Monthly Archives: May 2015

Watt and ‘faculatif’

Samuel Beckett, in one of many of the letters he sent to Thomas McGreevy:

Genuinely my impression was that it was of little worth because it did not represent a necessity. I mean that it was in some way ‘faculatif’ and that I would have been no worse off for not having written it…Genuinely again, my feeling is, more and more, that the greater part of my poetry, though it may be reasonably felicitous in its choice of forms, fails precisely because it is faculatif. Whereas the 3 or 4 I like…do not and never did give me that impression of being construits.

Two terms that may require translation here are the French terms ‘faculatif,’ and ‘construits.’ ‘Faculatif’ means optional or discretional. ‘Construits,’ can be translated as ‘constructed,’ a term that Beckett uses, both her and in other places regarding the quality of these texts.

One can detect a vague, and uncharacteristically Romantic quality to Beckett’s comments here, as if he wishes to, and has failed to, speak in an authentic manner in his poetry and found himself instead mired in a constructed and somewhat false mode of expression. This is an attitude that scholars are programmed to be suspicious of. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s quotation on the nature of poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ should have been well and truly debunked by anyone who has consulted the manuscript of any writer. Far from being a matter of tuning into a collective unconscious, writing is, in our contemporary milieu, understood as techne.

In The Principles of Art, R.G. Collingwood attempts to maintain this idea of the creative process as above and untainted by the material, doing so by arguing that the poet is, in the act of writing, involved in an experiment with an unforeseeable objective. As the author writes, their approach and direction undergoes changes. What is fundamental to Collingwood’s argument is that no author, from the beginning of their engagement in the creative process is clear on what their text will end up looking like. Collingwood contrasts this creative process with that of the cobbler or other lowly tradesman, who knows exactly what a table, for example, will look like from beginning its creation until its end. The fact that Collingwood frames this binary as an absolute rule should make it fairly clear what an nonsense it is, as is the characterisation of the act of writing a poem as somehow ‘higher’ or more worthy than a trade as ‘grubby’ as carpentry.

I believe this understanding of writing as techne can be meaningfully related to Beckett’s third novel Watt. In another of his letters, Beckett described it as a mere ‘writing exercise,’ written in ‘dribs and drabs’ to pass the time during World War II and the occupation of Paris, characteristic self-deprecation on Beckett’s part.

One early critic of Watt wrote that the protagonist of the novel seems to have internalised the philosophy of René Descartes and analyses his experiences according to a relentlessly Cartesian logic that is ultimately debilitating and comically ridiculous. Watt seems incapable of thinking, he can only calculate. At one point in the novel Watt comes to be employed by Mr Knott and serves him dinner by leaving a dish of stew in an empty room, returning later to find either that Mr Knott has eaten his dinner, or has left some of it, or all of it, uneaten. This leads Watt to twelve potential conclusions as to the various potential permutations of possibility based on the empirical evidence that is available in connexion with what he can observe. There is an equationary quality to Watt’s theories, each variable is accounted for, contains its opposite until there are twelve possible iterations on what Watt observes. I’ll provide two:

1. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
2. Mr Knott was not responsihle for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed,and was content.

This is far from the spotaneous overflow, Watt’s thoughts move almost according to a kind of mathematical logic, achieved by recursively, and deliberately setting different components of the scene in conversation with another in specific orders.

Samuel Beckett’s ‘Murphy’ and Systems

Even from the early stages of his career, Beckett was an author writing against broad swathes of the novelistic tradition as he understood it. Beckett’s narratives undermine and satirise the formal modalities of the novel, with particular attention to its dependence upon rational or ordered fictional worlds; the ‘chloroformed’ tendencies he perceives in Honoré de Balzac, for example. This is not to suggest that every novel written until the early-twentieth century took these mechanisms for granted. Don Quixote (1605), a text that is in some chronologies of the genre cited as the first novel, incorporates into itself a vigorous satirical streak and this deconstructive tendency can be said to be as present in the novel’s history as mimetic writing.

To take the example of his second novel, Murphy, features a protagonist, likewise named Murphy, who is unrelentingly solipsistic. Most of the novel consists of the unrepentantly indigent Murphy resisting his girlfriend Celia’s demands for him to get a job. Murphy prefers instead to pursue self-abnegation, by tying himself securely to a rocking chair in order to subdue the activities of his mind. Beckett dubs this aspirational state, the womb-tomb.

