The Sad Cup of Coffee: a note on personification

I’ve had cold coffee and hot coffee, good coffee and lousy coffee, but I’ve never had a sad cup of coffee.
—Robert Rauschenberg

the spirit of truth must guide us in some sort, even in our enjoyment of fallacy.
—John Ruskin

Personification in poetry making is perhaps unavoidable, given the fact that we are human beings and poetry is an entirely human activity. It is tempting to broach the matter in philosophical terms, particularly that of phenomenology, noting its divergence with analytic philosophy. But I am not nearly equipped in necessary degree or kind to discuss it in these terms. Suffice to say I am biased on the phenomenological side of perception and it might be fair to describe Francis Ponge, the writer I look to as a master of the type of poetry I prefer, as a phenomenological poet. Let it stand as a signpost to a direction that one better equipped than myself might profitably go.

I will note in passing or preamble that a cup of coffee is itself an entirely human thing: a particular modification, manipulation or entirely human application of coffee beans. It is often used, in fact—the cup of coffee—in concert with the act of writing in any of its guises. I don’t doubt that it is taken for granted by those for whom it is so ready at hand what an extravagance this beverage is. The beans are harvested, roasted, delivered, packaged and stored and then, upon purchase by the consumer, they are ground and submitted via any number of techniques to nearly boiling water and, finally, often sweetened by any number of sweeteners and embellished with cream, both of which of course involve their own manufacturing and distribution processes. It takes a civilization to have a cup of coffee (and don’t, either, forget the cup, the techniques and tools for heating the water, the environment in which the preparation occurs, etc).

One might say, in a manner of speaking, that only those with access to a cup of coffee are in a position to engage in an act of poetry. If one is lucky, for example, to get a drink of clean water and a crust of bread or a few grains of rice it is hard to imagine poetry entering the list of concerns. Does this mean then that a cup of coffee is always a lucky cup of coffee, a fortunate one or even an extravagant one? Say “yes” and must one also say “yes” to the sad one or any kind at all other than “cold”, “hot”, “good”, “lousy”, etc?

Surely, considering the above, it is a sad state of affairs to sip a cup of coffee while sad. But we need not go so far as to suggest the cup of coffee itself is unfortunate or sad, even if its drinker is. Ruskin says as much.

But considering no cup of coffee exists outside a set of human concerns, it will not be possible to address it as a theme, subject or poetic object without at least implicitly acknowledging humanity. And that sounds kind of dumb, and certainly inadequate. After all, did we not just agree that any act of poetry, being an entirely human act, does not take place outside human concerns? More dumb-sounding statements, and compounded inadequacy. Here my lack of philosophical training shows grievously.

I said that personification in poetry making is perhaps unavoidable…. Let me now throw in a sprinkling of statements and claims (or aims) made by Francis Ponge:

The object is always more important, more interesting, more capable (full of rights): it has no duty whatsoever toward me, it is I who am obliged to it. (Banks of the Loire)

…. man will make marvelous strides if he returns to things…. and applies himself to studying them and expressing them…. in their essence as in their details. But at the same time he must remake them in the logos starting from the materials of the logos, which is to say speech. (Notes for a Bird)

The point is to describe the sky clearly, just as it appeared to me and impressed me so deeply.

From this description, or following from it, will rise in simple terms the explanation of my deep emotion.


If it’s possible to found a science whose matter would be aesthetic impressions, I want to be the man of that science (La Mounine)

La Mounine is the functional opposite of a pathetic fallacy. Rather than reducing a natural phenomenon to the emotion of a poet, Ponge went to the phenomenon first. But of course his writing is full of personification. Poetry is for people, after all. One does not really give a voice to things, and where, I’d like to know, did he claim to do that? His work is about man’s relationship to the world through the medium of language. “I try,” he said in an interview, “in the verbal world to do something which has as much concrete existence as the objects that I describe.” [The Sun Placed in the Abyss, p96] That reminds me of another thing Rauschenberg said: “I don’t want a picture to look like something it isn’t, I want it to look like something it is.” [Off the Wall, p87] But what of that sad cup of coffee that Rauschenberg claimed to encounter in Ginsberg’s Howl? Well, there are catatonic pianos and dreadful typewriters (also holy ones) in there, but I can’t find a sad cup of coffee anywhere.


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Out of the Shadows with Maldoror

Parle, et, puisque, d’après tes vœux les plus chers, l’on ne souffrirait pas, dis en quoi consisterait alors la vertu, idéal que chacun s’efforce d’atteindre, si ta langue est faite comme celle des autres hommes.
—Lautréamont, Les Chants de Maldoror

Maldoror, drawing by Mark Kerstetter

Maldoror, drawing by Mark Kerstetter

Lautréamont warns at the outset not to tread lightly into the six “poison-soaked” cantos of Maldoror. The reader would do well to heed his advice. Even though the book cannot be taken in at one glance, that first look is decisive. It is impossible to be indifferent to Lautréamont. Having peeked into Maldoror, the reader will either reject or engage with the text in some way. Many among the latter will claim it for their own. He’s their Lautréamont, their Maldoror, whether he be a romantic, blasphemer, sadist, schizoid poet, post-modern novelist, nihilist, elitist, boy, man, lover, hater, madman, rationalist, dreamer, surrealist, collagist, iconoclast, black humorist, teacher or pariah.

