Friday, 13 May 2016

I is written: A note on Kafka and Beckett

There is a beautiful passage in Kafka where he reverses the way we might think about an “I”, and about what's implied by the grammatical construction"I write":

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 "I" as a living thing is a spark generated by the writing and does not precede its embodiment in ink. Prior to embodiment there is only perhaps a restless dark.If the "I" strikes up only in writing, in and across the letters on the page, then the "I" is the hand that draws itself. Or it is a ghost lagging behind its inscription.

It seems to me that in Beckett there is a similar motif: "I'll draw me a head" says the narrator of Texts for Nothing, but the "I" is no less 'drawn' than the head. It is on the same plane as the head, not something that does the drawing. Throughout the Texts, ephemeral "I"s come and go, drawn and erased in the writing.

In both Kafka and Beckett, the "I" of writing is something intermittent, fragile, and belated. But this is not simply a feature of fiction. Beckett and Kafka are not of that number of writers delighting in the constructedness of fictional worlds. If there is pathos in the spectral and scarcely embodied "I" in Beckett's world and the tentative "I" who lives in Kafka's Diaries, this is because fictional beings are not confined to fiction, nor is it only in fiction that the I is a fragile and secondary thing. 

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