Sunday, 26 January 2014

Samuel Beckett: The Mad Abstract Dark

“Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving.” (Beckett, The Unnamable)

A sentence with a subject, gasping for air between two without. But the “I" is not so much a narrator piping up, laying claim to speech. It’s part of a gambit (“try saying I, that might work”) or the object of a wearied imperative (Speak, self!), issuing from a place before any “I”, a place from which the “I” is cast into language.

Because this place is formless and silent, lightless and shapeless, it is unnameable. This place, from which the “I” is thrown into language, is always betrayed by language. Each time the self contracts into language it loses something; each time if shrinks into a noun something slips away into darkness

We confront the same thing everywhere in Beckett. The moment the “I” is pitched into language - the vocalised or written I - it is also adrift in language, to some degree out-there, separate. It no longer bears the defining watermark of the pre-linguistic self (for want of a better word): the property of being before every object, silent, formless, ‘in recess’. It is now a kind of object itself, posited not positing.

Ordinarily, we are happy to forget the distinction, between the “I” that is posited and the “I” that is doing the posting. We shrink-fit ourselves into the ‘I’; it catches us.

Indeed, for Lacan, this is the elementary gesture that sets up the self - the ‘contraction’ of our being into the “I”. The gesture whereby we assume an “I” (as we speak of ‘assuming responsibility') also then becomes something assumed in the other sense – unconscious, already presupposed, behind us. This is the gesture that Beckett refuses. Or the set-up stalls at the crucial moment. What is ordinarily behind us is for Beckett out there in front, as a problem.

But to speak of an “I” pitched into language is already a fatal concession. Again, Who or What introduces this gambit; who or what wagers an “I”? Here’s the nub. This ‘who’ or ‘what’ has no positive attributes – it is only a kind of vacant point or (in Yeats’s phrase) a mad abstract dark. To call it ‘the self’, ‘the subject’ (or the anything) is only perhaps a continuation of the same gambit.

In the ‘mad abstract dark’ before the “I” strikes up and assumes sovereignty , what do we hear? Memories, intentions, thoughts, borne along by the impersonal circuitry of the brain. The churning and chatterings of a kind of pre-language, a babble, without narrative, belonging to nothing that could be called a self, an ego. This is what Beckett’s prose does, to tarry with pre-utterance, the 'mutter' and 'murmur', the continuum of sounds before the 'contraction', the contractive force of utterance allows you to begin.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Fiction Again, Without Holes.

We watch a film in which a man has intermittent chest pains. But this comes to nothing. No heart attack at the crucial moment, no psychosomatic explanation (so that they disappear when he’s resolved some embedded psychic trauma). We object. Not of course because it’s implausible that a man might have intermittent chest pains. It is  unremarkable in the real world that a man has intermittent chest pains without this issuing in a 'denouement'. But as a film - or any fictional world - we want the chest pains to be an aspect of the story not just of the man per se. Attributes and characteristics, in this sense, within a fiction, are confiscated from the individual and given over to the story. In real life, attributes are often accidental, contingent, leading nowhere; in fictional worlds, we want them to be symbolic, or narrative-led. The qualities of the individual are merely a support to the story.

When we look at someone across the tube carriage, a man scratching his nose, reading the FT, we see facets of a person who will doubtless remain unknown to us. When we read of such a man in a fictional world it looks, superficially, as if something similar is happening. But the facets of the man are in fact tributaries of the story into which his features flow. Similarly, with objects: The facet of a vase described in a fiction should not be confused with the facet of a vase we see in a room, the facet of an object which is only partially known to us, for it is, rather, a single facet of the ongoing story, the fiction, which is laid out before us in its entirety and conceals nothing. The facet of the vase is a facet of, for example, the protagonist’s aristocratic taste, purity, melancholy, or a whole number of things assigned retrospectively or contextually by the rest of the fiction. 
In short, we don’t read the attributes of, say, Sherlock Holmes as we would attributes of an individual with unknown properties, as we do when we look at someone across the carriage from us on the tube. We see attributes like “the cold analytical mind”, the pipe smoking etc as attributes of the story. The story in this sense has no gaps - the thin man’s crooked smile, the blueness of the vase, are not partial aspects of the vase  and the man respectively, they are aspects of the story, which has no gaps at all because all its parts - sentences, descriptions etc – are laid before us in their entirety.
The story unfolds as a plenum, with no holes, only surplus elements, like the man’s chest pains, that do not feed the story.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Filling the holes in fiction..

