Bits of Pipe

“To say exactly what one means, even to one’s own private satisfaction , is difficult.” Not for Virginia Woolf, “the Chinese Wall of a private language”. “There is no a single sentence in The Waves that you would be likely to overhear on the street.” Yet the language is intelligible. “The experience of reading The Waves can be like listening to a piece of classical music that seems at first to have neither narrative nor structure.” This is good, what I am so often drawn to in fiction. “There is not a single unfocused shot in the entire book. Every passage, every sentence, every word is hard and bright. Where Woolf wants to shade or fade for the sake of effect, she does so as a painter does so, by taking a strong line and manipulating it. This is quite different from a line unfixed or ill-drawn.”

It is the finest part of Jeanette Winterson’s zealous encomium to art and her literary passions, this chapter on The Waves. Hugh Kenner often makes a similar argument for the clarity of Beckett’s prose: “Beckett has never written an obscure sentence. He is the clearest, most limpid, most disciplined joiner of words in the English language today.” Aside, arguably from Woolf. Both wrote literature that is not possible to read quickly. In both writer’s novels there are literary allusions, though in Beckett these appear to become less literary after Watt; some rely on the memory and knowledge of the reader, some more demanding, almost rarified and private. In a letter of 1972, Beckett wrote, “They are just bits of pipe I happen to have with me. I suppose all is reminiscence from womb to tomb.”

Winterson compels a reader back to the subtlest of Woolf’s novels, as Kenner does to Beckett’s fiction. These in turn remind me to return soon to Maria Gabriela Llansol’s The Geography of Rebels trilogy. There is in Llansol’s compression of thought a perpetuation of the attempt to evolve prose beyond the nineteenth century novel, which as Winterson acknowledges, still provides the form and style of at least ninety-five percent of contemporary fiction.

‘Unfathomable mind, now beacon, now sea.’

“Another aspect of Beckett’s figurative language is its tendency to resist absolutes. Specifying too much when speaking about indistinct mental constructs heightens the risk of settling on inauthentic facsimiles. Beckett’s language is therefore characterised by equivocation and ambivalence; his heroes continually posit and question, affirm and negate. This ambiguity prevents the crystallisation of spurious images of the self or of the world and counters the tendency of language to transform what is imperfectly apprehended into a caricature of its remote original.

If Beckett seems habitually to question every hypothesis, it is not because he is a perpetual naysayer who denies all positive ideas or values. Nihilism is itself an assertive position that, like other dogma, must be tested. Beckett’s heroes therefore challenge the validity even of the methods they use for testing and questioning; it would be simplistic to report to an extreme like negating every proposition.

Implicit in Beckett’s skeptical method is a prohibition against the predictability and easy cynicism of absolute negation. This sometimes leads to a wary endorsement of positive ideas or an unexpected glimmer of affirmation at the end of the via dolorosa. The antitheses Beckett used are related to paradoxes, litotes, oxymorons—figurative elements that in their syntheses of contraries sometimes lead to positive concepts. Such syntheses occur in many of Beckett’s works; after the process of chopping away, subtle, complex ideas begin to emerge, their profundity enhanced by the beauty of Beckett’s spare prose.

Thus, along with demonstrating how logical constructs and reasoned explanations can prove fruitless, Beckett shows how the act of abandoning conventional modes of thought can lead to more promising alternatives. This is hinted at in a conversation Celia has with Murphy: “she began to understand,” the narrator wryly observes, “as soon as he gave up trying to explain” (p. 67).”

