Saturday, 9 May 2009

36. Samuel Beckett - 'Imagination Dead Imagine' (1965)

'No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead, good, imagination dead imagine.'
(Samuel Beckett, First Love and Other Shorts, Grove Press, Inc., 1974, p.63)

This begins a week of short-stories by some of the writers who have informed the way I see things - in terms of literature, life, existence &c.

There is no more appropriate place to begin than with Samuel Beckett, who informed my perceptions of drama more than any other playwright; I cannot quite remember why I selected his Waiting for Godot to write on for a piece of A-Level English Literature coursework, but it may have been a repeat of a Radio 3 production or a reference in the more enlightened music or film press. Whatever it was, I was hooked by the strangeness - captured by the excellent radio production with Alan Howard, Michael Maloney, Simon Russell-Beale and Stratford Johns that I recording off-air onto 2 C90 cassettes. This was something of and about language, its life and death, its interminable and yet vital stasis. Mellifluous dialogues - routines, patter - between Vladimir and Estragon, rueful, hopeful, hopeless - contrasted with the staccato melodramatics of Pozzo. All consumed by the explosive stream of consciousness of Lucky's monologue, ordered to talk at stick point: an avalanche of words only meaningless to the closed-minded; a sensical accumulation of images - 'the tennis' 'the skulls' - coming up with a new theatrical language. Joyce's techniques applied to the soliloquy, taken into the outer realms, defying pat sociological or even psychological explanations.

'Imagination Dead Imagine' is similar to Lucky's soliloquy; rhythmical, precise, yet creating a sense of the boundless when reading it - of a precisely timed language breaking out of the shackles, and communicating something urgent, yet seemingly opaque. As with poetry, it simply must be read out aloud - to get the rhythms, the metre and subtle repetitions. I am working on a reading of this and other short stories, to be posted on here when I can manage it.

Beckett's work is marked by the intense control of language for uncanny effect; he attains a lyricism impossible to convey in standard poetic meter: showing things as they are - how we are compelled to speak. Pinter of course elaborates upon Beckett's techniques, grounding them in a less symbolic, more 'naturalistic' reality, but also stressing the strangeness of phrases, of terms that are loaded with private meaning. The spaces between words as closed-down and irrevocable as his characters' lives - as mapped-out and absurdly fixed as our public spaces are today.

Friday's Newsnight Review contained discussion on the Patrick Stewart - Ian McKellen Godot, and was telling of the state of our culture and its criticism. Paulin was a passionate, incisive advocate of Beckett if not necessarily every aspect of this particular production; then you had Natalie Haynes, who mock-apologetically said that she had never 'got' Beckett, and didn't here. It was a classic contrast of somehow who knows and loves high culture, with somebody who refuses to engage with Beckett's fusing of existentialism, minimalism and Laurel and Hardy routines.

PAULIN. It does it with great, stillness, stasis and authority [...] it takes you into a social, historical and political void very, very strongly.

HAYNES. Maybe it doesn't meaning anything! It's just obtuse.

Haynes spent much of the programme hymning the new Star Trek film, with its emphasis on 'the good guys and the bad guys' - amusingly only remembered by Tom Paulin for the 'pointy ears'. Does meaning have to straightforward and telegraphed? I am afraid that whatever her other views or qualities, I cannot stand smug ignorance when it comes to things like this. All too symbolic of the reaction of most.

I don't think anyone could hope to understand me if they can find nothing in Beckett.


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