Can one author be all of these things? Depending on the reader, any combination of the characteristics listed above will come to the fore, while others fall to the shadows. But it’s there, in the shadows, that Lautréamont waits for the negligent reader, for whom he reserves a special scorn. Throughout the cantos of Maldoror he is interested in showing us not merely how to read, but how a free, healthy individual should approach language.

Maldoror will appeal primarily to the orphaned, rejected, abused and forgotten of society. Those who have enjoyed the warmth of a loving and supportive family or who have not fallen under the hand of fundamentalist tyrants or other ideologues are less likely to appreciate the violence of this book. They are likely to turn away in puzzlement or even disgust. But the Sadeian violence and blasphemy of Maldoror has misled fans and detractors alike. If one is to take in a wider glance of this book one must follow the example of its author and become schizoid. That means knowing how to separate the emotional life from rational thought. If one cannot do this one will not understand the lessons Maldoror has to teach. If one can, a potentially life-changing window will open: with the power of poetry, one may enter language as a playground and become a maker.

Utilizing a unique brand of sarcasm, Lautréamont demonstrates how to escape the yoke of oppressive ideologies. Through a series of verbal gymnastics he stretches a wire between rhetorical posturing and poetic outbursts, then runs back and forth with asides to the reader, daring him to follow. There is a high degree of cockiness here, but Lautréamont isn’t interested in merely showing off. If we make an effort to follow him we are taken inside the creative process, from which we have the vantage of the poet. With him we can see that language is a unique kind of instrument that can be used to play an original melody, but equally the unwitting individual can be swept into the linguistic forms and melodies of other singers. The essential question is, who is in charge here?

For Lautréamont reading was a serious enterprise, and he made it his business to tense his will between flights of poetic imagination and the hard rationality of critical discourse. It’s an approach to poetics that Francis Ponge would transform into a profoundly elegant and sophisticated art form and Borges into a new genre of fiction, but one that is rarely chosen today, despite all the lip service paid to literary mashups and hybrid texts. If Maldoror is anything, it is a hybrid text. Critico-analytical discourse on the depravity of man shifts unexpectedly into poetic outbursts (so loved by the Surrealists fifty years later). Demonstrations follow descriptions, a method explored to great effect by William Carlos Williams in Spring and All. Lautréamont develops an argument only to sport a poetic flower as its conclusion, placing clichés and banalities alongside surprising verbal expressions, or, conversely, he surprises the reader with a clear kernel of meaning in the midst of a nonsensical passage, thus upsetting expectations in a way that would become John Ashbery’s stock in trade a hundred years later. He is by turns a prankster and a teacher—a showoff, yes, but with something important to reveal to those with the eyes to see.

Thus begins the fourth canto: “A man a stone or a tree is about to begin the fourth canto.” In the previous cantos Lautréamont had been content to go through a litany of names easy enough to associate with humanoid figures; now plants and minerals will do. Indeed, by then it makes no difference, as Beckett would make clear in his novels. This is the point when loss of the self is a real possibility, by either suicide or madness, both of which are alluded to. The reader remembers that even if Maldoror is lost, there is still Lautréamont and after him Isidore Ducasse to go through. But which one of them is speaking at any given time? Which one is saying, “I…. I still exist, like basalt…. yet it is ages since I resembled myself!” Who is speaking when I speak? Who is this I at the core of my self? This question is at the heart of the great modernist innovators already mentioned, with the addition of Nietzsche, Whitman, Pessoa, Artaud, Genet and others.

The power but also the vulnerability of Maldoror the shape-shifter is on display in the opening of the fourth canto. As an entity he is a precursor of the comic book superheroes of the 20th and 21st centuries. Like Superman or Batman he has extraordinary powers, yet he is still a man, still mortal. He worries that he will be able to maintain enough strength to keep up his attack on God and man. His doubt stems from the very fact that he is a man and as such is implicitly connected to that which he attacks.

The idea that I have voluntarily fallen as low as my fellow men and that I have less right than another to utter complaints concerning our lot, which remains chained to the hardened crust of a planet, and concerning our perverse soul, transfixes me like a horseshoe nail.

He rallies for the struggle and announces that his weapons will not be spun from the earth. Instead, “the powerful and seraphic sonority of the harp will become beneath my fingers a formidable talisman.” Poetry will be his weapon—but more, hyperconsciousness of that fact and what it means, if he is not to become identical to that which he despises. A man a stone a tree or the shape-shifter Maldoror— Lautréamont the poet—commands the fourth canto. His primary concern is language, about the ways in which we inhabit the discourses we use or, conversely, how discourses use us to perpetuate themselves, like that virus William Burroughs would later write about. The lesson has to do with the ways in which language is used and abused, with forms and structures, with the ways one becomes an unwitting worker bee inside the linguistic machines made by others. It’s clear that the stakes involve clarity and self-determination, to the extent that such a thing is possible in our world. One thing is certain: a person will have no control over his life who has no control over the words he speaks.

