Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Monthly Archives: July 2013

Samuel Beckett and the Definite Article

Pursuit of the “lost” Joycean poet and composer Terence White Gervais (see post here and page here) leads me to his contributions to the final issue (27 of 1938) of transition, the international modernist review edited by Eugene Jolas. A few pages into this number, the reader is confronted by “Ooftish”, Samuel Beckett’s ferocious poetic rant on the problem of pain:

Ooftish

offer it up plank it down
Golgotha was only the potegg
cancer angina it is all one to us
cough up your T.B. don’t be stingy
no trifle is too trifling not even a thrombus
anything venereal is especially welcome
that old toga in the mothballs
don’t be sentimental you won’t be wanting it again
send it along we’ll put it in the pot with the rest
with your love requited and unrequited
the things taken too late the things taken too soon
the spirit aching bullock’s scrotum
you won’t cure it you – you won’t endure it
it is you it equals you any fool has to pity you
so parcel up the whole issue and send it along
the whole misery diagnosed undiagnosed misdiagnosed
get your friends to do the same we’ll make use of it
we’ll make sense of it we’ll put it in the pot with the rest
it all boils down to the blood of the lamb

“Ooftish” is Yiddish-derived slang for money, meaning “on the table”, in the sense of putting up a gambling stake – “show us your money”. Our pains, physical and psychological, are our stakes in the gamble of living. But the table is also a food table – “we’ll put it in the pot” – splitting the metaphor rather uneasily with that of a Passover meal.

According to Beckett, the poem had been prompted by his recollection of a sermon in which the preacher declared:

“What gets me down is pain. The only thing I can tell them is that the crucifixion was only the beginning. You must contribute to the kitty.”

beckettA crucifixion that was “only the beginning” must therefore be a potegg – a dummy that entices the hens to contribute. It is true enough, as Aquinas recognised, that evil is redemptive in the sense that it can produce good. Nor should the crucifixion necessarily be understood as an isolated moment in time, but perhaps more as an event in the dimension of eternity that runs throughout history, containing, in some mysterious sense, all suffering – even the agony of a snared rabbit. But “must contribute to the kitty” seems harshly reductive, and maybe some way short of this mystery.

Is Beckett angry that the Passion of the Christ may not have been all sufficient? Or does he assert that the sheer crushing reality of pain trumps any metaphysical solution? We’re not quite sure, and neither, it seems, is he. The direction of the weight of the last line is uncertain. Is it scornfully dismissive? Or does it acknowledge the centrality of the crucifixion event? If the latter, Beckett later retreated. For in the final version of “Ooftish” in the Collected Poems of 1977, two small changes have been made. Line 13 is altered from

you won’t cure it you – you won’t endure it

to

you won’t cure it you won’t endure it

ironing out an awkwardness and stripping the punctuation in line with the rest of the poem. But more significantly, the last line

it all boils down to the blood of the lamb

becomes

it all boils down to blood of lamb

The loss of the definite article – available in both Hebrew and Greek – is far more than a piece of tidying; the generalised “blood of lamb” takes the metaphor out of the Christian context (originally reinforced by the poem’s working title of “Whiting”) and firmly back to the Passover of the old covenant.

And yet there’s no denying the poem’s origins in a Christian consideration of the problem of pain. Nor, it seems to me, is there any denying the invisible presence of a closet Christianity in Beckett’s wider work, unlikely though this may sound. His world of absurdity, despair, suffering and separation is the world of fallenness. It may seem like all that’s on offer, but it is never acceptable, and never viewed indifferently. By definition, its recognition assumes that an alternative is at least conceivable, and that alternative, in Beckett’s vision, can hardly be the progressive reform of human nature under secular programmes of improvement.

It does indeed all boil down to the Blood of the Lamb. In such a dialectic, for Beckett as for any of us, the Christ event has to be the defining event and the Christ the Definite Article.

Follow-up post, “Samuel Beckett and the mental belch” – here.

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Some crap Vorticist forgeries

Hardly a revelation that enterprising eBayers have hit on modernist art as a rewarding field for forgery; after all, if a child of five could do that, it should be simple enough for you and me. And so the eBay art listings are spammed to overflowing with drawings by Picasso, Cocteau etc, “in the manner of” or simply sans provenance, a few with a hint of skill, but most hilariously inept. (Though Lowry is a gift for the amateur pasticheur, given that he did draw like a five year old. Fake Lowries probably outnumber all the rest put together.) It’s doubtful that buyers are fooled any longer; more that they hope that their friends might be fooled when they see it on the wall.

