Tag Archives: late style

Samuel Beckett – Molloy (1951)

First of the trilogy is divided in two chapters, both extended monologues. The first is from the vagrant Molloy’s perspective, broken into two paragraphs, one about 1.5 pages long, the second about 75. He is at his mother’s house. From there, he narrates his journey to that house…journey on road, runs off Madame Lousse’s dog with a bike, goes to Lousse’s house to convalesce, leaves, goes to forest without bike, encounters shepherd, gets lost in forest, kills someone, but eventually sees the light of day once gain. The second monologue is from Jacques Moran’s perspective. He is a detective who goes with his son to look for Molloy, a mission given to whom by Youdi via the messenger Gaber. They set off one evening for Bally (Molloy’s country), pitcha  tent in the forest, Moran’s knee starts hurting, sends his son to get a bike, kills a man while his son is away, son returns with bike and they make it to city, son deserts him, he wanders but eventually follows orders to go back home and write a report. He gets there and writes the first lines of the account.

Narrative frame and time: both stories foreground the retrospective narration. Moran’s narrative begins with “It is midnight. The rain is beating on the window,” and ends with the same two sentences with the coda “It was not midnight. It was not raining.” This comes just after he claims to be better understanding “the language” of the voice that comes to him from apparently nowhere >> the point is that the time (And action) of narration is a real and present counterfactual to the time and action of the plot. The final “It was” plays on the indeterminate past tesne: does it refer to the time of writing or the time of the plot? Past and present are thereby unhinged from their normal coordination with plot vs. writing. Compare with The Good Soldier and Lord Jim, for example, where that sort of temporal ordering is confusing but nevertheless stable. Molloy comments on this early on: “It is so easy to speak in the present tense, when speaking of the past. It is the mythological present.” Curious to see the sort of equivalence of all identity and things and time, etc. as achieving some sort of epic or mythic status in this novel….” Contrast to Joyce and Eliot.

Identity: Identity is bound up with power relations and, relatedly, territory and possessions. Not to mention the relation between Molloy and Moran (strangely similar life experiences), each of these characters have unstable ego-boundaries which they are obsessed with marking out the contours of. “here’s my beginning,” says Molloy, and it is as if marking out the contours of his story somehow doubles the process of forging a cohesive identity. he fails on both ends. This is of course related to the Cartesianism that Beckett would play with in Murphy, but whereas as that remains a more or less negative approach to philosophy attempting to divide mind and body, here we see Beckett showing how characters (and readers, too) begin to build up identities through the material and social worlds. This often takes the form of life as decomposition itself (Molly seems to melt into the garden at Lousse’s house; as Moran’s body breaks down, is limbs become detached and he has a moment of clarity abotu who he is). Molly says, “To decompose is to live, too” (25). Moran calls the world “slow and massive,” something that must be joined along with the “ponderous oxen.” But it also a move not emphasize the stable contours of Cartesian ego, but instead to emphasize its plasticity as it extends in various ways in the world. Molloy actually calls the mind a “lump of melting wax,” which combines these ideas of decay with that of plasticity.

Passages to remember:

The sucking stones passage: think of as basic units of property that expand and contract without any recognition. Their circulation is also arbitrary. Further, it is one of the many scenes that Deleuze would identify as “exhaustion,” thus connecting it to the biscuits in Murphy and the iteration of mothers and fathers, etc. in Watt.

When Moran talks about the stories he would tell, of “Murphy, Watt, Mercier, etc.” which positions Moran as an author of sorts. “A gallery of moribunds,” he calls them.

To get out of the forest, having heard that men accidentally walk in circles, Molloy decides to walk (or crawl) in circles in order to walk in a straight line out of the forest. It eventually works. Connect this to the logic of the narrative. But also to Finnegan’s Wake opening and ending, as well as the opening of The Cantos. They somehow begin mid-cricle. Also, perhaps, the Four Quartets (the end is our beginning, knowing it for the first time, etc.)

Molloy calls the asshole the “true portal of our being” and the “symbol of all those passed over in silence” (80).

Walter Pater – Marius the Epicurean (1885)

In lieu of a plot summary (which would amount to very little: Countryside, Flavian, Aurelius, Rome, Fire), some questions:

How is their a built-in poetics in a novel that consciously moves away from poetry to prose…as the form appropriate to late Rome (historically transitioning from Paganism to Christianity)?

