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Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Samuel Beckett: Worstward Ho


Great Depression 2008: photographer unknown (via marketoracle)

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

First the body. No. First the place. No. First both. Now either. Now the other. Sick of the either try the other. Sick of it back sick of the either. So on. Somehow on. Till sick of both. Throw up and go. Where neither. Till sick of there. Throw up and back. The body again. Where none. The place again. Where none. Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for good. Where neither for good. Good and all.

It stands. What? Yes. Say it stands. Had to up in the end and stand. Say bones. No bones but say bones. Say ground. No ground but say ground. So as to say pain. No mind and pain? Say yes that the bones may pain till no choice but stand. Somehow up and stand. Or better worse remains. Say remains of mind where none to permit of pain. Pain of bones till no choice but up and stand. Somehow up. Somehow stand. Remains of mind where none for the sake of pain. Here of bones. Other examples if needs must. Of pain. Relief from. Change of.

All of old. Nothing else ever. But never so failed. Worse failed. With care never worse failed.

Dim light source unknown. Know minimum. Know nothing no. Too much to hope. At most mere minimum. Meremost minimum.

No choice but stand. Somehow up and stand. Somehow stand. That or groan. The groan so long on its way. No. No groan. Simply pain. Simply up. A time when try how. Try see. Try say. How first it lay. Then somehow knelt. Bit by bit. Then on from there. Bit by bit. Till up at last. Not now. Fail better worse now.

Another. Say another. Head sunk on crippled hands. Vertex vertical. Eyes clenched. Seat of all. Germ of all.

No future in this. Alas yes.

J.P. Morgan Co. Building, Wall Street: photo by Paul Strand, 1915

Samuel Beckett: from Worstward Ho (1984)


Anonymous said...

I don't know what Strand was thinking about when he composed the Wall Street photo in 1915, but paired with the Great Depression photo and the Beckett excerpt, it really closes around and completes the mood here, which reflects my mood, the mood I am fighting (like the Worstword Ho monologist: "Say bones. No bones but say bones"). I ran into a neighbor the other night, a conservative old German banker who has lived in the US since the early 1960s. He recommended seeing Inside Job and told me that he felt it was entirely fair and accurate and that it chagrined (too mild a word) him saying so.

TC said...

Curtis, well, whatever he was thinking, it was certainly applicable in all sorts of mysterious ways which keep changing as history unravels and proves the vision behind the photograph to be perfectly true.

Angelica, whose family had a few bankers (Austrian not German), back in the days before that old Europe fell to ruin, was able to watch The Inside Job all the way through, which I was not. She found most dismaying the evidence that most of the major perpetrators of a vast national/global catastrophe had not only managed to keep their positions, but were now doing even better than before, thank you very much.

My own reaction began with the first formally telling shots of Iceland during the financial meltdown and the first grim voiceover sentences out of Matt Damon's mouth -- an overwhelming sense of whatever might be the progeny of the marriage of chagrin with a deep fatalism that continues to feel around in the dark for the door even when it knows the room has been hermetically sealed, long long ago.

(Then again, only a few short hours ago I was thinking it might not be so unpleasant to be a dried wort, and this seems to be following out that earlier dried-wort thought, i.e. it's possible that it might not be so bad to be a mummy. But then all the necessary oils and balms and herbs might by now have become so costly that only a bank president or corporate CEO could afford the luxury.)


Tom and Curtis,

Yes, amazing Paul Strand photo -- those massive walls, cavernous black windows, humans trudging on. . . . "No matter. Try again."


light coming into fog against invisible
ridge, black shapes of leaves on branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

immediately visible element,
one at top of picture

which sensation of flatness,
still, is not subject

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
whiteness of gull flapping toward point

Curtis Faville said...

The Strand photo's power is its visual language, but then it was only possible because its components did in fact exist. IOW, the photo doesn't prove much beyond the symbolic framing of its imagery. A photograph of a farmer tilling his soil carries essentially the same message--either futile, or messianic, depending upon one's predispositions. I'm sure the people who have worked on Wall Street over the last century mostly felt good about having jobs, and participating in the great trading-room in the sky. Chasing money may be absurd, but so is starving. Ask people who stood in bread lines in the 1930's.

The Globalization nightmare. Its effects will continue as long as we buy into the "one world" nonsense, where half the countries are playing "by the rules" and the other half isn't. The "efficient" capital exploitation envisioned by Adam Smith is finally reaching its ultimate world realization, and the consequences won't be pretty. Welcome to the future.