Fancy a Bomberg for £50? Vorticism looks a doddle, given that all you need is a sharp pencil and a decent ruler. I’ve noticed these four in recent weeks (click on them to enlarge) – a “Bomberg” drawing and oil, a “Saunders” watercolour and a “Lewis” drawing. The “Bomberg” drawing wouldn’t fool the mythical five year old, but the other three – all by the same hand, as the digital gold frames indicate – show a superficial familiarity with their targets. But the babyish primary colours of the “Saunders” hardly do justice to her skill as a colourist, and the composition, which attempts to employ her typical boxed shapes, is neither dynamic nor convincing. The “Lewis” pastiches some familiar shapes in the lower half, but the composition unravels towards the top, where shapes fight against the general movement. In the “Bomberg” oil, positive and negative shapes seem oddly out of proportion with each other. One could go on. Hah! Not quite so easy, is it?

With such weaknesses, are these remotely dangerous? You wouldn’t think so, but looking at what some top auction houses get away with these days …

(More Vorticist forgeries in the follow up here.)

A Draft of Unnumberable Cantos

pound“My dear old Ezra,” wrote Wyndham Lewis in 1946 to Ezra Pound, then incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for his wartime support for the Italian regime. “How are you, and what are you doing with yourself? … I am told that you believe yourself to be Napoleon – or is it Mussolini? What a pity you did not choose Buddha while you were about it …”

To T S Eliot, he commented: “Probably … it will be part of the duties of the attendant psychiatrists to read all his Cantos and to encourage him to discuss them.”

In contrast, much online comment on this phase of Pound’s life seems to be solemn hagiography hosted by Odinists, conspiracy theorists or New Righters (read: old fascists), and one hesitates to add to it; but then, his case is so instructive. So here’s a piece of verse concerned with our urge to reconstruct or re-enact the past, a project that must always fall short. It starts in a museum of military costume and ends at the Cannock Chase German war cemetery. Ezra makes a guest appearance along the way.

(Innumerable: too many to count. Unnumberable: resistant to numbering, defying the imposition of historical order.)

A Draft of Unnumberable Cantos

The past lies worn as a workhouse copper token,
surface smooth in generality
but detail slow to hint. We squint
and read it wrong. That captain’s museum hat
was fore and aft, not broadsides;
those lapels are buttoned all awry.
The temper of the times, you see, was finely tuned;
the moment’s mores made a subtle song.

At fifty paces we can clock a re-enactor,
something indefinable being out of true;
the face is similar through centuries
but only superficially,
for each face bears a shade, a twist, a cast,
a tic that tells its time.
An image of a previous thing
must shamefully betray the moment of its making.
In its texture, pose and colouring
its shamming history is softly written.

Meanwhile, anachronisms at our end
annoy the dead. The errant angle
of a buckle or the usage of a kerseymere
(or was it ‘cassimere’?) provokes resentment.
Ghosts are not amused by our uncaring parodies.
We lend them by our fancy dress
such forms of immortality
they find so less than flattering
that, mouthing and invisible
within their darkened abstract cells,
they gob their anger at our future features.

Darn mah hide! says Uncle Ezra,
chawing wad as he adopts a
proper transatlantic posture.
Yew all goffossayken Brits’ll sell
yer hi-toned and historrik former time
(a pause, he spits) fer ten yewzuriuss pence
an turn it into goddam panto.
Do fergive mah pree-zumchewuss rime,
but seems ter me a better bet by far
wd be ter giv it to yer Muse
to reinviggerate within a Canto.

But red is the rope where old Benito hangs
while his ingrate survivors pulp his head,
and narrow’s the cage where the broken poet clings
and scrabbles for a unity among his scraps of text,
and rambling hospital’s the home for him
hit full in the face by history,
who wrestled with the past and stumbled,
missed the date and paid the cost,
capsizing on his river of mysterious dead.

The tiny birds perch out of view.
We hear their sorry bleat, and peer but can’t identify.
Below, on rhododendroned lawns, the German boys
are slatted into lines of alien grey stone;
the dead are all and always very far from home.

cage

© moi, 2013