The novel searches for the good in terms of particular generic aesthetics (porse, poetry, philosophy, etc..): so what exactly is the relation between poesis and ethos? And even though it’s about different genres, there is a question about the form of a novel that tries to hold all these genres together. For instance, what about plot? What about character? Can we think of the interiority of Marius, Aurelius, Cornelius, Flavian, etc.? Relate this to the larger question fo inside and outside…is there a counter-psychology at work that disallows the very production of the “novelistic?” Is this what it means to write a properly historical novel? Need to think about how the past and memory work together (the act of remembering doesn’t really enter the picture, but rather casts it homogenizing hue over the entirety of the novel: Greece, Rome, Shakespeare, Goethe: all exist within the same representational field. Perhaps relate this to Waverly’s “sixty years since” or Middlemarch’s “thirty years” or the practice of historical fiction-making in Scott’s Redgauntlet.

It is impossible to measure the distance between discoure and story. Contrast with Dorian Gray, which is plotless but turns into an adventure novel at the end. Marius does have a fire at the end but it doesn’t resolve much.

Talk about how narrative authority is established–the spatial or temporal distance that is necessary for taking up a narratorial position.

Is Culture synchronic (structural) or diachronic (historical). The answer is always something like structural-historical. Is infinity a synthesis of these positions?

Chapter 5 is about the golden book, the book of books. It plays a crucial role in Marius’ education–in short, “it awakened the poetic or romantic capacity…It made, in that visonary reception of every-day life, the seer, more especially, of a revelation in colour and form” (38). Relate this to the yellow book in Dorian Gray, and also to the golden water in Mill on the Floss, and the golden hair of Sydney Carton’s imaginary son.

Talk about the politics of pastoral: what does it mean to treat the Greeks like children. Discuss the difference between mode and genre. Pastoral mode in a novelistic genre?

How does Pater’s history of a historical transition tell the history of a contemporary transition? What happens when the ontological “perpetual flux” of elemental forces overflows: abolishing historical coordinates and the division between subject and object? And how can one form an ethical relationship to this flux? Does one join it, experience it, attempt to represent it? Can relate this Auror Leigh.


Ann Banfield – Beckett’s Tattered Syntax (2004)

Beckett’s work accuses this compensatory wisdom of preventing “suffering…[from] open[ing] a window in the real (Proust, 28). But it is inly via conception of history, both personal and literary, that runs counter to the myth of progress–“in spite of the strides of alimentation and defecation”–that all can “change utterly,” that an individual might escape the round of generation, that “the object of desire might be perceived as particular and unique and merely the member of a family” (proust, 22), that art can find a language to say something new…Beckett’s linguistic crisis is hence one of the mother tongue. (7)

Here we are returned to the theme f generation. Beckett pares down the reproductive organs  over and again to the digestive processes of the most primitive and rudimentary  organism, ‘‘Worm’’; generation is ‘‘a question of elimination’’ (Unnamable, 365).  The model is a conduit with an aperture—mouth, ear, eye, or the hole Molloy’s  ‘‘muse’’ makes him mention—at either end, for the entrance or exit of substances:  variously air, liquid, or solid. Moreover, there is no difference between entrance and  exit. This gives ‘‘the anatomy the geometry’’ of  How It Is (55), where the series of individuals in the mud are linked by ‘‘contact of mouth and ear’’ (140). Engender- ing is ‘‘pumping one’s likes,’’ the infinite series of‘ ‘brotherly likes,’’ Murphy, Molloy,  Malone, Mercier and Camier, Pim, Pam, Bem, Bom, Kram, Krim, Skom, Skum: ‘‘We are talking of a procession advancing in jerks or spasms like shit in the guts  till one wonders…if we shall not end…by being shat into the open air’’ (How It Is, 124). (9)

This same model produces language similarly via the conduit, speakers ‘‘launching their voices, through the hole, there must be a hole for the voices too’’ (Unnamable, 359). ‘‘Two holes and me in the middle, slightly choked. Or a single  one, entrance and exit, where the words swarm and jostle like ants.’ ’Words ‘‘keep pouring out of my mouth,’’ the Unnamable says, ‘‘dribbling,’’ or, alternatively,  ‘‘ramming a set of words down your gullet,’’ you are ‘‘branded as belonging to their breed’’ (Unnamable, 310,324). (9)

We can hypothesize that the minimalism of Beckett’s late style is a result of an attempt to create an art made largely out of syntacticon, while scarcely exploiting the dictionary–forming what Beckett calls “tattered syntaxes” or “syntaxes up ended.” (17)

For it is the proper name that fails first. Only a language weaned of such productive categories, like that of Swift’s Struldburgs, can “back unsay” and write the elegy for the lost mother tongue in a pure grammar, accomplishing the revolution of the syntax. It produces a work of memory in which the series of fathers and mothers is replaced by a losswards history. (23)

