Monday, October 31, 2011

"Streaming with beauties and splendors like a shipwreck of phosphorescence..."

Who talks like that? Samuel Beckett, in his letters. Denis Donohue, writing in The New York Times reviewed Volume II: 1941-1956 of the letters, edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck yesterday ("Midgame," October 30, 2011, pp.8-9 of "The Book Review") and quoted from a rather chattier, sweeter, Beckett than the one we think we know from Waiting for Godot and Murphy

Beckett discusses language, in a letter Donohue quotes: "Since we cannot dismiss it all at once, at least we do not want to leave anything undone that may contribute to its disrepute. To drill one hole after another into it until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through -- I cannot imagine a higher goal for today's writer" (July 9, 1937).  So, initially, here, he says that he doesn't want to -- or can't -- watch language simply disappear, but he is interested in paring it down a bit. This is the Beckett we know. But the second part of this is the work of writing, the intent, perhaps, of the whole enterprise. I love the image of the hole-drilling, for writers as well as painters, because if you don't drill the hole, you never will know about the art, will you?

Samuel Beckett -- at least in these years of his life -- had found a favorite painter, and it is an observation about Bram Van Velde's work that I have excerpted here for my post's title... here are the phrases in their full glory: "I think continually of his last paintings, miracles of frenzied impotence, streaming with beauties and splendors like a shipwreck of phosphoresence ... with great wide ways along which everything rushes away and comes back again, and the crushed calm of the true deep" (September 10, 1951). And here is an "Untitled" Van Velde work that seems to fit the description quite thoroughly:

And here is a photograph of Guerrero Street in San Francisco, early in the morning, with a similar rushing tendency and "the crushed calm of the true deep":

How to drill the holes and paint what is behind them, that is the task. Beckett was right.

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