Beckett’s understanding of the image, and its importance to literature, as it is expressed in his occasional aesthetic writings, is formed around premises which closely relate to understandings which pass through the idea of the presentation. Beckett’s interest in the image begins quite early in his career, and attention to his aesthetic writings makes it apparent that he holds consistently to certain of the conceptions he develops early on. This is not to claim that there are no developments or shifts in his understanding or practice, or that he is always able to adequately apply these ideas to his works. Rather, as we will see in examining Beckett’s aesthetic practice in the next chapter, there are important shifts as well as points of apparent contradiction between his works and the aesthetic ideas he describes. In short, it takes Beckett some time before he is able to develop a form which is able to do justice to ideas whose outlines at least he seems to have perceived from the outset.
We have seen, through the reading of Bergson, Peirce and Deleuze, how, rather than being understood as relating to the Thirdness of the sign, which already involves interpretation, the image should be understood as involving the immediacy of Secondness, which is presented to us and requires interpretation. A similar understanding of the cognitive functioning of the image (which is immediate and requires interpretation), as opposed to the symbol (which exists as a relation and so already carries an intended interpretation) can be found in Beckett’s own aesthetic writings. In a review of Jack Yeats’s novel The Amaranthers, published in the Dublin Magazine of July–September 1936, Beckett states:
There is no symbol. The cream horse that carries Gilfoyle and the cream coach that carries Gilfoyle are related, not by rule of three, as two values to a third, but directly, as stages of an image.1
This short passage sheds light both on the well known ‘no symbols where none intended’ of Watt, 2 and the desire Beckett expressed for developing an art in the absence of relations: a nonrelational art whose outlines are traced in more detail in chapter 3. Such an absence of relations might be understood, in part, as involving the presentation of material that requires interpretation, rather than the representation of pre-interpreted signs or symbols, brought about by relating ‘two values to a third’.
In ‘Peintres de l’Empeˆchement’, which was written in 1948, Beckett states that all works of art have involved the readjustment of the relation between subject and object,3 a relation that he claims has now broken down. He announced this crisis over a decade before and prior to World War Two, in 1934, in another review: ‘Recent Irish Poetry’.4 The breakdown might be understood to have taken place because, on the one hand, the subject is no longer able to understand itself as a simple point of relation, and, on the other, the object is no longer something which is able to be simply represented, simply understood. For Beckett a good definition of modern painting would be, ‘Le premier assaut donne´ a` l’objet saisi, inde´pendamment de ses qualities, dans son indiffe´rence, son inertie, sa latence’.5 The modern painters Beckett discusses in ‘Peintres de l’Empeˆchement’ have in common that the ‘objects’ they paint are understood to have a kind of unity with one another in that, ‘ils ne font qu’un en ceci, que ce sont des choses, la chose, la chosete´’.6 Such ‘things’ are directly presented to us, in an uninterpreted state.7 A key problem with any attempt to represent (and therefore interpret) the object is that the interpretation, the representation, rather than revealing the object, simply adds another layer to it, one which serves to conceal it still more fully, ‘Car que reste-t-il de repre´sentable si l’essence de l’object est de se de´rober a` la repre´sentation?’8 This problem, whereby the thing itself is constantly eluding any attempt to be portrayed, is something Beckett attempts to approach, strategically, from different sides at different times. The use of the image, which serves to ‘present’ or create an object rather than represent one, is one strategy. In ‘Peintres de l’Empeˆchement’ Beckett answers his own question as follows: ‘Il reste a` re´presenter les conditions de cette de´robade’.9 That is, another approach, which is related to the use of the image, is the attempt to reveal the process of hiding, to create the affect of the power of an object by occluding rather than attempting to represent the essential components of that object. This second process is something which also involves images, images which occlude, and we will examine this in chapters 4, 5 and 6 below. Beckett draws his argument together by indicating that there are two kinds of ‘empeˆchement’ or impediment to simple representation, with Greer and Bram van Velde being, in turn, examples of each kind. The first (Greer) says, ‘Je ne peux voir l’objet, pour le repre´senter, parce qu’il est ce qu’il est.’10 That is, developing an interpretation based upon the materials we have treated thus far, the essential components of the object cannot be seen, because the essential nature of the object is to project images which elude representation. The second (Bram) says, ‘Je ne peux voir l’objet, pour le repre´senter, parce que je suis ce que je suis.’11 That is, the essential components of the object cannot be seen, because the essential nature of the subject (the one who sees) is to screen or interpret the images projected upon his brain by the object (and this screening links the object to familiar contexts which enable ready interpretation or an habitual response).
