Comradeship and Silence

Words exist but the pump to bring those words from the bottom of the well to the surface is malfunctioning. Buried in the sand at the bottom of the well is a torrent of words, but if by chance the pump stirs up some sand, by the time it reaches the surface, the words within convey nothing. As Johnson describes the adjective silent: mute, still, quiet, not speaking.

I love, (swoops and loops of love), Ellman’s description: “Beckett was addicted to silences, and so was Joyce; they engaged in conversations which consisted often of silences directed towards each other, both suffused with sadness, Beckett mostly for the world, Joyce mostly for himself.” It is such a precise description, that distinction so clear in the writing of both men.

In a timely intervention, my friend @EstherHawdon mentions the Japanese obsession with silence, and quotes Basho’s poem:

Old pond

frogs jumped in

sound of water

And goes on to say,

We usually use the word “ma (間)” meaning blank or emptiness, so when there is silence in conversation, we call this silence “ma” – “ma 間” is also used to mean blank space – e.g. there is a space between a stone and another in a garden, we call this blank “ma”

This returns me to a book that I’ve returned to again and again this summer, Federico Campagna’s The Last Night: Anti-work, Atheism, Adventure in which I found so much wisdom, particularly on his conception of comradeship (a few unlinked passages):

Comradeship among egoists allows them to further modify the reality in which they exist, thus shaping the landscape of their adventure and taming at least in part the influence that the environment in which they exist has on them.

As it always happens with the creation of a bond, unions of egoists necessarily result in something that exceeds a friendship based on shared interests or the simple joint-venture of cooperating forces.

And I make no apology for quoting again I passage I quoted a few weeks ago:

There was always something that allowed me to distinguish between the long list of unmemorable relationships and the few who were to remain. In all my strongest friendships, in all the best relationships I have ever had, an element seemed to constantly recur. It was the feeling of a movement together with the other person, a tension towards something or somewhere, a common action, a sense of solidarity within the frame of a shared intent. The people I have ever felt closest to have been something more than friends: they have been comrades.

Of course, I accept the political connotations of the word. But with a difference. Like political comrades, we were bound by a common desire and a common tension. Differently from them, however, our desires and tensions could not be limited by the dogma of some abstract ideals, let alone pre-existing ideologies. Between us, there was something that originated from us alone.

Silence as Esther describes so beautifully is neither a vacuüm to be feared, nor pure emptiness. As in Beckett’s Unnamable, referring to language and silence as distinct entities ends up conveying nothing as both merge into one. The Unnamable is silence.

Stepping Lightly on the Volcano

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For months on first knowing you, I said to myself here’s one of these talkers. They don’t know what feeling is, happily for them. Because everyone I most honour is silent – Nessa, Lytton, Leonard, Maynard: all silent; and so I have trained myself to silence; induced to it also by the terror I have of my own unlimited capacity for feeling – when Lytton seemed to be dying – well yes: I can’t go into that, even now. But to my surprise, as time went on, I found that you are perhaps the only person I know who shows feeling and feels. Still I can’t imagine talking about my love for people, as you do. Is it training? Is it the perpetual fear I have of the unknown force that lurks just under the floor? I never cease to feel that I must step very lightly on top of that volcano.

Letter to Ethel Smyth (1931)
Virginia Woolf

Form Becomes the Preoccupation

Anthony Uhlmann quoted Beckett in Samuel Beckett in Context on language as a barrier to communication, and why, as a consequence ‘form itself becomes a preoccupation,’ so it was good to track down the whole quotation below:

…there will be new form…and this new form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else…That is why the form itself becomes a preoccupation, because it exists as a problem separate from the material it accommodates. To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.

Beckett interview with Tom Driver
Columbia University Forum (1961)

Literature that embraces this challenge is what really thrills me.

Woolf: First Memories

This is a passage from Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being. Though irresistible, I pull back from nostalgia but find it harder with each folded year. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about those childhood bases against which we judge and measure our future ideas of happiness.

If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that fills and fills and fills – then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.

Beckett’s Cascando and Pierre Tal-Coat

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Samuel Beckett

Cascando

1

why not merely the despaired of
occasion of
wordshed

is it not better abort than be barren

the hours after you are gone are so leaden
they will always start dragging too soon
the grapples clawing blindly the bed of want
bringing up the bones the old loves
sockets filled once with eyes like yours
all always is it better too soon than never
the black want splashing their faces
saying again nine days never floated the loved
nor nine months
nor nine lives

2

saying again
if you do not teach me I shall not learn
saying again there is a last
even of last times
last times of begging
last times of loving
of knowing not knowing pretending
a last even of last times of saying
if you do not love me I shall not be loved
if I do not love you I shall not love

the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words

terrified again
of not loving
of loving and not you
of being loved and not by you
of knowing not knowing pretending
pretending

I and all the others that will love you
if they love you

3

unless they love you

Voice of the Sea

What keeps coming to mind during my current Michel Houellebecq binge is that beneath the surface of his nihilism and despair is an un-extinguished faith in the redemptive potency of love and friendship, a hope that he realises is unfulfillable but impossible to abandon.

