Cataract of the Spirit

The passage below, Beckett rehashing Schopenhauer, is from Mark Nixon’s study of Beckett’s tour of Nazi Germany, Samuel Beckett’s German Diaries 1936-1937. My library copy has to go back today. They come with a price tag suitable only for institutions, but they are so rich and insightful I’m going to have to spring for a copy.

There are moments when the veil of hope is finally torn apart and the suddenly liberated eyes see their world, as it is, as it must be. Alas, it does not last long, the revelation quickly passes, the eyes can only bear such pitiless light for a short while, the membrane of hope grows again and one returns to the world of phenomena.
Hope is the cataract of the spirit, which cannot be pierced until it is completely ripe for decay. Not every cataract ripens, and many a human being can even spend his whole life within the mist of hope. And if the cataract may have been healed for the moment, it always forms itself again immediately, as does the hope.

The Banality of Brilliance

To speculate about whether Proust was a snob is as superfluous as debating the degree of Joyce’s egotism, though we could construct an argument that Proust would have been unfitted to dissect the society of Recherche without a social climber’s desire. And Joyce writing in A Portrait  that the “artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails” feels more like his defence of a narcissistic narrator than a personal attitude. Neither quality detracts from the brilliance of either writer, and arguably both characteristics are disproportionally present among writers of the time (or perhaps any time).

Both qualities are in the foreground of the story Joyce told Frank Budgen (Further Recollections of James Joyce, 1955) of being introduced to Proust at a supper party for Stravinsky and Diaghilev. “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘No.’ Proust asked me if I knew the duc de so-and-so. I said, ‘No.’ Our hostess [although observers claim this question came from Joyce] asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of Ulysses. Proust said, ‘No,’ And so on.”

Though the two men apparently sat beside each other and later shared a cab home, no written record exists of their encounter, though there is no shortage of biographical speculation about conversations about health and truffles.

Duality of Silence

In The World of Silence, Max Picard quotes Goutran de Procius’s Kablina, where he sums up so lucidly the duality of silence, that tension between rapture and fear familiar to anyone that chooses to spend long periods of immersion in silence.

Here in the land of the Eskimos there is no wind in the tress, for there are no leaves. No birds sing. There is no noise of flowing water. No frightened animals flee in the dark. There is no stone to become loose under human feet and fall down a riverbank, for all the stones are walled in by the frost and buried under the snow. And yet this world is far from dead: it is only that the beings, which dwell in this solitude, are noiseless and invisible.
This stillness, which has been so solitary, which has calmed me and done good to my worn-out nerves, gradually began to weigh on me like a lead weight. The flame of life within us withdrew further and further into a secret hiding place, and our heartbeats became ever slower. The day would come when we should have to shake ourselves to keep our heartbeats going. We had sunk deep into this silence; we were paralysed by it; we were on the bottom of a well from which we could pull ourselves out only with inconceivable difficulty.

I’ve read Picard’s odd and very beautiful book for years and cannot recommend it highly enough. There isn’t anything like it. Its closest literary relative must be Susan Sontag’s essay on modernism, The Aesthetics of Silence in which she argues for silence as a means for furthering speech.

Associations. Associations. Emily Dickinson:

The words the happy say
Are paltry melody
But those the silent feel-
Are beautiful-

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

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.