Yeats – The Circus Animals’ Desertion (1939)

This is one of the most depressing titles in poetry, and most of the poem is similarly so. It is a late poem (literally the last poem in Last Poems). In it Yeats paints a sobering portrait of an aging artist (the ring leader and Yeats himself) profoundly disenchanted with his trade. The central problem revolves around his inability to forge a work of art (the performance or, for Yeats, a poem) out of the characters and tropes at his disposal: circus animals, stilted boys, burnished chariots, “lion and woman and Lord knows what…” Yeats was always anxious about his poetic symbolism–look at the short poem “The Coat” to see how he renounces “old mythologies” and decides that “there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.” I think it’s crucial while reading this poem to imagine Yeats himself looking back at his own oeuvre, questioning the deployment of his own constellation of characters and tropes. Read in this way, the poem is thoroughly post-modern, a poem about writing poems.

I was most impressed by the closing strophe of this poem, but I’m posting the whole thing–it’s not too long, and it’s necessary if one is going to fully appreciate the stunning finale.

The Circus Animals’ Desertion


I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.


What can I but enumerate old themes,
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride.

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
‘The Countess Cathleen’ was the name I gave it;
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.


Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

I only recently discovered that Yeats wrote that last line, even though it’s quite famous. I became acquainted with it while working at Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, where it is inscribed above one of the door frames. I think Allen Ginsberg called S&Co. “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” A great image. Anyway, back to the poem…

In the first section, the ringmaster, “being but a broken man,” is struggling between sticking to his trade (seeking a theme) or being “satisfied with [his] heart.” The second section opens with a depressing revelation: “What can I but enumerate old things.” I don’t believe this means that he has run dry of creativity; rather, much more darkly, he is wondering whether he has ever produced anything truly original. After recalling the themes which have defined his career (by the way, these stanzas make direct references to Yeats’s early work), a kernel of self-knowledge comes in the third stanza of the second section:

It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.

The ringmaster is questioning the validity of the abstract ideals he has represented with the “players and painted stage.” Having become enchanted by “the dream,” his art became disconnected with reality to the degree that its relevance and potency waned. It had become hollow, a play of masks symbolizing nothing. That said, there is beauty in the representation:

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?

A bit of back-patting on the part of Yeats (calling his poetry “masterful”) before asking a question that has been asked many, many times by many, many poets. Where does poetry come from? Or, What is the source of inspiration? For Yeats, who has just described the emptiness of a poetic system committed to the abstract and ethereal, the answer is thoroughly anti-Romantic. No fountains of knowledge, no vague notions of genius, no imagination “bodying forth.” What is the origin of poetry?

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till.

Where are the sweeping vistas of the Lake District? Where are the existential crises of Hamlet? Where are the gods? Where is the Muse? Where are the fatefully beautiful women? Where are the warriors? Where is the impossible love? Where is the innocent child? Without them, what is the poet to do?

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

I suppose this final retreat into the self is somewhat Romantic–but Yeats’s portrait of the artist’s interior is not at all. Deprived of access to the ethereal realms (the ladder is gone), he must finally be “satisfied with [his] heart”–here described as a foul rag and bone shop.

I like to think of this as a response to a goal Yeats set for himself earlier in his career in “The Fisherman.” Speaking of the eponymous character, he cries,

‘Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.’

Yeats – Under Ben Bulben (1938)

One of Yeats’ last poems, it confronts his death directly by infamously describing his resting place using his own name. Though that happens in the final stanza, one can imagine beyond-death as the perspective adopted by Yeats in the poem as a whole. Aging has always been an issue for Yeats, and here we see an almost anxious rush to get to that place from which full meaning can be finally articulated. The first stanza therefore opens with an invocation of Sages, Witches, “immortality,” who gather at Ben Bulben: “Here’s the gist of what they mean.” The frankness with which Yeats invokes the reading of the symbol (as he had in Lapis Lazuli when looking a the sculpture of the men and the bird) indicates a “completeness” that has been won in time. In the second stanza, the complete cycle of life is drawn:

Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all.

The return to national myth is striking after it’s been absent since about 1910. The aesthetic return therefore mirrors the cycles of mankind itself. But this isn;t so much reincarnation as the production of memory by way “monuments of unageing intellect”: “They but thrust their buried men . Back in the human mind again. Poetry, which very similar to the process of burial and memorial, is that which accomplishes “the profane perfection of mankind.” In the fifth stanza, Yeats excoriates the poetry of the day–“All out of shape from toe to top”–the image connects with Yeats’ earlier “Coat” which reached from toe to throat. Perhaps this worry over form is the reason much of this poem (barring the beginning and end) is heroic couplets. We see a repositioning, a reversion, to older concept of “heroism that excises Crazy Jane from the process of development. The final stanze sees Yeats dead. There are no rhymes until the reading of the gravestone, written by Yeats: which rhymes ABA, a perfect circle, or triad that manges to convey the sort of resignation to cycles (gyres) that yeats poems have been leading to.