So, to recap, fictional worlds have ‘holes’, pockets of the unknowable: the universe we reconstruct in our minds while reading a novel is full of 'holes', not yet fully constituted: when Conan Doyle describes Sherlock Holmes's flat, it is meaningless to ask exactly how many books there were on the shelves.
Such details are eternally absent and cannot be asked about, as opposed to “...the naive reader’s supposition that there has to be an answer to such questions as: Did Sherlock Holmes have eggs for breakfast on the day that Dr. Watson met him?”

There are perhaps no such 'naive readers' – only children or philosophers broach such questions. But a variant of this ‘naivety’ is essential to the reading of fiction. Sometimes these kind of questions are valid ones, answerable through recourse to the historical world that the fiction presupposes. This is from Joyce’s “The Dead”: 

Gabriel found himself partnered with Miss Ivors. She was a frank-mannered talkative young lady, with a freckled face and prominent brown eyes. She did not wear a low-cut bodice and the large brooch which was fixed in the front of her collar bore on it an Irish device and motto.
When they had taken their places she said abruptly:
"I have a crow to pluck with you."
"With me?" said Gabriel.
She nodded her head gravely.
"What is it?" asked Gabriel, smiling at her solemn manner.
"Who is G. C.?" answered Miss Ivors, turning her eyes upon him.
Gabriel coloured and was about to knit his brows, as if he did not understand, when she said bluntly:
"O, innocent Amy! I have found out that you write for The Daily Express. Now, aren't you ashamed of yourself?" 

We can ask, first of all, what kind of paper the Daily Express is – it is a “conservative English-sympathizing newspaper.” And, with slightly less certainty, we can ask about Miss Ivors brooch: “presumably the silver replica of the Cavan Brooch, symbol of Maud Gonne's organization, Inghinuidhe na h-Eireann ("Daughters of Ireland”)". Such details are metonyms of a world outside the text. Indeed, these details are the hooks that attach the text to an historical world. Fictional worlds presuppose and are porous to the real, historical world, and this world fills some of the 'holes'.  
 A slightly different point. Here is George Steiner on Simenon:

There's a Maigret novel which opens with a loud noise. At three in the morning in Pigalle, the old Paris red-light district, a nightclub owner is pulling down the metal shade, to close up. Out of that single noise, focused against the first milk cart, focused against the steps of those who go home to sleep at that time and those who start coming into Les Halles to get the food ready for the day, Simenon gives you not only the city, not only something about France which no historian can surpass, but the two or three people who will matter in the story are already before you.

Again, we can of course ask questions about Pigalle and Les Halles, and the answers we get, not from the fictional world, but from historical France will light up our reading. But Steiner is also taking about something else, the way in which significant details, metonyms, bring with them a whole world which, strictly speaking, is not present in the letter of  the text. So it is that when we read a novel, we have the sense that we are been given glimpses of a world, a world that exists over and above the partial representations that confront us and which envelops them in its atmosphere. Despite the fact that we are offered only a few parsimonious details about, say, a library or a bedroom, we in some sense populate the 'holes' - the pockets and regions of the unknown - that surround these details. Given only parts - Holmes's hat and pipe- we nonetheless construct the man.

In fact, fiction needs its holes. The narrative pauses at the bedroom door rather than going inside. It creates a block, a blindspot, and also a region of the unknown, a pocket of mystery. It is the holes which give to a fiction its enigmatic density and which, paradoxically, hold the fiction together. 

It is these pockets and regions that a director would seek to explore and to fill in a cinematic adaptation, but the director is only doing at a highly conscious level what we all do as readers of fiction.