In order to demonstrate the uses and abuses of discursive forms it is necessary to utilize images or themes that, in Jasper Johns’ words, “the mind already knows”—that is, clichés or common objects. Some examples: Johns’ use of the American flag, Magritte’s use of common objects in his paintings, Wittgenstein’s use of chess or Kafka’s celluloid balls in Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor. In addition to quotidian objects, one will use outrageous or absurd objects in contrast to familiar linguistic figures. Lautréamont used everything from grammatical banalities to absurdities, the Judeo-Christian discourse on God and man, the colors and shades of Gothic Romances, cut-and-paste from natural history texts, straight-ahead narrative, parodies, nonsense and poetic flowers. Overarching all of them we find the essence of Maldoror: the maker’s awareness of his function, the key to all post-modern art.

Let us now trace a partial outline of the verbal gymnastics alluded to at the beginning of canto four. While it is too complex for the purposes of a brief essay, the portion I wish to discuss takes place within two uses of the word “throne”. Lautréamont cites at the beginning the Judeo-Christian idea that “Providence has bestowed” upon man “the throne of this earth”. By the end of the third section he informs us that human beings have abandoned the “empire of reason” and left in the place of this “dethroned queen nothing but ferocious vengeance”. Lautréamont suggests here and in many other parts of the book that wild animals are more rational than man and yet, being a man, does he not indict himself, especially considering his own ferocious attacks on God and mankind? Earlier we had seen Maldoror attempting to copulate with a shark. But in canto four we see a less purely fantastic, language-based approach to the problem.

Shortly into the canto, after describing the hideous scene of a man hanging from a gibbet and whipped by two repulsive hags, Lautréamont bogs the narrative down with scholastic criteria of establishing certitude, then proclaims:

It is understood, or if not do not read me, that the actor on my stage is merely the timid personality of my own opinion: far be it from me, however, to think of relinquishing rights that are incontestable!

By contrasting the forms of subjective and objective truth only to uphold the rhetorical figure of the representation itself, Lautréamont reveals that his “truth” is simply the force of his language, his poetry. Here is the general shape of that figure: he makes a statement about truth only to denounce it as an act of flippancy, distracting from a seriously sadistic scene, then enters into a series of parenthetical remarks which are themselves flippant. From there he swaggers between further parenthetical remarks and ostensible attempts to get back into the story and ends by recognizing reason’s throne, yet crowning it with the hard rationality of a wild wolf.

Having established the authority of his voice, Lautréamont simply states his opinion: wolves are more reasonable than men because, in silence, they reject the monstrosity of mankind. Having done this, Lautréamont stands on the side of subjective truth: ideas, beliefs, opinions, truth are rooted in the authority of one’s subjective will. What has happened to his self-indictment? He has used Sadeian logic, he has shown that a Christian-based view of human reason is in fact evil itself. By attempting to be more evil than God, Maldoror is simply trying to beat God at His own game. But all the while he, Lautréamont, creator of Maldoror, is very careful to establish awareness of the linguistic arena in which he fights. Terms are inverted—back and forth—for the purposes of establishing the authority of the individual subjective voice.

Critics of this position maintain that those who profess it contradict themselves when they are reasonable, and the subjectivists answer by saying that their critics are in denial, constantly stating opinions while insisting on calling them facts while not recognizing that reason is but one tool in the thinker/writer’s toolbox. If Lautréamont were alive today, I wonder how he would respond to the field studies that show chimpanzees making war on their own kind. Does his glorification of animals mask a denial of his own? Let us recall his ambivalent feelings toward the ocean:

I cannot love you, I detest you…. Ancient Ocean, crystal-waved…. My eyes fill with copious tears and I have not the strength to proceed, for I feel that the moment is come to return among men with their brutal aspect. But, courage! Let us make a great effort, and accomplish dutifully our destiny on this earth. I salute you, Ancient Ocean!

He cannot escape his own skin as a man. He must remain strong, disciplined, vigilant and above all, self-aware. And so we go from the ancient ocean to the corner of the Rue Colbert and the Rue Vivienna. Throughout canto six Lautréamont draws lines between the fiction he is constructing and the physical world, as when he says, “Go and see for yourself if you don’t believe me” or, “This is so true that only a few moments ago I expressed the ardent wish that you might be imprisoned in the sweat-glands of my skin in order to verify by your own knowledge the truth of what I affirm.” If one believes that ideas stem from the subjective will, then, without trust, it will be necessary not so much to walk in another’s shoes as to inhabit their skin itself. Since this is impossible such a passage might seem to offer little more than a weirdly colored rhetoric. That is, until one considers trying on Lautréamont’s methods.

By the end of Maldoror Lautréamont envisions a future when a “less abstract power will be communicated” to the three entities writer, creator and man. He is not interested in an impossible yearning for the infinite, nor, in walking the rough ground, does he allow himself to be crushed by the finite. Because poetry does not have the power to magically transport the individual into another world, Lautréamont does not, like a schoolboy, reject poetry. He has more modest claims:

Hitherto poetry has followed the wrong road. Raising itself up to heaven or groveling upon the ground, it has misunderstood the principles of its existence, and has been, not without reason, constantly flouted by honest folks. It has not been modest…. As for me, I would exhibit my qualities; but I am not hypocrite enough to conceal my vices! Laughter, evil, pride, folly, will appear each in its turn between sensibility and love of justice and will serve as examples for the stupefaction of mankind…. Thus hypocrisy will straightway be chased out of my dwelling.