Anonymous said...

Hi Curtis. Of course you're right about the excellent Strand photo. It is what it is and could suggest something different in another context. Waking up to it in this particular context affected me powerfully. (I must say that waking up to Worstward Ho was quite something.) I really loved (and was expecting and am grateful for) Steve's elegant, subtle and precise poem, which really helped put me on the page today. I'm interested in hearing that Tom couldn't sit all the way through Inside Job. I'm not sure how I'll feel. Perhaps I'll just content myself with reading about it. I'm ultra-enervated about this stuff all the time anyway and am not sure I could stand being hectored by a Matt Damon voiceover. (I understand why producers seek out "name" voices, but the practice carries implications that using less familiar professional voices doesn't.) Shortly after speaking to my German banker friend (this occurred at a lovely Christmas party last weekend), I had a conversation with a person I've mentioned before who was one of the Goldman Sachs witnesses at the Congressional hearings earlier this year, who, as Tom mentioned, is doing even better than before. It was hard to know what to say apart from relating that from a professional point of view I thought he performed very effectively at the hearings. Anything else wouldn't have been appropriate. I've known this person for years, but I have no idea what his broad view of life might be. As Curtis says, I think he feels good about having a job and performing up to high professional standard.

TC said...

Beckett was in his late seventies when, on 9 August 1981, after having coffee on a Sunday morning in Paris with his German publisher, he addressed for the first time in many years the project of writing a new prose work in English. After that meeting he wrote three short paragraphs, included in this excerpt. He began by copying out into his commonplace book three passages from Edgar's speech in King Lear: "The lamentable change is from the best/The worst returns to laughter"; "Who is't can say, I am the worst"; "The worst is not so long as one can say,/ This is the worst." For some time he referred in letters to the work in progress as "Better worse". As his biographer James Knowlson suggests, "The will to 'fail better' provided this text with its initial impetus. And, in order to fail better, the strategy Beckett adopted was to strive for the worst."

As Knowlson acknowledges and as is plain from the work, the impulse to express, here, remains as powerful with Beckett as ever, and the sources of the pain and difficulty expressed may be found in biographical incident -- though deeply buried, mutated, distanced, depersonalized and sea-changed, as ever in the greatest works of this very great writer. (And I consider this to be one of his very greatest works.)

The inspiration, if that's the word, for this post came from the intimate experience of physical discomfort, in the wake of a very nasty recent accident. In this condition, it is not hard to make out the echoing reverberations of the black humour and universal realism perceived by Beckett in in Edgar's observation, "The worst is not so long as one can say,/ This is the worst."

As for the rest, the flat-earth thinking implied in a comment like "as long as we buy into the 'one world' nonsense" is hard to take seriously. One may regret having been stuck in the barrel that went over Niagara Falls, but for a blogger to suggest that escaping and swimming back up is somehow an option -- what can one say?

TC said...

About the Strand photo, certainly much of its greatness derives from its resistance to facile interpretation, but to suggest that all interpretation is entirely a matter of "predisposition" seems questionable, and possibly a symptom of the familiar contemporary condition known as "need to put people right on the internet".

The following remarks on the photo, by Mark Stevens in New York Magazine, 5.30.98, seem sensible enough from here:

"Strand had much too fine a sensibility to force meaning or ideas into an image. In the great portraits of people on the street, for example, there is never any heavy-handed message about the downtrodden.

"Nowhere is this more true than in Wall Street, 1915, one the greatest photographs of the twentieth century. There are so many whispers in this picture, so many resonant implications in the relation between the rush-hour pedestrians and the bleak windows of the Morgan bank. To begin with, this is not a random crowd: The pedestrians walk in small groups that mirror, loosely, the progression of severe rectangular windows. A brilliant diagonal beam of white -- shooting across the image -- enhances our sensation of movement and establishes a no-man’s-land between the personal and the abstract. What is the nature of the conversation between humanity and these monumental windows? Some critics consider the picture a critique of capitalism, but the photograph transcends any such interpretation. In contrast to most windows in art, these open into darkness. The image is a fearful intimation of tragedy, a presentiment of a century of spiritual crisis. You can see foreshadowed the inhuman scale of totalitarian power; the emptying of traditional meaning into the void; the cranking of human beings into the geometric maw of modernity. This is a modern meditation, in short, upon death, power, and time.

"Strand could not possibly have set out with such a grand purpose. But he was not just lucky, either. An image like Wall Street, 1915 came to him because he was ready."