meaning

THE CAGE BY MARTIN VAUGHN-JAMES

…I had arrived in what looked like an evacuated city…

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…an abandoned housing block; a burnt out car…

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…she was blonde, beautiful and broken jawed…we fucked badly, or I did, too drunk and too spaced and too sadsacked…she demanded that I spit in her mouth and there was nowhere to escape to…she told me that she had once lived in an area where nondescript businesses were open 23 hours a day, as though one hour only was set aside, for the owners and workers, only one hour for themselves, to rest…

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…the cage is unfinished and already decayed…it stands as before…before, what…an event never for an instant anticipated…before the catastrophe, if you can call it that…the cage is significant only because it remains…it is whole, in a landscape of chaos and destruction…a cube…unfinished and already decayed, but not destroyed…its construction abruptly and inexplicably arrested…it remains…

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…I did not hear “help me”…their names sounded like an order and a surprised reaction…

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…everything is vague…by some event, inexplicably arrested…noises described in detail but not truly accounted for or explained…which may or may not be of some significance…symbols and signs that may or may not be significant…an empty analogy…the cage…

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…and inside…a human head…

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…a labyrinth of distorted signs, which may or may not be signs…builders overtaken in their endeavour by some event…once populated, builders…some order or arrangement is in evidence, although order and arrangement is impossible…everything is chaos, and to live is to futilely attempt to impose order and meaning upon it…an intricate system…

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…I had arrived in what looked like an evacuated city…but it’s all me, in tidal motions…the something I needed was…new death…hallucinating rats…

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…hints at the sinister…broken nails and bloody rags…the suggestion that there is a design, a purpose, an intent…the chaos, the destruction…the air splinters…

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…stealing the beginnings of pornographic videos…

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…eye sores…I pulled out my hair and gave myself bruises…the now obliterated whole…

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…I spat in her mouth in a burnt out car…

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…fragment…looking for answers in rubble and dejecta…

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…the cage stands as before…signifying nothing…

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…unfinished and already decayed…

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HOW IT IS BY SAMUEL BECKETT

How it is. Dear God. How it will be. A few years ago I was outside, walking along, and a large black and white bird – of a type I had never seen before – fell out of a tree and onto the pavement. Straight down. No flutter of wings. No noise, except the dull thud of its body hitting the concrete. It was unhurt, however. I raised my eyebrows, and carried on walking. Coming towards me was a young woman with a pushchair. The pushchair was empty as the child was by her side. As they passed me they noticed the bird. Poor thing. I turned around. They had stopped, and, fearing for the bird’s safety, were trying to usher it off the pavement, and onto some grass. Arms outstretched. Both mother and child. Chik. Tsk. Here. No. There. Unfortunately, the bird did not understand. It ran away from the outstretched arms, the welcoming, protective embrace. And into the road. And under the wheels of a slow-moving car. Crunch. I’d never heard anything like it. Drawn out…Cruuuuuunnnnnch. How it is. How it will be. Dear God.

Whenever I think of this incident, which I do quite frequently, I’m always put in mind of Samuel Beckett. I imagine he would have got a kick out of it, what with the bird being essentially herded towards death. It’s funny. And sad too. Too sad. Towards the end of his career Beckett wrote a series of short, experimental prose pieces, all of which are about the absurdity of the human predicament. Life, old age, death. How it was. How it is. How it will be. All of them are funny. And sad too. Too sad. Of those novels I feel a strong affection for the beautiful Ill Seen Ill Said and Worstward Ho. But I’m not reviewing those. His trilogy – which includes Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable – is the most acclaimed, the most read, it seems. Which is perhaps a lie. For I have been given the impression that The Unnamable is endured more than read. I have, in fact, seen it called The Unreadable. As a joke. Being a contrary arse, I’ve read the unreadable twice. It is my favourite of the trilogy.

