The word ‘persistence’ lacks a clear translation into German, and in English the word is spread thin over many, often contradictory, ideas. In its simplest form it is the action of continuing to try to achieve something, despite difficulty, with the idea that if you just keep going you eventually will. It often manifests as a repetition, and yet it describes a linear narrative. From A (begin)… try x try x try… to B (succeed (or fail)). There is a practical persistence, one that is needed when training an animal, recovering from an injury, learning to play an instrument, learning anything. But there is another form of persistence, an intangible persistence, there to assuage our existential doubts; one that says life is about ‘going on’. This can be a happy-ever-after construct, und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie nocht heute. There are many fables about persistence, but the concept of persistence itself demonstrates a form of fabular thinking. A positive spiral upwards to counter that unarguable downward spiral towards death. Persistence is a key component of (often unrealistic) wish-fulfillment. We leave the couple at the end, standing on some alp or in some forest in the sun, standing on the generous balcony of their lovely castle looking into the never ending sunset, rewarded at last for all their persistence. There is also a natural persistence that is nothing to do with us at all, that plays out over a natural timespan that we cannot conceive of, yet we venerate the persistence of the canyon carved by a river, the sand on the beach, the mountains pushing upwards, which isn’t actually persistence at all but the laws of physics. We are human, we project, we see our own pathetic struggles in the image of a flower pushing through concrete. If only life were as simple as a stock photo, a fairy tale or a natural phenomenon. In fact a better metaphor for human existence is the flag that is beaten by the wind until it’s shredded to pieces. If at first you don’t succeed, try try again, children repeat this in school. Persistence is the means by which all past failures are reframed as steps on the long road to success. Persistence is a goal-oriented thinking, a kind of optimism of increments. A myth that we have constructed for ourselves to give a sense of purpose; persistence and the myth of self-actuation. Persistence presupposes the existence of a future time where the rewards of your efforts are stored. We feel we deserve good things, we deserve rewards. This is absurd. Google Ngram shows that this word was raised out of relative obscurity around 1850. As a virtue then it seems to be a 19th-century invention, spun out of the industrial revolution. Proceed with a machine-like insistence, mechanical intent, and you will get to your goal eventually, just through simple irrefutable erosion. Bam bam bam… you will break through to the realm of your heart’s desires. Though this is Sisyphus dressed up as Richard Branson.
As artists we are particularly aware of this virtue of persistence. We continue, pushing on without knowing where to, with no path and no rules, and no clear result. The absurdity of persistence is not lost on us. It is part of our daily reality.
I can’t go on. I’ll go on. Samuel Beckett
We persist because we believe our persistence will be rewarded. We also persist because we don’t know quite what to do if we don’t.
In the strange faculty of doing certain things irrelevant to life with as much care, passion, and persistence as if one's life depended on them . . . there we find what is called ‘living’. Paul Valery
Eille mit Weile, make haste slowly, the lion is made of assimilated lamb.