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.

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