Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Books I'm Reading: The Nobility of Failure

Originally published in 1975, Morris’s influential The Nobility of Failure was recently re-released by Kurodahan Press in a new paperback edition, making it readily available again. I’ve just finished it. The book still reads well after 40 years.

Morris’s central contention, supported by ten extended essays, is that throughout their history the Japanese have been so deeply drawn to sincerity of purpose that outcomes are virtually irrelevant in constructing hero stories—that failure may actually be preferable to success in a model Japanese hero, so long as the hero pursues his cause with sincerity. Morris starts by reaching back into prehistory to identify the legendary Yamato Takeru as the nation’s ur-hero, whose trajectory he sees as a kind of template for the pattern of initial success and subsequent downfall the author presents as common to the heroes of the essays comprising the bulk of the book.

Morris makes his case well, but the suggestion that Japan is unique in this regard may overstep the evidence, at least a little bit. The general pattern of admiration for a doomed underdog is more widespread than the book’s thesis admits, even if heroes in Japan seem to come to their end more than usually frequently by their own hand. Other nations have similarly revered failed heroes, some of whom have been posthumously elevated to near-mythical status. Great Britain has more than its fair share—Boudica, arctic explorer Scott, T.E. Lawrence. Still, the combined effect of reading the stories here of figures who rose then fell back to Earth in a futile struggle, suggests convincingly that the Japanese have an especially deep sympathy for this type of character, even if the author makes no attempt to examine why that might be so. Morris’s writing is clear, precise, and highly readable, in places having the sweep of a novel, despite being aimed as much at the specialist as at the general reader. The book is entertaining and it retains its appeal as a well-written piece of historical psychology that offers still-useful insights into Japan’s cultural history.

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