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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

“Seek? More than that: create.”

Daily, I attach less value to the intellect. Daily, I realize more clearly that only away from it can the writer repossess something of our past impressions, that is attain to something of himself and to the one subject-matter of art. … Compared with the past, the intimate essence of ourselves, the truths of the intellect seem quite unreal. … But it is to the intellect we must look all the same to establish the inferiority of the intellect. The intellect may not deserve the supreme accolade, but it alone is capable of bestowing it. It may hold only second place in the hierarchy of virtues but only it is capable of proclaiming that instinct has to occupy the first.
-Preface to Contre Sainte-Beuve (pp. 1, 7, 8), Marcel Proust

But in art there are no initiators or precursors (at least in the scientific sense). Everything is in the individual, each individual starts the artistic or literary endeavour over again, on his own account; the works of his predecessors do not constitute, unlike in science, an acquired truth from which he who follows after may profit. A writer of genius today has everything to do. He is not much further advanced than Homer.
-‘The Method of Saint-Beuve’ (p. 11)

If we want to try and understand this self, it is deep inside us, by trying to recreate it within us, that we may succeed. … It is a truth every bit of which we have to create
– (p. 12)

… what one gives to the public is what one has written when alone, for oneself, it is very much the work of one’s self… And not having seen the gulf which separates the writer from the society man, not having understood that the writer’s self shows itself only in his books, that he only shows society men… a society man like themselves, [Sainte-Beuve] was to launch that famous method which… consists, in order to understand a poet or writer, in questioning avidly those who knew him,… who may be able to tell us how he behaved in the matter of women, etc., that is, on all those very points where the poet’s true self is not involved.
– (pp. 15, 16)

If we follow the guidelines given in this preliminary work, a puzzling combination of fiction and criticism, the first fitful attempts at a style which would eventually come to be the style of Proust’s epic, we are directed in how to approach the narrator(s), both the embryonic form it takes in Contre Sainte-Beuve and its full-fledged form in A la recherche... Even here, in a piece which is almost automatically assumed autobiographical, we cannot call our narrator Marcel Proust. Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: Beckett, Proust, Ranciére, Writing

“But with face upturned for good labour in vain at your fable.”

My escape-reading of late has been a few Beckett related books I’ve come across: Anne Atik’s How It Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett, a brief book describing the friendship between the author, her husband, and Beckett, interspersed with some letters, pictures, and brief notes made after their evenings together, and The Critical Heritage, a collection of reviews and interviews, organized relative to the work under review. Both are rather light, the prior being simply intriguing accounts of Beckett the man and the latter mostly reviews written for newspapers and the like. As the introduction to the review collection makes clear, Beckett’s work— especially in the early years though no less even now, I would imagine— is often misinterpreted. Or, it seems possible to say, simply interpreted, the mis- being implicit regarding Beckett’s work; in one interview contained in the volume, asked what, if not a philosophical one, is his reason for writing, he responds “I haven’t the slightest idea. I’m no intellectual. All I am is feeling.”

This sense of ‘feeling’ and not ‘intellecting’ is what always brings me back to Beckett’s prose so strongly and deeply, at least regarding work from the Trilogy onward. One of the reviews in The Critical Heritage, by David Lodge, is a close-reading of ‘Ping‘ which seems to me to make the most basic and easily made mistakes in its way of imposing a ‘meaning’ onto Beckett’s writing— of ‘intellecting’ instead of ‘feeling’ it. That is not to say that intellect has no place in reading Beckett; there is a place for it, but it isn’t in locating determinate aspects of the text which, once located, may be explained. Lodge ‘suggest[s] that “Ping” is the rendering of the consciousness of a person confined in a small, bare, white room…” [even seeming to take seriously, if admitting it is flawed, the idea that the ‘character’ is Christ in the tomb— after “If by Godot I had meant God I would [have] said God, and not Godot”!], and a little later on, that it ‘seems to record the struggles of an expiring consciousness to find some meaning in a situation which offers no purchase to the mind or sensation.’ It is indeed difficult to discuss Beckett without relying on such terms as ‘narrator’ or ‘character, ‘ which are built into the history of fiction, that is, are the determinate factors in designating something as fiction for the majority of its history, but the dissolution of those concepts and of the relationship of the text and author is the very thing towards which Beckett’s work worked. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Beckett, Reviews

