uncertainplume (bobbydrake666) wrote,

Reading Beckett's "Mercier & Camier" and the Three Novels

Despite its brevity, I can't help but feel that "Mercier & Camier" is still rather awkward in parts. Madden's soliloquy on the train feels particularly jarring, reading like an abandoned fragment from Beckett's notebooks. The joke, of course may be on me: the novel's ungainliness, after all, is central to its vision. Beckett's great contribution to the novel, I feel, is his neo-Humean conception of time, causality and subjectivity, one that he inherits from Sterne, Proust, Woolf and Kafka.

This, I think, explains the summaries that intersect the narrative proper, where Beckett slyly reveals a great deal about his creative process:
Meeting of Mercier and Camier.
Saint Ruth Square.
The beech.
The rain.
The shelter.
The dogs..."
This taxonomy, I think, is a characteristically generous gesture on Beckett's part, and remains one of his most explicit statements on literary method. All of his novels are conceived in blocs, heterogeneous segments that have no intrinsic relation to one another, rather than as linear, unilateral sequences composed of interlocking scenes. The human subject, for Beckett as for Proust, is precisely this endless succession of blocks. As we know, Proust's great novel is an admittedly futile attempt to integrate these blocks into a chronological series, to arrange the unwieldy raw material of life into a STORY. The act of auto-biography is also one of transubstantiation- when impressions are arranged in a causally coherent sequence, writing transfigures the suffering flesh, transforming the mortal scribe into a mythic persona. Storytelling and mythmaking, an inexorable human impulse, originates from a primordial existential anxiety. It is, as Mallarme so well knew, an intrinsically EVASIVE practice, an attempt to forestall and foreclose an engagement with life’s ineffable contingency. Every novel and every poem is a victory wrested from chance, but it is a disingenuous triumph, a momentary refuge from the ravages of change and the traumatic prospect of mortality: “Decidedly, it will never be given me to finish anything, except breathing…I wonder what my last words will be, written, the others do not endure, but vanish, in thin air.” Unable to cheat Death, the writer will, at the very least, attempt to contrive his own epitaph, to chisel his likeness into the tablets of history.

Proust’s great achievement was to inaugurate, alongside Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Melville’s Moby Dick, the literature of failure, the novel that accepts the futility of its pretensions and the fundamentally inenarrable nature of life. Man’s vainglorious feud with Time can only be won by surrender and affirmation. This, in effect, makes the act of writing a perpetual one. The sign in Proust is radically unstable, its meaning constituted and reconstituted through time, as well as space- an object assumes different significations as Marcel moves through different social milieus. A signifier gains and loses in currency as the novel progresses, enigmatic utterances that resemble “difficult music heard for the first time” (Beckett’s Murphy) resurface in Marcel’s consciousness, exerting a retroactive force on events. How does one begin to constitute a LIFE from these fissiparous parts? "...seconds of time, there are some people add them together to make a life, I can't, each one is the first, no, the second, or the third..." This interminable process of deferral, where meaning is always provisional and incomplete, radically undermines the enterprise of novel-writing and its principles of continuity and closure.

In this regard, Beckett is not so much a novelist as he is a bricoleur, a rag and bone man. He is difficult to read precisely because he does not plot a novel on a single trajectory, there is no central axis upon which the action is oriented. For Joyce, the Hegelian novelist par excellence, the end is in the beginning, a departure always presupposes a homecoming- Ulysses invariably returns to Penelope, the wayfarer’s odyssey ultimately comes full circle. In Beckett, we find endless bifurcations and points of embarkation- quests are begun, interrupted, abandoned, resumed, forgotten:" What do we find at the the hub of Beckett’s novels? Chance and haphazardness, the invisible puppeteers of an inscrutable pantomime. The fabric of Beckett’s tales does not unfold according to a familiar teleological schema. Indeed, each book is an exercise in patchwork, full of frayed stitches and stray threads.

Instead of sketching a linear arc, Beckett plots a series of disconnected points and fragmentary ellipses. Beckett conceives of the page as a bounded field of force, a bulging pocket of molecules in perpetual motion. These particles collide, coalesce, separate, but they never remain stationary long enough to assume a discernible shape. His characters make tentative steps in a certain direction, only to realise that this direction is just as arbitrary as any other. A decision presupposes a limitless array of possibilities, each of which generates another series of decisions and negotiations, an interminable rigmarole: "...trying to cease and never ceasing, finding the cause, losing it again, finding it again, not finding it again, seeking no longer, seeking again, finding again, losing again, finding nothing, finding at last, losing again, talking without ceasing, thirstier than ever, seeking as usual, losing as usual, blathering away, wondering what it's all about..."

While most novelists are unitary, subordinating the particular to the general, Beckett is, like Proust and Kafka, a novelist of units- in refusing to privilege the novel over the sentence and the system over its parts, he, in effect, transforms the novel into a multiplicity, an endless addition of individual sentences. Beckett's artistic architecture is, by necessity, perpetually incomplete, continually in process: "It's a great grey barracks of a building, unfinished, unfinishable, with two doors, for those who enter and for those who leave, and at the windows faces peering out. The more fool you to have asked." This is the place of all Beckett's fiction, the lodging-house which we are all inmates of.

