Saturday, 29 June 2013

The 'emptiness of literature'.

“Words are empty. Especially written words. Especially in literature.”


“Anyone can put them on, anyone can fit into them.”

“Go on”.

“I was reading Beckett when I had the thought. He drills down into himself, each comma and clause cutting further in, 'delving deeper and deeper in its bite', each word burrowing deeper into what you would think was the silent private core. His words are an ongoing investigation into precisely what's his and no one else's, he's doing verbal justice to this very particular silence."


 “- Except that thousands of us who are not him, who are not even Irish Protestants born in the early 20th century, or émigrés, can read these words and be gloved in them exactly, can follow with him each comma and clause, and find that the movement of the words agrees completely with their own.. well, what’s the word.. inclinings? Anyway, they’ve left Beckett behind, these words we read. They’ve escaped. They’re out zigzagging from reader to reader, illuminating the recesses of other dark souls.

“So it’s as if the writer had made a kind of cast of his thoughts and affects using words and syntax and ellipses, and this cast now magically fits everyone.


“It’s no big deal is it? You're stating the obvious.

“Just because it’s his chair doesn’t mean that anyone can’t sit in it.

"If a writer describes anguish it’s not his anguish, but a kind of empty form that can fit anyone’s anguish, or many people’s anguish. It has disrobed itself of the accidents of individuality. And this is because if you look at the individual face closely enough, it becomes a portrait of anyone. It’s do with universality.

.“But Beckett’s world is so strange, and claustrophobic, and asphyxiating sometimes. It’s clearly not a portrait of most of us is it? I mean, he’s looking at the human community from another place. The individual words he uses might be common currency, but what the words make audible is a voice from the outside, from a place we’ve never been. If it’s universality it’s a reminder that most of us never touch the universal. Maybe that’s it; maybe the universal is something you have to fight your way through to. Most of us never do.

“I think the misleading word is ‘describes’. The writing doesn’t draw the outline of an anguish or boredom that’s already there. The anguish and boredom are connatural with the writing. They are created by it. They escape the writer then and there, not after publication. They’re not ‘universal’ if you mean the same old anguish in different clothes. They are highly individual without being at all personal. When I first read Beckett it wasn’t that he gave me a brilliant portrait of an age-old human neighbourhood. What I got from Beckett was and is the shock and depersonalisation we experience when something foreign enters our veins.When we are removed from the ground upon which, bored, we stood too long.

Beckett and Self-Translation..

Reading a number of articles on Beckett as self-translator. The question arises of whether an author of a work can ever be only its translator. That is, is he ever just translating the text or is he actually continuing it. I don’t of course mean ‘continuing’ in the sense of writing a sequel, tying up loose ends. He is, I suppose, continuing to mine the impulse from which the text sprang but which it could not exhaust. In this sense, the inexhaustibility of the text is not just for the reader but for the writer too.

Perhaps the original text was itself a translation, a translation into language. Here is how it unfolds in English, here is how it unfolds in French. Each idiom unfolds from the hidden reserve into which the writer is made to reach in the act of translation.

This implies that the text (or better the work - novel, poem) is not synonymous with what's in print before us. There is something in the text more than the text itself.
Beneath the printed text is a chaos of ‘possibles’. The finished text was won from this chaos but the author-translator must descend into it once more.

But perhaps where is a further twist with Beckett. A sense in which Beckett's texts  - as Deleuze suggests - are sometimes about this futile but necessary attempt to exhaust, to mine-out, the silence, the reserve of silence and chaos from which the text first sprang.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

"A specifically philosophical writing?"

I don’t believe that there is "a specifically philosophical writing", a sole philosophical writing whose purity is always the same and out of reach of all sorts of contaminations. And first of all for this overwhelming reason: philosophy is spoken and written in a natural language, not in an absolutely formalizable and universal language. That said, within this natural language and its uses, certain modes have been forcibly imposed (and there is a relation of force) as philosophical. The modes are multiple, conflictual, inseparable from the philosophical content itself and from its "theses". A philosophical debate is also a combat in view of imposing discursive modes, demonstrative procedures, rhetorical and pedagogical techniques. Each time philosophy has been opposed, it was also, although not only, by contesting the properly, authentically philosophical character of the other’s discourse.

