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Posts Tagged ‘Edmund Wilson’

 … the artist’s inborn talents, developed abilities, innate and acquired qualities of character, personal inclinations, and the degree of spiritual maturity attained at a given point in his life, along with the characteristics he may have assimilated from his national culture, his local culture, and the surrounding geography and climate – all such factors combine to guarantee a dazzling and most attractive diversity in artistic self-expression.

(Ludwig Tulman in Mirror of the Divine page 118)

Cronin BeckettAt the end of the last post, after exploring my plan to spend time reading the works of los Solitarios Pessoa, Machado and Rilke once more, I indicated that the distraction of Samuel Beckett in Cronin’s biography and Marcel Proust in a chapter of Lehrer’s book turned out to be too hard to resist, after my attempt at decluttering brought them to light again. I was checking to see if my not having read them for years meant that I could take them to the charity shop. As soon as I opened them I was doomed to read them from cover to cover.

What follows tries to pin down the power of their attraction in the context I found them, while also explaining why I don’t feel tempted to immerse myself further in their work. An obvious point to make before I even start is that they both have a characteristic they share with los Solitarios. I’ll leave you to work out what that is as my exploration unfolds. It partly explains why the shift was so easy.

I read Cronin on Beckett first, though I was still dipping into Pessoa’s Book of Disquietude at the same time. In the end the experience of both was profoundly dispiriting.

So what was my initial derailing attraction to Beckett?

With him it was Fred Mires, the psychologist in me, that got hooked. His take on life was so dark I was keen to understand where it came from. And when I came to look at Proust the feeling was not quite the same but along the same lines.

Lehrer led me onto Richard Davenport-Hines’s A Night at the Majestic, where I found a wealth of information. Unless otherwise specified all the Beckett quotes are from Anthony Cronin, and the Proust quotes from Richard Davenport-Hines.

The Darkness

In what way was it dark?

According to Cronin, in his biography (page 463):

. . . he declared his belief that it was difficult to be anything other than unhappy for more than a few minutes at a time ‘with the help of dope, or work, or music, or the other’ – the other being, presumably, sex.

He believed that (page 143):

The common state of humanity is suffering and if our sensibility were not dulled by habit we would feel it to an almost unbearable extent.

BeckettThis bleakness has to be counterbalanced by other considerations including Barbara Bray’s perception of the man (page 518). She thought he had ‘a great capacity for enjoyment – a capacity inseparable from his fineness and keenness of perception.’ However, this very ‘fineness of perception’ amounted, in her view, to ‘hyperaesthesia, or specially heightened consciousness’ and this ‘made him suffer more than most people did in company or circumstances which were antipathetic to him.’ His humour and his insight helped him counterbalance this, so that ‘unlike other hypersensitive people he would not allow himself to go to pieces or to be blown off course because of it.’

The hyperaesthesia point could easily be applied to Proust as well (page 215): ‘ his senses were not like those other people,’ wrote Sydney Schiff. ‘ lying in the shuttered and curtained room, the walls of which were lined with cork to prevent noises reaching him, he seemed to know everything that went on outside.’ This must have helped his thirst for information about others. Proust (page 263) apparently had ‘an intrusive, apparently, undiscriminating inquisitiveness about other peoples personal details.’

Proust’s darkness though was of a rather different and perhaps less likable kind than Beckett’s (page 264): ‘Testy self-pity was another trait’ of his.

For Beckett, in addition, there is the influence of his long-term partner and eventual wife, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil (page 326):

All Beckett’s later statements about the changes produced in him by co-habitation with Suzanne were on the lines of ‘she made a man out of me,’ or ‘she rescued me.’ He spoke of his neurotic state, his utter in inactivity, his habit of staying in bed half the day and – – – of Suzanne as having changed all that.

