Tag Archives: the lost ones

Keston Sutherland on Beckett and embellishment

I’ve just bought Sutherland’s ‘Stupefaction’ which contains four long essays. I haven’t yet read any of these but there is something in the introduction to the ‘Wrong Poetry’ essay that I feel I need to respond to. I’ve written about a shorter version of this and will be interested to see the direction that the longer one takes.

The introduction starts with Hegel on knowledge and goes on to attack Yirmiyahu Yovel’s 2005 translation of the preface to the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t care about Hegel and am remarkably relaxed about this, Hegel is not one of those thinkers that causes those feelings of inadequacy in this auto-didact that Bourdieu describes so acutely. I can however share in the anger that is felt when a translation does a disservice to the original. I remember my sense of violation on reading a recent and very bad translation of ‘Orlando Furioso’ and I continue to despair at the plaudits that John Felsteiner received for his skewed translation of Celan. So, I can understand this kind of getting cross especially when Yovel states that he has ‘followed the letter of the original Hegelian text….using straightforward contemporary style and avoiding literary embellishment’ and goes on to tell us ‘I broke Hegel’s long sentences or simplified their structure, I also omitted his italics’. You don’t have to care about Hegel to comprehend the monumental stupidity of such a strategy in any context. It is therefore reasonable that Sutherland should scathe but he does so (in part) with this- “Every reader of Beckett will know that literature is not so easily avoided, and that nothing embellishes like simplification and ommission”.

The first piece of unpacking that needs to be done with this is about the sneer that lurks within. I’m fond of the ‘anybody’ device, my current favourite being ‘anybody who has thought about this for longer than thirty seconds will know….” because it implies that the object of my scorn either hasn’t given this much thought or that he or she is actually incapable of reflective/analytical thinking. Throwing something specific into the mix does raise the stakes however because it is creating a specific coterie (readers of Beckett) who are in some way especially aware of these two specific points.

It just so happens that I’m a current and attentive re-reader of Beckett and neither of these assertions spring immediately from the page. I readily accept that there are many different Becketts doing many different things in many different ways but I’m struggling to square either of these with the Beckett that’s in my head.

Let’s start with the avoidance of literature (which is different from the avoidance of “literary embellishment”- something which Sutherland neatly overlooks). I take it that Sutherland intends us to know that Beckett is an example of a writer whose apparent rejection of literary conceits and devices still results in great literature. I don’t think that Beckett does reject or avoid literature, I think the large body of his work from 1945 on over demonstrates an intensification of literary strategies rather than an avoidance of them. There are far too many examples that I can produce to underline this but I’ll try just three. This is from ‘Not I’:

…for her first thought was…oh long after…sudden flash…brought up as she had been to believe…with the other waifs…in a merciful…[brief laugh]…God…[Good laugh]…first thought was…oh long after…sudden flash…she was being punished…for her sins…a number of which then…further proof if proof were needed…flashed through her mind…one after another…then dismissed as foolish…

(The bits is square brackets are Beckett’s stage directions which are in italics in the original.)

This is how ‘Company’ begins:

A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.

To one on his back in the dark. This he can tell by the pressure on his hind parts and by how the dark changes when he shuts his eyes and again when he opens them again. Only a small part of what is said can be verified. As for example when he hears, You are on your back in the dark. Then he must acknowledge the truth of what is said. But by far the greater part of what is said cannot be verified. As for example when he hears, You first saw the light on such and such a day. Sometimes the two are combined as for example, You first saw the light on such and such a day and now
you are on your back in the dark. A device perhaps from the incontrovertibilitv of the one to win credence for the other. That then is the proposition. To one on his hack in the dark a voice tells of a past. With occasional allusion to a present and more rarely to a future as for example, You will end as vou now are.

Finally this is from ‘The Lost Ones’:

The truth is no searcher can readily forego the ladder. Paradoxically the sedentary are those whose acts of violence most disrupt the cylinder’s quiet.Fourthly those who do not search or non-searchers sitting for the most part against the wall in the attitude which wrung from Dante one of his rare wan smiles.

The first thing that I ever understood about Beckett (and here I’m getting quite protective) is that primarily there is a distillation and compression going on rather than an avoidance, that whatever he is doing (like Rothko) is saturated in the practices and effects of what’s gone before and, I would argue, this is what ‘any’ reader should and does know. The above examples aren’t carefully chosen but are from the things I was reading yesterday, my point would be even easier to make if I used any of the longer plays or novels- as anybody who has read Beckett would know.