—Rubin Rabinovitz, Innovation in Samuel Beckett’s Fiction

 

Fanny Howe, The Wedding Dress

J. M. W. Turner
Landscape with a river and a bay in the distance c.1835–40

“I grew increasingly comfortable sitting at Mass and participating in everything but the Eucharist, for many years. The skepticism that was like a splash of iodine in the milk of my childhood home began to work its way out of my system.” p.XII

“What I have been thinking about, lately, is bewilderment as a way of entering the day as much as the work.
Bewilderment as a poetics and a politics.” p.5

“There is a Muslim prayer that says, ‘Lord, increase my bewilderment,’ and this prayer belongs both to me and to the strange Whoever who goes under the name of ‘I’ in my poems––and under multiple names in my fiction––where error, errancy, and bewilderment are the main forces that signal a story.” p.6

“The maze and the spiral have aesthetic value since they are constructed for others––places to learn about perplexity and loss of bearing.” p.15

“There is a new relationship to time and narrative, when the approach through events and observations is not sequential but dizzying and repetitive. The dance of the dervish is all about this experience.” p.18

“After all, the point of art––like war–– is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.” p.23

“At what point, this kind of writing [Edith Stein’s] makes me ask, does the renaming of things actually transform the world around you? Can it? Can you build a vocabulary of faith out of a rhetoric first made of dread and then stand behind this new language? Is faith created by a shift in rhetoric, one that can be consciously constructed, or must there be a shattering experience, one that trashes the wold worlds for things? The difference between her two rhetorics––one hardcore philosophy, one dogmatic-spiritual––makes one wonder how they can coexist, when each one is (seemingly) unbelievable in relation to the other. Only in some of her poems (and her life( do they become indivisible.” p.59

“The importance of [Ilona] Karmel’s novel––its bitter inheritance of memory––lies in its depiction of the camp as the condition of the Western world in mid-century. The labour camp is not an aberration but a continuation of humanity’s increasing contempt for itself. Weary history is a one-way street with no U-turns, no exits.” p.64 [cf., Agamben, and news this week of further child deaths in American border camps.]

“Beyond that, I am at the end of a generation that began with existentialism; that still prefers irritation to irony; and that shares a political position sickened by the fatal incompatibilities between freedom and equality.” p.68

“Thomas Aquinas was an itinerant thinker. His thinking rolled like a reel.
It went forwards as a movement backwards. His thoughts may have been placed on the side like the eyes of any intelligent animals.
To mitigate pain he recommended weeping, condolence by friends, bathing, sleep, and the contemplation of the truth.” p.108

“Probably people should go Sannyasa as soon as they retire, and become wanderers, contemplatives, ones who act charitably all the day long.” p.111

Fanny Howe, The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life

I don’t have anything to say about this dazzling, precious book. I’m a reader, not a book reviewer, and this one is too close. I’ll be reading this for a long time

Why I Read Adorno …

The Adorno mystique. Geoff Dyer, whose work I no longer read, quotes Karl Ove Knausgaard, a writer I preferred not to read, but in whose work I’ve recently developed a grudging curiosity: “‘What enriched me while reading Adorno,’ writes Knausgaard in A Death in the Family, ‘lay not in what I read, but the perception of myself while I was reading. I was someone who read Adorno.'” It seems characteristic of Knausgaard to admit that Adorno is for him a badge writer and for Dyer to admire his declaration.

I question, during a long jet-lagged night in Tokyo, whether I read Adorno for the badge. The issue of mass culture is never far from mind in Tokyo, more so than in the southern California from which Adorno’s Minima Moralia was born. It wasn’t this loose collection of interconnected fragments that endeared Adorno to me, but a life-changing reading of Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (from the Dialectic of Enlightenment).

What they had to say about mass culture (I wrote about it once), turned me from a naive condescension towards its consumers, to a fascination for its pervasive effectiveness and systemic beauty. I may not like it, but like Adorno and his contemporaries, it is easier to subject it to critique than destroy or subvert it in any meaningful way.

I’ve come to dislike the term ‘mass culture’ for its intimation that such a culture arises instinctively from the masses, preferring Adorno’s ‘culture industry’. The Japanese have a term ‘taishū’, which, I believe, refers to an aggregate of consumers for which a commodified culture is produced, pre-targeted and administered. This seems more precise and deals with the difficulty of the concept of ‘masses’.

