Monday, April 30, 2007
If I was a West African of freedom-loving political views, born between 23 September and 23 October, and with a job lending books, could I be a libertarian Libran Liberian librarian? I do believe I could.
That's George Weah, by the way, the only Liberian I could think of, a libertarian Libran Liberian. But not a librarian.
Saturday, April 28, 2007
Thursday, April 26, 2007
Only the most frozen-over of poetry readers could fail to enjoy the eupeptic belly laugh of a good parody. Landfill Press’s Other Men’s Flowers, ‘Cut by Ron Paste’, is in every way good for the digestion. This should be enough of its first three poems to make it obvious who's being recycled:
Well now, I wonder –
was it perhaps of my own dear
father, or of my own dear mother…
from Preach! Preach!
Apoplex now ׀ immanent, nót
from Voulez-Vous coucher avec moi?
You were reading Apollinaire.
I was counting your nostril hairs.
Ludicrously cheap too. Purchase here.
Gödel's incompleteness theorem probably gets bandied about too much by people with minimal scientific knowledge (people like me in other words), but as a post-it note reminder of the usefulness of not assuming you have all the answers, it has its uses.
Within any self-consistent axiomatic system, it states, there will be true propositions that cannot be proved from the axioms underpinning that system. They can only be proved by moving beyond the system.
Consider some of its literary applications. Peter Riley, I think, has been doing just that. The Chicago Review, enterprising journal that it is, has just devoted an issue to British poetry, mainly of the linguistically innovative kind, and including a review by John Wilkinson of someone called Simon Jarvis. As anyone who reads any amount of the stuff will know, there is a deeply ingrained culture of Adorno-reading, Gonville and Caius-attending, heathen-smiting, negative dialectical messianism in fringe British poetry, and reading Wilkinson's review has moved Riley to declare enough already.
For Wilkinson as for most other commentators on the forward side of things, to speak of poetical virtue is to speak of political virtue, there is no distinction. Poems and poetical thinking are politically good or they have no good in them. I guess we are used to that these days. The one big claim left to the poem, that it (rather “somehow”) holds the answer or counter to political harm by occulted inference. It’s more alarming to notice that in this particularly fervent British version the contrary also holds: political virtue can only be poetical virtue. “Aesthetically-founded politics” (which involves more than poetry of course, but): only the (poet) is qualified to be a politician. It is not just that the poet “knows better” than the working politician, indeed I don’t think that claim is made, but that only the poet has the spirit to inhabit the sphere of total oppositional negation which is the only political register to be tolerated. Doesn’t this mean that in a sense there is actually a withdrawal from politics, from the politics that happens and can happen into one that can’t possibly? An understanding of how politics works and how amelioration can be wrought through the science of it, of what the mechanisms are and so of what could be done – all this would be beneath us? To assume that you can go straight from aesthetics to ethics is worrying enough, but aren’t the two here fused into one substance?
For more, see Robert Archambeau here.
One axiomatic system Gödel had trouble moving beyond was his belief that people were trying to poison him. The only cooking he would eat was his wife's. Even his own he wouldn't touch. When she had to go into hospital he refused to eat, wasted away and died.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
If we are not to become
a dispersed people of smoke,
the monument that is us must be built soon.
(John Ash, ‘Smoke’)
If you are not to become
A people who were dispersed in smoke
The monument that is you must be built soon.
(Justin Quinn, ‘Smoke (after John Ash)’)
I wonder what controls it, can the wind hold
That snake of orange motion to the hills
Away from the houses?
(Medbh McGuckian, ‘Smoke’)
He erases the whole mess and titles it Smoke
And hangs it over the fireplace
In front of which you are now reading this
Or feeding it piece by piece into ordinary vague flames,
Noting the only thing in the world that will not burn is smoke.
(John Latta, ‘Smoke’)
Monday, April 16, 2007
The baobab wished to be the most beautiful of all trees, but seeing it wasn't hid its head in the ground for shame, exposing its roots to the air.
Or, according to another story, the baobab was the tree that walked and to punish it a jealous god turned it upside down.
The baobab lives for thousands of years, it is claimed, but produces no bark-rings, making it hard to tell one way or the other.
The inside of its trunk is often hollow. People even live inside them.
On small, Little Prince-inhabited planets however, they can be something of a nuisance.
Sunday, April 15, 2007
Writers should resist critics. They should ignore them or, failing that, or if poked with a sharp enough stick, bite them, hard, hard enough to make them go away. The writer is not the critic's friend.
When Emil Cioran learned that Le Monde wanted to do a feature on him his response was to try to have it cancelled. His objection, when his friends protested: ‘Je ne suis pas totalement imposteur... des éloges ramassés, sollicités, non, non, non. Je ne peux être complice d’un tel déshonneur.’
Friday, April 13, 2007
Apologies for harping on about scatology again, but this should nail the topic, for the moment at least. Apologies too for any small overlap with other Beckett facts. In fact apologies all round for having written the damn thing in the first place. But here it is, Mau Mau sketch and all.
