Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"the integrity of the eyelids coming down before the brain knows of grit in the wind"

For all my talk of poetry and philosophy and Capital, I am nonetheless still making my way slowly through Beckett's Letters. I'd meant to share an early passage having to do with two common, related themes: Beckett's assessment of his own writing (decidedly lacking) and his ideas on what constitutes worthy writing, or what writing should be. This is from a letter he wrote to his good friend Thomas McGreevy, in October 1932:
To know you like the poem cheers me up. Genuinely my impression was that it was of little worth because it did not represent a necessity. I mean that in some way it was 'facultatif' [optional - RC] and that I would have been no worse off for not having written it. Is that a very hairless way of thinking of poetry? Quoi qu'il en soit I find it impossible to abandon that view of the matter. Genuinely again my feeling is, more and more, that the greater part of my poetry, though it may be reasonably felicitous in its choice of terms, fails precisely because it is facultatif. Whereas the 3 or 4 I like, and that seem to have been drawn down against the really dirty weather of one of these fine days into the burrow of the 'private life', [...] do not and never did give me that impression of being construits. I cannot explain very well to myself what they have that distinguishes them from the others, but it is something arborescent or of the sky, not Wagner, not clouds on wheels; written above an abscess and not out of a cavity, a statement and a not a description of heat in the spirit to compensate for pus in the spirit. [...]

There is a kind of writing corresponding with acts of fraud & debauchery on the part of the writing-shed. The moan I hve more & more to make with mine is there - that it is nearly all trigged up, in terrain, faute d'orifice, heat of friction and not the spontaneous combustion of the spirit to compensate the pus & the pain that threaten its economy, fraudulent manoeuvres to make the cavity do what it can't do - the work of the abscess. [...] I suppose I'm a dirty low-church P. even in poetry, concerned with integrity in a surplice. I'm in mourning for the integrity of a pendu's emission of semen, what I find in Homer & Dante & Racine & sometimes Rimbaud, the integrity of the eyelids coming down before the brain knows of grit in the wind.

Forgive all this? Why is the spirit so pus-proof and the wind so avaricious of the grit?
One could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that Beckett here holds to the Romantic view of art as one of lightning-struck inspiration, where the words simply pour out onto the page, as if unbidden. But it has more to do with the necessity of the writing. His early writing does give off the whiff of a writer trying rather too hard; the prose, while accomplished, is more laboured, the levers and pullys more visible, than in the work beginning with Watt. Molloy and Malone Dies and especially The Unnamable read like lightning, but they are not. Though they read much like what they pretend to be—first-person accounts, as if a diary or journal—considerable energy was expended to write and re-write these works, but once completed, they read as less constructed, as if the scaffolding had been removed.

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