Jacques Derrida, "Is There A Philosophical Language?". In: Points . . . Interviews, 1974-1994

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Badiou: Beckett between French and English

There is something of the 'grand style' in Beckett's French. However, radical as his inventions are - like the asyntactic continuum of How It Is - in Beckett's prose we glimpse the elevation of Bossuet, the musical grasp of Rousseau, the finery of Chateaubriand, far more in fact than the taut 'modem style' which is characteristic of Proust. This is because, like Conrad in English, the language that serves Beckett as a model is a language learned in its classical form, a language to which he resorts precisely so as not to let himself be carried away by familiarity. A language adopted in order to say things in the least immediate way possible. It is thus that Beckett's French is 'too' French, just as Conrad's English is a much 'too' mannered sort of English. So that when Beckett returns to English, he must undo this 'too much', this excess, and thereby attain a strange 'not enough' - a kind of subtracted English, an English of pure cadence. He abandons himself to speed and its variations.
Alain Badiou (here)

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Life and the Writer

For Kafka (and not just him of course) there is a life - a force of life - that emerges only in and through writing, written words are the only possible lightning rod which can conduct this life. And so what is ordinarily called Life - the commonly accepted objects of desire: family, property, social events - are sacrificied for that strange supernumerary life that swims only in writing. Does not Kafka, for example, sacrifice Felice as a real flesh and blood woman for Felice the addressee of the letter - a proper name, a kabbalistic formula to open the writing machine.

It is a familiar image, perhaps: the writer rivetted myopically to the page and to the flights of language at the expense of his diet or clothing or his calendar, none of which matter.

But in Kafka, the received objects and signs of Life - family, work, money etc - recede from the other, writerly life to such an extent that they appear, not just as objects of indifference but objects of puzzlement, enigma, hieroglyphs which, as such, are then reincorporated into the writing. That is, in the work everyday life returns in just this way as something uncanny, inscrutable, without any self-evidence, insurmountable. 

Kafka's Fish

There is a beautiful line in Kafka, which helps to gloss what I mean by Beckett’s prose as a kind of gasping, a kind of breathing (but not an imitation of the rhythm of breathing or of gasping):
I live only here and there in a small word in whose vowel (‘thrust’ above, for instance) I lose my useless head for a moment. The first and last letters are the beginning and end of my fishlike emotion.
 The soul lights up and flickers only in language, in the shapes traced on the page, or the voice traced in the silence of the head. Each clause is the catch in breath of this fish-like soul.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Beckett: Literature and Philosophy?

I have seen Beckett's Watt referred to, a number of times, as a "critique of Cartesian rationality". This prompts some perhaps naive questions: Are we to take this claim at its word - should Watt appear on philosophy syllabuses? Is a novel like Watt doing something philosophically which can't quite be accomplished by conventional philosophical writing? Does literature operate in philosophy's blind spots? If Watt contains criticisms, new and interesting criticisms or Cartesian rationality, has it done this despite itself, almost accidentally - i.e. as a by product of doing something else?

As a prelude (hopefully) to a few thoughts on literature and philosophy via Beckett, a couple of quotes:
"Beckett's formulas are crystals of thought: they open up a world of thought, they jog us into thought.. they are Deleuzian philosophemes, temporary accretions on the plane of immanence that relay or relaunch the lines of flight of thought. We understand why they are the sites of encounter between philsosophy and literature." (Jean Jacques Leclercle)
".. from the beginning, Beckett worked to make his own poetics out of the idea of cogito and ego in Descartes and the implication for style in David Hume's scepticism". (Sidney Feshbach)

Monday, 10 June 2013


It was 5 years ago, as far as M. could remember, that illness had begun to colonise his body.