“You know the story”: thus begins Estragon’s joke about the Englishman in the brothel in Waiting for Godot. The chances are that most people don’t, since his attempt to tell it is interrupted by
Interruption is an ever-present Beckettian trope. The labours of Fartov and Belcher and Testew and Cunard in Waiting for Godot have “for reasons unknown” been left unfinished, while the opening words of Endgame, “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished”, establish the play’s climate as one of doom, but permanently deferred or interrupted doom. “One of the clues of the play is interruption”, Beckett told Billie Whitelaw of Happy Days: “something begins, something else begins. She begins but she doesn’t carry through with it. She’s constantly being interrupted or interrupting herself. She’s an interrupted being”. Similarly, of Krapp Beckett said: “His whole life has been an interruption”. While his behaviour on stage involves constant petty self-interruption, to visit his cubbyhole, to consult a dictionary, or change the tape he is listening to, a deeper state of interruptedness has eaten into Krapp’s being. A literally graphic example of this occurs as he turns the page of his ledger before completing the phrase “farewell to [...] love”, with the pun in the French text on l’amour/la mort serving to underline the sense in which the cold hand of writing has supplanted the immediacy of the life it purports to record. That this example involves the written rather than the spoken word is finally irrelevant since, as the play goes on to demonstrate, the latter is no less incapable than the former of recapturing a state of free, spontaneous being. No matter what happens, it seems that we’ve heard it all before.
The sense of having heard it all before underlies one of the key passages for any discussion of humour in Beckett, Nell in Endgame on unhappiness. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness” she begins:
Yes, yes, it’s the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it’s always the same thing. Yes, it’s like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don’t laugh any more.
Nell has good reason to ponder the ordeal of funny stories heard too often, since in no time her husband launches into a rendition of yet another joke about an Englishman, this time involving not a brothel but a tailor. While Nagg’s joke, unlike Estragon’s, does get finished, it turns on the Englishman’s apparently never-ending wait for the tailor to produce his pair of trousers, and even when Nagg “proudly” unveils his punch-line (“But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look [...] at the world [...] and look [...] at my trousers!”), Hamm orders him to be silent with an angry “Have you not finished? Will you never finish?” Hamm too has a favourite story to tell, this time of the unfinished, interrupted variety, but if anybody is going to bring the curtain down on Endgame Hamm is resolved it will be he and not his father, and certainly not with as trifling a performance as a joke about a pair of trousers. As ever in Beckett, who gets to speak and thus direct the narrative is of paramount importance.
If the example of Endgame highlights the humorous side of this question, the late text “As the Story Was Told” provides a good example of the violence at stake too. “As the story was told me”, it begins, “I never went near the place during sessions”, the sessions involving the violent extortion of information, which the narrator cannot bring himself to watch. Instead he waits a short distance away, until interrupted by a hand appeari ng in the doorway holding out a sheet of writing, which he reads, rips up and throws away. Finally, th e victim dies. The narrator lies where he is for a long time, “till it must have seemed the story was over”, but the non-disclosure of the dead man’s secret adds an unusual twist to the end of the text:
But finally I asked if I knew exactly what the man - I would like to give his name but cannot - what exactly was required of the man, what it was he would not or could not say. No, was the answer, after some little hesitation, no, I did not know what the poor man was required to say, in order to be pardoned, but would have recognized it at once, yes, at a glance, if I had seen it.
“No, I did not know”: the narrator addresses himself in a harmless monologue where failure to answer a question has none of the terrible consequences faced by the dead victim. Nevertheless, he disclaims responsibility for what has happened (“I did not know what the poor man was required to say”) even as he restates his authority over him (“but would have recognized it at once”). In control yet somehow blameless, passively describing events “as the story was told”, it is as if the narrator has been rendered impotent by the mysterious workings of language, unless and until it chooses to share its secret with us. The episode has affinities with Kafka’s parable of the Door of the Law in The Trial, in which a man is kept waiting outside the Palace of the Law by an implacable and contemptuous doorkeeper. Eventually, as the supplicant is dying, the doorkeeper approaches him to explain that the door which he thought was designed to exclude him was meant only for him from the very beginning. Žižek comments:
In other words, the Law that the man from the country viewed with awed respect, assuming automatically that it did not even notice his presence, had regarded him from the very beginning; precisely as excluded, he was always-already taken into account.
