Tuesday, January 31, 2012

THE UNNAMABLE by Samuel Beckett

Thirty days ago I began what promises to be a year of our discontent (to put it mildly) with a reading of Beckett's The Unnamable, a decidedly dreary way to start a year that began drearily enough, with overcast skies the color of woodsmoke and tree-tearing winds blowing down frozen air from Guy Maddin Land. l'Innommable, as the author called it en Francais, is a complex, disturbing, unsettling little interior monologue that demands multiple readings. Most of the difficulty arises from the fact that Beckett builds his monologue out of contradictions that radically undermine the interior monologue form and images that assault that form's humanistic underpinnings. None of this, however, has deterred humanists from trying to recruit the work for their team, citing its closing cadence, "I can't go on, I'll go on," as a statement of existential affirmation in the face of absurd nothingness. This attempt to strategically confuse Beckett with Camus quickly founders, though, with the realization that The Unnamable ends with this phrase, that "I" does in fact stop--forever--immediately upon uttering it. The text thus ends not in affirmation but in another of the explicit contradictions that rhetorically define it. Indeed, one might go further and state that all of the text's contradictions culminate in this most unsettlingly terminal one, the fatal period and blank silence after "I'll go on."

The Unnamable is also another of those works (like Moby Dick and Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy) that makes much of post-structuralist literary theory seem redundant, little more than a prosaic (or deliberately obscure) codification of ideas presented more ably and accessibly by the earlier artists. Sam and Herman and Alain got there firstest with the mostest, and their works are still much better reads than those of Jacques D. or Jacques L. or even Michel F. (who was a good and lucid writer much of the time, better than his brethren) and Roland B. (ditto). Of course, this raises the question of how readily the "poststructuralist" aspects of these works would have been recognized if we were not reading them through the unbreakable lens of our knowledge of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Barthes, et al. So the criticism and theory does seem necessary after all, if only (to borrow a simile from Northrop Frye) as a kind of hermeneutical scaffolding to be knocked away once the hard work of authentic reading is underway.

While reading The Unnamable I became convinced that this book would profit remarkably from a sensitive dramatic reading of the kind Joyce performed with a fragment of the Wake. This is a text that cries out to be read aloud... slowly... deliberately... with measured pauses between each phrase. The thought of Joyce also brought up the notion of Beckett's monologue(s) as a radically deconstructed 'revision' of Molly Bloom's--an idea to provoke a future re-reading.

Monday, January 30, 2012

A Private Tumor of the Soul

From George Steiner's very interesting Paris Review interview, a great epigram that ends with an image worthy of the third writer in Steiner's little list:

"How can you, after Proust and Joyce and Kafka and Faulkner, sit down and write a novel? I've never quite understood. Answer: you have to. And the you have to is a private cancer, a private tumor of the soul."


The following is a short fictional monologue based on historical fact, a side-product of my current novelistic project:

My dearest Margaret (speaks Private Thomas Ord of the Pennsylvania militia after the massacre at Gnadenhutten in the Ohio country, March 7-8, 1782, a forgotten footnote to the American Revolution) I cannot write my dearest Maggie hand still shaking with rage and shame trying to remember O Maggie trying to forget my love the things I see in this wild land when we crossed the river and rode toward the village an Indian my age came running across brown winter grass still patched with snow in the shadowed places and seeing our guns cried Don’t shoot and smiled as at a joke Don’t shoot...I am a Christian... My father is a white man like you...My name is Joseph and his smile widens I am Joseph your brother and Bilderbeck riding beside me lowered his musket spat out a plug of tobacco said That so? raised the barrel flashing in sudden sunlight between clouds and fired into the smiling savage’s face we rode on trampling the body that twitched in the grass to the village called Gnadenhutten by the Dutch Indian-lovers who converted these savages finding the village abandoned and all the savages men women children in the field gathering winter withered corn and themselves withered sapling thin hollow eyed gaunt skin stretched tight as bookbinding over rigid skulls These people are starving Christy said and the Irishman Welch replied Aye, for white man’s blood. And if not a man then a woman or child’ll do, eh Wallace? And Wallace nodded agreement seeing nought before him but his captive wife and sons and hearing nought but the blood crying vengeance in his veins

