Incomplete Thinking about Coincidental Readings:
Noftle, Kelli Anne. I Was There for your Somniloquy (Omnidawn 2012).
Tayler, Christopher. "A Great Consolation: The Postwar Unmaking of Samuel Beckett." Harper's May, 2012.
While reading the book's final poem, “Hypnagogic is a Sound,” I had an experience of recognition. An image sequence near the end of the poem—a sequence related to a childhood narrative that grounds the poem’s lyric explorations—struck me as related to a feeling I’d been pursuing in my own writing. I find this difficult to explain, because it wasn’t an idea, really. I mean, it didn’t resolve into paraphrase-able semantics, but lingered as a resonance, which I take as a reflection of the high quality of the poem that elicited the response in the first place. As I begin to try teasing out the semantics of the experience, here’s the sequence of lines that stirred me up:
is a sound a word makes. Find
hypnic in the jerking, seizing little gods
in your waking half-brain, the body finally
filled with sea. If I can float
on my own language, I can submerge
this memory. Of swallowing mud.
Though the poem, at this point, is only three lines from its conclusion, I paused here in my first reading and reviewed this section. As sometimes happens with me—maybe with other readers—an idea like a multiple image plane upheld structurally by concepts was forming inside me and I wanted to pause and consider that intellectual / sensory construct. Though the poem seemed to be working back to the childhood memory at its center, the concept in my thought-complex was the familiar recognition that language, art, and all representation is self-propogating, self-protective, and self-fabricating—the recognition of that familiar enough idea coalesced within a conjoined pair of almost painterly still images I was imagining: a young person suspended in saline who is also simultaneously being forced down into the dirt to swallow mud. The recognition of this complex of image and proposition was accompanied by some horror. Art horror: in this case a morbidity of expression: forced down, buried alive (I understand this isn’t “a reading” of the poem but is a description of my own weird ideas, catalyzed by reading). Within this horror, I felt a sense of urgent recognition relating to my own intentions as a writer. Briefly, I recognized an idea of negation as an authentic artistic impulse as a feeling I sometimes have in my own writing processes—in the passage, the speaker seeks to use the positive power of language to “submerge” or negate experience, and the memory itself “Of swallowing mud” represents a kind of stifling. When art seeks to create the eliminated thing, or to include the deeply felt doubt of creation in the made thing, then it arrives at a crucial paradox, where art and silence come face to face. I have sought that point of conflict in my own writing, and I sensed its presence in the image sequence Noftle skillfully renders.
So, I thought about this. I made a note. I thought of emailing Kelli about it and did that. Then the moment passed and life went on.
Coincidentally, about twelve hours later, I read Christopher Tayler’s essay in the May 2012 issue of Harper’s, “A Great Consolation: The postwar unmaking of Samuel Beckett.” Tayler’s essay discusses in a variety of contexts two recently published volumes of Beckett’s correspondence. Late in the essay, Tayler highlights Beckett’s reflections on his own art. In his early forties, Beckett achieved new clarity about the negations that his art should be performing—negations of language and negations of being. In Tayler’s interpretations of selections from Beckett’s correspondence, I encountered a lucid articulation of something close to the recognition I felt in “Hypnagogic Is a Sound.” Here, I’ll piece together passages from the essay that show Beckett actively and paradoxically pursuing dissolutions of self and language:
Tayler: “As [Beckett] sees things, the mind is an unknowable chaos, as is everything outside it. Instead of searching for a philosophically impregnable position, the honest response is to write from one as pregnable as possible, with due acknowledgment of ‘the impossibility of ever being wrong enough, ever being ridiculous and defenseless enough.’ [Beckett] flail[s] wildly in search of metaphors... for the ‘self-devouring, ever-reducing thought’ that he wants to articulate.... [Beckett] offers glimpses of the self-sabotaging engine room behind his writing.... [A]t one point he speaks of ‘the courage of the imperfection of non-being... in which we are intermittently assailed by the temptation still to be, a little, beneath an unforgettable sky.’”
Again, Noftle: “If I can float / on my own language, I can submerge / this memory. Of swallowing mud.” An erasure of those “jerking, seizing little gods / in your waking half-brain.”
What is the art that destroys itself? Is it the art of suicide? The art that unravels the illusions of being until there’s nothing left but a plank to step off of? Beckett describes the “temptation” to continue “to be, a little, beneath an unforgettable sky.” Within this line of thinking, it’s a weakness to see romantic significance in the world when one knows that significance is an illusion. And it’s poignant that we can’t resist the indulgence, the “temptation still to be, a little.” As Tayler points out, Beckett’s understanding of art as a path to unmaking paradoxically accompanies his most productive phase. Was the writing of Godot a sign of personal weakness on Beckett’s part? I feel like Beckett might say ‘yes’ if we could ask him that. Good interviewers, we would follow up: “Why do you think your most productive phase accompanied your realization that all production was dubious to the point of fraudulence?” Probably, Beckett’s answered this question elsewhere. Probably, there are better essays than this one that pursue the question through a variety of research methodologies.Personally, I’m up against it, with “it” being the limits of my capabilities as a thinker. What would Beckett say? What do I say? When art comes up against itself, how can the artist continue? Is it simply depressive thinking to have to blank out the art you’re making? Is negative art essentially a human failure? Those who succeed in thoroughly and honestly following the negative muse must achieve silence. Their success stories are the air in a dark library at midnight, overwhelming the special collections.