On Twitter, for a long, time my bio stated ‘Adorno to Zwicky.’ This blog post is the first in a series reflecting on why I read those writers I consider in some way tutelary spirits, or as Beckett would have it, ‘old chestnuts’. It isn’t a fixed canon and is subject to frequent revision.

I came to Adorno initially curious to read his thoughts on Beckett’s Endgame, having read somewhere else that Beckett considered them a perverse and deliberate over-reading. From there to his illuminating writing on music, particularly the Beethoven essays (another old, old friend). There still Adorno to read and reread and I’ve no intention of reading all he wrote.

Why do I read Adorno? Beckett was undoubtedly right about wilful over-reading. I often struggle with Adorno’s writing. I lack the philosophical-sociological grounding to understand much of it. It’s also said that much of Adorno’s complex, circumlocutory arguments are difficult to translate. But my reading of Adorno often follows a similar pattern: lack of understanding-persist-glimmer of understanding-persist-some understanding, but a sense that he must be over-reading-awakening at four in the morning with a flash of comprehension and recognition. I read Adorno for those flashes. Cognitive fireworks.

A Short Shelf of Writers Writing on Writers

In Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, Eliot Weinberger writes, “The writing of writers tends to last longer than standard literary criticism, and not only because it is better written. Critics explain their subjects; in writer’s books, the subject is explaining the author.”

A short shelf of writers writing on writers that forever changed how I read those writers:

  1. Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force
  2. Robert Duncan’s The H. D. Book
  3. André Gide’s Dostoevsky
  4. Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Hélène Cixous’ Reading with Clarice Lispector
  6. John Cowper Powys’ Dorothy Richardson
  7. Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson
  8. H. D.’s Tribute to Freud
  9. T. S. Eliot’s Dante
  10. Hélène Cixous’s Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Beckett
  11. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Papers on Dante

I’ve been particular with definition here, choosing only single study books written by writers  with an accomplished body of their own work. Michael Wood’s On Empson didn’t quite make the cut, nor any of Cynthia Ozick’s writing on Henry James, nor André Bernold’s delightfully odd memoir Beckett’s Friendship. It’s a very personal list; please let me know in the Comments section of any of your favourites.

 

Scepticism of Erudition (Fritz Mauthner)

A reference in George Steiner’s great essay Real Presences sent me in search of references to Fritz Mauthner’s influence on Samuel Beckett, and specifically Beckett’s development of scepticism about erudition.

Samuel Beckett’s student library in Watt is worthwhile and usefully points towards other possibly rewarding texts, especially the Linda Ben-Zvi article.

“Beckett came in contact with Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache during his second collaboration with Joyce. For a long time it was thought that Beckett had read passages from Mauthner out loud to Joyce, helping him with preparations for Finnegans Wake. In reality Beckett was asked by Joyce to read the volumes himself. Beckett ended up engaging even deeper with the Beiträge, as he extracted a number of entries and included them in the “Whoroscope” Notebook. The length of the verbatim notes suggests Beckett did not own a copy at the time. Later, Beckett did acquire a copy of the Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache. However, it can only have come into Beckett’s possession after 1954 when he wrote to the German translator Hans Naumann saying that he would have liked to re-read it after the collaboration with Joyce but that it was difficult to find a copy. Beckett preserved his heavily marked three-volume collection until the end of his life in his personal library.

The influence of Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache is one of the most relevant to Beckett Studies, equally important as Descartes or Geulincx. In her seminal article, Linda Ben-Zvi presents Mauthner’s stance on language in the Beiträge. According to his philosophy, language encompasses many meanings, including knowledge. By “systematically denying [the] basic efficacy” of language, Mauthner indirectly argues for the ultimate failure of knowledge. However, one cannot discuss the limitations of language by avoiding the medium of linguistic communication. To Ben-Zvi this is equivalent to “the possibility of using language to indict itself”.[My bolding].

