This book is a precursor of sorts to Dr. Burton's recently published "Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception." In both books much of the same ground is covered, and indeed there is some repetition; however "The Art of Failure" is more clearly about what to do about the human predicament while "Hide and Seek" is more about laying out what the problem is.
And what is the problem? The problem, as the Buddha expressed it some twenty-five hundred years ago, is that life as it is usually lived is unsatisfactory. Consequently Burton's title is doubly ironic. First, what is called failure is in fact success, and what is "anti self-help" really is self-help.
What I especially like about the way Burton writes is his ability to make his case using evidence and rationale from academic or clinical psychology and from philosophic and religious traditions.
Let's begin with one of the most important ideas in the book:
"As human beings we have a tendency to think of our personhood as something concrete and tangible, something that exists in the `real world' and that extends through time. However, it is possible that our personhood is in fact nothing more than a product of our minds, merely a convenient concept of schema that enables us to relate our present self with our past, future, and conditionals selves, and so to lend to our life a sense of coherence and meaning. This concept or schema amounts to our sense of self, which is the very basis of our ego, and which is, therefore, tantamount to one gigantic ego defence, or the sum total of all our ego defences." (pp. 92-93)
Similarly from a Buddhist perspective, Burton writes: "An analogy that is often used to describe this process of rebirth or samsara is that of a flame passing from one candle to the next. This cycle of rebirth can only be broken if the empirical, changing self is able to transcend its subjective and distorted image of the world, which is both conscious and unconscious, and which has the `I am' conceit as a crucial reference point. This, then, is heaven or nibbana. Nibbana, as I see it, rests on the understanding that consciousness is a sequence of conscious moments rather than the continuous consciousness of the `I am' conceit. Each moment is an experience of an individual mind-state such as a perception, feeling, or thought; the consciousness of an empirical self is made up of the birth and death of these individual mind-states, and `rebirth' is nothing more than the persistence of this process." (p. 100)
Interesting is how Burton develops his argument using stories about famous Greek philosophers and some famous psychiatrists from the psychoanalytical school. Burton is well read in these areas and enjoys recalling bits of their lives. I especially enjoyed what he wrote about Diogenes the Cynic.
"Diogenes was not impressed with his fellow men, not even with Alexander the Great, who came to meet him one morning while he was lying in the sunlight. When Alexander asked him whether there was any favour he might do for him, he replied, "Yes, stand out of my sunlight."
"In another account of the conversation, Alexander found Diogenes looking attentively at a pile of human bones. Diogenes explained, `I am searching for the bones of your father (King Philip of Macedon) but cannot distinguish them from the bones of a slave.'" (p. 107)
Following this we get Burton's thesis (more or less) and the rationale for his ironic title: "Diogenes taught by living example that wisdom and happiness belong to the person who is independent of society. He was, I think, a shining example of the art of failure." (p. 108) "Other shining examples of the art of failure among the philosophers includes Pythagoras and Heraclitus." (p. 145)
It's apparent that what Burton means as the art of failure is the preference for successes other than those usually valued such as fame, wealth and power. We can see this as Burton recalls the famous story of Miletus who was able to predict a bumper olive crop one year inspiring him to take out a lease on all the olive presses in Miletus. He made a fortune, "simply to prove to the Milesians that a thinker could easily be rich, if only he did not have better things to do with his time." (p. 145)
In Chapter 8 entitled "Madness" Burton turns his attention to some of the greats in psychoanalytical theory. His recall of the life of Carl Jung is particularly interesting. Burton notes that Jung at one point went through a "highly creative state of mind that verged on psychosis..." while being married to "Emma Rauschenbach, the daughter of a rich industrialist." Burton then coyly writes, "Despite being happily married, he felt that he needed a muse as well as a home-maker, observing that `the pre-requisite of a good marriage...is the license to be unfaithful'. The marital strife that resulted from his affairs, and particularly from his affair with a former patient called Toni Wolff, contributed to his troubled state of mind..." (p. 123)
Part of what this book is about and what it celebrates is courage. Hemingway famously said that courage is grace under pressure. I like that definition. I also like Burton's take, which is revealed throughout the book, but can be thought of as a kind of wisdom. He writes, "...[I]f a person is to become fully conscious of his individuality, he needs to come to terms with the basis of fear and anxiety, which is death, and then to renounce his acquired sense of self, which amounts to metaphorical suicide." (p. 109) (Although I think for some people the basis of fear and anxiety is pain itself not death.)
What we fear varies from person to person but as Burton points out generally our phobias are of natural dangers our ancestors faced while what is really dangerous today are manmade hazards like motor vehicles and electric cables. (p. 52) Two thoughts jump to mind: (1) I find it easier to think about suicide from a gunshot to the head than about jumping from a high place. (2) I twice watched a coyote look both ways before crossing a street.
There was a part of the book that I found a bit unclear and another part a bit overdrawn. The overdrawn was his search mainly among the ancient Greeks for an understanding of friendship. However I did like this observation: "...the number of people with whom one can sustain a perfect friendship is very small, first, because reason and virtue are not to be found in everyone (never, for example, in young people, who are not yet wise enough to be virtuous)..." (For more see page 157.)
And I was a bit mystified by Burton's brain transfer thought experiment in the chapter he entitles "Ghosts." He has created a person dubbed Brownson who exists because the brains of two men were switched during a botched operation. Burton writes:
"Let us imagine that Brownson's brain is now divided into two equal halves or hemispheres and that each hemisphere is transplanted into a brainless body. After the operation, two people awake who are psychologically continuous with Brownson...are they then both Brownson?"
Obviously, I would say, half a brain does not make a whole person (or keep one alive for very long). If the thought experiment were changed a bit so as to absolutely duplicate the Brownson brain and put one into one body and the other into another body, then Burton's question would make sense. His conclusion that "Most people would argue...they are not in fact the same person..." seems reasonable since they have differ bodies and indeed we are not merely our brains. Even more reasonable is the conclusion that "in time [they] will develop into two very different people."
Interested readers might compare Burton's "Brownson" thought experiment to the "swampman" thought experiment by philosopher Donald Davidson (in which I think he comes to a mistaken conclusion) and the "self-identity" thought experiment in my book "The World Is Not as We Think It Is" in which I think I come to the right conclusion.
Let me close this rather long review of an excellent, very readable and challenging book with a quote from neurologist, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl that Burton presents on page 101:
"Only to the extent that someone is living out this self transcendence of human existence is he truly human or does he become his true self. He becomes so, not by concerning himself with his self's actualization, but by forgetting himself and giving himself, overlooking himself and focusing outward."