Tuesday, April 14, 2009

`Proceed with Daring Synapses'

Spring break is over and the boys and I are back in school after nine days together. Monday started with a fine meditation by Nige on Samuel Beckett as nature writer, on the occasion of the Irishman’s 103rd birthday. Nige cites a delicious passage from Watt – the book that unlocked the great trilogy soon to come – and writes:

“Perhaps Beckett's attention to nature is all the sharper for his sense of man's inescapable alienation from it - it is a scene across which a man passes but of which he can never fully be (or feel himself) a part.”

By implication, Nige poses an interesting question: Why is reading Beckett always a pleasure while most “avant-garde” writing remains stillborn on the page? A few explanations: comedy, triviality eschewed, concision and precision of language, a religious sensibility by way of via negativa. Except for some juvenilia, I never feel I’m wasting time with Beckett. He respects his readers enough to expect much of them, and always rewards their perseverance. So much experimental writing amounts to a bait-and- switch scheme. Beckett never cheats.

At school I alphabetized 1,313 student emergency medical forms – surely a Beckettian number. I sharpened almost as many pencils and remembered that Thoreau, who manufactured pencils with his father, could reach into a case of them and always come up with an even dozen – adroitness Beckett would have admired in his American nature-writing cousin (all great writers are kin). At home I found that Dave Lull, in remembrance of Beckett’s birthday, had sent a link to Hugh Kenner’s 1983 review of Worstward Ho in The New York Times. Kenner was Beckett’s friend and most lucid elucidator:

“Patterns of elegance: Is reality perhaps as evanescent as those patterns?”

Worstward Ho is elegant, yes, and starkly beautiful – in the best sense, prose as poetry:

“Less. Less seen. Less seeing. Less seen and seeing when with words than when not. When somehow than when nowhow. Stare by words dimmed. Shades dimmed. Void dimmed. All there as when no words. As when nowhow. Only all dimmed. Till blank again. No words again. Nohow again. Then all undimmed. Stare undimmed. That words had dimmed.”

Guy Davenport writes in “Ernst Machs Max Ernst” (in The Geography of the Imagination):

“For making these particulars cohere I tried to learn from certain highly elliptical writers how much can be omitted from the texture of a page. If it is of any interest, the styles I find most useful to study are those of Hugh Kenner, Osip Mandelstam, Samuel Beckett, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, Charles Doughty. All of these are writers who do not waste a word, who condense, pare down, and proceed with daring synapses.”


Meher said...

"all great writers are kin"

I correct it. All the writers we love are kin.

elberry said...

There's a family resemblance, at least - Wittgenstein, Beckett, and Kierkegaard form a group in my mind, they seem to come from a similar place, they all have a wariness about statements, words, and their work is as much about resisting language & thought as anything else; hence Kierkegaard's ironies & difficulties, Beckett's radiant miserliness with words, Wittgenstein's Beckettian style in the Tractatus and the later questioning and evasiveness in the Philosophical Investigations. Funnily enough, both Beckett & Wittgenstein wanted to be pilots; they both wanted an escape from language even as they explored it from within.