Thursday, 25 April 2013

Beckett, Watt: An Unencrypted Voice

I was reading Samuel Beckett's Watt on tube to work today. In section three, in the asylum, where the narrator, Sam, describes Watt's way of walking backward and, correspondingly, his various ways of talking backwards:

"Watt began to invert, no longer the order of the words on the sentence together with that of the sentences in the period, but that of the letters in the word together with that of the sentences in the period.
The following is an example of this manner:
 Lit yad mac, ot og. Ton taw, ton tonk. ton dob, ton trips. Ton vila, ton deda. Ton kawa, ton pelsa. ton das, ton yag. Os devil, rof mit."

If you read this aloud (as Sam the narrator would have heard it), it sounds like some cabbalistic chant, odly insistant, spell like. If you read it silently, it's a vaguely Celtic looking clot of hieroglyphs. And if you read it, with the key that Sam has provided, you hear this:

"Till day came, to go. Not Watt, not Knott. Not Body, not spirit. Not alive, not dead. Not awake, not asleep. Not sad, not gay. So lived, for time."

It's important, I think that we hear rather than see these words, because the effect is to me rather beautiful. 
The words bubble up like ghosts from behind the encrypted surface, somehow all the more evocative. It comes through as a pure voice released from the clasp of encryption. But a phantom voice. And to a retrospective ear, it sounds like the ghost voice of a later Beckett.

Simultaneously, the actual print disappears, as it does here:

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.

In Beckett, as in this Cambridge experiment, print disappears and releases the unencumbered voice.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Bruno Schulz: a world of profiles and gestures

There is a passage in Schulz, from the mouth of the mad father, which constitutes a kind of writer's manifesto:

 Our creatures will not be heroes of romances in many volumes. Their roles will be short, concise; their characters- without a background. Sometimes, for one gesture, for one word alone, we shall make the effort to bring them to life. [..] Our creations will be temporary to serve for a single occasion. If they be human beings, we shall give them, for example, only one profile, one hand, one leg, the one limb needed for their role. It would be pedantic to bother with the other unnecessary leg. Their backs can be made of canvas or simply whitewashed.
But this seems to me true of all literature and its objects. The objects and people of literature are always ‘incomplete’. There are questions that we cannot ask. The width of the doorframe or the colour of the carpet in Gregor Samsa’s room, Hamlet’s breakfast. It is enough for the story to mention a pot or a kettle without knowing any of its properties or its history. In a sense we are content with the incomplete. In a story, a woman moves her finger across her lips absentmindedly as she draws in a sketchbook.  It’s a background detail, and it’s enough. We don’t ask about her dress or what she was drawing. The detail unfolds, if at all, only in relation to other ‘incomplete’ details. A vase consists only of the sun diverted through its blue glass, its only attribute. This detail does not relate to other properties of the vase – its weight or height or shape, which do not exist, but only to the other partial details which compose the novel. And something is ‘conducted’ through these details to compose a world which is somehow also the medium in which the details move. So it is that with fictional worlds (and this is also true with figurative painting I suppose) we rest content with gestures, corners, profiles, isolated properties, which we do not try and probe or unwrap (what did Hamlet have for breakfast?). We move only from surface to surface, detail to detail - always passing beyond and between .
 An exception to this, a person who can or does ask questions like “how wide is the doorframe?” or “what did Hamlet have for breakfast” or other ‘illegitimate’ questions is the actor. But this asking is not to do with textual interpretation as such. They are gearing themselves up to attack the role from a certain angle and therefore create something new; somethin not given in the text but perhaps permitted by it.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Bruno Schulz and Creation

The six days of creation were divine and bright. But on the seventh day God broke down. On the seventh day he felt an unfamiliar texture under his fingers, and frightened, he withdrew his hands from the world.’

This image, from Bruno Schulz, seems to me to be an image of creation as such. The creation will always surprise the creator. Something will emerge that he hasn't foreseen, that no longer bears the authorial fingerprint. Some schools of criticism will try and recuperate this unfamiliar texture by saying that it is in reality the 'stranger within' - thus folding it back 'inside' the creator. But it seems to me there is a more irrecuperable strangeness, the emergence of something that has come in a sense from nowhere, that was previously deposited nowhere, that has not been dragged into the light from a clammy hiding place.

The reason for this irrecuperable strangeness, the sudden unfamiliar texture, is that the creator always works with materials, whether the clay of the sculpture, the body of the dancer, or the forms, grammar and diction of the writer. The creation will always be a deflection of the creator through the externality of these materials. Something will arise which is neither the virtuosic will of the creator nor the pure inertia of the materials, but a kind of hybrid, an enlargement and torsion of the will through the 'accidents' of whatever the creator is working with. They are accidents in the sense that he or she has not fashioned them- they will always have, if not a will of their own, then a logic of their own, which will bend the creator's will into new shapes, even if only by fractions.

 On the other hand, God, is supposed to be Him who creates from nothing, with no materials, or with materials that are finally not surplus in any way to his will or purpose. This is, precisely, the impossible position. Perhaps this is what Schulz implies. That even the first act of creation is on a level with every other - that, in other words, there was no 'first'.