The Meaning of Success

etymology, semantics, social issues, success

Where lies the true meaning of success? It being a Monday morning and me feeling a current deficit of it, before going all out in pursuit of it until Monday evening, why not examine first as to what it really might be, or might not, for that matter. That way I can negotiate the afternoon at least without wondering too long and hard about the reason for staying awake for its duration.

Success is valued, that’s for sure, as are – for instance – diamonds. Diamonds, when plucked from a kimberlite deep in the ground, are often dull and ordinary. It is not until they are painstakingly faceted by a diamond cutter that they start to coruscate like magic dust from Tinkerbell’s wand when natural light hits them. This faceting adds to their overall value, monetary and intrinsic. The shape of success, too, is many-sided. And, similar to precious stones and metals, success appears to glitter when viewed from certain angles under a particular light. But beware: all that glitters in not gold. Or diamond, for that matter. Similarly, what reeks of success can be no more than a rotten apple.

So, what is success? It breeds itself, we know that much. Which, I suppose, make success asexual. Or incestuous , perhaps. Which explains why nepotism works every time. Sweet is the smell of it, which imbues it with a nectar-like quality, and therefore able to be manufactured by flowers and processed only by bees. If at first it doesn’t come to you, then try, try again. Which, I suppose, makes success feminine in its nature and a temptress in its ways. It also makes success both non-binding and a slave-driving bitch that can only end in a tragic crime of passion involving either the death of it or the death of you. Harshly sexist as that may sound, the writer William James complained to HG Wells in 1906 that success was a bitch goddess whose squalid interpretation (i.e. of the word itself) was a national disease. We are told success is a secret, which in effect rules out everyone who doesn’t share the secret from ever having it. The most powerful secrets are those kept by one person and one person only. Does that make success autocratic? A bit of a Saudi Arabia or North Korea, if you like. Like any decent secret, though, there is no limit to the lengths we would go to revealing it. Which sets us on a dangerous path toward obsession, never ending well. We hear that success and failure are two sides of the same coin. But given that one side of that coin buys everything while the flip side buys nothing, is success a zero-sum game that, when balanced out, is worth approximately nothing? Those latter-day prophets, the motivational speakers, claim success is the tip of the iceberg, that the 9/10ths of it lying submerged is failure by any other name. Does that mean failure props up success? Or that success is merely the face of failure we can see? In that case, I’ll strive for so much failure that success is bound to peek out above the surface eventually. Guided by this fuzzy logic, I personally am doing tiptop considering how much failure I perceive from my efforts.

Let’s go back a while in time. Words outlive their semantic. That is to say, success has not always meant success in the manner by which we millennium dwellers have become accustomed. It originates with classical Latin, Succedere, to follow/to come closely after. Y succeeds X, 2 succeeds 1, and King Edward VII succeeded Queen Victoria, essentially. In modern Spanish, sucedio means simply it happened. By the 1530s the lexical term arrives newly-formed into English as success meaning good result. From this etymology we can adduce that since the reign of King Henry VIII (a man who presumably cultivated a self-image as a man of unerring success) the word has been subject to such a semantic makeover that no one can truly appreciate its true meaning any more. Or could they ever? So let’s extrapolate on the journey of the term success through two thousand years of history. Were people preoccupied with ‘making it’ in life during the Medieval period? Did Cicero, and his Roman elite, engage in flamboyant oratory and classical debate on the very subject? In an era when success denoted to happen afterwards, what did all go-getters use to describe their meteoric rise in life? Maybe they didn’t, as for much of the pre-modern era people experienced personal achievement as a divine gift and therefore attributable to God’s greater glory. Which leaves success as a very modern invention? Did the masses first have to be offered hope and opportunity before they began to entertain notions of succeeding? Did our collective mindset first have to evolve from life as predetermined (fated) to life as the highest expression of free will before a blueprint for personal success could be drawn up? Were the Victorians the first to demarcate a world of winners and losers in a race to the top, or for so many born into indentured classes, a race to the bottom? Hastening our journey in the 20th century, an age where success is never far from the lips of capitalists, advertisers, and exponents of meritocracy. Ah, the self-made man! The dream that keeps the world in a deep sleep. Like so much that governs our lives today in Western Europe, was the concept of success another mid-20th century American export, part of a larger taxonomy with democracy at its head?