After Beckett, one simply *cannot* regard the novel in quite the same way again- Beckett removes the foundation, the walls as well as the ceiling of the literary edifice. His constructions are strictly agglomerative, haphazard arrangements of blocks and clusters with no pre-determined design. The lack of an overarching blueprint gives his writing an unprecedented spontaneity, the lack of a foundational structure gives it a remarkable fragility and precariousness.

Each of his characters is in search of a ground, an epistemological premise upon which axioms and propositions can be made. This is why they press their bellies against the earth, this is why they plumb the cesspool of experience, willing their own progressive degradation, hoping, at last, to reach the nadir, the absolute rock bottom of subjectivity.

This spiritual defeat is, simultaneously, a philosophical victory, a defiantly Promethean one. His characters, convinced that shit is the originary principle of the universe, plunge headfirst into the sewer of life: “The idea of punishment came to his mind, addicted it is true to that chimera and probably impressed by the posture of the body and the fingers clenched as though in torment. And without knowing exactly what his sin was he felt full that living was not a sufficient atonement for it or that this atonement was in itself a sin, calling for more atonement, and so on, as if there could be anything but life, for the living.” Herein lies the masochistic perversity of Beckett's misanthropes. They are all ascetics of a sort, willing their own suffering and abjection as a rite of passage. There is something gnostic about all this, though it is not salvation that they seek, but an absolute truth, an explanatory principle that will demystify their pain, failure and destitution: “For there is no point, no point in not knowing this or that, either you know all or know nothing.”

This is the story of metaphysics, Western *and* Eastern. If one KNOWS, clearly and distinctly (and I use Cartesian language quite deliberately here), that one is damned, then it is reasonable to execrate the divine intelligence that condemns us. Writing becomes a matter of REVENGE, a Luciferian revolt against cosmic injustice.

I have never quite understood why people regard Beckett as a mystic or a Buddhist- I read his texts as damning indictments of such practices, founded as they are upon false starts and fallacious conclusions. Beckett's work is a relentless critique of all systems of knowledge, tautological abstractions that reduce the complexities of human experience to a set of doxologial truisms. "Murphy" is the novel that makes this clear, as Beckett offers a stinging rejoinder to Surrealist aesthetics- there is no arche-reality, no Sur-reality that precedes and supercedes empirical consciousness, no plateau of beatitude upon which the mind can rest. One does not solve the problem by dismissing it through solipsistic retreat (the Buddhist solution) or by fantasizing about its dissolution (the Surrealist solution).

As for the question of Joyce, which seems to surface whenever we assess the value of Beckett's achievement. For all of Joyce's syntactic innovations and ludic etymological games, he was still operating within the parameters of the classical novel. Ulysses, beneath its arcane references and erudite puns, is, by and large, a fairly conventional narrative. Finnegan's Wake, on the other hand, is an elaborate jigsaw puzzle- the precise sense of each piece is obscure, perhaps, but the puzzle is made to be solved. I've always felt that Joyce is important in the sense that Shakespeare is important- he, more than any other 20th century novelist, revealed the expansive breadth of the English language; Ulysses is like a sprawling survey of the language's subterranean possibilities. As such, it is a work of retrieval and recovery, an archaelogical excavation that sounds the Atlantean depths of our native tongue. Joyce remains the foremost antiquarian of the English language, a procurer of relics and curiosities.

If we think of Beckett as a post-Joycean novelist, it is precisely because he realized that Joyce had performed a labor that could not, and NEED not be repeated. The event of Joyce was necessary, but it had also created a deadlock. How could one continue to write after Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, two consummately exhaustive exercises in style? The kaleidoscopic range of these two novels remains unsurpassed. One could, of course, craft works in a sub-Joycean vein- and I've always thought of certain Nabokov works as being in this tradition- works of virtuosity that exploit the intrinsic polysemy of words and allusions to create multiple layers of meaning. The limitations of this, I think, are evident- such a language is inevitably referential; each reference points towards a discernible source, and meaning is contingent upon erudition. Interpretation and exegesis are facilitated with an encyclopaedia. This is my objection with TS Eliot's poetry, which reads like a pompous catalogue of metonymic symbols and citations. It is a purely cerebral poetry, a coldly pedantic poetry.

In contrast, one can opt for the reverse, or what Deleuze calls a “willed poverty”. Beckett's revolution in form is an awesome one. Granted, vestiges of Joyce remain in the early novels, smatterings of latin, Dante and obscure occasionalist philosophy, but Beckett's intentions, I think, are already discernible in "Murphy" and "More Pricks Than Kicks". Beckett’s writing, I believe, is the first concerted attempt at dismantling the symbolic resources of literature and abandoning them altogether:"Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson, the remnants of a pensum one day got by heart and long forgotten, life without tears, as it is wept." What results is a language of startling immediacy and intensity, a truly savage, irreverent tongue: "Not to be able to open my mouth without proclaiming them, and our fellowship, that's what they imagine they'll have reduced me to. It's a poor trick that consists of ramming a set of words down your gullet on the principle that you can't bring them up without being branded as belonging to their breed. But I'll fix their giberish for them. I never understood a word of it in any case..."
Tags: beckett, empiricism, joyce, proust
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