Applying Žižek to “As the Story Was Told” it can be argued that the non-disclosure of the secret is not an accident but the defining factor in the victim’s identity; were it disclosed the torture would cease and the narrator’s position of power would come to an end. The victim’s inability to confess, in other words, has been “taken into account”: the correct answer is whatever he does not and will not say. The narrator’s repression of this fact, and of the power relationship between himself and his victim, is signalled by the slide of the text into the sadism of the passive voice. The power the narrator serves is inhumanly divorced from any sense of responsibility on the torturer’s part, and only by identifying with its inhumanity can he act as he does. He is attempting, in his brutal way, to bridge the divide between the individual “fissured” subject and the Absolute which Žižek finds at the heart of western metaphysics. Where Hegel writes in his introduction to Phenomenology of Spirit that it would be vain for the subject to attempt to grasp the Absolute if the Absolute were not already with us, Žižek modifies this in a way that insists on the fissure or gap as the precondition of such an experience:
Our experience of the “loss”, of the fissure between us (the subject) and the Absolute, is the very way the Absolute is already with us. […] The notion of the inaccessible, transcendent Absolute makes sense only in so far as the subject’s gaze is already here – in its very notion, the inaccessible Other implies a relation to its own other (the subject).
The Absolute is shot through with the deforming effects of our impotent longing for it, and when it makes its appearance in Beckett is likely to have all its scars on display. Unable to endure their chronically insecure subjectivity, Beckett’s narrators will take any measures, however desperate, to conjure up the Absolute in order to see reflected in it its own Other – themselves.
A comparable example occurs in the late poem “what is the word”, whose title forms a teasing refrain repeated eight times in all. As we read, we are increasingly aware of a tension between the apparent withholding of the word and a suspicion that the word may simply be “what”. The last two lines both read “what is the word”, but the second is separated from the first in the poem’s one and only stanza break, and lacks the otherwise omnipresent dash at the end of the line. The gap between the uncertainty of “what is the word”, question, and the flippant-seeming “what is the word”, answer, corresponds to the fissure described by Žižek between the contingent subject and the Absolute. To resolve the poem’s ambiguity by deciding that the “answer” reading of the line triumphs over the “question” reading would be too simplistic and reductive. By making the refrain an inquiry (albeit one without a question mark), Beckett connects the question and answer readings not by way of linear progression but rather in a subtly decoying circularity, where one contains the other all along. Only when we give up on the idea that the text is concealing its meaning from us – the answer to the question “what is the word” – do we realize that the word is already with us, and has been from the outset. The poem yields its secrets, in other words, only when we interrupt our belief in an absolute meaning somewhere outside the text and make do with what the poem actually says, no matter how unpromising or deliberately evasive it may seem. As the experience of reading Beckett bears out time and time again, the Absolute already lies within the contingent, sometimes in the most unexpected forms.
To keep the question of humour in focus I’d like to quote what, along with Nell’s speech, is probably Beckett’s other most important statement on the subject, Arsene’s discussion of the three types of laugh in Watt. Naming them as “the bitter, the hollow and - haw! haw! - the mirthless”, he continues:
The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at which is not true, is it the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well, well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout – haw! – so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, the saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs – silence please – at that which is unhappy.
Arsene’s hammy asides to his audience (“silence please” is surely an unnecessary injunction to the placid Watt) emphasise the theatrical dimension of the theory of laughter he is proposing, and offer a way of connecting his remarks to my other theme of interruption. Although not cited by Wolfgang Iser in his classic reading of Beckett’s comedic stagecraft, “Counter-sensical Comedy and Audience Response in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot”, Arsene’s remarks exemplify Iser’s idea of laughter as unhappiness raised to the level of consciousness. For Iser, failed action provides the comic paradigm of Waiting for Godot, or rather failed actions which are then repeated, their repeated failure showing not the futility of the actions but the characters’ inability to learn anything from them. What makes the play a tragicomedy, he argues, is its constant uncertainty of tone and interruption of our expectations. The characters wait for Godot, but frequently behave as if they were indifferent to him. If he really is as important as they say, this would make their indifference tragic, whereas if their waiting is merely purposeless we can laugh at them with a good conscience. Confronted by the interpretive empty space that is Godot the viewer cannot but attempt to fill the void; but such is the counter-sensical, flip-flopping structure of the play that any judgement we reach can only be provisional, no sooner formed than we are forced to abandon it. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in our experience, as members of the audience, of interrupted laughter. Even as we laugh, remembering Arsene, we experience the counter-sensical reversal reminding us that Didi and Gogo’s plight may be anything but a laughing matter, and that in laughing at them we may be nothing better than sadists. If such is the truth we learn about ourselves in laughing, maybe it is better to strangle the laugh at birth or, as Vladimir does Estragon’s joke, before we even get to the punch line.
It is fitting then that Estragon’s joke, as a piece of rejected textual matter, should be about backsides, since the backside is the producer par excellence of rejected bodily matter. Perhaps the most lyrical tribute to the backside in Beckett, or specifically the rectum, comes in Molloy:
We underestimate this little hole, it seems to me, we call it the arse-hole and affect to despise it. But is it not rather the true portal of our being and the celebrated mouth no more than the kitchen-door. Nothing goes in, or so little, that is not rejected on the spot, or very nearly.