Back to the true meaning of success. Like any image, It means many different things for different people at different times in history. It preoccupies the media, fills the book shelves for autobiographies, peppers the obituaries page, leaves most cold and insecure, and to the movers and shakers or our world it threatens their psyches with delusions of grandeur and megalomania. Hell, the living embodiment of megalomania through the indomitable self-image of success even occupied the White House from 2016 to 2021. Remember when that model of success, Donald J Trump esq., referred to the then British PM, Theresa May, and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, as losers? His universe consisted of (a few) winners and (a multitude of) losers. And boy, didn’t the masses love him for that? Even his proven failures he attributed to success, demonstrating par excellence that all you need for success (apart from a full head of hair) is an infallible ego.

On a final note, perhaps what success truly comes down to has more to do with who or what we are as human beings, as opposed what we’ve done or accomplished as a individual competitor on a playing field called market capitalism. (N.b. What should we be calling the system of governance under which we toil? liberal democracy?) I’m not sure anymore. I’m not even sure if I have succeeded in getting across my message. Although, I am sure that I have succeeded in getting to the end of it. The article, that is.

Self-Taught: Monitoring The Vocab Stockpile



Will Self & the Defenestration of Crypto-Lexicographical Codswallop

“And on The Guardian pedestal these words appear,

My name is Will Self, king of kings:

Look on my words, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Will-ymandias – by the Second Coming of Percy Bysshe Shelley

       You’ve got to love this guy. He’s a hard act to follow and even harder to precede, but  imagined in the parlance of the Self himself, the compliment might instead go something like: having an enduring affection for this goy is a sine qua non. More than likely, though, his choice of words would be dripping with English sang froid on account of the scalpel he incises with when surgically he writes. Let’s face it, Self has more ways of saying essentially the same thing as the Jews have for Yahweh and the Muslims for Allah. Even at the ripened age of 50-sum, the boy’s got game. Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster could not conspire to keep Will Self’s hand out of the alphabetic fire. Yip, this guy’s diction leaves me for dead, in a most edifying manner.

There, I hoodwinked you. But before I venture further into the murky world of words, I must digress without remonstrating the anterior cruciate of my eclectic somnabulance too much (now that is just piffle!). Hoodwink – seems straightforward enough in its etymology. Enter the flux capacitor: you’re temporally regressed to Paris in Anno Domini 1474, to a squalid, whoring flagellum that wriggled into architectural being just inside La Porte De Clignancourt. In this fleapit addendum of the damned, where harlots cling to the mortified remains of last year’s brood, where charlatans hustle in dank passages, and jongleurs in colourful tights hold street court with acts that are the forerunner to the Edinburgh Fringe, the Capuchin hoods of the medieval geezer conceal a knowing signal of the eye. The hoodwinked do not even know they have been hoodwinked because the hood covers the sly wink.

So anyway, de toute façon, I’m sitting there outside a bar in a small town by a lake in the central highlands of Burma (or Myanmar, as they having been insisting and we have been ignoring in favour of colonial revivification since 1989), as you do. This hotshot photographer from Toronto is sitting on the other side on the garrulous but very likable female barrister from the self-same city. We fall into talking. I say that someone has been hoodwinked, for reasons i can no longer recall. Thought that was a perfectly normal, legitimate phonetic route to go down, seeing that we were in Burma – sorry, Myanmar – and the clocks were running down to midnight on this the ultimate day of 2015. So, the photographer gasps in disbelief. ‘Hoodwinked?’ Then in that ineffable and slightly irksome big round green fruit North American city sophisticate kind of way, exclaims HOODWINKED? Upping the vocal notches still, he then rants, ‘what the fuck does that mean? Hoodwink? I’ve never heard HOODWINK before. I mean what does that MEAN? The final word attenuating as he chimed it right out of his smoke-free lungs.

I try explaining without making too much of an arse of myself. ‘You know, hoodwink. Means to…hoodwink someone. You know?’