This darkness ran deep even so (page 388):

. . . His own basic problem in regards to existence was an inclination to doubt its very nature. . . . A phrase he used to describe it was ‘existence by proxy,’ the inability to take a step without feeling that someone else was taking it. In most situations one went through the motions while having a feeling of ‘being absent’…

Combined with his possible hyperaesthesia, this seems the likeliest cause of his social withdrawal, his other most prominent character trait (page 140):

[For Beckett] Yeats’s figures were sad, solitary beings who inherited a landscape which cared nothing for them and reflected back none of their feelings. He expressed Beckett’s own sense of human alienation…

This though is also related to his writer’s craft (page 364):

The sensation of being apart while in company is not confined to literary artist, . . . but it is commoner among such artists than among others; and Beckett, who sometimes had doubts about his own literal existence except perhaps as a consciousness, had it more strongly than most.

Marcel_Proust_1900-2This certainly applied to Proust (page 93): ‘Each of us, Proust insisted, is irretrievably trapped in inviolable solitude.’ It took its toll on him and those who cared about him (page 295) in that ‘his fatalism, his refusal of care, anguished those who loved him.’

Cronin also refers to (page 106): ‘[Beckett’s] general narcissism and quietism, his preference for what took place in his own mind rather than the outer, real world, with its contingencies, its disturbances of inner tranquillity, its futile exercises of will and ambition.’

I’ll come back to this in more detail soon, not least because this is close to the core of Proust’s approach to his writing.

One last point needs to be made about Proust, something which links him most strongly with another of the solitaries, Rilke, but also to Beckett to some extent.

Despite a surface sociability, Proust despised social interaction (page 127): he insisted that ‘chatter is spiritually depleting, and that the social impulse achieves only mediocrity.’ Even more significantly (page 128) he depicted friendship as trivial, ugly and dependent on those polite lies that are socially indispensable yet spiritually catastrophic.

It is Beckett himself who clarifies this further in his own terms (pages 128-29 – A Night at the Majestic🙂

‘Friendship, according to Proust,’ Beckett explained in his perceptive Proust monograph of 1931, ‘is the negation of that irremediable solitude to which every human being is condemned. Friendship implies an almost piteous acceptance of face values.’

Rilke Selected PoemsJust in case it again might seem that I am cherry picking from a couple of lives to reach conclusions that don’t extend beyond them, I’ll just take a brief detour into Rilke, for an even more disquieting dislocation from sociability. I am quoting here from Robert Hass’s introduction to Stephen Mitchell’s translations of the poetry.

A woman artist, Paula Becker, for whom he cared deeply, died of an embolism after being consigned to her bed for 18 days after giving birth to her daughter, Mathilde. Hass writes (page xxxi) that ‘when the social claims seemed to kill Paula Becker’ Rilke was confirmed in ‘his belief that life was the enemy of art.’

There is something deeply perverse about this statement, though it may reflect Hass’s interpretation of Rilke rather than Rilke himself. A complete dislocation from life would obviously wreck the art. Hass has probably overstated the case here. However, it is true that an asocial perspective was a deeply embedded trait (page xxxii):

He did not trust relationships, but the truth was that he did not have much capacity for them either.

Hass seeks to defend Rilke from the charge of narcissism (pages xxxii-xxxiii):

It would be wrong to conclude from this… that Rilke was simply narcissistic, if we mean by that a person who looks lovingly into the shallow pool of himself. He was, if anything, androgynous.

By this Hass means:

the pull inwards, the erotic pull of the other we sense buried in the self. … Rilke … was always drawn, first of all and finally, to the mysterious fact of his own existence. His own being was otherness to him.

It is hard though to accept this defence when Hass concludes (page xxxiv):

This is the answer to the question of Rilke’s attitude towards human relationships. It is not that he was not involved, intensely and intimately, with other people. He was, all his life. But he always drew back from those relationships because, for him, the final confrontation was always with himself. And it is partly because he was such a peculiarly solitary being that his poems have so much to teach us.

The question remains, though, ‘How far does the charge of narcissism, or at least of excessive self-preoccupation, apply to Beckett and Proust, and maybe the other solitarios as well? I’ll come back to that much later. For now it’s perhaps enough to add, on a related theme, that making art your god and seeing yourself as its priest, with all the self-glorification that involves, would be a dangerous decision to make.