How it is, which was published in English in 1964, is often regarded as a kind of companion piece to The Unnamable. Yet I would wager that this has more to do with difficulty than anything else, with how many people struggle to understand or complete both books. You can tell how baffling a book is when you can find nary a single in-depth review of it anywhere on the internet, and that is the case with How It Is. I searched for almost an hour last night and managed to turn up little of any note. Am I going to be the first to give this book a thorough going over? Well, I am not one to shy away from a challenge. I will go on. I must go on. The narrator is lying in the mud, murmuring to the mud: his life: before Pim, with Pim and after Pim. He appears to be almost completely physically incapacitated, being able to move only by crawling, by pulling himself along, in the mud. His possessions are a sack, a tin opener, and some tins of food. It is a typically bizarre Beckettian situation.

“find someone at last someone find you at last live together glued together love each other a little without being loved be loved a little without loving answer that leave it vague leave it dark”

This mud-man scenario could be interpreted as a comment on the nature of human destiny, in that we, in a sense, crawled out of the primeval mud, and will one day return to it. Literally, for in death we eventually become of the earth, of the soil; we become, in the end, as formless as the mud itself. Furthermore, the struggle through the mud is, you might say, comparable to man’s struggle, i.e. that life involves dragging oneself through the dirt, looking for other people, finding them, losing them, eating, shitting, vomiting. How it is. How life is. And there is another kind of struggle, the struggle to give form, or meaning, to one’s existence, in among all that dirt, and the shitting and the vomiting. Who are you? What are you doing? What have you done? What will you do? Before. Now. After. An attempt to give structure to something – life – that is inherently without structure. We all do this. We divide our time on earth arbitrarily – days, weeks, months, years, hours, etc. – and we define our lives and ourselves by arbitrary events, like meeting Pim. There is certainly something in all this.

If one accepts any of what I have been discussing, the style – which I imagine plays a major part in frustrating readers – is appropriate. The novel is presented as a series of very short paragraphs. There is no capitalisation, and no punctuation. Therefore, the book could be said to crawl into being, rather than confidently announce itself. Or perhaps one might argue that it has no real beginning, creating the impression that the man has always been there, in the mud. And what is a beginning? It is an arbitrary moment; it is a product of our desire to impose structure, or form, and meaning upon things. Ah! Despite the man’s efforts, How it Is has no structure or form; it is plotless. Moreover, his thoughts are often [or almost entirely] incoherent, they are muddled, they too are formless, like the mud.

I’m not, of course, positioning myself as an authority on the novel, for there were certainly aspects of it that passed me by [not least Beckett’s own explanation, which I will include as a footnote to this review, and which makes precious little sense to me]; for example, I can’t satisfactorily explain, and feel no real desire to attempt to satisfactorily explain, what is going on with the man and the voice, i.e. what he means when he says ‘I say it as I hear it’ as though there is a kind of distance or disconnect between the two I’s, the mental and physical. Furthermore, this is the one Beckett novel that, as far as I can remember, includes so many references or allusions to religion, and I’m on shaky ground there too. But I’ll go on, I must go on, in any case.

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[Virgil, Dante, and Belacqua]

I may be reaching somewhat but I can’t help but think the key to some of that is to be found in the sole reference to Belacqua. Beckett was, by all accounts, a big fan of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, a poem in three parts [three parts! Before Pim…etc]: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. He was, moreover, especially interested in the [minor] character Belacqua, frequently featuring him in his work, including the More Pricks Less Kicks collection. Dante and Virgil come upon him in Purgatorio, sitting in a fetal position; he is said to be the epitome of indolence or laziness. While you wouldn’t call it indolence, the man in How It Is is not, as noted, the most active. There is that. But the real point of interest, for me, is in which volume this character appears. Purgatory. The intermediate state, or place, between heaven and hell. Perhaps this is is where the mud man finds himself? Having said that, you could equally [or even more persuasively] make a case for him being in the Inferno, in a Dantesque circle of Hell, forced to live in mud as a punishment for past wrongs. Indeed, in the third circle of Hell [Canto IV], a slush falls from the sky and collects on the ground, creating a kind of muddy swamp, in which naked shades howl and roll around. What maybe gives this theory a little extra weight is that the man does speak [or murmur into the mud] about the possibility of going “up there,” a phrase that would suggest to most people [and Beckett must have been aware of this] Heaven. [In truth, I don’t believe any of this].