Murphy is also abides by a particular system of living, determined by an astrological horoscope written by Ramaswami Krishnaswami Narayanaswami Suk. Murphy was born under the sign of the Goat, a sign for which Suk provides a number of days and dates that suit those born under the sign of the Goat to begin new endeavours (1936, 1990 and Sundays) and potential dangers they should be aware of (‘Bright’s disease and Grave’s disease, also pains in the neck and feet.’)

This is where Beckett’s satire of systems and those who follow them enter into the novel. One can see that Murphy’s presence in the world of social relations makes it impossible for him to live by pre-ordained structure; there is an apparent asymmetric quality to human relationships that disrupt processes such as these. Suk’s system makes Murphy inaccessible to Celia as well as Miss Counihan, who is in turn pined after by Neary, who also pines after Miss Dwyer, who, oblivious to his affections, craves the attention of

a Flight Lieutenant Ellman, who loves a Miss Farren of Ringsakiddy, who loved a Father Flitt of Ballinclashet, who in all sincerity was bound to acknowledge a certain vocation for a Mrs. West of Passage, who loved Neary.

This endlessly differential network of human desire recalls Paul Murray’s memorable line in his novel Skippy Dies (2010) about how inherent these untethered desires are to human existence:

Our universe, one could almost say, is actually built out of loneliness; and that foundational loneliness persists upwards to haunt every one of its residents.

But, Beckett, not prone to saying things quite so baldly, nests such critiques within Murphy’s formal tendencies, through which his personal disdain for novelistic clockwork universes manifests itself.

Digital Humanities Internship Blog Post #3 – Dissemination and ‘Adding Value’

The following is the third blog post written in order to document progress on ‘The Lost Theatres of Dublin’ internship as part of an MPhil in Digital Humanities and Culture. A fundamental aspect of any project towards its end, whether it is in the digital humanities or otherwise, is a process of ‘stock taking.’ This entails some reflection and consideration of the value that a particular project can be said to have added or created. In this third and final blog post, the added value of this project will be considered aswell as potential plans for the dissemination of the TEI transcription of Joseph Holloway’s Impressions of a Dublin Playgoer (1895-1944) that refer to the Queen’s Theatre. What may be done with this resource in future projects that engage with the resource of this kind will also be touched upon aswell as the relationship that this prospective fully digitised edition of the Impressions will have with the end product of approximately 36000 words that came about as a result of this internship project.

If this project can be said to have added value to Holloway’s Impressions as a resource, it can be said that it provided added accessibility to the parts of the manuscript that have been transcribed. As has been said in previous posts, Holloway’s Impressions can be obtained only from the National Library of Ireland as they are contained within an unpublished manuscript. When excerpts from the Impressions have appeared in print form, they have only done so in a very restricted or partial format because of the variegated quality of its contents. Holloway has been quoted in various studies carried out by theatre historians such as in Christopher Morash’s A History of Irish Theatre 1601-2000 (2002). In contexts such as these, Holloway often proves useful in providing the kind of eyewitness testimony that only his writings in the Impressions can afford. Those excerpts published by the Proscenium Press also mentioned in previous posts appear in a heavily edited form and only feature subject matter deemed to be of interest to academic researchers or theatre historians. Admittedly, they serve as one among a small number of publications that correspond to a particular, post-Celtic revival era in Irish theatrical history that is barely dealt with in comparison to the wealth of literature and criticism produced on the Celtic Revival era.