Given that he has earlier described being born “through the hole in [his mother’s] arse”, allowing him a “first taste of the shit”, a cloacal rejectamentum from the womb, we can only speculate that he is the result of an anal conception too – not beyond the bounds of possibility in a novel that also speculates on the auricural conception of the Virgin Mary. The backside goes about its business oblivious of the body’s higher functions, in a no-nonsense ways that cannot fail to command the Beckett character’s admiration. Peter Sloterdijk captures something of this in his Critique of Cynical Reason, in which he devotes a number of short sections to the body and its ability to “speak its mind” in ways the mind may not care to hear. Of the arse, “the real idiot of the family”, he writes: “the arse is the plebeian, the grass-roots democrat, and the cosmopolitan among the parts of the body – - in a word, the elementary kynical organ. It provides the solid materialist basis”.
On the question of the link between anality and sadism, it is worth bearing in mind Beckett’s interest in de Sade and the consideration he gave to translating the 120 Days of Sodom, only abandoning the project out of fear for his reputation. James Knowlson quotes a letter of Beckett’s to MacGreevy on the subject: despite its obscene subject matter, Beckett writes, “Nothing could be less pornographical. It fills me with a kind of metaphysical ecstasy. The composition is extraordinary, as rigorous as Dante’s”, while its dispassionate style is both “puritanical and juvanelesque”. That was in 1938, though arguably Beckett did go on to write a 120 Days of Sodom of his own in How It Is more than two decades later, a novel to which I shall be returning. The 30s seem to have been full of backsides for Beckett, in fact. As we know from Knowlson’s biography, Beckett suffered terribly from a variety of anal cysts and other ailments. In “Sanies II”, from Echo’s Bones, the poet submits to a vigorous caning from a Dublin prostitute. The buttocks of the unfortunate Rosie Dew, afflicted by panpygoptosis or Duck’s disease, are the objects of horrified curiosity in Murphy. John Pilling has revealed the extent of Beckett’s interest in the subject at the time in tracing the numerous references in the Dream Notebook to Flagellation and the Flagellants, falsely attributed in the 1887 edition read by Beckett to one William M. Cooper, and containing such bons mots as: “the human arse, to quote the Abbé Boileau, is extremely deserving of esteem, conferring as it does the faculty of assiduity”. Something else Beckett suffered from in the 30s was the puritanism of the Irish Free State, but what are we to make of his comment on the role of the Catholic Church in Irish life, as reported by Deirdre Bair: “Ils nous ailes en culer [sic] à la gloire [...] They have buggered us into glory”? The very attempt to say so is buggered by Bair’s meaningless transcription of Beckett’s French; it is not enough for things to be buggered, saying so may only make the situation worse. Perhaps, like the narrator of Dream, we need to “reculer pour mieux enculer”.
It may seem perverse or excessive to link the harmless scatological comedy of the 30s fiction to an interest in the Marquis de Sade, but as Marty Feldman observed, “Comedy, like sodomy, is an unnatural act.” Sodomy separates sex from any possibility of conception and issue, and thus represents an absolute form of materialist impasse in the work of de Sade. Žižek corroborates Beckett’s case for de Sade not being pornographic in a comparison of Casanova and Don Giovanni with clear implications for how we read the sexual content of How It Is. Despite their superificial smiliarities, he argues, Casanova and Don Giovanni are in fact opposites. Casanova is a merry epicure whose pleasure “leaves behind no bitter taste of revenge”, deeply attached to the ancien régime whose decadence he personifies. Don Giovanni, by contrast, pushes Casanova’s erotic free-thinking to the level of Jacobinism, where conquests are driven less by pleasure than a feeling of compulsive duty, whose real object is not the woman herself but the act of adding her to his list. As Žižek notes, “Don Giovanni’s “Jacobinism of the libidinal economy” can never meet the “real” political Jacobinism” of the day because of his social position, as a member of the ruling class in decay. Instead, “Don Giovanni carrie[s] out Jacobinism in the only field open to him, that of sexuality”.
It would be going too far to see the denizens of How It Is as “Jacobins of the libidinal economy” in their addiction to anal torture by tin-opener, but the sexual joylessness of their actions is beyond question. Equally, if Don Giovanni’s real love-object is his list, arithmetic and the paradigm of order it represents are perhaps the greatest, or only pleasures available to the narrator of How It Is. Laughter is in short supply in de Sade’s novels, and one of the characteristics the narrator of How It Is notes in himself is a “deterioration of the sense of humour”, though accompanied by “fewer fears too”. Attempting to describe the brighter side of life, he begins “to speak of happiness one hesitates those awful syllables” before moving on to a “burst abscess” instead. I have mentioned where the young Beckett tended to get his abscesses, and sure enough the thought of the world above (“a sky an earth”) results in instant anal punishment: “inconceivable aah no sound in the rectum a redhot spike that day we prayed no further”, with an allusion to Dante’s Inferno thrown in case we are in any doubt about the hellishness involved.
