Thursday, 31 March 2016

"Words are only the excipient". Beckett

Directing Footfalls, Beckett apparently told Billie Whitelaw that "Words are only the excipient; the pacing is far more important".
Could this idea also apply to the prose? Drama of course is always embodied language: the words are completely filled with, for example, the old rasping voice of the actor. Words are directed to others or to a situation. They are transitive, doing things - ingratiating, insulting, seducing, marking out territory etc. There is no exact equivalent on the page. The printed words are in a sense intransitive, surrounded by silence, existing not in physical space but the mental space of the reader. The words come to the reader not already directed and inflected, not filled out with the noises of another body. And yet, the words still have a cadence, a rhythm, and this cadence is traced on the mind of the reader. It is a cadence which is also, at the same time, an affect, just as in music. To take the example cited in the last post: "name, no, nothing is nameable, tell, no, nothing can be told" is from Beckett's Texts for Nothing. There is a propositional sense: Nothing is knowable, nothing is tellable. But this is fairly unremarkable. It leads people to say things like "Beckett is saying that nothing is knowable". What's actually important is the cadence - what i tried to describe when I called it 'a little lullaby of negatives sung to an absent self,' a cadence with a curious and subtle uplift. There are of course other, better ways to describe it. But the point is that the cadence requires these particular words.  It wouldn't be possible to bring together a nonsensical but phonetically similar string of syllables to produce the same sound and rhythm ('hey, hey, heaven is mowable'), but this would not be the same cadence, for the cadence is completely embedded in the actual words and they are its only 'excipient', as well as "only the excipient".

I thought back here, once more, to Wittgenstein's famous example "I have a toothache". He says we can see this as a proposition reporting on the "I"'s experience, a unit of information about a state of affairs. Or, we can see it as a way of moaning, a controlled release of pain through the conduit of language. Similarly, we can see the Beckett quote as a proposition: "he is saying you cannot know anything". But this sense would be pretty indifferent to its formal envelope. We would have skinned the text of its specifics in order to grab the kernel of 'meaning'. But the little rising string of negatives (the homonyms Know and No), somehow folding the No inside out into a fragile affirmation, that stands before us having removed the ground from under its own feet, hanging in the darkness... All this constitutes what the words are doing as opposed to 'what they are about'. It is this "what the words are doing" which is as much the task of the critic as anything else.

And so, I am not making an argument for the literaryness of the text. I am not saying that we must attend to the specifics of literary language and stop discarding these as some inessential integument in ourt search for "meaning". For 'literary language' in this sense is not quite confined to literature. The propositional dimension of our language in general is often rather meagre and unimportant in relation to what the words do, their effects, their form, the lines they trace and their repercussions in the minds and bodies of others.

1 comment:

  1. Perfecto! Thank you. This is just what I needed.