The discursive field opened up by Lautréamont remains wide open. We’re living in a time of info-entertainment. The sequined surface of social media, ever changing, ever the same, holds sway as the dominating social discourse. There are too many flavorless sausages churned out by creative writing programs. Instead of a literature that serves the project of coming to terms with one’s subjective truths we have one corrupted by identity politics in which it is not enough to state who you are, but you are at once confined to this statement and compelled to insist that others, ostensibly of your kind, do the same. The innovations of modernism are cast aside as too abstract, too artificial, too academic or too artsy-fartsy. And yet the lessons of Maldoror are as timely as ever. It still has the power to uphold the ancient powers of language, to show by example how to escape the marauding clutches of discourses—whether they originate from churches, Hollywood, Madison Avenue, the news, political think tanks, the State Capitals of the world or from mom and dad—that hijack our very thoughts. It still shows us that the discourses we use make a real-world difference in our lives, that what a person says, a person is, even (sometimes especially) if he lies, that a person betrays himself through both the form and the content of his speech. We live in a world spun by our dreams, but once lucid to that fact we can dream a better dream. Lautréamont says to those with the ears to hear, watch what you say, for the discourse you choose may well end up being your master, rather than the reverse.


All quotes from Guy Wernham’s translation of Maldoror, published by New Directions

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Some things I’ve been reading

I haven’t read Bukowski for many years. But he’s hard to ignore when you follow a lot of writers in social media. When I saw Betting on the Muse in my local used bookstore I decided to give him another chance. This collection of mostly poems and a few short stories was put together from an archive that Bukowski had set aside to be published after his death. The first thing that must be said about the poems is that most of them aren’t poems at all. Most of them are little narrative vignettes arbitrarily broken into tiny lines. Bukowski’s line breaks don’t make a hell of a lot of formal sense and, frankly, I don’t think he gave a shit. However, they’re very good little narrative vignettes. There are even a few gems. I must say that after having the presidential election shoved in my face every day for a year, reading these Bukowski vignettes on the way to the beach once or twice a week has been great therapy this summer. His misanthropy combined with astonishing tenderness and sweetness and even the occasional I don’t give a fuck attitude has been refreshing for me.

Bouvard and Pécuchet and Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
This is my second reading of both novels. The introduction to my Penguin paperback of the former emphasizes the novel’s profound ambiguities, states that it is “hardly calculated to become a popular favorite”, and adds that many readers find Flaubert’s attitudes to be “depressingly negative”. Indeed Flaubert’s relentless hammering away at the protagonists’ failures would seem likely to wear down many a reader. But those ambiguities are rich enough—I’d venture to guess—to keep many more interested. Not least among them is a note of self-parody that seems to be played, or at least suggested, throughout the book. I find Sentimental Education to be the more depressing of the two, simply because it is of the Realist genre. Flaubert’s portrait of Frédéric is unrelenting, merciless and by the end of the book nearly impossible to regard. But it’s truth. I don’t know of a better example of the anti-hero in literature or film.

Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm
With the rise of Donald Trump I thought it would be a good time to reread this book. Trump in his RNC speech pounded away on the word “freedom”. His campaign would seem to be about American freedom and yet it all comes from a font of fear—fear of the Democrats, fear of the threat of refugees, fear of terrorism, fear of LGBT rights, fear of environmental restrictions on business, fear of lawlessness and domestic violence in many forms, fear of lost “greatness”. Combined with all this fear the RNC cried out for global “respect” and power. Their demand for respect comes from a loaded gun, both at home and abroad. The kind of freedom we heard trumpeted at the RNC is what Fromm described as “negative” freedom. It is based on profound anxiety and hatred and cannot be cured, Fromm tells us, with rational answers, but only when the individual tastes “positive” freedom, when “the individual becomes an integral part of a meaningful world”. The simple, easy, fast answers offered by Trump in his speech, full of bluster, lots of “I will do this for you” and chest-beating do not lead to positive freedom, but, at best, a suppression of the doubt that causes the unbearable feeling of powerlessness and anxiety so on display in Trump’s supporters. In effect, this suppression, which can only ever be temporary until it leads to another crisis, is an escape from the double-edged challenge of freedom. Real freedom, positive freedom, is real and ongoing work. Read Escape from Freedom to see how fascism can come in the form of an American call for freedom.