I have suggested that the passive voice of “As the Story Was Told” abets its narrative sadism, and in How It Is too the speaker obsessively distances himself from having to take responsibility for what he says: “how it was I quote before Pim with Pim after Pim how it is three parts I say it as I hear it”. A voice “once without [...] then in me [...] scraps of an ancient voice not mine” is speaking, taking him over so completely that the end of the quotation can only mean the end of the book, there being nothing else to say. The converse of this passivity is the fury with which he extorts the voice of his victim in part two, and the devastating impact of the imagined voice, or voice imagined as the narrator’s own, at the end of part three, articulating how it might have been if “the whole story from beginning to end yes completely false” if telling things any other way were not impossible. Rolling in the mud and imbibing it, the narrator goes beyond the Leopardi motto to Proust that “fango è il mondo” to a state where the word, too, is mud. Presumably to allow the narrator to draw breath, the text is composed of fitful, constantly interrupted versets of “barely audible bits and scraps”. Some bare vestiges of a personal life linger on into part one, but are quickly dispatched. Of his relationship with his wife, Pam Prim, we are told of “love birth of love increase decrease death efforts to resuscitate through the arse” to which the irresistible riposte is Molloy’s question, “But is it true love, in the rectum?” Yet for all the misery and dirt, the narrator is convinced of the rightness and even purity of the world he inhabits: “I pissed and shat another image in my crib never so clean since.”
Here I would like to draw on Žižek again. As a novel about perverted, sadistic power, How It Is exemplifies another fissured duality explored by Žižek: that of the two bodies of the king, whereby the institution of the monarchy remains above and beyond the sovereign of the day, however physically decrepit or morally corrupt he may be. In How It Is this is taken to the ultimate conclusion of a putative Voltairean best of all possible worlds, which is in reality an unendurable hell of violence and pain. As we read in the novel’s third part:
and if it is still possible at this late hour to conceive of other worlds
as just as ours but less exquisitely organized
– although, in good Beckettian style, the sentence is interrupted before we learn the answer.
Reminding us of the tradition in twentieth-century critical theory, from Adorno and Horkheimer to Jacques Lacan, to demonstrate the inner connection between the ethics of Emmanuel Kant and de Sade, Žižek describes the “radical emptying” or “evacuation” in the ethics of both men that allows for this convergence:
With Kant, what is evacuated and left empty is the locus of the Supreme Good: every positive object which would occupy this place is by definition “pathological”, marked with empirical contingency, which is why the moral law must be reduced to the pure Form bestowing on our acts the character of universality. The elementary operation of the Jacobinical democratic Terror is also the evacuation of the locus of Power: every pretender to this place is by definition a “pathological” usurper.
The locus classicus of this in de Sade’s work is the Pope’s speech in book V of Juliette, in which he expounds de Sade’s violently materialist creed, painting Nature as an agent of pure destruction, utterly indifferent to its creatures. The only way to transcend it and create something new is, Žižek comments, “an absolute Crime [... which] liberates Nature from its own laws, rendering it possible to create new forms of life ex nihilo, from the zero-point.”
There is plenty of evidence in the world of How It Is for the pathological nature of its laws, not least in the way that the empirical contingency of the narrator’s situation is reduced to the pure form of universality by being exactly the same as everybody else’s, whether torturer or victim: “it’s mathematical it’s our justice in this muck where all is identical”. Terrible though each torturer may be, the revolution that will overthrow him will install another just as bad in his place, with the previous torturer becoming his victim. Mathematics is used to drive the point home, as the narrator contemplates the dizzying number of his fellow victims, all of whom are accounted for since as he explains:
nor ten million nor twenty million
nor any finite number even or uneven however great because of our justice which wills that not one were we fifty million not a single one among us be wronged
The narrator’s belief in the justice of his world is unshakeable: there is “nothing to be done in any case we have our being in justice I have never heard anything to the contrary”. When he imagines an life “up below” in the daylight, it is in terms of an existence that is strictly contra naturam, inconceivable in the punningly sexual sense, as when he says:
with that of a slowness difficult to conceive the procession we are talking of a procession advancing in jerks or spasms like shit in the guts till one wonders days of great gaiety if we shall not end one after another or two by two by being shat into the open air the light of day the regimen of grace
So many descriptions of these crawling millions making their way through the dark is oddly suggestive of a shoal of sperms in search of an ovum to fuse with, just as when the Unnamable talks of being “a sperm dying [...], feebly wagging its little tail [...] in the sheets of an innocent little boy”, in one of the numerous references in Beckett to another substitute for procreative sex, masturbation.