Although his artistic practice, as we will see in the next chapter, continues to develop and change, we witness here a continuity in Beckett’s aesthetic thinking concerning the image from between the wars until after World War Two, when his major works, along with the letter to Georges Duthuit, which was written in 1949, 12 and other important aesthetic writings were composed. Indeed, the suggestion that art should involve presentation, or the creation of not yet interpreted material, instead of offering pre-digested representations, is something which Beckett was already stressing in his earliest piece of aesthetic writing, ‘Dante ... Bruno. Vico.. Joyce’,13 which appeared in 1929. Here Beckett outlines a concept of ‘direct expression’ in writing, and claims that such direct expression can be found in Joyce. Joyce’s writing is not the kind of writing that offers pre-digested representations:
And if you don’t understand it, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is because you are too decadent to receive it. You are not satisfied unless form is so strictly divorced from content that you can comprehend the one almost without bothering to read the other. The rapid skimming and absorption of the scant cream of sense is made possible by what I may call a continuous process of copious intellectual salivation. The form that is an arbitrary and independent phenomenon can fulfil no higher function than that of stimulus for a tertiary or quartary conditioned reflex of dribbling comprehension.14
The ‘tertiary or quartary conditioned reflex’ no doubt refers to the ‘rule of three’, the rule of the symbol or sign as representation Beckett describes in his review of Jack Yeats in 1936. 15 Joyce’s writing, bringing to mind the comments made by Bergson in the previous chapter, 16 on the other hand, ‘is not about something; it is that something itself’.17 This claim clearly aligns Beckett’s understanding with the distinction which Deleuze makes between created works, which need to be directly interpreted by the reader, and mediocre works, which represent what has already been shown, and which we interpret through reflex or habit. Deleuze and Guattari consistently refer to the production of works which escape mediocrity as a process of creation, not as a process of representation – artists create and present (rather than represent) affects, and draw us into the mix:
In relation to the percepts or visions they give us, artists are presenters of affects, the inventors and creators of affects. They not only create them in their work, they give them to us and make us become with them, and they draw us into the compound.18
As Joyce has the narrator of Stephen Hero state: ‘For Stephen art was neither a copy nor an imitation of nature: the artistic process was a natural process.’19 This is not solely brought about through the use of images, as ‘direct expression’ is a concept developed, via Vico, with regard to language and writing, but images are an important part of this process. Beckett quotes Joyce to underline this point:
Stephen says to Lynch: ‘Temporal or spatial, the esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which it is not ... You apprehend20 its wholeness’21
This idea is something we have already touched upon in the previous chapter and seems very close to the notion of ‘the autonomous mental image’ discussed below in relation to the painting of Francis Bacon. It is also very close to comments Beckett makes in Proust. 22
In ‘Recent Irish Poetry’, a review written for The Bookman in August 1934 under the pseudonym Andrew Belis, Beckett claims that certain younger Irish poets ‘evince awareness of the new thing that has happened, or the old thing that has happened again, namely the breakdown of the object, whether current, historical, mythical or spook’.23 This claim might be partly understood as beginning to develop the idea of art in the absence of relation; an idea that I discuss further in chapter 3. The difficulties involved, the problem of attempting expression under such conditions, however, is also something that brings us into contact with Beckett’s understanding of the image. One of the younger Irish poets Beckett refers to in this article is his friend Denis Devlin. In 1938, writing in the celebrated modernist journal transition (number 27), Beckett reviewed Intercessions, a book of poems by Devlin. Toward the end of this piece he seems to take issue with another review which had recently appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. Beckett replies:
