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

Quote

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.

Not Touched By The World

My unique relation with my work – and it is a tenuous one – is the making relation. I am with it a little in the dark and fumbling of making, as long as that lasts, then no more. I have no light to throw on it myself and it seems a stranger in the light that others throw.

This quote, that opens the first volume of Beckett’s letters (1929-1940), brings to mind an incident James Knowlson covers in his superb biography Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. (Read Knowlson’s book if you have any interest in Beckett. It is nectar.)

Adorno met Beckett on several occasions. Despite Beckett’s insistence to Adorno that the character “Hamm” in Endgame contained no allusion to Hamlet, Adorno’s subsequent essay Trying to understand Endgame further developed Adorno’s Hamlet theory. This undoubtedly triggered a reference Beckett made a few years later when questioned about Endgame: “Endgame will be just play. Nothing Less. Don’t worry about enigmas and solutions. For these we have well-equipped universities, churches, cafés du commerce and so on”.

Adorno, incidentally, at the time preceding his death, was working on a series of marginalia to the novel Unnamable, which he considered Beckett’s masterpiece. The motto of Adorno’s marginalia was, “The path of the novel: reduction if the reduced”.

Beckett continues to preoccupy me into the late summer, and, most likely, autumn season. I read Anne Atik’s How it Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett, a deeply personal, moving memoir of what Beckett meant to Atik and her family as a close family friend.

Last night I reread this Quarterly Conversation interview about the publication of Beckett’s letters. It is excellent on several levels but especially for this summation by artist and art historian Avigdor Arikha about why Beckett meant so much to him:

When I asked Avigdor Arikha, on one of the last times I met him shortly before his death, if he could tell me why it was that Beckett had mattered so much to him—he had told me he missed him more and more every day—he explained to me that he was the one person he had ever met—in such a full and dramatic life—who in some part of him “n’était pas touché par le monde” (was not touched by the world). By “the world” he intended, as he went on to explain, all that is low and dirty and nasty. Every time I sit at my desk to work on the letters, or almost every time, I feel I am experiencing the truth of what Avigdor told me that day.

Even as a reader of Beckett I recognise this quality as what draws me not only to his prose but to the man, his life, letters and library. Kafka matters in precisely the same way.

The Lunatic Fringe by Christine Brooke-Rose

Have you ever felt madness behind your eyes
cold as a draught from a forgotten door,
when you are talking intelligently to those
who think you sane, poised and perhaps a little more
brilliant than that flask of liquid brain allows,
that honeycomb filled with the drugs of bees
out of a season’s hearts, then drained
by the insomniac insolent machinery of love?

Madness, like shame or rage, is not hot as they say,
but like a stylus needling in a groove
to some loudspeaker at a distance of
about God’s nearness to us,
which for the lunatic is close
as his own brain that sometimes runs away
into an ocean of prehistoric fish,
long-playing to the beak of a bird,
and amplified
in, maybe, sex.

I must get into the mad world now.
There is a secret in the lunatic fringe,
a way of impinging
on God without mock-heroics of spirit.
When the soul is anyway lost,
given up with awareness,
generously as a gambit
in life’s deadly conversation with death,
there then can be no remorse,
only the cold closeness of creation,
a white filament of matter through the brain
ejaculating from generation to generation,
like Lucifer, falling.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs disappear quickly so download them promptly.

Naked Lunch Screenshot

Naked Lunch Screenshot

William Burrough’s seminal Naked Lunch [PDF], a great book to dip into, to read in any order. Great stuff, as is Cronenberg’s film interpretation.

I’ve read Rilke since adolescence and, in a sense, cannot imagine how differently I would view art and beauty without his influence. The ten letters in Letters to a Young Poet [PDF] have enriched me immeasurably since first reading the lines, “Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.”

In The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow) [PDF] Derrida looks at the animal in Western Culture.

Derrida’s Writing and Difference [PDF] collects many of his early essays and lectures. Derrida’s writing at this stage is vibrant and, by Derridean standards, approachable. Included in this book is Cogito and the History of Madness, in which Derrida notably takes on Foucault’s concept of madness.

In this last Derrida link {PDF], he interviews jazz saxophonist/composer Ornette Coleman, revealing on both sides.

Deborah Parsons’ Theorist of the Modernist Novel [PDF] traces modernism through the texts of James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf.

Maurice Blanchot’s short, dreamlike novel, The Last Man [PDF].

William Gass’s short essay on language in fiction, The Medium of Fiction [PDF].

everything lost is a curiosity, an obscure, early notebook written by William Burroughs in Latin America during 1953, provided in handwritten and transcribed form.

Sometimes I think that Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures are better than his fiction. Lectures on Russian Literature [PDF] is brilliant. You won’t agree with Nabby on everything but you can’t fail to be stimulated by his arguments.

A brief, worthwhile essay on trauma narratives: Mending to Live: Memory, Trauma and Narration in The Writings Of Kazuo Ishiguro, Herta Müller and W. G. Sebald [PDF].

Raoul Vanigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life is a key text of the Situationists, covering broadly similar ground as Adorno, the ways that late capitalist society can pervert communication and depersonalise “subjects”.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

From the Gallery of Lost Art, Lucian Freud's painting (stolen) of Francis Bacon.

From the Gallery of Lost Art, Lucian Freud’s painting (stolen) of Francis Bacon.

The Tate’s Lost Art Blog.

The Society of Authors list 50 outstanding translations from the last 50 years.

Marjorie Perloff’s essay Hugh Kenner and the Invention of Modernism.

In this scheme of things, Kenner’s bête noire was, not surprisingly, Bloomsbury. For him, the Bloomsburies were not Modernists but late or post-Victorians whose innovations—including the rejection of conventional plot and characterization—masked perfectly traditional English values.

A Guardian guide to Arvo Pärt’s (one of my favourite composers) music.

From Love Dog, Masha Tupitsyn’s superb film blog: Faces #3 (Charlotte Rampling). “Charlotte Rampling’s face did not express or show anything until it had lived through at least 50 years”.

Courtesy of Biblioklept, Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse by Italo Calvino (Collected in Why Read the Classics?).

Brief reviews of Chantal Akerman’s films.

AV Club interview with Chantal Akerman.

Spectacularly intimate: a MUBI Notebook interview with Claire Denis.

From the Bookslut archives: A Soul Turned Inside Out: Clarice Lispector, Hélène Cixous, and L’Écriture Féminine.

Adam Palay: An Interview with Richard Powers.