There is one important difference between the Sadean world and the world of How It Is, however, as hinted at when the narrator declares: “sadism pure and simple no since I may not cry”. An essential part of the Sadean character’s pleasure is the spectacle of his victim’s suffering and cries of pain, but in How It Is there seems to be a universal conspiracy to deny that any suffering is taking place. As the narrator puts in a brief verset from part three: “cruelty suffering so paltry and brief”, though on other occasions he lets his guard drop and displays open glee in his victim’s discomfort. One reason for these contradictory approaches to suffering is the constant role-reversal at work between victim and aggressor: whatever it is the character feels, whether pain or enjoyment, is constantly converting into its opposite. For the same reason, despite its savagery How It Is curiously disables our ability to form a moral judgement of the narrator or decide whether he is guilty or innocent. What is lacking is the external perspective, the voice outside the quotation with which the narration is equated, and which the narrator himself is unable to provide. We catch interrupted glimpses of this in the images of the world above in the light, but as we await its (non-)arrival, we are forced to make do with other forms of relief, such as writing. Torturing his victim in part two, the narrator chooses to inscribe on his backside not the word “Pim”, by which he has been referring to him, but “Bom”, with the “o” presumably represented by the victim’s rectum. Writing thus becomes the pure symbol of a blocked consciousness, sadistically identifying with its issueless world by burrowing ever deeper into its excremental hell: pure Beckettian “writing in the shit”, to borrow a phrase from David Lloyd.
As a piece of reader-response theory, Iser’s model of reading is classically formalist, in the sense that what Beckett’s play is shown to be about is our various reactions to it, attempts to “make sense who may”, and failures to do so. But it is also possible to suggest more determinate analogues for the tragicomic predicaments of Waiting for Godot and How It Is, to bring us circling back to the question of humour. Here again I would like to call on Žižek. In his recent book Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, he writes about the role of the “Muslim” in concentration camp narratives, where “Muslim” is used to designate those prisoners whose spirit has been utterly broken, like the dumb Lucky of act II of Godot or the “vanquished” of The Lost Ones. He writes:
On the one hand, the Muslim is so destitute that his stance can no longer be considered “tragic”: in him there is none of the dignity for the tragic position - that is, he no longer maintains the minimum of dignity against the background of which his miserable actual position would have appeared as tragic; he is simply reduced to the shell of a person, emptied of the spark of spirit.
One effect of this is that attempts to see him as tragic will comically backfire, because of his automaton-like impassivity, while attempts to portray him as simply comic will seem tragic, because of the sadism in our attitude to him which they cannot help but make explicit. Therefore for Žižek the Muslim (whose name comes from the other camp inmates’ equation of Islam with fatalistic acceptance) is “the zero-point at which the very opposition between tragedy and comedy, sublime and ridiculous, dignity and derision, is suspended; the point at which one pole passes directly into its opposite.”
Analyses such as Žižek’s, I would like to suggest, have much to contribute to rethinking Beckett’s humour and helping us to avoid the trap of sterilely self-referential formalism. As with my earlier reading of “what is the word”, it is not a question of moving from ambiguity to determinate meaning, the contingent to the absolute, but of showing how Beckett creates the “zero-points” Žižek describes, interrupting our readerly demand for certainty and allowing these poles to pass constantly into their opposites: Lucky is both tragic and comic, the narrators of How It Is and “As the Story Was Told” are both victims and aggressors.
Finally, I would like to interrupt my discussion of Beckett with an example of contemporary humour which combines all the elements whose centrality I have been arguing for in his comedy: the Mau-Mau sketch. It comes, as I said earlier, from the comedy series The League of Gentlemen. In the scene three businessmen, Geoff, Mike and Brian, are enjoying a meal in the local Indian restaurant. Geoff suggests to Brian that he tell Mike the Mau-Mau joke. Brian reluctantly obliges, but as the joke progresses comparisons become inevitable between its stuttering, unsuccessful articulation and the frustrated nature of Geoff’s relationship with Mike and Brian. For it is Geoff not Brian who tells the joke: instead of telling it directly to Mike, whose favour he is forever attempting to curry (appropriately enough for an Indian restaurant), he ventriloquizes it through his rival Brian, forcing him into it, persevering with him in spite of his displeasure at Brian’s inept performance, and constantly interrupting him. (The similarity to Pozzo and Lucky hardly needs pointing out, while the theme of blocked or proxy self-expression is pure How It Is.) His ventriloquism allows him to be both Sadean master and victim at once, manipulating Brian, but manipulating him into confirming Brian’s superiority over him. Considered in itself, Mike’s joke is not particularly funny. The proverbial triad of the Englishman, Scotsman and Irishman have been captured by tribesmen are forced to choose between “death or Mau-Mau”. Choosing Mau-Mau, the Englishman is subjected to the ordeal of having ten cherries shoved up his rectum, in a classic colonial nightmare of the sexually depraved and sadistic “natives”. The Scotsman too chooses Mau-Mau, and for his torture must be subjected to a larger and more painful fruit, in accordance with the logic of the joke. Here Brian stumbles again and the momentum of the narrative falters. The narrative, like the victims of Mau-Mau, and like Geoff’s miserable life, is buggered. In the League of Gentlemen stage show the straight man role threatened to become a problem when, at the performance I saw, the actor Mark Gatiss (Brian) began to giggle, to which Reece Shearsmith (Geoff) retorted astutely, “I don’t know why you’re laughing, Brian. You’re not funny”. As Shearsmith was reminding us, it is essential to the failure of the narrative (to which Geoff is unconsciously committed) that Brian be utterly without the comedic skills required to make it succeed.