‘What?’ he decries. ‘Like pulling down a hood and winking? I get that part. I get it. But i mean, what does it MEAN?

We scramble for the smart phone, the postmodern arbiter of all things everything. Shit. We’re in Burma, rural Burma – sorry Myanmar. Of fucking course there’s no arbiter to arbitrate this spot of definition-deficiency. Internet is that thing that lives elsewhere. So, scraping the barrel of my temporal gyrus, I make the nueral handshake and soon the synonyms are flowing faster than the Myanmar – sorry Burma – beer from the keg in the kitchen. Dupe; fool; kid; deceive; trick; pull the wool over one’s eyes. Now do you see, Mr Ace Photographer?

Fuck yeah! Why didn’t you say? Hoodwink. Who uses hoodwink? In the middle of Burma? At New Year? Who in their right mind uses hoodwink? I love it. Tell ya…’

He’s in his stride now, regaling me with the story of the Japanese girlfriend who, upon being ditched in favour of Narita Airport and a one-way ticket home to Canada, farewelled him with the unforgettable, but eminently forgivable, line: Go fuck your face!

What does that mean?’ he announces. ‘Go fuck your face?’ I mean, how do you fuck your own face? I’d like to know that.’

‘How do you hood your own wink, for that matter?’, I added for good measure as the countdown commenced to midnight and another year beckoned for those dastardly words. .

Will Self writes as few others scarce can or dare do. He is a curious hybridization of an 80’s under-performing undergrad with a nose for neologistic modernism, and one of those polymathic linguaphiles scattered to the four winds of empire, reluctantly repatriated after partition in 1947. Proust on a Monday, Calvin & Hobbes on a Tuesday, Rumi powdered with Rachmaninoff midweek and a nihilistic dose of Turgenev and Indie-Punk come the weekend.

I’ve just read a piece by him on his tainted blood (not the Soft Cell song). Stopping frequently in the lexicographic lay-by of my limited vocab to consult the map of obscure words and aphorisms, I came across the following: the great pathetic roué, the sooty furlongs, the hypertrophied concrete bunkers, the admiral-tipped bodkins, the no-nonsense veridical Guignol, and most imperious of all, the fictive inscape. If they didn’t exist, you would have to invent them, which of course he did. No, closer to the truth would be to compare Self to a midwife, but not the conventional type, rather the type who does the impregnation before delivering the miracle of birth onto the white space of various media.

For someone who, by his own recurrent admission, whacked his grey cells a bruised shade of purple with opiates and cocaine, it is small wonder that he can fetch words – specializing in the sleepers strewn across our 600,000-strong English lexical canon – quicker than a 2-year old Labrador a stick. The harder they are, the faster they fall. If Adolf Eichmann had been a 7-letter word, Will Self would not have needed Mossad; he would have been camped out on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi, book in one hand and rollie in the other, before Eichmann ever set his sights on obscure, little San Carlos De Bariloche.

As pole dancers are made in the villages on North Thailand, so words are formed in the Wernicke’s Area of the temporal lobe. When you fuck this up consistently by hammering the head with drugs, brain acuity can often go by the wayside. But not in the case of our Will. He bucked the trend there, didn’t he? Scag was grist for the mill for him, making la farine plus fin dans sa tête.  You can picture it as a kind of cerebral battle of Monte Casino – Self’s Wernicke’s Area defended viciously by his SchutzStaffel intellect against the Opiate allies besieging him on all sides.

You’ve got to love this guy. He has held out against the forces of globalized democracy, whose prime directive is to make us all say the same shit with diminishing returns from the vocabulary we used to boast. In a world where the outscape is factive and bloody dull to boot, Self’s fictive inscape is a welcome retreat, into a interior hidden kingdom of mountains – like Bhutan squeezed into one’s head – which when you near them turn out to be Will’s vocabulary piled high, still lifting under a process of Selfian orogenesis.

It is these stockpiles of the wording mind that make climbing Will Self such a technical challenge, yet if summitted offer the lucky few a Wittgensteinian view of reality worth every goddamn penny, or if you’re a young Wittgenstein growing up in Vienna, a krone.