A High-Velocity Affair

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“Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour — landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one’s hair! Shot out at the feet of God entirely naked! Tumbling head over heels in the asphodel meadows like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot [sic] in the post office! With one’s hair flying back like the tail of a race-horse. Yes, that seems to express the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard. . . .”

—Virginia Woolf, The Mark on the Wall.

Literature as an Art Form

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“If we try to see and hear that which is not immediately comprehensible instead of insisting upon understanding it from the outset, it becomes easier to perceive a subtext, with its traces of the buried emotions, memories, associations that colour and shape consciousness. By focusing too exclusively on the intentional meaning of a text, we blot out its poetry, its capacity to stimulate the sensory power of lived experience.”

—Vicki Mahaffey, Modernist Literature: Challenging Fictions

The Roadside Inn

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“I see life as a roadside inn where I have to wait around until the stagecoach from the abyss pulls up. I don’t know where it will take me, because I don’t know anything. I could view this inn as a prison, for I’m compelled to wait in it; I could view it as a social centre, for it’s here that I meet others. But I’m neither impatient nor common. I leave those who will to converse in the parlours, their songs and voices conveniently arriving at my post. I’m sitting at the door, feasting my eyes on the colours and sounds of the landscape, and I softly sing — for myself alone — empty songs I compose while waiting.

Night will fall for us all and the stagecoach will pull up. I enjoy the breeze I’m given and the soul I was given it with, and I no longer inquire or seek. If what I wrote in the book of travellers can, when reread by others at some future date, also entertain them on their journey, then that’s fine by me. If they don’t read it, or are not entertained, then that’s fine too.”

—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquietude (t. Richard Zenith)

‘Unfathomable mind, now beacon, now sea.’

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“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

 

These Disparate Pieces

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“What were all those hours and years of reading and thinking? What had they done for him? He no more knew all the books he’d taken in than the water knows its flotsam, yet like that water he was thick and sluggish with it. He longed to be free of all that he once longed for, and began to imagine that there might come such a scouring (from where? with what?) that he might be, not wiped clean of what he’d learned so imperfectly, but emergent and changed on the other side of it. Not a purge, a passage. Then all these disparate pieces might cohere in him, cohere as him. The great irony, of course, the truth that came as all truths came to him now–too near to escape, too faint to savour–is that it was art that instilled in him this ideal of unity and clarity in the first place.”

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss