The word reeks of the French. It smells like chain smokers who lurk around underground art galleries and whose primary function is to look vaguely jaded in front of tourists. If “Misère” were a person, he would write screenplays where the main characters are afflicted with white people problems like incurable ennui or a liberal arts education. He would read Foucault. That is to say, “Misère” would be a total dick.
But enough of first impressions. Misère is a game that is played to lose—then to win a misère game, you have to be intentionally terrible. To win a misère game of checkers, you have to lose all your pieces, and to win a misère game of Russian Roulette, you have to lose some brain matter. There is something nihilistically awe-inspiring about playing a game to lose. That sort of cavalier, don’t-give-a-damn attitude is kind of hot. It sounds subversive and edgy. I’d like to try it out. So I pull up minesweeper on my desktop.
A few clicks in, and the smiley face has double X’s for eyes. I have intentionally clicked on a mine and expired. Well—that was incredibly unsatisfying. I stare blankly at the screen for a few seconds, the widening maw of my dissatisfaction slowly engulfing me. The only conclusion I can come to is that I am a winner. Whether I’m playing minesweeper, poker, doctor, or Angry Birds, I like to win. If I kept playing misère games, it would probably trigger all sorts of existential crises and deep-seated neuroses and God knows what else. Can I lose, if losing means I win? If I win a misère game, how can I keep identifying as a winner? Just contemplating it gives me ulcers.
It’s not only me. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that most of the freshmen at Harvard think of themselves as fairly intelligent people. After all, they are valedictorians, science fair winners, and people who know how to pronounce “misère.” Confident in their abilities, they sign up for Math 55 and Chem 20 and ... whatever is considered a hard class in the humanities. They show up to lecture, take diligent notes, and go to office hours, and then when they get back their first midterm—despair. Black vortex of despair. Stunned by the B+ they received, they resolve to work extra hard to make up for it next time, because they don’t know what it means to be a Good Student who doesn’t get good grades. Is such an entity even ontologically feasible? Cognitive dissonance ensues.
We all identify as winners to some extent, and winners know that it sucks to suck. It must take some special quality for an artist to intentionally paint a boring painting, for a scientist to deliberately blow up test tubes, for a writer to attempt to write a 610 word essay on a single word. Do you have to be staggeringly, improbably arrogant or do you have to suffer from a crippling, near-clinical lack of confidence? Do you have to have a rock solid grip on your identity or do you have to embrace existential erasure? I don’t know, and quite frankly, I don’t want to find out. Although on some level, I recognize that success doesn’t define a human being—that there is more to a person than the badges they earn, yadda yadda yadda—I’m terrified to find out what would be left behind if I weren’t good at school, at making friends, at having good taste, at winning things. I would be afraid to see what could possibly be left.