It is naturally in the image that this profound and abstruse self-consciousness first emerges with the least loss of integrity. To cavil at Mr Devlin’s form as overimaged (the obvious polite cavil) is to cavil at the probity with which the creative act has carried itself out, a probity in this case depending on a minimum of rational interference, and indeed to suggest that the creative act should burke its own conditions for the sake of clarity.24
The image, then, offers one way of examining the breakdown of the object/subject relation, one way of avoiding the rational interference of pre-digested interpretation. Rather than interpreting its object for us (representing it by cutting it from everything not considered useful to the conscious perception of that object), art presents us with material that we must struggle to understand. Art is not about making things clear or easy for us. On the contrary, for Beckett:
art has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear and does not make clear, any more than the light of day (or night) makes the subsolar, -lunar and -stellar excrement. Art is the sun, moon and stars of the mind, the whole mind.25
Devlin, using his images as a means of developing his presentations, achieves ‘the same totality’ for Beckett, ‘directly and with concreteness’.26
«Samuel Beckett And The Philosophical Image»
1.Beckett, Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, ed. Ruby Cohn (London: John Calder, 1983), p. 90.
2 Samuel Beckett, Watt (London: Picador, 1988), p. 255.
3 Ibid., p. 137.
4 See ibid.
5 Ibid., p. 135: ‘The first attack directed at the seized object, independently of its qualities, in its indifference, its inertia, its latency’. (My translations throughout.)
6 Ibid., p. 136: ‘they are only one [thing] in this, in that they are all things, the thing, thingness’.
7 Bergson’s discussion of Bishop Berkeley’s understanding of the term ‘thing’ is of relevance here. According to Bergson, Berkeley, objects to the word ‘thing’ because it designates a resevoir of possibilities; that is, because it has not been completely understood or interpreted. Henri Bergson, ‘Philosophical Intuition’, in The Creative Mind (New York: Philosophical Library, 1946), p. 137. I discuss this further in chapter 6 below.
8 Beckett, Disjecta, p. 136: ‘Because what remains representable if the essence of the object is to elude the representation?’
9 Ibid.: ‘What remains is to represent the conditions of this evasion’.
10 Ibid.: ‘I cannot see the object, so as to represent it, because it is what it is.’
11 Ibid.: ‘I cannot see the object, so as to represent it, because I am what I am.’
12 ‘Letter to Georges Duthuit, 9–10 March 1949’, tr. Walter Redfern, in S. E. Gontarski and Anthony Uhlmann (eds.), Beckett after Beckett (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006), pp. 15–21.
13 Beckett, Disjecta.
14 Ibid., p. 26.
15 See ibid.
16 Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, tr. T. E. Hulme (New York and London: G. Putnam and Sons, 1912), pp. 5–6.
17 Beckett, Disjecta, p. 27.
18 Gilles Deleuze and Fe´lix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, tr. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 175.
19 James Joyce, Stephen Hero (London: Grafton Books, 1986), p. 154.
20 I have discussed the distinction between perception and apprehension in detail elsewhere. Perception is understood with reference to Bergson’s understanding of the representation which involves substraction, whereas ‘apprehension’ is related to the presentation which appears as a whole. See Anthony Uhlmann, Beckett and Poststructuralism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), chapter 2.
21 Beckett, Disjecta, p. 28. Notes to pp.
22–27 155 22 Samuel Beckett, Proust and Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit (London: John Calder, 1987), p. 23; cited below.
23 Beckett, Disjecta, p. 70.
24 Ibid., p. 94. 25 Ibid., p. 94.