I’m now going to address the use of ’embellish’ which the OED defines in the following ways:

  1. To render beautiful;
  2. To beautify with adventitious adornments; to ornament;
  3. Now often with sense to ‘dress up’, heighten (a narration) with fictitious additions;
  4. To brighten (in feeling), cheer.

I’m taking it that both parties are using the first part of the third definition. I have absolutely no idea whether Hegel resorted to literary dressing up but I am firmly of the view that (if he did) these should be included- the sentence structure must be retained and the italics left in purely for reasons of obtaining as clear as possible an understanding of what he meant at the time of writing.

Harold Pinter (Nobel prize winner and leading Beckett disciple) once said that he always returned to Beckett because he knew that Beckett would always rub his nose in the shit. I wouldn’t go quite as far as this because there are many more dimensions to Beckett than this. What I would take issue with is whether any of Beckett results in the kind of dressing up that Sutherland implies.

I could go on about this at much greater length- it is remarkable how much stuff Sutherland gives me to think about and argue with and ‘Stupefactions’ will no doubt trigger off a whole load of thoughts.

Finally, I wonder if Beckett is being used to add cachet to the argument, it strikes me that either Joe Luna or Vanessa Place are much more appropriate examples….

Stupefaction is available from Amazon for £12.

A Response from Keston Sutherland

Since this was posted, I’ve had the following response from Keston-

“I’m grateful for your post on that remark in my book _Stupefaction_. I
think our wires may be just a little crossed. Perhaps you remember that
in _Molloy_ Beckett writes “it is not at this late stage in my relation
that I intend to give way to literature” (something like that, that’s
almost but not quite verbatim). His joke is that literature has until
now been successfully altogether avoided and that he means to keep it
that way. Of course the truth is that is was never avoided for a moment.
My point about embellishment is a riposte to Yovel, whose word that is;
but it is also the suggestion that Beckett understood, painfully and at
real cost, that you can’t avoid addition simply by means of subtraction:
in the context of my criticism of Yovel, the point is that every
omission, levelling, normalization into familiar idioms, etc, is in fact
a positive addition to the text, or if you like a “literarization” of
it. Yovel claims that literariness can be trimmed and expunged; I
counterclaim that the trimming and expunging is itself a modality of the
literary (and that no-one understood that fact so well as Beckett). In
any case I certainly didn’t intend a “sneer”. The chapter “Marx in
Jargon” which precedes “Wrong Poetry” and sets the stage for it is an
investigation into the meaning of the idea that “anyone” or “everyone”
could know something, so that when I make that remark in “Wrong Poetry”
it is from a theoretical basis already established earlier in the book.”

Samuel Beckett as Geometer

I was going to write something thoroughly enthusiastic about Beckett’s ‘The Lost Ones’ and ‘Lessness’ making extravagant claims for both as crucial works in 20th century literature. Then I decided to use the above to get to something that’s being nagging away for a while. I also wanted to claim the shorter prose for poetry, suffice it to say that all of the shorter prose (including ‘Texts for Nothing’ and the ‘Fizzles’ sequence) can be successfully read as prose poems.

Beckett’s plays are marked by the precision of his stage directions and some of the later stuff consists mostly of incredibly detailed directions which has led most critics to conclude something about Beckett’s need for control over the way his work is presented to the world. I’m going to argue that, whilst this may be the case, there’s something else going on with regard to the function of structure and structure as process.

For those who doubt the significance of geometry to Beckett, I would refer them to Quadrat 1 – 2 both in performance and in the detail of Beckett’s directions. ‘The Lost Ones’ is of a different order but nevertheless begins with:

Abode where lost bodies roam each searching forits lost one. Vast enough for search to be in vain. Inside a flattened cylinder fifty metres round and sixteen high for the sake of harmony.