Colonel Williamson called the Indians together Gather in the church yonder all of you he ordered them breathlessly fat face flushed with the effort of speaking We will transport you to Fort Pitt for food and shelter Williamson ordered two detachments to round up the neighboring Indians and waiting we grumbled at the colonel’s words I didn’t ride here to take prisoners Welch said and everyone agreed until Christy the preacher began Please, gentlemen. These are Christian Indians, no more harmful than a mouse in the field. The crime be not theirs and vengeance not ours. Twould be a sin to harm them... If they’re Christian Hindeman said we’ll send ’em to heaven and their souls’ll smile down on us Welch said Never figgered ye fer an Indian-lover, Christy, you with your woman still warm in the ground at their hands Christy said These are not the responsible parties. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord and Bilderbeck grumbled An eye for an eye sayeth the Book, isn’t that right, preacher? the men gathered round Christy threatening belligerent until Colonel Williamson came forward and calmed them saying Men, we are here for reasons larger than ourselves, our petty prejudices, fears and opinions. We have come to this howling wilderness to strike the flint of civilization on the stony ground of savagery, in this unforgiving darkness to light the lamp democratic; so in this spirit of democracy to which we young, we new, we first Americans have pledged our lives, our blood, and our sacred honor, let us decide this matter in a spirit democratic, Line up, men! Line up for a vote! Now let each man decide the matter for himself without demagoguery or coercion. Let each man who believes these Indians should live step forward now. Williamson’s face clouded when only a few militiamen stepped out of line That be all of you who vote for mercy? He sighed audibly Very well, men. You have made a Pilate of me, and I wash my hands of this affair. At sunup you may do what you will with the prisoners

The Indians imprisoned in the church informed of impending execution kept us awake all night with their praying and hymning until first light dawned and the killing began with the men and the boys taken to one one building for slaughter and the women and the girls taken to another and the eighteen who voted against removed themselves with Colonel Williamson to a spot below the riverbank where only the sounds of the killing could reach them O Maggie I was not of their number I saw Hindeman in the church rip two babes from their mothers’ arms and holding them by the ankles in each hand draw his arms back like Our Lord on the Cross and slam the babes together once twice three times until he dropped them to the floor heads broken like eggs and leaking brains I escorted prisoners to the men’s slaughterhouse and it was a gory scene Leet and Bilderbeck bloodied like butchers the floor sticky and smeared with red bootprints and Solomon Urie throwing his bloody rope around the entering prisoners and forcing them down kneeling on their backs on the floor while Hindeman or Leet did for them with a hammer and I remember walking the path of my dark red bootprints back to the church and back to the building again and taking the women to their slaughter with Welch and his tomahawk and his pile of bloody scalps tossed carelessly in a corner he trades them for whiskey I’ve heard I saw a young man scalped skull bared to the bone but still alive and somehow escaped running for the river across the grass down the bank into the freezing water and up the other side howling like an animal skull shining silver in the sunlight until the preacher Christy I later heard rose from the group of demurrers aimed his musket and fired at the buck bringing him down saying God have mercy on his soul. I would shoot a brokenlegged horse just the same I took an old woman to Welch’s building and Urie roped her since the men were all dead by now and held her facedown on the floor and Welch handed me a rock hammer saying Ye’ll be as bloodied as the rest of us and we’ll all meet in the same Hell and the old Indian woman begins reciting in English I shall not want and Urie calls out bloodyfaced Do her, man! and the woman He restoreth my soul and I raise the heavy hammer in both hands and Welch That’s it. Batter the bloody bitch and the woman Though I walk through the valley of the shadow and thinking savage savage savage I bring the hammer down and the woman Thy rod and thy and her skull gives way and warm blood splashes my cheeks and spots my spectacles O Maggie