This project does not necessarily improve on the very partial nature of publications of the Impressions. Like the Proscenium Press edition, this project had a limited scope in transcribing only those parts of the Impressions that dealt with the Queen’s Theatre. Furthermore, in order to feature in the transcription in the first place, it was deemed necessary that they be easily accessible according to Holloway’s idiosyncratic means of indexation. This project also had to operate on a limited time scale as it was being marked as part of a module on an MPhil course. As such, much of its allotted time was spent on coming to grips with the logistics of the resource itself. This was done firstly, in order to navigate it effectively in order to produce the project’s anticipated deliverable, secondly, in to document its idiosyncratic composition so that these potential stumbling blocks could be communicated to others. This was done both for the benefit of those who will be engaging with the resource in the future and in order to present the project and its results, which was a requirement of this internship. These difficulties were essentially a result of having to deal with a resource that is available only in the form of a microfilm held in the National Library of Ireland. Reformatting a manuscript onto microfilm obviously has its advantages, especially when dealing with a manuscript such as Holloway’s, which is, one of a kind. It is an extremely valuable resource. However, moving through a reel, often at high speeds entailed that it became very difficult to lose one’s sense of place. There is no doubt that the manuscript itself would have been more straightforward to navigate, but with the restrictions that accompany the viewing of a manuscript in the NLI, this was not a workable solution.

As this transcription will be disseminated on the digital platform WordPress, each entry will be tagged and it is therefore the case that these excerpts that have been produced will be far more easily accessible than in the form that they appear on the microfilm. It is primarily for this reason that the transcription will be uploaded into segments onto a WordPress site. WordPress was chosen as a publishing platform as it is a low-maintenance content management system. In contrast with more powerful and visually based content management system such as Omeka, it deals primarily in text, which is a means best suited to the dissemination of this project’s sequence of transcriptions. Furthermore, WordPress allows for the input of TEI mark-up in such a way that will not affect the text that the end-user or reader of the blog post encounters, while maintaining the added advantage of not losing the code when it is uploaded to WordPress. WordPress also has the added advantage of allowing one to schedule the date that a particular post will be published, allowing for Holloway’s account of a production to appear on the date that he initially wrote it, whether this be 120, 115 or 95 years ago. When one of these posts appears, a Twitter account will broadcast the publication of a particular post. It is intended that the tweet read: “On this day [x number of years] ago, Joseph Holloway attended [y performance] in the Queen’s Theatre Dublin.” This tweet will then include a link to the post in question. The addition of the date and the provision of the Impressions in a blog format will have the added advantage of engaging a wider group of people, such as amateur historians who would not normally have an interest in literature or theatre history, simply because an anniversary of a particular historical event will be more likely to attract the attention of a member of the general public, in contrast to critics with more specialised interests. It should also be noted that this means of dissemination is being adopted at a time when 100 year anniversaries are gaining a greater centrality in historical discourse surrounding various nations or institutions. One can see this from recent 100-year retrospectives on World War I, the Abbey Theatre’s ‘110 Moments,’ campaign and the upcoming centenary of the 1916 Rising. It should also be noted that many of these campaigns have a strong social media presence in order to generate increased publicity and draw the public’s attention to various events or informative articles about commemoration and their history. It is hoped that through this means of dissemination that mimics the celebration of historical anniversaries of prominence in public discourse that there will be an increase in interest surrounding Irish theatre and the Impressions in particular. By spreading information about the diaries through social media it is also hoped that the transcribed excerpts will then be of benefit to researchers in Irish theatre.

At the time of writing, it is anticipated that a fully digitised version of the Impressions is to be produced through a crowdsourcing model along the lines of transcription projects such as ‘Transcribe Bentham’ or ‘Letters of 1916.’ The planning of this project is still very much in the preliminary stages but if this initiative is to go ahead it is anticipated that it will make use of a TEI schema in much the same way that other successful crowdsourcing projects have in the past. If this is to be done it is recommended that the TEI schema that has been produced and justified in this internship’s second blog post will be maintained, not only so that the TEI document that this project produced will have proved useful but also because the features that have been marked up, names of actors, playwrights, dates of performances and titles of plays can make the text easily indexable and flag features of the text that will be important to critics, historians and amateur researchers. It should also be noted that were this crowdsourcing initiative to take place as planned, the social media presence of the Holloway diaries, the drawing of people’s attention to various anniversaries of particular performances would be an invaluable feature of this project’s crowdsourcing initiative and driving of potential contributors to the site. this would serve as an example of content which could increase and develop people’s interest in the content of Holloway’s manuscripts.

Permission was applied for from the National Library of Ireland for usage of excerpts from the Impressions for a blog site. This permission for usage is pending at the time of writing, but work will begin on the uploading of the transcription into WordPress once it has been granted.