Succeeds Like Failure
is the measure of an individual’s ability to convince the
Even taking the mutability of that word, “genius,” into account—what
once meant divine instructional spirit and later referred
primarily to the accomplishments of men of science, and is
now applicable to virtually anyone with an unusually developed
avocation, someone who knows a surprising number of knock-knock
jokes or can mimic the voices of several presidents—this definition
holds true. The ancient oracles were only oracles because
they were believed; Freud was influential because a professional
class was provoked, and ultimately, persuaded; Robin Williams’
career continues only because his logorrheic free-association
is regarded by a significant segment of the comedy-consuming
population as inspired.
But recent investigations suggest that the prophetic priestesses
of Delphi were likely hallucinating—as either the result of
purposeful ingestion of organic compounds (specially prepared
thornberry seeds), or due to the fact that their temple was
situated above a fault through which intoxicating “vapours”
escaped; Freud has been widely thrashed as, at best, a sloppy
scientist and, at worst, a liar (and, yes, there was the cocaine);
and Robin Williams . . . Look, I’ve still got fond memories
of that first HBO special and, I’ll admit, The Fisher
King was fun, but my mom’s a special-education teacher—I’ve
Times change, audiences change and reputations change. Yesterday’s
genius is today’s dimly remembered crackpot. Flip through
the pages of history and you’re sure to find, for example,
a preeminent phrenologist, water diviner or rainmaker. And,
of even more recent Great Men and Women we must have second
thoughts, too—even when we have nostalgic affinity and respect.
Take F. Scott Fitzgerald as a case in point: One of his more
famous pronouncements—a poignant one seemingly justified by
his own experience—was that “there are no second acts in American
lives.” The writer of The Great Gatsby, the archetypal
Great American Novel, died an alcoholic, convinced that his
literary legacy was complete obscurity. Thing is, he was totally
mistaken. His own posthumous “career” experienced such a renewal
that one critic has called it more “resurrection” than revival.
More to the point, though, is that Fitzgerald was no sociologist.
His postulation of an inherently unforgiving American public,
one addicted to novelty, fails to account for our love of
the prodigal, of the loser. America loves a comeback.
All the where-are-they-now-style entertainments available—from
the cable channels to the big-box bookstores, from Behind
the Music and E! True Hollywood Story to Monica
Lewinsky’s new reality-TV show, from G. Gordon Liddy’s Will
to Jose Conseco’s upcoming tell-all—appeal to this curious
combination of hero worship and schadenfreude. We cannot praise
the cloistered virtue; we like our celebrities—and who else,
these days, is popularly regarded a genius?—alternatingly
reprobate and repentant. Create a specialized niche within
reality-based programming, a mea culpa TV network,
and you’d have a surefire hit. We’re apology addicts.
The recent furor over The New York Times reporter
Jayson Blair—an acknowledged plagiarist and fraud—will, no
doubt, fit this scheme. As the pundits wring their hands and
sound off about the irreparable damage that Blair’s actions
have inflicted on the community of black journalists, on the
reputation of the Times, on the future of affirmative-action
programs, on the public’s trust of the media in general, Blair
is laughing his stigma off.
In an interview with The New York Observer, Blair crowed
that he “had managed to fool some of the most brilliant people
in journalism.” The corrections to his story about the homecoming
of captured Pvt. Jessica Lynch that the Times was forced
to run were so sweeping Blair himself found it funny: “ .
. . [my] description was so far off from the reality . . .
I couldn’t stop laughing.”
Media critics of all stripes will have fun rubbing the Times’
nose in this, and Blair could easily promote himself as a
cunning prankster who purposefully set out to dispel the myth
of an objective, reliable press, or to puncture the pretension
of the nation’s leading daily. But he’s gone one better.
Blair concedes that he lied and filed fiction as news (fabricating
on-the-spot reportage from distant datelines while holed up
in his Brooklyn apartment), but he claims that the deception
was the result of personal demons and that, at the time, he
was battling a substance-abuse problem. Blair, amazingly,
did fool some of the most brilliant people in journalism;
and now, with this sob story, he’s going straight for the
public at large.
was either going to kill myself or I was going to kill the
journalist persona,” Blair told the Observer. “So Jayson
Blair the human being could live, Jayson Blair the journalist
had to die.”
According to Newsweek magazine, Jayson Blair the human
being has signed with literary agent David Vigliano and is
currently negotiating book and movie deals reported to be
in the six-figure range. Jayson Blair the human being will
undoubtedly be interviewed by Walters or Couric or Winfrey,
pitching a story of ambition, societal and organizational
pressure, doubt, general angst gussied up as existential crisis—and
ultimate self-recognition and metaphorical rebirth. And we’ll
eat it up.
Make no mistake: This kid’s a genius.