Saturday, March 01, 2008

Restless, unnameable discomfort

In Marina Warner's TLS article on Beckett, much excited my interest, but there was one thing in particular which I didn't feel I could usefully explore in the last post, and for which this post is meant to only be a placeholder of sorts. Warner draws a connection between Baudelaire's writings on the "childhood imagination" and Beckett's work:
His essay-memoir is called "Morale du joujou" (Moral of the Plaything) – where joujou (not the usual word for toy, jouet) is almost a pet name with a nursery ring like a "teddy" or a "dolly". Baudelaire recalls in pleasurable detail the miniature worlds conjured by Victorian nursery games and child’s play, and wonders at children’s ability to play without props or models, through fantasy alone. "All children talk to their toys; toys become actors in the great drama of life, reduced by the camera obscura of their small brains. Children bear witness through their games to their great faculty of abstraction and their high imaginative power. They play without playthings." Significantly, Baudelaire goes on to say children also want "to see the soul" of a toy, and remembers how they will turn it about, shake it and hurl it to the ground, baffled, even enraged, by its stubborn inanimateness. His meditation hints that the primal loss brings with it an understanding of mortality, and that this takes place when make-believe fails and the vitality of toys vanishes: "But where is the soul? It’s here that vacancy sets in – and bewilderment". Around sixty years after Baudelaire, in his essay on playing with dolls, Rilke meditated in similar terms on the passions aroused by this relationship, on his fury when confronted by the doll’s mute obstinate solidity, and the onrush of compensatory fantasy.

This ambiguity about the soul of the toy – the doll or other object – haunts the psychology of play, and through play, the theory of language’s relation to the world, and the impact of imagination. Beckett’s work probes the puzzling boundary of consciousness, of animation and inanimateness, with ceaseless, patient, forensic curiosity.
Inevitably, this makes me think of Walter Benjamin. There is his Berlin Childhood around 1900, of course, but also, fresher in my mind, his Moscow Diary, in which he talks about his excitement at seeing collections of certain toys, but which also includes his short essay, "Russian Toys". Here he is on the spirit of those "primitive" toys produced by peasants and artisans:
The spirit from which these products emanate--the entire process of their productions and not merely its result--is alive for the child in the toy, and he naturally understands a primitively produced object much better than one deriving from a complicated industrial process.
And in Mythologies, in the piece "Toys", Roland Barthes writes of modern toys, "made of a graceless material, a product of chemistry, not of nature." That "the plastic material of which they are made has an appearance at once gross and hygienic, it destroys all the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch." Worse, toys "are supplied to [the child] ready-made: he has only to help himself, he is never allowed to discover anything from start to finish. [...] French toys are usually based on imitation, they are meant to produce children who are users, not creators."

Returning to Warner's article, Beckett's "babble" links the emergence of language with its falling away, and "[i]nfancy meets decrepitude in his meditations on existence" (Warner); and, for Beckett, "the physical presence of things requires that we listen to their voices somewhat like a child animating a roomful of toys through sighs, whispers, groans and burblings" and "nursery nonsense joins sound music through the noises of the body".

I want to tie all these threads together with my thinking on the Modernist project, but I'm struggling. In Proust, the narrator's memories recreate, condensed in a moment, a whole world, forever lost, but which in his reveries seem more real than reality. And Beckett, too:
The angle of view in so many of his works opens on to elusive glimpses of the past, a past that belongs to Beckett’s childhood, to his mother, his father, their parents and their sisters (Beckett’s beloved aunts): their customs, clothes, diction and doings haunt his works. As the title Rockaby evokes, the pain and plangency and occasional bliss of these echoes rising from the obscurity of forgetting return their declining, impaired subjects to a time of lullaby, while the rocking chair in which they sit or even the boat that moves from side to side in Krapp’s Last Tape recalls another motion that seeks to soothe restless, unnameable discomfort: the rocking of the cradle that settles the anguish of the baby.
When I've mentioned in passing about how the Modernist themes, as discussed by Josipovici, resonate with me in my project that is living my life, I'm thinking, in part, of this sense of discomfort. I think about modern life, the inexorable pressures of the capitalist system, the world that we bring babies into--where so little of, say, American life is amenable to children--and how all of this affects our perception of the options available to us as adults, stunted adults barely able to escape from a prolonged adolescence.

So much for a placeholder. More to come on this in the future, I hope.

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