As I come to the end of this review I realise that I haven’t said anything about how much [or how little] I enjoyed the book. I don’t, I must confess, rate it as highly as, for example, the respected American author William Gass, who chose it as one of his 50 Literary Pillars. I could name at least five Beckett novels I prefer [although being the sixth best Beckett novel is not exactly shameful]. I did occasionally find it moving, and I would hold up the final two or three pages as being as exhilarating as anything I have read, but How It Is did not always hold my attention; there were, as with many genuinely experimental works, moments of tedium, when I was essentially coasting, which means that I was turning pages but not really taking anything in. And there were also times when I had to gee myself up, to pick up and plough on. But I think that was kind of the point, that the author wanted you to struggle, as his mud man struggles.

In a letter (April 6, 1960) to Donald McWhinnie at BBC Radio Drama, Beckett explained his strange text as the product of a ” ‘man’ lying panting in the mud and dark murmuring his ‘life’ as he hears it obscurely uttered by a voice inside him… The noise of his panting fills his ears and it is only when this abates that he can catch and murmur forth a fragment of what is being stated within… It is in the third part that occurs the so-called voice ‘quaqua’, its interiorisation and murmuring forth when the panting stops. That is to say the ‘I’ is from the outset in the third part and the first and second, though stated as heard in the present, already over.”

COSMOS BY WITOLD GOMBROWICZ

Some time ago I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about women, specifically the art of figuring out which ones are interested in you, and he was saying that he never felt confident that he was reading the signs right; and that this lack of confidence, in a sense, paralysed him, so that he rarely approached them. He wanted to know how I managed it. How was it that I was always so sure? Well, I let him in on a little secret: stop worrying about signs, as you’ll only confuse yourself. A glance, a nod, a smile…did she wink?…something in her eye….scratch her nose…which means…did she sigh?…a touch…on the arm…it’s a kind of madness, all this. You can never be certain. Getting a telephone number, like a belief in God, requires a leap of faith. Oh, of course, she can say no…maybe she will say no, it’s entirely possible, but no is an answer, it is concrete, it is not a nod, a glance, a little something in the eye, perhaps. And, please, take the no as a no, don’t try and read the no, for God’s sake.

There is, with us, by which I mean human beings, an obsession, a mania, for signs, for interpretation, for creating narratives out of next to nothing. A girlfriend of mine once said to me, after the break-up, that I had, at a certain point in the relationship, given her a look of disgust, and that in that moment she had known that we were doomed. Doomed! Disgust! My face nearly always looks like that. What can you do? The truth is that I had never felt disgusted by her, of course not, but, ah, the look! And what about science? Holy science! Religion too! It’s all part of the same thing, the same madness: this need to explain, to decipher, to crack codes, to solve, to impose order and form on the world…like reading tealeaves or looking for Jesus on a taco.

“The world was indeed a kind of screen and did not manifest itself other than by passing me on and on—I was just the bouncing ball that objects played with!”

I’ve been a fan of the work of acclaimed Polish author Witold Gombrowicz for some time, having read and enjoyed his amusing philosophical novels Pornografia and Ferdydurke more than once. I had, however, never got around to having a go at Cosmos. It’s too impenetrable, too zany, too dated, was the impression I had been given from the small number of reviews I had encountered. Zany and impenetrable had been my thing at one stage, but I had drifted away from that in recent years, as I rested my feet in the clear and warm waters of nineteenth century literature. And maybe that break has done me good, because I came to Cosmos reenergised, fired up for exactly this kind of book. Zany! Impenetrable!

