you throw down your pike anyway and hide in the bushes and wait for the army to pass on, until it is just you and the wildlife, voles and small birds and insects, re-emerging into the sunlight. You are on your own in the desert and might die of thirst by nightfall, but that’s OK.



In sketching, as we do elsewhere, the interrelation of the various Norbitons (Accidental, Empirically Real, and Ideal City) we are aware that there might seem to be – to an extent is - a point-to-point correspondence between those different aspects of the same place on the one hand and the tripartite distinction which we draw in the Anatomy between success, failure, and the Failed Life on the other. If Norbiton: Ideal City is the place that the practitioners or discoverers or inventors of the Failed Life have secretly carved out to accommodate their asymmetrical existences, then Accidental Norbiton is the vapour trail of the successful, and Empirically Real Norbiton the stone cairn of failure.

Such a geography – and much else that we have said hitherto - implies that failure lies closer to the Failed Life than success. And, in a statistical sense, it is true – it is in the name, after all. But the reality is more complex, and the approaches to the Failed Life more involuted and labyrinthine than can easily be known; success will frequently lie contiguous to profound failure; and the Failed Life can masquerade as success.

So it is that some of the most extraordinary achievements of mankind – say, for example, Renaissance Florence - are a product not of success but of what we generalise as the Failed Life. Failure is not always the uppermost quality in an undertaking which it may, in fact, define; but rather can lie buried, a source of deep coherence. There is something linking Masaccio’s gaunt and powdery saints with Michelangelo’s trapped slaves; or Brunelleschi’s sober Ospedale with Bramante’s exiled and imprisoned Tempietto. Something more than place or patronage or continuity of practice. And you can be sure that, had Michelangelo met Masaccio or Bramante Brunelleschi, they would have read, in one another’s eyes, the knowledge that both art and life are perfectible, and that they have failed in their assault on perfection.

To see this demands sensitivity to unexpected and abstruse temporal geometries. In truth, the tripartite division which we propose between success, failure and the Failed Life is a binary structure; success and failure are indistinguishable. The Failed Life stands apart from them. Success and failure are inevitable, universal, trivial. The Failed Life is contingent, local, and at the root of all civilisation.



Both success and failure are characterised by a disappearance of the subject into a variety of roles prepared for him or her by society. They are, in a sense, an evacuation of self. There is something easy about both of them. While the successful will fill roles in public life (including company life) and family life, the failures of the world ease back into alcohol or self-pity or self-justification or the more pernicious delusion of contentment. Neither success nor failure is pretty, but both, to repeat, are characterised by the surrender and indeed the absence of the individual.

The Failed Life, by contrast, is costive and uncomfortable. It starts as a great undigested bolus of self. We are all awkward misfits, bilious communists, unreformed romantics. We do not fit. We do not want to fit.

Norbiton: Ideal City is a haven for the Failed. No one is expected to pitch in, to rub along, to cheer up; no one is ever shouted down, stepped on, chivvied along or shut out. Everyone is afforded the space they need.

We have failed, acknowledged our failure, and moved on.



Arion of Lesbos, a singer credited by Ovid with Orphic powers, having won a singing competition in Sicily, so the story goes, was embarked with his prize for Corinth and home. But the sailors envied the riches he now carried with him, and resolved to murder and rob him. Arion, in despair, asked them to wait until he had played one last time; they agreed, but the poet, having sung his song, cast himself into the waves, whence a dolphin emerged to bear him away to safety, Arion still singing and playing upon the creature’s back.


This is our emblem of the Failed Life. We have cast ourselves from your ship, but the Failed Life, strange and beautiful, bears us on, still singing.