Sunday, June 14, 2009

From J. R. Coetzee's review of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 1: 1929-1940

A dictum he quotes from his favorite philosopher, the second-generation Cartesian Arnold Geulincx (1624-1669), suggests his overall stance toward the political: ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis, which may be glossed: Don't invest hope or longing in an arena where you have no power.


One of the more unexpected of his literary enthusiasms is for Samuel Johnson. Struck by the "mad terrified face" in the portrait by James Barry, he comes up in 1936 with the idea of turning the story of Johnson's relationship with Hester Thrale into a stage play. It is not the great pontificator of Boswell's Life who engages him, as the letters make clear, but the man who struggled all his life against indolence and the black dog of depression.

I don't know why this should be unexpected--I can't think of a better match-up to an earlier writer for Beckett. There's something Beckett-y about Rasselas and maybe London, and of course there is a fascination with paring-away rather than adding to language in Johnson; he sabotages himself in his less successful work by getting carried away with his command of English.
Now I wonder if I hadn't come across Beckett's idea long before I got the notion of having Frank Barber narrate the story of Johnson and Hester Thrale.

"I . . . seem never to have had the least faculty or disposition for the supernatural."


. . . one can venture to say that psychoanalysis of the kind that Beckett underwent with Bion--what one might call a proto-Kleinian analysis--was an important passage in his life, not so much because it relieved (or appears to have relieved) his crippling symptoms or because it helped (or appears to have helped) him to break with his mother, but because it confronted him in the person of an interlocutor or interrogator or antagonist in many ways his intellectual equal, with a new model of thinking and an unfamiliar mode of dialogue. Specifically, Bion challenged Beckett--whose devotion to the Cartesians shows how much he had invested in the notion of a private, inviolable, non-physical realm--to re-evaluate the priority he gave to pure thought. . . . In the psychic menagerie of Bion and Klein, Beckett may also have found hints for the protohuman organisms, the worms and bodiless heads in pots, that populate his various underworlds. Bion seems to have empathized with the need felt by creative personalities of Beckett's type to regress to prerational darkness and chaos as a preliminary to an act of creation.

This is something I'm going to want to return to a LOT. It seems like the Key to Everything--especially transcending the assumptions about character in realism in favor of something "protohuman." Oddly enough, this reminds me of Bert States' comments on dreams.


His guide here is Cezanne, who came to see the natural landscape as "unpproachably alien," an "unintelligible arrangement of atoms," and had the wisdom not to intrude himself into its alienness. . . . Cezanne has a sense of his own incommensurability not only with the landscape but--on the evidence of his self-portraits--with "the life . . .. operative in himself." Herewith the first authentic note of Beckett's mature, post-humanist phase is struck.

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