This afternoon, feeling a little dour, I took a break from my Houellebecq bender to reread some of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which I read at Francis’ recommendation some years ago. Once again I came across a favourite paragraph, underlined in pencil, which she repeats at the start and end of her novel.

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

The sea, in both deadly and enriching form, is almost a character in The Awakening, and Chopin’s poetic description stands in relief to the sparseness of the rest of the text.

December: Extended Reading Notes

Reading wildly all over the place, but with those converging lines I’ve written about providing more direction to my reading than I prefer to concede. To end my reading for 2013, a few thoughts on those books I finished over the last month.

Robert Fagle’s exceptional translation of the Iliad has superseded Richard Lattimore’s as my personal favourite. It is bright, powerful and pulls you relentlessly through the narrative without sacrificing Homeric style. Fagles has found the balance between loyalty to Homer’s language and the need to remove the cobwebs and find a fresh modern voice. I have his Odyssey to read soon. A conversation with a reader in the Comments to my post on reading the old dead Greeks has convinced me to read both George Chapman’s and Christopher Logue’s Homer, the latter first. At Max’s suggestion I also read Alice Oswald’s Memorial this month and was taken aback at the brilliance of her portrayal of the Iliad, in which she brings to the foreground the minor characters of the Iliad, introduced briefly by Homer merely to die horrid deaths. In doing so, Oswald evokes fresh revulsion for the senselessness but inevitability of slaughter and warfare.

After my thrill of discovering Clarice Lispector’s work with Água Viva, as is often the case I waited a considerable time to read another of her books. In this case, my reticence was misplaced as Near to the Wild Heart and A Breath of Life were no less dazzling. I’m less convinced of the inevitable comparison with Virginia Woolf, but see more resonance with Beckett. I need to think more about this, but there is something of the same apprehension about literature’s inability to express anything, and instead falling away towards silence. In each book, including her phenomenal first, written while in her early twenties (which is astounding), Lispector rises above fiction’s banal conventions. She compels every word to hard labour, extracting every drop of meaning from the fewest words, though she, like Beckett, is not a minimalist in that overworked sense. Like Beckett, Woolf or Duras, Lispector’s work make delicious demands of her readers, though with sentences that are completely available. I’ve lined up The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star to read in the next few weeks.

I mentioned briefly the personally transformative role that Pierre Hadot continues to have, which deepens with my reading of his Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision. This is part of a self-reflective journey that I feel is to a great extent outside the reaches of language, as in Hadot’s reflection on Plotinus: “… the spiritual world was not for him…a supercosmic place from which he was separated….Neither was it an original state…lost….Rather [it] was nothing other than the self at its deepest level….It could be reached immediately, by returning within oneself.” My contemplation of the relationship between theory and practise of ancient and modern philosophies is taking me back to old dead Greeks with Plotinus and Heraclitus, and further back towards Vedic texts.

What else in December? David Markson’s Reader’s Block kept me curious enough to get to the end, but it felt like style over substance. I’d rather read John Berger for more accomplished minimalism. I came to Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s A Brief History of Yes eagerly, and finished with thanks for its brevity. My first Ryszard Kapuściński book, which I approached with trepidation (because it appears that Kapuściński might have been one hell of a shitty human being), was better than expected: Travels with Herodotus is clunky written (or translated), and I could pick all sorts of holes as a piece of ‘literary reportage’, but I left with a warmth for the voice of the narrator, and expect to read another Kapuściński one day. Finally, Hélène Cixous never disappoints, and Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing in which she writes of her literary loves is one of those books I shall return to regularly for its radiance.

Ignoring the Postmodern

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I hadn’t expected to find much common ground with Richard Rorty beyond (some of) his literary essays, but am in sympathy with his call for an end to the postmodern, and his argument for an ongoing engagement with modernity:

It’s one of these terms that has been used so much that nobody as the foggiest idea what it means. It means one thing in philosophy, another thing in architecture and nothing in literature. It would be nice to get rid of it. It isn’t exactly an idea; it’s a word that pretends to stand for an idea. Or maybe the idea that one ought to get rid of is that there is any need to get beyond modernity.

Beckett’s Search for a Form

‘Ah, the old questions, the old answers, there’s nothing like them.’

