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Susan Sontag has been a life long beacon for me. Brilliant, articulate, quixotic, complicated, relentless, tenacious, long-suffering, wise—her work and her life have informed so many of my views.

In a New York Times review of Sontag’s son David Rieff’s book, Swimming in a Sea of Death, Katie Roiphe captured a quicksilver and bittersweet vision of Sontag in her last days:

Of course, Sontag’s belief in her exceptionality had a history. In her first bout with breast cancer in her early 40s, she survived. In early interviews after her recovery, she seemed intoxicated by her brush with death. She claimed she had acquired a “fierce intensity” that she would bring to her work; and she incorporated the idea of radical illness into the drama of her intellect, the dark glamour of her writer’s pose. Sontag had written in her diary during her treatment that she needed to learn “how to turn it into a liberation.” And it was that determination, that stubbornness, that constant act of self-transcendence that she thought she could reproduce at 71, when cancer was diagnosed for a third time. But this time it didn’t work. “She had the death that somewhere she must have come to believe that other people had from cancer,” Rieff writes, “the death where knowledge meant nothing, the will to fight meant nothing, the skill of the doctors meant nothing.”

Sebastian Willnow/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Failure. Just writing the letters that make up that loaded term shifts my energy. We live in a culture that is fixated on success, on winning, on being the best. When an English friend of mine first moved to the United States, this is how he described his new culture to his fellow Brits: “I used to live in a country that viewed failure as gentlemanly and normal, but now I live where everyone is fixated on the win.” He used to point to the moon and its perennial pattern of waxing and waning, how Americans have such a powerful proclivity to overlook the second half of that timeless cycle. There’s renewal, then removal. There’s yes then no, in then out. But we are a nation of people who just want the upside.

Advocates of video games have wisely pointed out that for a generation of kids raised by parents who overdosed them with self esteem (the “everybody is a winner” school of child rearing), these games are their only experience of learning through failure. You only get good if you have played—and failed—a lot, a lesson that isn’t commonly employed by au courant child development trends.

I thought of these issues in the context of love when I read Katie Roiphe’s New York Times book review of A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century, by Cristina Nehring.

Here’s a relevant excerpt from Roiphe’s review:

In her most provocative and interesting chapters, Nehring argues for the value of suffering, for the importance of failure. Our idea of a contented married ending is too cozy and tame for her. We yearn for what she calls “strenuously exhibitionistic happiness” — think of family photos on Facebook — but instead we should focus on the fullness and intensity of emotion. She writes of Margaret Fuller: “Fuller’s failures are several times more sumptuous than other folks’ successes. And perhaps that is something we need to admit about failure: It can well be more sumptuous than success. . . . Somewhere in our collective unconscious we know — even now — that to have failed is to have lived.”

Nehring sees in the grandeur of feeling a kind of heroism, even if the relationship doesn’t take conventional form or endure in the conventional way. For Nehring, one senses, true failure is to drift comfortably along in a dull relationship, to spend precious years of life in a marriage that is not exciting or satisfying, to live cautiously, responsibly. Is the strength of feeling redeemed in the blaze of passion even if it does not end happily? she asks. Is contentment too soft and modest a goal?

Clearly Nehring has a lot more to say about the domain of love than just its potential for suffering. Some of the sentiments she expresses (according to Roiphe’s read of the book) are not ones I share. Nehring appears to be living her life much closer to the Young Werther School of Romantic Pain than I would ever envision, or would ever want. But the concept of sumptuous failure, of life and love being lived out in the full spectrum of extreme joy and profound suffering, that is something I get.