A similar argument can be made to explain Beckett’s changing perspective on erudition. In his works, he resorts to knowledge in numerous ways, ranging from an encyclopaedic to a deliberately superficial use of allusions. After Murphy, Beckett revised his use of language as shown in the 1937 letter to Axel Kaun, as well as his relation to the knowledge he had acquired until then. Reading Mauthner at this point in his writing career coincided with his turn to not only linguistic scepticism, but also to a scepticism with regard to erudition. In Watt, Beckett’s resort to intertextuality is diminished substantially in comparison to the previous novels. More importantly, when present allusions are treated less explicitly. Beckett deals in this manner with the problematic question of erudition without excluding the use of external sources.

The theme of complexity from the TCD lectures returns in Watt, this time through the filter of Fritz Mauthner’s ideas and Beckett’s creative reworking. From Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache, Beckett extracted the idea that the inner world is unknowable because there is no language to express it, since language is a system created only for external experiences. Reading Mauthner must have appealed to Beckett due to a number of aspects discussed in the TCD lectures. More precisely, it resonated with his own interpretation of the mind in Racine’s plays, according to which the mind is a hermetic organ that cannot be accessed or explained.

Beckett’s connection with the treatment of the mind includes the presentation in chapter 6 in Murphy: instead of the true picture of the “apparatus”, the interest lies in “what it felt and pictured itself to be”. Watt in his turn applies the dualism between the inner and the outer world: “For Watt’s concern, deep as it appeared, was not after all with what the figure was, in reality, but with what the figure appeared to be, in reality. For since when were Watt’s concerns with what things were in reality?”. Complexity is in this way linked to the fragmentation of mind also in Watt, as it is in Racine.
”

The Poetry of Thought

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1653)

“When God sings to Himself, he sings algebra, opined Liebniz.” p.18

“Sentences, oral and written (the mute can be taught to read and write), are the enabling organ of our being, of that dialogue with the self and with others which assembles and stabilises our identity. Words, imprecise, time-bound as they are, construct remembrance and articulative futurity. Hope is the future tense.” p.21

This dialogue, Steiner’s The Poetry of Thought, a dialogic embrace of metaphysics and literature, thrilling as any novel, a book of life, a book for life, one I have no desire to leave. Pencil in hand, note-taking. Lashings of tea.

A reading list that is ever-swelling, transforming.

“To listen closely–Nietzsche defined philology as “reading slowly”– is to experience, always imperfectly, the possibility that the order of words, notably in metrics and the metrical nerve-structure within good prose, reflects, perhaps sustains the hidden yet manifest coherence of the cosmos.” p.34

One wants to read everything. To reread everything, better. Did one ever understand anything?

“Does difficulty in the Phenomenology and the Enzyklopadie prepare that in Mallarmé, Joyce or Paul Celan, the displacement of language from the axis of immediate or paraphrasable meaning as we find it in Lacan or Derrida (an annotator of Hegel.)” p.88

“Is it possible to reconcile the hermetic with the didactic?” p.88

“What was, lazily, deemed fixed, eternal in the conceptual–that Platonic legacy–is made actual and fluid by the breaking open of words.” p.89

“The muteness of animals remains vestigial in us.” p.90

Stricto sensu consciousness should revert to silence. Beckett is not far off. Yet only language can reveal being.” p.91

“Philosophy, however, outranks even great literature.” p.91

“Human labour both manual and spiritual defines the realisation of the conceptual. This insight translates into the fabric of a Hegelian treatise. The reader must work his way through it. Only the laborious in the root-sense can activate understanding. Passive reception is futile. Via the hard labour of concentrated intake “disquiet is made order” in our consciousness.” p.93

“Hegel produces ‘anti-texts’ aiming at collision with the inert matter of the commonplace. They are, says Adorno, ‘films of thought’ calling for experience rather than comprehension.” p.96

“There was darkness also in Bergson’s outlook, notably toward its close. But he did not wish to extend such darkness to his readers.” p.127

There’s a lifetime’s reading here just tracing the patterns of Steiner’s thought. More than one lifetime.