Whether it was a series of illnesses or one evolving illness, he did not know. And neither did the doctors. At first it was the dry mouth, he could feel his tongue resting on his palate like a  furry object; the weird tang of his sweat, as reported to him by his concerned Mother. Then the stomach, the collapse of the digestive system. It began as constipation, a kind of hard bolus lodged to the left of the stomach, pushing on the lining. Nothing budged. And little or no sensation, no matter how much or how little he ate. He felt light headed, dizzy. Following a tip from a Greek iridologist, he took an overdose of vitamin C to budge it all. Gurgles, pains, stretches of unappeasable hunger that five bananas at midnight could not assuage, followed by stretches of a bird like appetite and rebellious spasms in the lower bowel. Wind leaked out of his arse at night and he woke to putrid odour. Then came the intolerances. Coffee was first, which he ignored, because he could not live without coffee. And so he lived instead with a continual fuzziness in the head. Then beer. Half a bottle left him with dark rings carved under his eyes and a cleft brain. The weak arm, the thick cracked skin on his feet. The nocturnal ache in his gums under the teeth. All of these were clotting
together, year by year, and this clot would eventually kill him, he thought. In the meantime, they drove him deeper within his own body, through which he looked out at the human community. Somehow his penis,
as a sexual organ if not as an organ of micturition, had survived. But it was surely only a matter of time.

Tests had been done. They had covered his stomach in a cold jelly and slowly passed over it a kind of  barcode reader. Squinting, M. tried to see the images on the screen. He expected to see deformed and distended tubes, but glimpsed only a confusing grey snowstorm which the nurse pronounced ‘normal’. A camera was put down his oesophagus, they found nothing. Later, they put a camera up his arse. He had left
the hospital crippled with wind but without the opportunity of egress, and only when he returned home, in acute discomfort, could he let rip, and filled the flat with clouds of rancorous methane. Again, when the tests came back, all was ‘normal’.

And so whatever was wrong with him seemed to have no visible form. There seemed to be no bridge between his own experience and that body of knowledge known as Medicine. Each doctor in turn would effectively consign his experience to the realm of the imagination.  If they couldn’t fit something into their grid of knowledge they denied it existence whereas, M. thought, the logical thing to do would be to question the grid in the face of what existed. They were therefore Idealists not materialists, M. thought, since those stubborn bits of matter, the contusions and niggly pains of the patient, which did not conform to their grid were instead consigned to the realm of fiction. They put you through tests only to prove, to their satisfaction, that you were a hypochondriac. They tell you to come back if it persists. Well it’s already persisted, that’s why I’m here.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Writing and Breathing: Proust and Beckett

"And what I'm doing, all-important, breathing in and out and saying, with words like smoke, I can't go on, I can't stay, let's see what happens next."  (Texts for Nothing)

Benjamin on Proust:
 'The wheezing of my breath is drowning out the sorrow of my pen..' But that is not all, nor is it the fact that his sickness removed him from fashionable living. This asthma became part of his art - if indeed his art did not create it. Proust's syntax rhythmically and step by step reproduces the fear of suffocating. And his ironic, philosophical, didactic reflections invariably are the deep breath with which he shakes off the weight of memories. On a larger scale, however, the threatening suffocating crisis was death, which he was constantly aware of, even when writing. A physiology of style would take us into the innermost core of his creativeness."

It is not that there are references to asthma in Proust's, but something like the very rhythm of asthma. The rhythm of asthma is reborn within the unfamiliar terrain of writing. The work does not allude to asthma but incorporates it, uses and tranforms it.

We might compare this with Walter Benjamin's heart condition, the periodic palpitations, which he 'reintroduced' into his writing. Just as his body had periodically to pause, so it is with his prose. Benjamin's insight into Proust is thus simultaneously a mirror held up to his self.

This is what Barthes will name 'style', the revelation and resurrection within the work of the writer's body -

I have been recently reading and rereading, on the tube in the morning, Beckett's Texts for Nothing. I'm on the third rereading. Somehow, you just want to go back in. And yet few texts have been so fugitive. A  bubble or murmur of words over which impersonal flares of sense pass and vanish. But i thought of Proust's asthma, and a phrase from Paul Celan about 'words gasping'. For Beckett's prose seems like a kind of gasping, a way of breathing, that takes place with words and in words. "My words are my tears.."And the gasping of the text and that of the reader are one: we are borne along, without pause, adrift in the current, no sooner grasping at an 'I' than it's slipped into a 'he'...

19/6: Came across this by Prof. Steven Connor, on Beckett and Breathing.