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.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Beckett's Texts and the Lure of the Image



In Jacques Lacan's little myth, the mirror image seen by the infant is always a 'contraction', a shrinkage. The uncoordinated infant - waves of joy or terror passing over and through it, motor function not yet centralised - finds anchor in the bounded image, able now to say "That's me! there I am!". But note it is no longer here but there , hanging in the mirror, outside, something you can point to.

In this sense the jubilant recognition of a self, is also the alienation of the self – it is something external, out in the world, a thing. It is not longer the inner and uncoordinated place of actual experience.

The solace offered by the mirror image sets a fatal precedent. We forever seek out images as ways of giving to chaos a local habitation and name. 

 
 
In Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, there are many such images. Mother Calvet, “with her dog and skeletal baby-buggy”, or the younger narrator in the waiting room of the railway terminus. These images  are like little oases promising a kind of destination, a place where the self might be located. The restless text almost succumbs but then pulls away and - extravagant, flickering - ventures elsewhere.  These images, brief wrecks of desolation or beauty, are evidence not that the self is still tied to its past,  but of the drifting isolation of the latter, revolving forever in another dark, sundered and unreachable. 

The temptation to seek out the image, to house the self therein, is itself deftly figured in Text viii: 

But what is this I see, and how, a white stick and an ear-trumpet, where, Place de la Republique, at pernod time, let me look closer at this, it’s perhaps me at last. the trumpet, sailing at ear level, suddenly resembles a steam-whistle, of the kind thanks to which my steamers forge fearfully through the fog. That should fix the period, to the nearest half-century or so. the stick gains ground, tapping with its ferrule the noble bassamento of the United Stores, it must be winter, at least not summer. I can also just discern, with a final effort of will, a bowler hat which seems to my sorrow a sardonic synthesis of all those that never fitted me and at the other extremity, similarly suspicious, a complete pair of brown boots lacerated and gaping. These insignia, it I may so describe them, advance in concert, as though connected by the traditional human excipient, halt, move on again, confirmed by the vast show windows. The level of the hat, and consequently the trumpet, hold out some hope for me as a dying dwarf or at least a hunchback. The vacancy is tempting, shall I enthrone my infirmities, give them the chance again, my dream infirmities, that they may take flesh and move, deteriorating, round and round this grandiose square which I hope i don’t confuse with the Bastille, until they are deemed worthy of the adjacent Pere Lachaise or, better still, ….

An image - brief, histrionic, absurd - that the narrator might complete. He might 'discover' himself in it -  "It's perhaps me at last". The image is always like this, a kind of vacancy. An empty suit of clothes we might try on. But of course, he pulls away..  The succour of the image would be a cheat, an escape from that "other dark", in which, featureless, he dwells:


I would know I was here, begging in another dark, another silence..

Sunday, 27 March 2016

At the Football (more new fiction excerpts)



In the office, Gavin tells me "I hate Fucking Arsenal," except he says "I ate fackin arsniw" in his ridiculous faux cockney voice, "I have since I was a kid". He can't name anything about Arsenal that he hates. He can’t name any Arsenal traits or attributes that justify his 'lifelong hatred'. Of course he can't. The players have all changed, the manager, the stadium. Nothing is the same. The style of play. All are completely different. Only the name is the same. In the end this is all he hates - a name, a phantom, a signifier. "It's in the blood," he says, "It’s in the family. It's part of being a Chelsea fan," as if it's something primal, something pre-rational. But Chelsea too is just an empty name. Only the name exists.

The following month I'm taken to a corporate event at Stamford Bridge. A congregation of castratos, of cretins, borrowing their balls from the pack, from the crowd. A gravelly voice cracks a joke and the pack laughs, like turning on a light bulb. A female steward called Karen walks past.. "Show us your tits Karen" a tumescent cretin shouts, flicking the switch once more.  Another one, pig pink and breathing smoke, is pointing and chanting "Ka-ren, Ka-ren.." and the pack follows suit. Each individual cretin has plugged himself into the pack, each feels empowered by the pack, and yet the pack is only the mathematical sum of all the cretins. Pitchside, the redfaced castratos borrow the bass roar of the crowd, their voices dissolved into threatening thunder. They delight in roaring and bellowing, the pretend atavism of the stockbroker and the painter and decorator. Not "Who are you?" but "oo-r-ya, oo-r-ya". Chanting in a barbarised-cockney voice that no one has ever spoken, thug behaviour rolled out on a Saturday, the pseudo regression of those with a "wife and two kids" and a car, stuck and pinioned in the world of "a wife and two kids" and "the pub" and "the car", fenced totally within this small world, this tiny mental province, but allowed a foray into the amphitheatre to swell-up and spit and shout for 90 minutes. All for the empty name of the team.  They think that the team is the Thing, but the team is only the front-facing part of the company that exploits them week by week, giving them license to be part of a pack, chanting and shouting, wobbling with hatred, spilling their bottled rage in public for all to see, like 40,000 Fuhrers.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

thus do they bat around, drunk, in this tiny province.. On Men (from a Fiction in progress)




