Unreal Nature

February 12, 2016

Art and the Academy

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:39 am

… For the Beckett of the 1930s, art is the name for radical immediacy — that which cannot be approximated, expropriated or unseated from itself, precisely because it has no self-subsistence.

Continuing through Beckett, Modernism and the Material Imagination by Steven Connor (2014):

… The struggles to be and say that absorb Beckett are regularly represented as struggles to learn and know. Through the length and breadth of Beckett’s writing, the pretentiousness and vanity of scholarship are routinely mocked. In Malone Dies, Saposcar toils ineffectually to become the academic high-flyer his parents wish for.

[line break added] Called up on to think, Waiting for Godot‘s Lucky produces a panic-stammering, Tourettish outpouring of vacuous philosophical jargon. In characterizing the relation between The Unnamable‘s Mahood and the ‘college of tyrants’ who struggle to impart to him the lessons of how to have been a human being, Beckett glosses his own condition as a writer, in which pedagogy is always an issue:

[T]hey gave me to understand I was making progress. Well done, sonny, that will be all for today, run along now back to your dark and see you tomorrow. And there I am, with my white beard, sitting among the children, babbling, cringing from the rod. I’ll die in the lower third, bowed down with years and impositions, four foot tall again, like when I had a future, bare-legged in my old black pinafore, wetting my drawers. Pupil Mahood, for the twenty-five thousandth time, what is a mammal? And I’ll fall down dead, worn out by the rudiments.

… Nobody could ever accuse Beckett of wearing his learning lightly. Where Joyce was an unabashed pilferer and pillager of ideas and arguments, Beckett wrapped his allusions up in an air of patrician mystery. Where Joyce’s writing honestly invokes and invites the ingenuity of the crossword-solver, at one point even invoking the name of Beckett in his encouragements to the perplexed reader — ‘Bethicket me for a stump of a beech if I have the poultriest notion what the farest it all means,’ Beckett’s erudition is intended to mock and lock out ‘the great crossword public.’

… Prior to his imperfectly executed policy of noncompliance with criticism, Beckett formed a kind of credo designed to keep his work clear of the avaricious clutches of the academy. This is the argument that, because art is of the order of the irrational, it has nothing to do with ‘doctoracy’ and the vulgar agonies of the dissertation. This creed seems first to emerge in Proust, and then to be articulated in splinters through the 1930s reviews, finally being informally formalized in the Three Dialogues.

[line break added] The claim for the irrationality of art is designed most of all to establish a kind of sovereignty by subtraction. Art is what is left after the work of explication and making clear has surrendered or receded. Not only is art ineffably untranslatable into any terms but its own, this undefinability is the only definition left of it. Poetry, Beckett writes in his review of Denis Devlin’s Intercessions (almost as though he were denying the title of the collection) must be ‘free to be derided (or not) on its own terms and not in those of the politicians, antiquaries (Geleerte) and zealots.’

[line break added] What matters most about art is its inexplicability, its incomparability, its nonexchangeability with anything but itself. Hence Beckett’s remark after a quotation from Devlin, ‘If I knew of any recent writing to compare with this I should not do so.’ For the Beckett of the 1930s, art is the name for radical immediacy — that which cannot be approximated, expropriated or unseated from itself, precisely because it has no self-subsistence.

[ … ]

… There is a striking parallel between the great theme with which modernist writers and artists wrestled, namely the question of what kind of distinctiveness or autonomy art might be said to have in a world of commodities, consumption and corporate power, and the academy’s self-reflections. What is more, the two are intertwined.

[line break added] Art and the academy are twins as well as antagonists. The autonomy and the sovereignty of the artist on the one hand and the academic on the other are maintained through a reciprocally defining distance; the artist is free of the encumbrances and accountabilities of the academic; the academic is free of the unknowingness, that is, of the false freedom of the artist.

My most recent previous post from Connor’s book is here.

-Julie

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