From where did this darkness come?

Beckett's mother

Beckett’s mother

What more obvious place to start with than the mothers. Cronin places much of the blame for Beckett’s gloom on her (page 23):

[Mary Manning felt that] Sam was emotionally ‘under-nourished. He suffered from emotional malnutrition.’ . . . There is no doubt that May Beckett loved her son fiercely. Later on he would speak of her ‘savage loving,’ but somehow it did not come through to him as a child in the right way.

Even though Cronin’s book quotes many examples of where a destructive symbiosis may have been at work between them, I think it is also important to include the possibility of inherited temperament as a factor here. Though I am resisting the temptation to speculate as to what such a contribution might have been, I certainly do not think we should rule it out.

Proust’s background, as with Beckett, particularly in terms of his mother, clearly played a part in shaping his isolation (page 79):

The mutually intense and possessive relationship between Proust and his mother had reduced the likelihood that he would seek emotional fulfilment in conventional ways, and by the mid-1890s he was already an expert in the pains, longings and dreaminess of unreciprocated love. . .

His mother’s death effectively changed nothing:

Once Proust had accepted his vocation (after his mothers death in 1905) to write his great novel, he seems to have ensured more than ever that he remained unfulfilled and even twisted in his emotions.

Then he found (page 113) that ‘insignificant routines’ held ‘immense inherent importance in [his] universe: they provide the context that makes sense of mortality, memory and time.’

Was it all dark?

Before going on to look at what Cronin says about the effect of the man on the art, some general points are worth making.

Beckett had to persist almost beyond endurance in the struggle to get published. Cronin attributes this in part at least to (page 385) an ‘incomprehensible imperative to create,’ and points out that ‘it was beginning to look as if he would never have any other reason for writing than a dumb obedience to it.’ Beckett himself felt that his works ‘went out into a void and he heard no more about them.’ I think Cronin’s description of the trait that Beckett displayed during this period as ‘literary heroism of the highest order’ is not too much of an exaggeration.

When I come to look at the career of Proust something similar is to be seen.

Other traits are important to remember here (page 64): Cronin detects a ‘distrust of ideologies and isms and collective emotions, a belief in the individual’s truth as the only truth’ and feels that these ‘were the attitudes which Beckett was discovering in himself,’ as he battled on.

Interestingly Cronin met Beckett and what he found surprised him (pages 478-79) because ‘the powerful impact of his work’ conveyed ‘an impression of rejection of the world’s affairs and even of its comforts, a sardonic asceticism if not quite a saintly resignation.’ In addition, ‘there was a growing legend of an enigma, a solitary who despised or was indifferent to the joys, such as they were, of ordinary human association.’ And what happened? Cronin states ‘I met instead an agreeable, courteous, indeed almost affable man.’

For me a telling point, and the last one I will share for now, was his way of relating to Suzanne at the time of his long-term affair with Barbara Bray (page 505). He refused to leave Suzanne and even made her his beneficiary in his will, not least because of an awareness of the debt his art owed her. Cronin reports Pinter’s comments concerning Beckett’s loyalty to Suzanne:

Throughout the conversation Pinter felt that what he was saying was that it would be very difficult to leave Suzanne and that he would if he could but he simply could not be responsible for hurting anybody to that extent.

Night at the MajesticProust may not have shared that positive quality, at least in terms of his response to individuals (page 122):

Prince Antoine Bibesco depicted Proust as a heartless, inconstant friend who nevertheless showed compassion for collective human pain…

Even so, there were mitigating factors bequeathed him by his background (page 67):

A certain Jewish family piety, intensity of idealism and implacable moral severity, which never left Proust’s habits of self-indulgence and his worldly morality in peace, were among the fundamental elements of his nature,’ Edmund Wilson declared in his great study of Modernism, Axel’s Castle(1931).

Something else that lightened the darkness of his solitary path somewhat was his feeling (page 172) that ‘one does not need to journey to look at new landscapes so much as to look with new eyes.’

In the next post I’ll take a look at the relationship between their work and their lives as a whole.

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