................And of course, there is always an image of woman, around which they cluster and collude, a claque of cockheads, a rat's nest of recreants and proto-rapists. For what do they do, these pubrats? They pass between them the names of the office women and speculate as to how and where and if they would "fuck" them.. They circulate these names in lieu of bodies...  Sue, Jane, Anne-Marie, Tracy.. tokens handed round for commentary.."You'd have to do her from behind.." "...Yea, with a bag on her head," "No, two bags in case first fell off.." "Yea but after ten pints.." "No I reckon 7 pints with a blindfold.." And so on. "I'd do her on the photocopier," chirps Gavin, a wizened 60 year old weasel with a red shiny beak and collapsed cheeks, then another  interchangeable man, Reg, stinking of 'cigs', with sepia skin  .."You'd better watch out mate, don't want to leave any evidence. Your fucking skinny arse in a sheet of A4"... "What you on about mate, I'd be on top, it'd be her fat arse on the photocopier" "you'd need two fucking sheets of paper for that mate.." And so on. Each burst of so called banter is answered by a round of red-faced cackling laughter  .. Each quip or comment is copied from a crusty crib sheet of Male speech.. . Or else of course they talk about sport, using the pronouns "you" and "we" to refer to the on-field activities of football companies that have nothing to do with them. "We hammered you at the weekend, eh" ""We were shit mate, our defence was shocking" and so on, referring to a football match in North London, conflating the activities of the football team with their own activities, a form of psychopathology that has sunk into the fabric of their life. But anyway, this is what Men are actually like, just so you know, this is what a jocularly titled "night out with the lads or the boys" is like, just so you know, this is what their drink-soaked back-slapping homosocial sessions consist in.. the rat's nest in the pub corner, mouthing their lines, performing their maleness to each other.

People's experience is less the expression of something inside them than the expression of a great social machine which they are part of. For example, a Catholic, first inflated with guilt and then enjoying the blessed discharge of confession - is he expressing something about himself or is he expressing Catholicism? The agonised self-scrutiny and the blessed decompression in the booth with the hidden priest, this is part of the machine of Catholicism and expresses not just the man but Catholicism itself. The Victorian woman who, at the point of orgasm feels also the countervailing cramp of shame, pleasure twisted into pain by Moral censure, is expressing not herself but the Victorian machine of sexuality. And similarly, there is a masculine machine. Where others might see 'blokes' 'having a laugh', I see only this machine of masculinity, which none of these men invented. And when these men speak they are expressing not themselves but only this machine which came before them. When they pass between them the names of women and describe the sex acts they would inflict on these women, when they discuss also the activities of the football companies under the idiotic false pronouns 'you' and 'we', they  are expressing nothing individual but only the greater machine. Their laughs are simply the squeaks and noises of the social machine, with its manifold rules and prescriptions. Everything that degrades women to the status of matter is applauded, this is one of the rules of the machine, thus expressions like "beef curtains" or observations such as 'Her box won't be the same after she's popped one out, it'll be like a clown's pocket' are actually directives to laugh which cannot be countermanded or refused.  None dare disobey the peremptory orders of the machine because none can tolerate the ostracism and isolation they imagine lies outside it. And thus do they bat around, drunk, in this tiny province, blind to the beauty outside, stunted and poorer.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

The Rivers of Yorkshire - more fiction in progress

Proust had his magical names - Balbec, Benodet and so on, strange attractors around which spirits gathered and worlds slowly formed. But mine were the rivers of Yorkshire. I knew something of each river, but this particle of knowledge was only the grit needed to crystallize the fantasy. The Nidd was a river with Nordic parents, narrow and deep, mythical creatures hid in its rushes, its source was a place of sheer ice, and I associated it with the Dace that swam on its gravelly beds; The Ouse was extravagantly wide and slow, snaking around all over the place, frequently flooding, and teeming with eels; The Ure was the Nidd's Anglo-Saxon cousin, sourced in granite, deep underground, the dominant fish was Barbel, grubbing around in the floor of weirpool; The Swale was a disagreeable name, partly because of a boy named Swales at school who sat at the back of the class making noises, and the river Swale I associated only with flat green fields, acres of grass, bare, without magic, bordered and tamed by surrounding farmland; another, the Wharfe, was merely picturesque and shallow, big willows shading the banks; but the Aire was the most magical, the Aire was my river - elusive, haunted by woodland spirits, lights and breezes danced near its banks. The only river that could rival the Aire wasn't in Yorkshire at all, the Lune - green and pure and spun with music.
 But there is an affinity between rivers and their names which is not true of cities or buildings or people. For ordinarily the name is the thing that survives ruin and change, the last morsel remaining. For example, the name of a city persists after the city has been wrecked and destroyed and rebuilt - the name is the only survivor; a man of 80 is in no cell or particular what he was at birth, but the name, the baptism of the name endures; the ship has been rebuilt part by part until nothing of the original vessel remains - nothing, that is, except the name. Only rivers endure as long as their names; rivers too survive the razing of cities, the falling of flesh...  the rivers run on, unperturbed.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Fishing in the Aire (from a fiction to come)



In the dank vegetation of the River Aire at Keighley I smell my childhood. Sat on the muddy bank, me and dad, waiting for trout to bite; midges and - their supposed antidote - tobacco smoke from Dad's  Meerschaum pipe. A tatty unattractive spot on the slow brown river. A rogue band of teenagers smoking and swearing downstream. Dad told them to clear off, and they did, apologetic, for there was always something in his voice that made people do what he said. The fizz and crackle of a short fuse. From time to time, after long tacitutrn intervals we pulled wriggling life out of the  waters, daylight bounced on the chainmaille scales. Then we unhooked it, returned it and watched that blade of daylight slip back into the dark.

Fishing, for me and dad, and many like us no doubt, was as much a reason to sit in peace and silence at the water's edge for hours as anything else. But we usually sat in silence, me and dad, whether fishing ot not. That silence was the space of a conversation that never happened.