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Success? Forget it

22 February 2013

John Pridmore reads an account of failure which fails to inspire


Colin Feltham
Acumen £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90

HERE is a book that is bound to fail - bound to fail, that is, if its author is right. Colin Feltham insists that, over time, everything that we hold dear will deteriorate, perish, and disappear. He can hardly suppose that his book is an exception to that rule. Feltham's central argument is that everything and everyone ultimately fails, because of entropy, the law that all that is and all who are finally wear out.

Feltham turns to a wide range of philosophers to explore different facets of this unpalatable truth. Unsurprisingly, we hear a good deal from Schopenhauer, who, as Bertie Wooster gathered from Jeeves, says little to cheer us up. "We begin in the madness of carnal desire and the transport of voluptuousness," Schopenhauer says, "and we end in the dissolution of all our parts and the musty stench of corpses."

Feltham acknowledges that this is a bleak account of human experience, but he sees no reason to contest it. He is convinced that "human beings have a serious chronic unaddressed failure at their core". Religion, in his view, does not help. He thinks that it will probably fade away in a few hundred years, but, meanwhile, it is "a deadly fault in human affairs".

Feltham's opinion that religion only compounds our misery does not allow him to explore at any depth how the great faiths have responded to failure. He does not discuss, for example, how Christianity embraces and affirms failure - above all, in the story of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. (There are, of course, mutants of Christianity that - losing the plot entirely - claim that the life of faith should be a success story.)

This book offers little advice on how to deal with failure. The best that we can do, the author suggests, is to each take up whatever "kluge" serves us best. Your reviewer had to look up what a "kluge" is. It is, he learns, "a software or hardware configuration that, while inelegant, inefficient, clumsy, or patched together, succeeds in solving a specific problem or performing a particular task".

Feltham concludes his inevitably depressing book by voicing the hope that what he has written will not do any actual harm, and that perhaps he will be proved wrong.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.

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