We are then told that the light inside this structure is yellow and that it oscillates, becomes still and then oscillates again and that the temperature rises and falls between 25 and 5 degrees in a four second cycle that also has brief periods of ‘stability’.
The inside of this structure is lined with rubber and that there are niches or apertures set in the lining but only in the top half of the cylinder.
Before we go any further it is probably as well to say that not very much happens in ‘The Lost Ones’, we are shown how various groups function, some climbing ladders to the niches, others remaining inert, we are told of a number of rules or customs governing the use of the ladders and of the rumours of a way out of the structure but we aren’t given any idea as to the origins of this little world although we are given the strong impression that things will continue in a similar vein ad infinitum.
As with most things Beckett, it is entirely possible to read something dystopic and miserablist into this but a closer and more attentive reading reveals that we are being offered an acute analysis of the political and ideological processes currently at work in the world and of the strivings this involves. The inhabitants of the cylinder are divided into four distinct groups and there are two competing beliefs about the way out of the structure. There is perhaps less emphasis than normal placed on the meaningless and futile nature of this sort of activity as it is given some kind of rationale but all the kinds of activity lead to nothing.
To continue, there is no need to include so much relational detail in this brief piece unless a ‘point’ is being made about the relationship of these dimensions to the figures/people that live within them. At times the detail we are given comes across as being deliberately arch:

They are disposed in irregular quincunxes roughly 10 metres in diameter and cunningly out of line. Such harmony only he can relish whose long experience and detailed knowledge of the niches are such as to permit a perfect mental image of the entire system. But it is doubtful that such a one exists. For each climber has a fondness for certain niches and refrains as far as possible from the others.

This is probably the most significant passage for it blends the geometrical parameters with the inadequacies or failings of the system or customs by which the people function. We are, of course, expected to know what a quincunx is and to pick up on the use of ‘cunningly’.

There does seem to me to be something else going on with this emphasis, as if the detail of the frame is almost of more interest than what it contains and this isn’t just about the essential futility/absurdity of human existence but more about the structure of performance (for the want of a better term) per se.

If we view the beings in ‘The Lost Ones’ as performers and the structure they inhabit as a set then things do become a little easier. I’m not for one moment suggesting that Beckett is meaning that we should view life as ‘merely’ a performance but I think that he is saying that structures and elements within those structures are about staging and that human beings will inevitably respond to structures in certain wearily predictable ways. The people have ladders that they take turns in climbing, there are rules or customs governing the use of the ladders and pandemonium breaks out if these are infringed. There are rumours and speculation about what the ceiling contains but nobody attempts to reach it even though this is technically possible.

The other structural element is the fifteen ladders which can be moved around the inside of the cylinder. Ladders have always had some significance for Beckett both as a means of escape and of a means of isolation as here when a climber exceeds his time in a niche and the ladder is consequently taken away. We are told that some of these ladders have rungs missing which makes climbing difficult and that these rungs are used in fights or in attempts by individuals to ‘brain’ themselves.

The floor of the cylinder is divided into zones-

The bed of the cylinder comprises three distinct zones raised by clear-cut or imaginary frontiers invisible to the eye of flesh. First an outer belt roughly one metre wide reserved for the climbers and strange to say favoured by most of the sedentary and vanquished. Next a slightly narrower inner belt where those weary of searching in mid-cylinder slowly revolve in Indian file intent on the periphery. Finally the area proper representing an area of one hundred and fifty square metres and chosen ground of the majority. Let numbers be assigned to these three zones and it appears clearly that from the third to the second and inversely the searcher moves at will whereas on entering and leaving the first he is held to a certain discipline. One example among a thousand of the harmony that reigns in the cylinder between order and licence.

Before we get on to the importance of that last line, I just want to point out the mordant brilliance of ‘invisible to the eye of the flesh’. It’s in the details of his work that the strength of Beckett’s genius is revealed to us.

The last sentence is key because it indicates the grounds for his insistence on providing us with shape, trajectory and physical dimension. The climbers climb and the searchers search in spite of themselves, they are responding and contributing to the deadening structure around them and responding in particularly painful and futile ways for there is no way out and the only certainty is in the oscillating light and the temperature that continues to rise and fall. Of course it is Beckett who has created this level of precision as he does with his dramatic works and reflects his expressed wish to do away with actors/characters altogether.

As Robert Coover has tellingly described in ‘Spanking the Maid’, sado-masochistic practices are enhanced by both the ritual certainty of calibration and repetition. Those who torture others find it more effective to follow a structured regime- to inflict the right amount of pain for the right length of time etc.

With Beckett nothing is straightforward but I would argue that his extreme us of geometry here and elsewhere does challenge us to think in quite different ways about performance and the expression of that performance. ‘Texts for Nothing and Other Shorter Prose’ is published by Faber and sells for £9.99 in the UK.

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