Artless Sex | Sexless Art

I’ve been busy reading and writing for my classes (Well, not, actually… recently I’ve been watching Mad Men and pretending that I’m thinking about writing for my classes), so I’ve not had the extra energy to work up a thorough and thoughtful post here, but I’ve got some extraneous thoughts that don’t belong in my papers. I’m putting them here so I don’t keep trying to shoehorn them into the essay

I’m writing on intention in interpretation for a class on Analytic Aesthetics. Now I’m not automatically against using biographical information or an author’s stated intent as an aid to interpreting a work. I was talking about Beckett to a guy during the meet and greet week when we all first arrived here and mentioned something about Beckett’s infamous ‘subtraction’ revelation instead of Joyce’s method of addition. In the midst of this, Krapp’s Last Tape came up, which has distinct parallels to this revelation, as evinced by one of Beckett’s statements to his biographer John Knowles along the lines of “Let’s get this straight once and for all: Krapp’s revelation was on the dock during a storm, mine was in my mother’s room.” He stopped me mid-sentence, because this apparently threw doubt on my pomo-litcrit cred, and asked why I felt the need to analyze KLT biographically… I don’t remember exactly what I said, conveniently, but it was half-retreat, half-why-the-hell-not? However unnecessary it is to the enjoyment and interpretation of the play, it is nevertheless interesting to know, and the parallel says more about Beckett’s method of writing than any piece of Beckett’s writing by itself.

But I’ve been thinking about what is actually meant by ‘authorial intent,’ (though debating what is meant by ‘intent’ isn’t relevant to my paper topic, which is one of the things I’m hating about writing in an analytic style— no matter if a basic premise is flawed, I’ve got to dilly-dally around that and address a specific issue in a specific prior paper), and obviously about its relevance to interpretation. As most people familiar with the topic know, anti-intentionalists (generally treated in what I’ve read as descendants of Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ and jouissane) completely refute the relevance of authorial intent, while the intentionalists campaign that authorial intent is the sole source of a text’s meaning. But what I find puzzling is most of the intentionalists seem to have this view of the production of an artwork akin to the Catholic view of sex. There is no sex/writing without the intent to produce a child/convey a message.

In one of the essays I’m reading, Noël Carroll says that if we one day found out that Jonathan swift was an Irish-hating cannibal, we’d probably interpret ‘A Modest Proposal’ differently… Probably true. But the disjunct here is that ‘A Modest Proposal’ is conveying a message, however seriously or humorously. As we were all taught in our freshman lit classes, satire requires a target, and it may not be anything more than a negative message, but Swift is mocking something, even if exactly what the target of the satire is is up for debate. He has a specific message to convey. In this sense, it seems entirely relevant to call on Swift’s intended message to deny anyone who believes he is actually proposing people eat Irish babies, and thus, if it came to light that Swift really was an Irish-hating cannibal, it would throw a whole new light on his justifications for his suggestion. (Caveat peremptor: I haven’t read ‘AMP’ in a very long time… so the specifics may be debatable, but the overall point still stands, I assume)

Much literature, on the other hand, and especially modern and postmodern literature, seems designed specifically to problematize this transferral of intent to ‘meaning.’ Not to mention, it seems to me, that a lot of that very literature is predicated on the desire to write without having anything to say. It’s present from Kafka, but more as general existential anxiety than an explicitly writerly concern, on through the likes of Beckett and to contemporary literature, e.g. Josipovici and Vila-Matas, not to mention Langpo, flarf, and the like, where content is completely unreflective of intent. Oddly enough, this is where intent becomes entirely relevant— you kind of need to know what’s going on when you read a flarf poem, because if you’re looking for intent in the ‘brute text’ itself, you’re going to be sent on all kinds of wild goose chases. The intentionalists I’m reading for this essay, however, seem incapable of conceiving of intent in any way not relevant to Charlotte Temple.

In other words, don’t write if you’re gonna use a condom. Or oulipo. Noël Carroll and the Pope disapprove.

Filed under: Aesthetics, Beckett, Carroll

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