At this point, in the manner of Mike, I propose to interrupt myself with another joke to highlight this essential will to deception on Geoff’s part. The joke concerns a Pole and a Jew travelling together by train. The former has been staring at the latter and summons up the courage at last to ask how it is the Jews manage to extract every last zloty from poor innocent Poles like him. The Jew agrees to tell him, but only on condition that he first hand over ten zloty. He does so, and the Jew begins a rambling narrative, full of the bizarre rituals he claims to carry out, but constantly stopping and demanding more zloty before he continues. At last the Pole has no more money and turns on the Jew in fury, to which he replies “And now you know how it is that we Jews manage to extract every last zloty from you poor Poles.” Here again the Beckettian parallels are numerous. If Mr Knott’s unknowable unaloofness is experienced by Watt as a form of torture, how much worse would the torture be if he learned that Knott was not toying with or withholding anything from him - that, in Oscar Wilde’s phrase, he was a sphinx without a secret? It is this dark possibility that makes scenes like that in the garden so poignant, when Watt imagines he is sharing an epiphanic moment with Mr Knott, gazing at a flower, only to discover that Knott’s eyes are in fact closed. Compare Murphy’s experiences with Mr Endon, or the bathetic message from Youdi with which the destitute Moran is taunted by Gaber at the end of Molloy. Note too how all three characters’ (Watt, Murphy, Moran’s) final collapse or death follows shortly after these incidents. If there is anything worse than being deceived, to invoke Oscar Wilde again, it may be not being deceived, and withering into the “desolation of reality”, ultimately death. Hence the constant desire in Beckett to interrupt the narrative and ward off the very closure which, on the face of it, his characters so keenly desire.
To return to our businessnmen in the Indian restaurant: while Geoff sulks, Mike tells a joke of his own, whose punch line puns on Paracetamol and “parrots eat them all”. The obtuse Brian answers that he would have said “parrots ate them all”, once again showing his lack of comic spontaneity. At this point the sketch is interrupted by a return to an earlier scene, in which the anal obsessive Harvey Denton gives his nephew a guided tour of his “amphivarium” and discusses his love of toads. When we return to the Indian restaurant, Geoff has had a brainwave: “Plums!” he shouts, overjoyed at having found a fruit satisfactorily bigger than cherries. Mike and Brian have lost interest by now, and Geoff has to plead with Brian in tears for him to finish the joke. The plums duly dispatched up the Scotman’s rectum, only the Irishman remains. Awaiting him are ten pineapples, but having got to “Death or Mau-Mau” Brian falters again. Geoff is not happy: “It’s just a big bloody joke to you”, he protests, “Geoff can’t tell a joke, Geoff is a joke.” To general terror he produces a gun, which he holds to Mike’s temple, demanding that Brian finish the joke, and what is more “we’re all going to laugh”. Brian begins again: the Irishman doesn’t fancy the look of the pineapples and rather than Mau-Mau decides to choose death, so... but again Brian’s storytelling skills desert him. “Get it right Brian!”, Mike implores as Geoff cocks the gun. At this point Mike does something unexpected: for the first time he shows an interest in the joke himself, completing it for Brian: the chief says, “Death by Mau-Mau”. The all-important binary, death or Mau-Mau, is collapsed, and social order is reestablished. Geoff snaps out of his aggression with an innocuous, “so you’ve heard it then”, and orders three more lagers as he sits down.
The joke is a powerful example of one narrative usurping another, the latent narrative of Geoff’s disturbance and frustrated aggression taking over the surface narrative of the joke. In collapsing so pathetically in Geoff’s performance, his narrative is shown to be just one more story of weakness and insecurity, rather than the source of detached control that he evidently craves. Knowing and suppressing this, all he can do is make increasingly threadbare attempts to reassert his authority through doomed retellings of the joke, rerouted through the figure of Brian, whom he suspects Mike of preferring to him. As Iserian sense and countersense vie for supremacy, the audience once again does not know whether to guffaw or cringe with horror. But as with Nell in Endgame, Geoff has at least found a way of making his unhappiness the funniest thing in the world. So what, in the end, do the similarities between Beckett and the Mau-Mau sketch go to show? That the most interrupted narratives may be the most complete, that it is the old jokes we laugh at the most, that buggering it up may be funnier than getting it right, and that, just maybe, buggering it up is precisely how great comedy gets it right.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
I've always been a fan of Chinglish, the language that the Chinese are trying to crack down on ahead of next year's Olympics; they think it makes them look foolish. I enjoy the Zen spin it brings to public signs and spaces. Compare it to this country, where CCTV cameras have begun shouting at people telling them to pick their litter up and plastic bags tell you to 'Keep Away from Children'.