Yeats – Lapis Lazuli (1938)

From New Poems (1938), this poem’s title refers to a blue rock that serves as the medium of a sculpture given to him by Harry Clifton (to whom the poem is dedicated). Opens with an indictment of detached artists by “hysterical women,” who claims that l’art pour l’art has no place within the context of the impending second world war. Yeats calls for a poetry that engages catastrophe, but refrains from adopting the tragic as its final note. The poem will come around to a “tragic joy” that is achieved in and through the human capacity to create.

The long second stanza talks about Shakespearean tragedy, and introduces “gay” as a crucial word: Gaiety transfiguring all that dread. This gaiety is Nietzschean in its ability to affirm. The poem engages in this affirmation through a rewriting of “The Second Coming”:

All things fall and built again
And those that build them again are gay.

This locates a certain joy amidst the process of historical, political and aesthetic tragedy. The final stanzas describe the Lapis Lazuli sculpture in detail. The importing of an Eastern sculpture directly rewrites Keats “Grecian Urn,” thereby offsetting the Western “solution” of the static truth-beauty onto an Eastern paradigm of Eternal Recurrence. In the temple, where Yeats imagines the “Chinamen” going, they engage in a song of worship, suitably rustic:

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

The repetition of eyes is curious in the context of modernism’s exaltation of vision as the medium of aesthetic judgment (cf. Conrad, Ford, etc.). Also, the statue which started the revelry ends by producing a song, thus securing for lyric a privileged status. Lastly, ancient and glittering recall Yeats early work: the fish in Wandering Aengus is glittering, and everything is ancient. Here we have a return, a resignation, a joy, one that has been hard won.

Yeats – Crazy Jane poems (1933)

As a whole, these poems, which appeared in Words for Music Perhaps, continue the theme of Dialogue between self and soul, but locate the resolution of that poem in the figure of Jane, whose insanity becomes coextensive with a sort of natural, pre-reflective knowledge, won by long experience. The idea of “the hero” get here re-written for the last time: from the early magic, to the political martyr, to the metaphysical traveler, and now to the folk woman who will not separate body and soul. Formally, Yeats has progressed from the lyric, to the ode, and now to the ballad. Read Jane as mask for Yeats, in which a certain unity of self and soul is achieved in the form of folk peasant–in tradition of Shakespeare’s fool.

“Crazy Jane and the Bishop” – Sets out the primary tensions between Jane and the Bishop, the latter associated with cant and prohibition: “Yet he, an old book in his fist, / Cried that we lived like beast and beast.” The refrains act as a sort of tragic chorus, offering at times consolation, and at other times ironic sympathy.

“Crazy Jane on the Day of Judgment” – Ambiguous whether it is Jane or the Bishop doing the judging. Contrasts Jane (hero) with Jack (common man). Opening stanza is important:

‘Love is all
That cannot take the whole
Body and Soul’;
And that is what Jane said.

Read this in dialogue with “Dialogue of Self and Soul.”

“Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” – Tells of an event when Jane and the Bishop are much older. That they are talking rather than connected with a mere “and,” as in the first Jane poem, points to the agency that Jane has taken on. She claims that “Fair and foul are near of kin, / And fair needs fowl,” which is moving to a final stanza that will rewrite Keats “Ode to Melancholy” (even in the very Temple of delight veiled melancholy hath her sovereign shrine) in terms of Love and excrement:

A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.

Can relate this Stephen Dedalus’s refrain: “no reconciliation without s sundering,” but also to the project of mimesis more generally (cracked looking-glass, etc.) .Pairing “sole” and “whole” together is counterintuitive, but begins to point to the assumptions behind modernist commitments to autonomy, etc.

“Crazy Jane Gown Old Looks at the Dancers” – Connect with “Among School Children” line: cannot tell the dancer from the dance. Crucially, Jane is not dancing, but remembers a times when “I had limbs to try / Such a dance as there was danced.” The danger of such a dance–“Love is like a lion’s tooth”–is palpable in the opening lines: As though to strangle her, not scream,” etc. This danse macabre achieves an incredible intersubjectivity conditioned on incredible violence. The rhyme scheme (ABACACB) is most formall tight of all the Jane poems (it is also the last) marking out a curious formal trajectory/progress that the idea of the ballad seems to work against. Such is th perspective of the aged.