Cosmos is, on the surface, a detective story. Two students, one of whom is the narrator, are looking for a place to stay when they happen upon a bird that has been hung from a piece of wire. Out of this macabre and surreal discovery a mystery develops. First of all, the men ask themselves, ‘who hung the bird and why?’ It’s not the sort of thing you come across every day, of course. After taking lodgings with the Wojtyses family the men start to notice other unusual things [or potential clues!] – an arrow on the ceiling, a stick, a tree that appears to have been moved – which they believe to be linked, to each other and to the bird. As the narrative progresses they become more and more convinced that there is a meaning or rationale behind it all, a puzzle to be put together and solved, a bigger picture. Is someone playing a game with them? Or trying to tell them something? Or…

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[Hung Bird by Leonard Baskin]

Ah, and so we come full circle, the snake swallows its tail! All because of the ‘or.’ We must deal with that ‘or.’ Of course, someone could be messing around, or sending a message, with the bird, the stick, the tree, but what is far more likely is that Witold and Fuks [the two detectives] are simply seeing something in these random objects that isn’t actually there, or is there only because they have, in a sense, put it there themselves [‘the arrow’, the author suggests, could be merely a scratch that resembles an arrow]. They are imbuing these things with meaning, pumping significance into them; they are imposing order and form upon the world, which is, as noted, something that we, by which I mean human beings, do all the time and can, moreover, be done in relation to absolutely anything; this is, for example, how superstitions are created. As I was reading the book I was also put in mind of modern art, something like Kippenberger’s Wittgenstein, say, which is a shelving unit painted grey. An ordinary shelving unit! And yet people, including the artist himself of course, see something in that shelving unit, some kind of message or comment, some significance; they, yes, pump that grey shelving unit full of significance.

Now that we have come this far, the next question is ‘why?’ Why do we do this? You might argue that we impose meaning on the world because otherwise it would be too overwhelming, too chaotic, too frightening. The world is bigger than us, more powerful; and therefore we need to try and bring it to heel. What is interesting about Cosmos, however, is that Gombrowicz takes the opposing position, which is that an ordered world is overwhelming, that what is terrifying is relentless meaning. He likens this to a swarm. In all of his work he [or his narrator] is fixated on individual body parts – the mugs and pupas in Ferdydurke, for example – and I couldn’t ever quite grasp what he was getting at until I read this novel. It now strikes me that what Gombrowicz was doing was destroying form, destroying human order by breaking people down, pulling them apart. In Cosmos, Witold obsessively focusses on Lena’s hands and lips, and one can’t help but imagine these parts floating, disembodied, in space.

“Not surprisingly, because too much attention to one object leads to distraction, this one object conceals everything else, and when we focus on one point on the map we know that all other points are eluding us.”

I have only read Cosmos once, and so I would not suggest that I understand it completely or that this review has nailed all its themes and ideas. Indeed, I could have burdened you with many more paragraphs, as there are a number of other subjects I would like to explore – coincidence, threads and logical connections, madness and obsession, and  so on – but this review is long enough already, and there are still a couple of points I must briefly touch upon before I finish. First of all, Cosmos has been likened to the work of Samuel Beckett, and I can see why someone would make that comparison, but it is, for me, more like Beckett’s novels drunkenly carousing with Thomas Bernhard’s. I think Gombrowicz was a masterful writer, and stylist, but I will say that he is perhaps an acquired taste [and even I wasn’t keen on some of the Leon babble and nonsense]. Secondly, and most importantly of all, this is a serious contender for the funniest book I have ever read. The Lime Works, by the aforementioned Bernhard, would run it close, and I was greatly amused by both Platonov’s The Foundation Pit and Walser’s The Robber, but Cosmos had me cackling so loud and so frequently my cat is now suffering from PTSD. In fact, the Berg-Bemberg conversation between Witold and Leon [you have to read it, I can’t possibly do it justice here] brought me almost to the point of hysteria. Which, I feel, is something that the author would have approved of.