Jerry Lewis in Person by Jerry Lewis with Herb Gluck
What can I say, I’m a fan. I’m painfully aware that Jerry Lewis (at age 90!) is still too abrasive for some Americans. Sadly, some people have to die before their work achieves the kind of reputation it deserves. I suspect that one day Lewis will be seen as one of the best filmmakers in American cinema. Jerry Lewis in Person is a memoir published in 1982. The story of Lewis’s childhood—the first 80 or so pages—is the best part of the book. His relationship with Dean Martin is better told in the later book Dean and Me. Loneliness and poverty were two of the engines that propelled the young clown in the making. His childhood is in many respects heartbreaking. I hesitate to say more, thinking that only fans will read the book. But since I lose all interest in book blogs that purport to review books without telling me anything of substance about why they like the book, perhaps I will be forgiven for injecting a personal note here. Like Lewis I also had a sad childhood. But my problem was, in certain respects, the opposite of his. He was terribly alone, desperate for love and attention. I was trapped as if within a panopticon, and came to equate freedom with the solitude of my own thoughts. However, my child character and Lewis’s seem to me to be flip sides of the same coin of unbearable loneliness and pain. Perhaps this is why, different as we are, different as the solutions we sought out, I identify so closely with him. Some people see only stupid comedies in his films. I see a boy mutilated by pain and coming to terms with it and the world.

which leads me to…. Trouble Boys: the true story of The Replacements by Bob Mehr
The four founding members of The Replacements had troubled childhoods, marked by poverty, alcoholism, mental illness and abuse. However, this is a book that I think will appeal to fans as well as general readers interested in rock ‘n’ roll and cultural American history. Paul Westerberg sang in his 2002 song, We May Be the Ones, “We may well be the ones to set this world on its ear/ We may well be the ones; if not, then why are we here?” The Replacements were, they did that. And they had one of the most eloquent frontmen in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Westerberg’s prose poem that opens Trouble Boys might be the most cogent and beautiful thing ever written about the band. Trouble Boys tells the whole, rollicking, fucked-up, drunken, deafening, exhilarating and heart-crushing story of the band, as dramatic a story of a rock ‘n’ roll band as you’re likely to hear. As soon as I’d finished I wanted to read it again.

Selected Poems by Kenneth Patchen
It’s just one of those things. I found this old paperback in a thrift store and kept it lying around for years until I cracked it open a few weeks ago for no particular reason. The poem The New Being, originally published in 1949, surprised me, sent a little shock through me (read my poem response to it here). It struck me that someone who looked like Patchen (he’s a straight white American dude) could not write from this point of view today. There’s a somewhat accusatory, self-righteous tone to this and a few other poems in the collection. I had read somewhere that Patchen has always appealed to young readers and I can believe that the moral indignation he shows might be attractive to people of a more idealistic bent. But today a white straight American man pointing his finger and saying, “YOU!” doesn’t hold much water unless he is indicting himself. My response, by the way, is not a capitulation to what the right calls “political correctness”. I hate identity politics. But there are social realities that can’t be ignored. I’m more interested in understanding my place in the world than in telling others what theirs is. Not that Patchen was doing that exactly. Other poems in the collection are just as startling by their inclusion of the narrator in crime. Nice Day for a Lynching not only does so but also makes the statement, we are all one. It deserves to be heard:

Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick
It’s impossible to read Sea of Glory without thinking that the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 and its commander Charles Wilkes deserve to be better known. The fact that it’s not, and the reasons why, is the hook that Philbrick, a more than capable writer, uses to draw the reader in. The accomplishments of Wilkes and the Expedition are extraordinary. Equally fascinating are Wilkes’ deep flaws as a leader of men. In the end, Philbrick makes a case for the success of the expedition owing in large part to Wilkes’ character, of which his flaws are an inextricable part. Of particular interest to me, at this time, was the description of Wilkes, who had a brilliant scientific mind and was quite possibly a genius, as being ruled by his emotions. His profound insecurities, for example, compelled him to punish excellence and reward ineptitude. Anyone who has ever had a boss who acts this way might want to read about Wilkes. This is also of particular interest to me right now because we are in an election year, which means that countless rational, intelligent, sensitive people are exhibiting signs of being overwhelmed by their emotional minds. Degree of intelligence, reasoning ability and even scientific acumen count for very little (in terms of human relations and understanding, at least) when a person is inebriated by their emotional mind. Philbrick has shown Charles Wilkes to be a classic example of this.

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The New Being

after Kenneth Patchen

The New Being knows no address.
He’s rejected you
and he’s rejected me
and he, moreover, may not be a he.
Don’t ask, only wait for him to speak.
In the meantime announce yourself
above a mountain of stinking corpses.

But man is dead
and I don’t know what kind of thing I am.


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Beckett’s Doubles

No doubt about it. There were two of them
Chris Tysh, Molloy: The Flip Side

Hear the unbearable voices bloodily erupting out of Mouth, trace the dark and dismal death of Malone, cross the checkerboard landscape of Watt, the desolate outskirts of the Godot Estate and the gentle hills, damp valleys and lonely rooms of Molloy. You will not be alone. There will always be another—implied, sought after, haunted by or recalled. This is Beckett Country, land of tramps, vagabonds, orphans and assorted displaced beings, land of doubles.

