Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Beckett's silence

"Maurice Nadeau once told me that Beckett is quite capable of meeting somebody and sitting for two hours without uttering a word". Charles Juliet remembered the warning when he met Beckett for the first time and Beckett is indeed silent. "I study him covertly. He is grave, sombre. Frowning. An expression of unbearable intensity." In her rich and moving memoir Anne Atik contrasts loud, drunken nights she and her husband Avigdor Arikha shared with Beckett with "entire evenings when he didn't say a word. "It was", she says "like being in a tunnel with someone dear whose face you suddenly couldn't see. Or who couldn't see you."
Even though Sam's was not an aggressive silence directed against anyone, but rather a sinking into his private world with its demons, or so we imagined, those present suppressed their acute discomfort and feelings of ineptitude when it happened. His intimate friends learned how to cope with his struggle.
I have been thinking of Beckett's silence lately without knowing why; that is, why have I been thinking about his personal silence? The reason is no doubt personal too. Throughout January I sought silence. I put books aside, I closed the glowing notebook, I kept curtains drawn against the light and left the television unplugged. Writing was out of the question. I sought not conditions for contemplation nor of peace, because peace of a kind came with noise. So what was it?

In another meeting, Beckett tells Juliet that he often sat through whole days in silence in his cottage in Ussy-sur-Marne. With no paper before him, no intent to write, he took pleasure in following the course of the sun across the sky: "There is always something to listen to" he says. So Beckett didn't experience silence as silence: it was attention.

Juliet forced himself to break the first silence by telling Beckett of how his appreciation of his work changed after reading Texts for Nothing: "what had impressed me most" he says "was the peculiar silence that reigns... a silence attainable only in the furthest reaches of the most extreme solitude, when the spirit has abandoned and forgotten everything and is no more than a receiver capturing the voice that murmers within us when all else is silent. A peculiar silence, indeed, and one prolonged by the starkness of the language. A language devoid of rhetoric or literary allusions, never parasitized by the minimal stories required to develop what it has to say."
– Yes, he agrees in a low voice, when you listen to yourself, it's not literature you hear.
Perhaps this is why Beckett's silence is on my mind. In the silence, if it is true silence, there are no stories to fabricate happiness or distress. Silence would then be a place where there is no beginning, no middle and no end. No literature. In silence one is protected from the violence of the turning page; nothing new, no surprises. Beckett's silence in particular also suggests a need beyond material and artistic success; a need one psychoanalyst claims to have identified and, whether he is right or irrelevant, one in which writing and not writing were unceasing and competing necessities.

We can see why reading Texts for Nothing now. It's a struggle to block the noise of literary allusions and not to glimpse minimal stories blossom and decay across each page. Text for Nothing IV refers to "a vulgar Molloy, a common Malone". Text for Nothing V asks (without a question mark) "Why did Pozzo leave home", while Text for Nothing VIII says "in the silence you can't know" which, on the final page of The Unnamable, becomes: "in the silence you don't know". In the tight swirl of hesitant intimacy, biblical lyricism and philosophical allusion, Texts for Nothing reveals Beckett as his own precursor. It becomes a cultural masterpiece for general consumption; writing that was to Juliet beyond literature is now literature itself. Where is Beckett's silence now?

Moreover, what Juliet said about Texts for Nothing has been said about the Trilogy. Martha Nussbaum writes [PDF link] about how the voices in Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable "make increasingly radical attempts to put an end to the entire project of storytelling and to the forms of life that this practice supports":
They ask us to see their forms of feeling as a pattern that can be unraveled, a writing that can be unwritten, a story that can be ended – not by bringing it to the usual happy or unhappy ending but by ending the storytelling life. If stories are learned, they can be unlearned. If emotions are constructs, they can be dismantled. And perhaps the silence onto which this deconstructive project opens is an opening or clearing in which human beings and animals can recognize one another without and apart from the stories and their guilt. And perhaps, too, the longing for that silence is itself an emotion of and inside the stories. Perhaps the negative project is a happy-ending story trapped, itself, inside the very thing that it opposes.
Worseover, what is said about the Trilogy is said about the effacement of writing itself. Silence too is assimilated into culture.
When we admire the tone of a work, when we respond to its tone as to its most authentic aspect, what are we referring to? Not to style, or to the interest and virtues of the language, but to this [effacing] silence precisely, this vigorous force by which the writer, having been deprived of himself, having renounced himself, has in this effacement nevertheless maintained the authority of a certain power: the power decisively to be still, so that in this silence what speaks without beginning of end might take on form, coherence, and sense. The tone is not the writer's voice, but the intimacy of the silence he imposes upon the word.
Worse because the intimacy of Beckett's silence goes on without Beckett, and writing is out of the question.

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