Here are some examples.
Question Authority (information point).
Danger! Inhibition astraddle transgress (no entry).
Bake the cell phone (hand-dryer).
And so on. A quick google search also turns up 'Spread to fuck the fruit', which I gather is some kind of mistransliteration of the word 'preserve'.
Chinglish menus are another matter. I'm currently looking at one that features 'Big bowl fresh immense miscellaneous germ', 'Big bowl white immerses three pill' and 'Cowboy Leg Beautiful Pole'.
Ah, the ignominious status of pidgin languages. The impossibility of taking an interest in them without appearing condescending, or worse. I'm obviously such a racist.
Though you should hear my 'Englese'. The Chinese are truly a tolerant people.PS Apparently there is a good linguistic reason why the f-word turns up in Chinglish, which I've read and already forgotten. Allow me to put some more f-word related examples in the comments stream.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
A film worth comparing to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is Jaco van Dormael’s excellent Toto the Hero. Toto believes he has been swapped at birth and grows up resenting his much richer neighbour Alfred, who he believes has stolen his life. Toto’s father dies in an accident, flying a plane for Alfred’s father during a storm, adding fuel to Toto’s rage. He is alarmed by a nascent romance between Alfred and his beloved sister Alice, and appeals passionately to their pact of hate. She takes a can of petrol and burns down Alfred’s house, killing herself in the process. But Alfred has not finished usurping his life just yet. Seeing or thinking he has seen his sister at a football game many years later he follows her into a shop and overhears her address. He begins an affair with this strangely reborn
The film is framed by the old Toto remembering all this from the nursing home from which he is plotting his escape. Alfred is in trouble. He has laid off thousands of workers and is facing death threats. Toto’s idea is to go to Alfred’s childhood home, where he knows Alfred is hiding, imprison him there and travel to Alfred’s mansion and have himself killed, as he knows will happen, as indeed it does. He thus succeeds in retaking in death what he could not in life. No one else can die my death, as Heidegger said.Except I think the whole usurpation theme is a sidebar at best to the film’s real theme, which is incest. If Toto has been swapped,
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?
– as Yeats said. Or, to update him ever so slightly, what girlfriend, could she but see in advance what a chronic waste of skin you are, would ever agree to go with you in the first place? Only someone who knew and didn’t mind what a waste of skin you are, which is probably even worse than no one. Because nothing would ever be worth doing if only we could see in advance what an enormous cock-up it was going to be. Which brings me to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the only film I can think of whose title is an iambic pentameter (of Alexander Pope’s). Two characters have a relationship that fails, then each have a ‘memory-wipe’, meet up and flirt, discover by accident about their previous relationship, feel perplexed, angry and bad about it, but go ahead with their second attempt anyway. The memory-wipe stuff is all irrelevant, in other words. Because when it comes to memory-wiping, they do it perfectly well for themselves. Even knowing what they do now, they remain completely unsuited. She is a mouthy ditz with ridiculous hair, he is an uptight freak. Her drinking will get on his nerves, they’ll have another row and she’ll move out, again. It’s not that they haven’t learned from the unique perspective they have on their past mistakes: they have learned their mistakes, so well that they can now repeat them exactly, to paraphrase Sir Arthur Streeb-Greeling. In other words what the second chance unique to this film tells us is not that, short of someone inventing this memory wipe thingy, there are no second chances, but that, much more seriously, there are no first chances either.
Sunday, April 08, 2007
If you find yourself in the Dogon country, mentioned a few posts back, and resist the temptation to mistake the above house for a waffle and pop it in a toaster, its inhabitant, the Hogon (tribal priest) might be persuaded to give you a tutorial in Dogon cosmology. The full explanation, I'm told, takes a week.
Being a busy person, you'll have to make do with the following crash course for now.
The world is created when the God Amma throws a ball of clay into space. It is shaped like a woman and its clitoris is a termite mound. Before Amma can have sex with it, he removes this termite clitoris, thus sanctioning the continuing West African tradition of clitoridectomy. The earth gives birth to a jackal and two half-human, half-serpentine twins. The bad, jackal brother is called Yurugu, and stands for chaos. The twins are the lords of the universe, and are jointly known as Nommo. They cover their mother's nakedness with a skirt, which is the source of language, but which also offends Yurugu sufficiently to induce him to commit incest with her. Hence is born evil. Before clocking off work Amma leaves eight 'ancestors', four male, four female, from whom humanity derive. (Hogon priest continues for another week.) (Snip.)
If you do drop in on the Hogon though, there will almost certainly a French anthropologist present. Tell him to leave the poor man alone and go invent some wacky religions of his own. That should teach him.