I called, Zulu! Little Zulu! and he would come and talk to me, through the railings. But I had to be feeling gay. I don’t like animals. It’s a strange thing, I don’t like men and I don’t like animals. As for God, he is beginning to disgust me. Crouching down I would stroke his ears, through the railings, and utter wheedling words. He did not realize he disgusted me. He reared up on his hind legs and pressed his chest against the bars. Then I could see his little black penis ending in a thin wisp of wetted hair. He felt insecure, his hams trembled, his little paws fumbled for purchase, one after the other. I too wobbled, squatting on my heels. With my free hand I held on to the railings. Perhaps I disgusted him too. I found it hard to tear myself away from these vain thoughts.
—Samuel Beckett, Molloy

Molloy is divided into two equal parts. In part II a strange character by the name of Jacques Moran is charged with the task of ‘seeing about Molloy’, an even stranger character we’ve encountered in part I. Molloy is old and decrepit, confused and possibly delusional. He could be lying in a ditch, thinking his last thoughts, memories and fancies clamoring in his head. Moran apparently comes from the practical world to clear up the matter and possibly to lend Molloy a hand. We soon find, however, that Moran is as unreliable as Molloy. The detective’s situation is further complicated by the fact that he has a son by the same name, standing in for the endlessly repeating figure of the double.

It is lying down, in the warmth, in the gloom, that I best pierce the outer turmoil’s veil, discern my quarry, sense what course to follow, find peace in another’s ludicrous distress. Far from the world, its clamours, frenzies, bitterness and dingy light, I pass judgment on it and on those, like me, who are plunged in it beyond recall, and on him who has no need of me to be delivered, who cannot deliver myself. All is dark, but with that simple darkness that follows like a balm upon the great dismemberings. From their places masses move, stark as laws. Masses of what? One does not ask. There somewhere man is too, vast conglomerate of all of nature’s kingdoms, as lonely and as bound. And in that block the prey is lodged and thinks himself a being apart. Anyone would serve. But I am paid to seek. I arrive, he comes away. His life has been nothing but a waiting for this, to see himself preferred, to fancy himself damned, blessed, to fancy himself everyman, above all others.
—Samuel Beckett, Molloy

As soon as Moran arrives, Molloy comes away. It is only in the darkness that Molloy can be imagined, because awake, outside in the light of the world, Moran

searches in vain for two things alike, each pinpoint of skin screams a different message, I drown in the spray of phenomena. It is at the mercy of these sensations, which happily I know to be illusory, that I have to live and work. It is thanks to them I find myself a meaning.
—Samuel Beckett, Molloy

Moran is a medium between darkness and light. Far from being the kind of guide who can inspire confidence, Moran seems utterly and inescapably perplexed. He is a part of the vast conglomerate of man known as artists, bending over his subject, Molloy, who is an artist too who imagines himself a being apart, while he is in fact lodged inexorably in the marble. Moran bends over Molloy by contemplating him, by going to him in imagination, in the ditch, merging with him and eclipsing him in that place where neither could be, for the image of Moran bending over the desk wrestling out the image of Molloy is the double of Beckett bending over his desk wrestling Molloy, the novel, into existence.

In Malone Dies Beckett launches himself from the platform created by Molloy. The doubling process becomes rapid and close to the surface, approaching the condition of The Unnamable, in which he writes, “One may experience the need of such creatures, assuming they are twain.” They begin that way, an echo of the writer’s relationship with himself, but soon, as the process becomes entangled in the individual’s relationship with the world, the doubling device shatters under the pressure of so many competing selves, and comes to seem like any other literary trick designed to rob the universe of its complexity. At this point the doubling process, although Beckett’s specialty, comes to be thrown together with all the other tricks on the rubbish heap. And Samuel Beckett seems to have left himself precious little room to move. This is the so-called impasse he is supposed to have written himself into and tried to work himself out of with various texts, shorter now.

But Beckett began with doubles and never finished with them. Take the late play Ohio Impromptu, in which a man reads to another man. The play calls for the men to be as alike in appearance as possible. In the film version by Charles Sturridge Jeremy Irons plays both roles. I saw a live version once that had the men in hooded cloaks which obscured their features. In either case one is meant to see a strong bond between the two: reader and writer. The text that is read tells of a man who comes and goes periodically to read to another man, to comfort him.

And so it is
the book that lies dormant
whether mine or another’s
to be pulled down and opened
and gently replaced
until another time
or another reader
pulls the book
or another
down again
and the story
or another
is told

A version of this article first appeared on The Bricoleur

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Conversations with a Clown by Michael Welzenbach

Picasso, Les Saltimbanques (source: Wikipedia, AgnosticPreachersKid)

Picasso, Les Saltimbanques (source: Wikipedia, AgnosticPreachersKid)

Conversations with a Clown, published in 1991, is the only novel by art critic Michael Welzanbach who died far too young in 2001. The novel concerns art critic Corry Peters who lives in Washington D.C., has profoundly ambivalent feelings about the state of the art world in December of 1999, and can’t stop thinking about his estranged wife. Seeking refuge from a horde of relatives who descend upon him for the holidays, Peters escapes to the National Gallery of Art to visit his favorite painting, Picasso’s Les Saltimbanques. While the previous galleries had been deserted, due to the time of year, the critic is distressed to find that not only is his favorite occupied, but that a man—a tall man in a worn out cream colored suit—is planted directly in front of the Picasso. Thinking to encourage the man to move on, Peters edges closer, but rather than it having the intended effect, the man turns to Peters and regales him with a tale so strange, indeed so insane, that it can barely be grasped. In short, he suggests that he was the model for the standing figure on the left side of the painting, which would of course be impossible since the work was completed in 1905. In a theatrical manner that doesn’t fail to amuse Peters, the peculiar fellow introduces himself as Pierrot. And it hits the critic like a cannon shot: this Pierrot bears an uncanny resemblance to the harlequin in Les Saltimbanques.

