Perhaps that is what these paintings are: the slow-decaying trace of a performance carried out in the mid-sixteenth century: the ghostly flicker of Bruegel’s hand dancing six inches above the panel we now look at. No code, no message, no useful information. Just a mysterious relic of a life lived in some other place, some other time.
— Short Life in a Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels by Toby Ferris
What to make of Toby Ferris? Rather, what he writes. Is he perpetually trying to figure things out, or just always pulling things together, almost reflectively. He says little about his own life, that he calls his family (wife and two kids!) back home, stories from his childhood. They all seem detached, dreamy. It’s his main narration that’s dreamy, some strange world just slightly detached from everyday life. Just like Bruegel.
He cares about projects, doing things: he points out (complains?) that his father did nothing momentous, and then Ferris spends lots of time on his two big projects, Norbiton and the Bruegel book.
How does he think about my eternal question: what is life apart from those projects, from work? How do you balance the “thrill” of work, the routine of everyday life, the missed chances to work on things like Short Life and Norbiton? Does “the failed life” mean failing at doing anything “big,” or failing at a normal life? Failing at the first allows for time, energy, attention for the second. And failing at the second buys space for the first. Can you only choose one?
In contrast, here is Tyler Cowen on his motivation:
I think I’m on a quest to assemble and gather information, and satisfy my own curiosity and see as much of the world as possible and also try to give some of that back to others. So I think it’s somewhat of a selfish missions, has some altruistic byproducts but I enjoy the really selfish part of it of just learning things.
As that write-up of the Cowen world view says: “The world is rich and full of wonder. Always keep exploring and pushing your curiosity into new areas.”
Perhaps this is the opposite of the “failed life”…?