The Catastrophe of Success


Aubrey Marcus (CEO Onnit) just introduced me to Tennessee Williams’ “The Catastrophe of Success” in his interview with guest Bryan Callen. Bryan, who I have seen in movies/comedy shows but could never have told you his name, is an amazingly intelligent, irreverent and controversial dude. He’s not mainstream, which I like, and offered up a lot of different books in the interview, which have now graced my Amazon wishlist. Together they weaved a discussion that I highly recommend.

The story, “The Catastrophe of Success” is written by Tennessee Williams as it related to his struggle with fame, notoriety, and all of the usual hauntings associated with overnight achievement. With the meteoric rise of The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee went from living in rented rooms to catered, first class hotel suites. The story at it’s heart is a tale that we should all be weary of the “wolf at the door”. In a goal-focused society such as ours, this is an often elusive idea, with a simplicity that escapes us, although I think you will agree, the theme resonates with a deeper knowing. A knowing that we should all practice for the act of practicing.  One of my favorite quotes from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is that “it’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top”.

As he begins, Tennessee describes that his life prior to success was his true life and he has now been born into a world where survival and security is no longer and abstraction, but a quantifiable certainty. Terrifying to behold, he spirals downward into an apparent depression like a man stricken with a disease whose mental capacity has not been diminished, but his body no longer functions. He solemnly writes to the death of his former self:

The sort of life that I had had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.

I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last.
My public self, that artifice of mirrors, did not exist here and so my natural being was resumed.

I had to pause here after reading this. “That artifice of mirrors”. WHOOSH! A very Don Draper moment. It would seem it was plucked straight out of a scene from Season 2, Episode 12, where Don is sitting on the back porch of his California home, speaking to his first wife as the Pacific ocean crashes coldly in the distance. “I have been watching my life. It’s right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can’t.”

Tennessee laments about the cleaning staff at the hotel taking care of  “some drunken overprivileged guest’s” vomit and how no one person should have to clean up after another, stating an uncomfortable truth that it is really the person who is being cleaned up after that is truly more pitiful.

Nobody should have to clean up anybody else’s mess in this world. It is terribly bad for both parties, but probably worse for the one receiving the service.

Battle, it seems, is the crucible in which Man is formed. Even if it is the simple and mundane. It is the struggle, not the glory, that makes a Man who he is. As portrayed time and time again, “The Hero’s Journey”, although a  subtle thing which remains unnamed, is always there. Silent like a spider in the corner. Patient. Knowing.

Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to—-why, then with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies.

Making this realization, Tennessee moves out of his captivating surroundings and escapes to a shack in Mexico so he can be free to write without the fetters of society. His emancipation was fruitful, in this land without “false dignities and conceits” (as he puts it), and “A Streetcar Named Desire” is born. Prior to this departure, he even went as far as having an additional surgery on his eye to illicit a more genuine response from his acquaintances. Willing to pluck out his eye, literally. A dedicated move by a soul searching for more.

In the end, Tennessee’s message was only intended to be a warning that “security is a kind of death”. Mercifully, he doesn’t leave us without a life raft to cling to. Plainly stated, “that purity of heart is the one success worth having”. In other words, quoting William Saroyan, “In the time of your life-live!”.

And a final reminder:

That time is short and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.


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