Letting curiosity get the better of him, and wanting to put off the dreaded end of the millennium wrap-up he must write, Peters follows Pierrot to a bar and the two have the first of the conversations that comprise a good part of the book. These conversations range from historical anecdotes (the clown claims to have hung out with Watteau, Goya, Hokusai and others), to the state of American art in the late 20th century (bad, very bad), to philosophical speculations on the nature of magic and reality, and how this relates to the social significance and meaning of art. Peters is not only estranged from his wife, he is also estranged from the art of his time, disliking nearly everything he sees—everything, that is, that his job requires him to comment on. The artists he likes are either not so well known or dead. He shares this view with the clown, who marks Andy Warhol as the precise point when American art achieved an advanced state of decay. One of the evil words in their lexicon is “post-modernism”, which in their canon is practically synonymous with chaos.

© Cindy Sherman, Untitled #415 (source: Wikiart)

If I have painted a rather cartoonish portrait of their relationship, it is nevertheless accurate, although incomplete. If I didn’t like Welzenbach so much, I would argue that he has written a post-modern novel despite his stand-in Corry Peters, pointing out that the novel functions as Pierrot to its reader who is skeptical nearly every step of the way and then, in the end, is won over—not to its point of view, perhaps, but to its charms. It is a mash-up of art theory, history, social criticism, magical realism and situation comedy. One might say that such a hybrid deserves to be described as post-modern. But I won’t say it, not only because I like Welzenbach, but more importantly because it isn’t true.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Duel After the Masquerade (source: Wikipedia)

Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Duel After the Masquerade (source: Wikipedia)

Conversations with a Clown is an old-fashioned novel of ideas, a Dickensian tale with an array of literary parlor tricks. And that is the basis of its integrity. Welzenbach practices, as a novelist, what he preaches. The novel demonstrates handsomely the traits admired so much by the clown in works of visual art: passion, earthiness, a harmony between emotion and intellect, and a sprinkling of magic to add color and charm.

Picasso, Acrobat on a Ball (source; Wikipedia)

Picasso, Acrobat on a Ball (source: Wikipedia)

In one of their first conversations, Pierrot gives an example of magic in painting by describing Anselm Kiefer’s Parsifal III, a crude attic scene of rough-hewn wood with an arrow smack in its center. Pointing out the cartoonish manner of its execution and the incongruity of the arrow’s appearance in such a place, Pierrot asks the art critic to recognize the special function of arrows—that they point to things, they are “symbols of direction”, and in this painting, the clown argues, the arrow points to disorder, decay and chaos, “perhaps the greatest enemy recognized by civilization.” He continues:

By the use of this one universal symbol driven into the calm and complacent dark of an old and venerable attic, Kiefer reminds us that time recognizes no civilization; no creed, no philosophy….It is the ultimate paradox of the nature of art: a refined human artifice informing us of the innate futility of itself….Kiefer’s arrow….digs into the ancient wood as surely as grooves of laughter and sorrow will score all of our faces….the impulse to make [art] is timeless. But the process by which that knowledge is conveyed is often a matter of devices—parlor tricks, if you like. [p34]

Antoine Watteau, Gilles (source: WikiArt)

Antoine Watteau, Gilles (source: WikiArt)

Pierrot argues that the ancient painters of the Lascaux caves were great, accomplished artists, fundamentally no different than artists who came generations afterward. Art will survive the deplorable state of decay that both he and Peters see in the late twentieth century. Basically they see that art as a deafening, colossal joke synonymous with marketing. It is soulless, utterly devoid of craft or magic, intended only to market personalities and make huge profits for private collectors, and its effect on the viewer is either bewilderment or intimidation or both. Andy Warhol is singled out as an object of ridicule, being the prime representative of art as money and death. The long description of Mr. Peters’ nightmare in which this is all laid out is a very good read. The fact that Warhol had been dead for four years when Conversations with a Clown was published makes the bitterness of Welzenbach’s point of view all the more pungent. Warhol appears in the nightmare waving a dildo, asking for a can opener and informing Peters that there’s no such thing as magic, reality, love or god. Sex and money are all.

Pierrot explains, in their post-nightmare conversation, that magic is not gone, but in hiding. Artists, he says, “have lost their sense of reality. And how can one possibly dabble in magic if one doesn’t understand the nature of reality?” What follows is a long monologue on the relationship between reality and magic, with a preamble on Baudrillard and Derrida, and illustrated with some of the best painters in history.

At a time when the internet was just in its infancy, Welzenbach’s Pierrot claims that “our experience of the world is so completely governed by mass manipulation that we have lost the ability to discern what is truly real”, even though any child knows what reality is. Reality is magic. And the artist’s true work is grounded in reality. Reality (a partial list): love, lust, a toothache, a cardinal’s nest, stars, a new leaf, earthquakes, a newborn baby, a stone.

