An attempt at a definition of my personal idea of “haplessness,” which underpins a lot of my children’s books (and will be especially at the center of my planned volume The Boy Who Ruined Everything and the scholarly monograph Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Haplessness)
The hapless man is not a helpless man. The helpless person is buffeted about by fate without control. The hapless man authors his own misfortunes, even though ultimately he is equally doomed. This impossible marriage of fate and responsibility is, in fact, the paradox of the hapless man: the hapless man continually creates his own circumstances, even though they could not be otherwise.
The hapless man is trying his best. But the hapless man is an incorrigible fuck-up. He is earnest, his intentions are pure. But intent cannot exonerate the hapless man, because ultimately it is the hapless man’s own choices that have led to the disastrous consequences. The hapless man should have known better. He has the intelligence and wherewithal to succeed. But he blunders. It is not “hard to stay mad at” the hapless man. The hapless man is very easy to stay mad at, because he has agency.
Enough with the generalizations! Who are these few and hapless?
To conjure the hapless man in an instant, recall Gilligan. Ever eager, ever pure, Gilligan could not help but cause disaster on the island. Every time a raft was constructed, Gilligan would sink it. Every time a treasure was found, Gilligan would lose it. Every time a radio was built, Gilligan would break it. And all of these acts were Gilligan’s fault, even though Gilligan could not help it. Nobody thinks Gilligan is mentally deficient, not in a way that makes being furious at him unjustified.
Another hapless man: Charles Bovary. The sad, oblivious doctor loves his wife dearly, makes every attempt to please her, but fails. And even though he means well and tries hard, he is still completely at fault. Bovary’s efforts to make his wife happy become pathetic, and she is right not to love him.
In real life, the purest example of haplessness is a man named James Polehinke. Polehinke was the pilot on Comair Flight 5191, which crashed on takeoff after Polehinke accidentally went down the wrong runway, leaving no survivors except Polehinke himself. For this, poor Polehinke has achieved a haplessness more terrible than any known prior instance.
The Polehinke incident is a perfect example because Polehinke was completely responsible for the easily-avoidable error. It was the tiniest mistake, with the most tragic of consequences. He fits the profile ideally, because it is hard to know how to forgive him. He acted grossly negligently, yet on a scale completely disproportionate to the outcome.
Polehinke’s haplessness compounded after the incident. While he was being sued by the victim’s families, Polehinke’s lawyer (without consulting Polehinke) put forward an offensive legal theory suggesting that contributory negligence by the passengers caused the accident. (The idea being that they should have known better than to fly with Polehinke.) Poor Polehinke became even more despised, for now not only causing the accident, but seeming to blame his own victims. A spiraling hapless infinitude.
Importantly, the hapless man is a good man. Wile E. Coyote appears hapless, but is not. The coyote tries and fails, it’s true, but with malevolent intent. So, too, with every other cartoon villain. They never succeed, but their failures contain some meaning: they fail because they are evil. For the hapless man, there is no such story. The hapless man is an absurd man, his failures contain no justice.
How about the “Woody Allen Character”? Is he hapless? No, for the Woody Allen character is a liar. The Woody Allen Character feigns haplessness. He gains all of the advantages of the non-hapless man (material success, the seduction of beautiful women), while concurrently receiving the sympathy that is the hapless man’s only comfort. The Woody Allen Character wants to appear as hapless and humble as possible, while in fact being as conceited and successful as possible. The Woody Allen Character is a sinister impersonation of a hapless man.
Can there be hapless women? There can. But for some reason, the failures of men seem typically to reach a unique depth of destructiveness. When men fail, they accidentally cut off their toes with a lawnmower, or destroy an entire planet, or try to untie their shoe and end up gouging out an eye. Haplessness also seems to come about often when men try to live up to the social expectation that they, as men, are supposed to be in charge. In this way, the tragedy of haplessness could be mitigated by the elimination of patriarchy.
The most unfortunate man on earth is not the one who suffers the most misfortune. That man can curse the Gods, and comfort himself with the knowledge that nothing was his fault. The hapless man can curse nobody but himself; everything is his fault. His clumsiness has caused catastrophe, and he is despised.
My sympathies are ever and always with the hapless man. I love him dearly, because God knows he tries. And the poor fool must struggle every day, pressing the wrong button or scandalizing the vicar. What most people do on occassion, the hapless man is destined to repeat forever, living in an eternal “Oh, shit” moment.
When things take a turn for the Chaplinesque, look for the hapless man.