‘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


These Disparate Pieces


“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

The Self-nourishment of the Soul


“Reading as a cultural act – and especially as a philosophical practice – culminates in study. Study is a learned set of techniques and strategies implemented in order to acquire and master a given knowledge in a given discipline, and is a highly defined and regulated practice. But it is also an ‘idea’ and ‘ideal’, which has defined for centuries the aims and scope of Western culture, so much so that in the Middle Ages the term studium defined the university itself.”

“. . . Agamben refers then to the etymology of studium – from the root st- or sp-, indicating an impact or collision and the deriving shock – which it shares with ‘stupefy’ but also with ‘stupid’: lost, stupefied and stunned, the studioso remains unable to grasp and absorb the amazing amount of stimuli striking him, and is at the same time unwilling to take leave of them. On the other hand, the messianic nature of study incessantly drives it towards completion, towards parousia, and this polarity between interminability and completion constitutes the ‘rhythm’ of study: a succession of stupor and lucidity, discovery and bewilderment, passion and action.”

“Unlike the classical figure of the ‘saintly scholar’ lionised by tradition, these students [as found in Kafka, Walser and Melville’s Bartleby] are ‘failures’, and as such they undermine the whole construct of cultural transmission and legitimacy. In Bartleby, however, there occurs the messianic reversal, whereby the messianic polarity of study is surpassed, or better deactivated: Bartleby, who for Agamben represents ‘pure potentiality’, is a scrivener who has ceased to write, and thus his gesture represents a potential that does not precede but follows its act. This ‘liberated’ potential frees study of its melancholy and returns it to its truest nature, which is not the work, but rather inspiration, ‘the self-nourishment of the soul’.”

Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage, edited by Adam Kotsko and Carlo Salzani.

A Relation Between Human Experiences


“A critic for whom literature is not rooted deeply in life, whose ideas seem to have no relation to lived experience, doesn’t hold much interest for me. By the same token, any writing that’s personal, that does not manage to say something critical about life in general, is equally inert. Our own experiences matter only insofar as they reveal something of experience itself. They are often the clearest lens that we can find, but they are a lens.”

–Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival.

Attachment: Flattery


“Flattery, injurious as it is, can injure no one, except him who accepts it and is pleased with it. And so it happens that the man who flatters himself and is most highly pleased with himself, listens with the greatest eagerness to flatterers.”

— Cicero, De Amicitia, trans. Cyrus R. Edmonds, in Friendship: Marcus Tullius Cicero, Francis Bacon, Ralph Waldo Emerson