Occasionally Pascale Casanova overreaches to support the supremely elegant argument of Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution, but this is infrequent, and I more or less agree with her historical, formal reading of Beckett, a riposte to the Blanchotian interpretation. Whether or not you fall in with Casanova’s historical criticism of Beckett, her textual analysis is magnificently enjoyable.

I’m taking an outrageous liberty to pull out, sans context, ten sentences that made me suck a tooth in contemplation:

  1. This heroic [Blanchotian] imagery has proved one of the surest ways to obscure the specificity of literary form, to refuse Beckett any aesthetic impulse, the search for a form therewith being reduced to an artifice unworthy of the quest for ‘authenticity’.
  2. His refusal of the presuppositions underlying realism, representation, and credence in literary ‘truth’ can only be understood if we hypothesise that he spent his whole life working on a radical aesthetic revolution: literary abstraction.
  3. The literary abstraction he invented, at the cost of a lifetime’s enormous effort, in order to put literature on a par with all the major artistic revolutions of the twentieth century – especially pictorial abstraction – was based on an unprecedented literary combinatory.
  4. [..] [Beckett] is led to question, one after the other, all the ordinary conditions of possibility of literature – the subject, memory, imagination, narration, character, psychology, space and time, and so forth – on which, without our being aware of it, the whole historical edifice of literature rests, so as to achieve the gradual erasure of its images in ‘the dim and void’.
  5. From the Second World War onwards, he deliberately situated himself in relation to the whole literary and pictorial avant-garde he mixed with in Paris – and definitely not Existentialism or the Theatre of the Absurd, whose presuppositions were alien to him.
  6. The literary transmutation to which Beckett subjects philosophy is thus a prosaic metamorphosis, a kind of novelistic secularisation, restoring to abstract, elevated speculations their quotidian banality.
  7. The aesthetic and logical inversion that was to be effected in Beckett’s texts on this basis had found its initial form or formulation: in order to escape the ‘I cannot paint’, it is necessary to paint what impedes painting.
  8. It was the desire to usher literature into formal modernity that enabled him gradually to abandon the presuppositions of representation and take as his object the very impediment to representing reality; or rather, to discover new literary tools to deliver the death blow to the object, whether extinct or not, and its representation.
  9. The autonomy of each text is a kind of reiterated manifesto against the foundations of what had hitherto been regarded as a constitutive of the literary (or at least literary narrative), and which Beckett’s whole oeuvre shows to be nothing but the stamp of the profound conservatism of literature, incapable of ridding itself of the presuppositions of realism.
  10. Beckett proceeds by successive breaks, but also by am immense totalisation of the most successful processes, experiments. and failures attempted in each of his texts, including the oldest ones, in order to arrive at a progressive, systematic pruning of his language.

Christopher Ricks’s Beckett’s Dying Words

There is enormous expressive force in Christopher Ricks’s Beckett’s Dying Words; Ricks shares what Beckett fulfils for him. With a no-doubt decrepit OED by his side he analyses Beckett’s word choice. Ricks’s book traverses the space where a critical work itself becomes a classic.

The following passage begins a section in which Ricks aims a critical lance at sloppy Beckett scholarship:

One currently tempting lie is that there is no such thing as the real. Beckett takes care to resist this temptation too, this easing of the mind and of life.

Here are four moments in Beckett’s fiction when something horribly real is set before us, and when it would seem to me a perverse derogation from the art to insist that words, of fascinatingly used of course, are all there is. These moments speak of the body’s failing, as well as of the brain’s failing to get its instructions heeded by the body. Delays. Thwartings. Chalk.

And how in her faint comings and goings she suddenly stops dead. And how hard set to rise up from her knees.

A man would wonder where his kingdom ended, his eye strive to penetrate the gloom, and crave for a stick, an arm, fingers to grasp and then release, at the right moment, a stone, stones, or for the power to utter a cry and wait, counting the seconds, for it to come back to him, and suffer, certainly, at having neither voice nor other missile, nor limbs submissive to him, bending and unbending at the word of command, and perhaps even regret being a man, under such conditions, that is to say a head abandoned to its ancient solitary resources.

The man has not yet come home. Home. I have demanded certain movements of my legs and even feet. I know them well and could feel the effort they made to obey. I have lived with them that little space of time, filled with drama, between the message received and the piteous response.

She sits on erect and rigid in the deepening gloom. Such helplessness to move she cannot help.

In all of these, supremely in the last, it is not simply the ‘syntax of weakness’ but the incarnation of the human reality of it all, of piteously bodily weakness, and of the strength to contemplate it, and realize it, which is so moving.

Many recent critics of Beckett will have none of this. They make nothing of his art.

There is enough secondary Beckett literature to fill Lake Matano, a fate deserved by most of those books. Beckett’s Dying Words is one of the exceptions.