The nature of reality is for everyone such that even the dumbest person in the United States knows full well the difference between the antiseptic life he sees giggling on the television sitcom, and the stains on his trousers or the dust balls under his bed….the artist, of all people, has a special relationship to reality….the bite of the saw, the buttery consistency of paint, the rasp of a file on metal….Of the arts, music is perhaps….the most abstract….Yet it exists when it is being played, and it can be crudely written down on paper, and perfectly captured in the memory. At the same time painting is possibly the most complex. And the painter is a person who in many respects must be the most deeply connected to the reality of his materials and methods than any other artist. Because he must be competent to make of them an illusion, and that illusion must say something of reality. [p89]

James Ensor, Masks Mocking Death (source: WikiArt)

James Ensor, Masks Mocking Death (source: WikiArt)

I disagree with Pierrot. It is the artist of prose fiction who has the most complex job, and Conversations with a Clown is an example of that. Prose fiction is the most complex of the arts, because its medium—ordinary language—is the one we use every day. You don’t need a concert hall or a museum to encounter this art; indeed, it depends on the intimacy of one’s private moments. Like Paul Auster said, it’s always just two people involved, every time: the writer and the reader. Through the parlor tricks of a thousand year old clown, Welzenbach has an intimate conversation with his readers, one at a time. I haven’t even tried to convey a sense of the novel’s magic, haven’t so much as hinted at its surprises. But since I’ve touched on its ideas, one might ask, if magic and reality are in hiding, where might we look to find them again? At the end of the novel, Pierrot states that Europe is the place to begin the twenty-first century. She will reclaim her role in the arts. America is played out. Welzenbach did not live to see For the Love of God and the rise of White Cube. For me, his argument is rooted in the idea that the American avant-garde was never a true avant-garde in the first place, but simply carried the flag while Europe floundered in war. This idea is based on a misunderstanding of Warhol, but that’s a topic for another day.


A version of this review first appeared on The Bricoleur

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The Silence of the Work


The writer never knows if the work is done. What he has finished in one book, he begins again or destroys in another.

….although the artist is not capable of ending it, he is nevertheless capable of turning it into the enclosed space of an endless task whose incompleteness develops mastery of the spirit….

The spirit tries to accomplish itself in a single work, instead of realizing itself in the infinity of works and the movement of history.

The writer belongs to the work, but what belongs to him is only a book.

Mastery consists of the power to stop writing, to interrupt what is being written, giving its rights and its exclusive cutting edge back to the instant.

To write is to make oneself the echo of what cannot stop talking….To this incessant speech I bring the decisiveness, the authority of my own silence.

When we admire the tone of a work, responding to the tone [we respond to the work’s] silence….The tone is not the voice of the writer, but the intimacy of the silence he imposes on speech….Tone makes the great writers, but perhaps the work is not concerned about what makes them great.
—Maurice Blanchot, The Essential Solitude


For what I was doing I was doing neither for Molloy, who mattered nothing to me, nor for myself, of whom I despaired, but on behalf of a cause which, while having need of us to be accomplished, was in its essence anonymous, and would subsist, haunting the minds of men, when its miserable artisans should be no more.

Shall I be able to speak of me and of this place without putting an end to us, shall I ever be able to go silent, is there any connexion between these two questions?
—Samuel Beckett, Molloy and The Unnamable


The work is what happens when one writes, but inasmuch as it is bound to the will to write it contains or at least alludes to the ungraspable kernel of will. But the work is bigger than the impossible since it contains the impossible as one of its possibilities. The impossible is a conscious attempt to do what can’t be done, a demonstration of limits, or an inadvertent failure, but the work is indifferent, is outside these concerns. The individual writer is but one vehicle for the work; it stretches in time. It encompasses tradition as well as the living will to participate, respond, interpret and innovate.

The book’s strength and weakness are interrelated. The more the author is aware of the false authority of the book (the more authoritative, and thus brittle and hard he makes it), the more fragile its beauty, so long as he is able to pinch off the ends of his declarations with finesse. The book is what is left over.

So much for the book. And yet maturity, health and happiness lie outside the work as well. Perhaps that is why Beckett seems to idealize silence. Through the discipline of the work it may be possible to find healing, but this is by no means an inevitable consequence of the work. The work is as empty as anything else; only one’s attitude toward it has meaning. To equate success, happiness or health with silence only perpetuates anguish, whether one continues to write or not. The work is interminable, and silence bears no relation to it beyond the tone that Blanchot speaks of. Maturity is not a condition but a process that knows no end. But the process only has significance providing one is acutely attentive to it, and this is what we find in Blanchot and Beckett. To be sure, this acute awareness does not place one outside the concerns of the work, but it’s important. It is one half of the essential prerequisite for any resolution or exit one may make outside of and completely apart from the work, the other half being attentiveness to one’s physical reality as a being in the world. Beyond the tools and systems of analysis, beyond the games of art, lies the unnamable.


A version of this piece was first published on The Bricoleur.

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