Tuesday, August 8, 2006

"Sam Beckett's Secrets of Business & Branding Success"

So promises Stephen Brand in Business Horizons, March-April, excerpted in the July Harper's Magazine under the classification of "Revelation." If Machavelli (Makaveli to you) can inspire rappers and Jane Austen sociologists studying mating patterns á la Darwin, then why not? Here's the magnificent seven...

1) Tenacity--SB's "principal personality trait" to, as the 70s poster exhorted us with the dangling kitty, to "hang in there!"
2) Brevity, his "aesthetic trademark" in works so short that "his language was compressed to the point of brevity." Minimalism, for advertising, is compared to saying more with less, or selling class without the chain store ubiquity, as with Armani's understatement.
3) Luck, as in SB's stabbing by the tramp--it figures--in 1938 that Beckett survived, duh. No reason for the crime, our Irish Parisian was told, no motive. Obviously this affected his outlook." Brown opines how "an air of contigency pervades his published work." He notes that luck rarely appears in the MBA curriculum, yet serendipity plays a role--the Wal-Mart greeters were introduced after one store manager's problems with shoplifters.
4) Ambiguity, in his refusal to explain the meaning of his plays--yet (and I have contributed my buzz to the swarm, yes, finally in print after five years gestating in a Dutch printer's devil in Beckett, Joyce & the Art of the Negative on "Beckett's Purgatories"') such is the emptiness of his ouevre that we all can rush in to comment, interpret, and turn (hey, not my PhD) "dissertation-writing drones." Well, indirectly, since my diss. was on purgatory, after all. Brown compares the contradictions of Target selling exclusive product lines to millions, and how unclear meanings attract consumers who love intrigue, intensify involvement, and accumulate committment. I suggested to a student yesterday that why the I-Pod succeeded where the earlier Rio player did not may have been to Apple's cultivation of the cult mentality that commands allegiance among its besotted millions more than this Dell does that I type this on.
5) Paradox shows in the persistence of memory in Beckett's sepia-toned nostalgia. Personally, I think that he is a writer for us as we age; Joyce appeals to the younger soul--even Poldy's only about 40--while Beckett's figures, think of Krapp or Nell or Malone--live in twilight at best. Their crepuscular fading, raging against the dying of the light, shows, Brown suggests, in retrpspection and recycling by dogged PR teams desperately driven to push even capitalism backwards however unaccustomed it may be to that direction.
6) Narrativity shows in the corporate craze for storytelling, and how so many management tomes (usually rather thin it seems to me) are hackneyed versions of the ancient quest myth--as with Star Wars as I tell my literature classes. But happily-ever-after, Brown notes, is insufficient, and corporate cubiculites still await their Joyce, Woolf, or Beckett to chronicle their angst. Although I suggest they read "Bartleby the Scriviner, or a Tale of Wall Street." Many anthologies leave out Melville's subtitle, curiously.
7) Refusal: to alter, adapt, or amend one's work. Take it or leave it, Brown urges his peers. Customers may not always be right, and, perspicaciously, he notes too that a degree of dissatisfaction's also key for consumer desires to be stoked and then cooled. For, why purchase a new product unless the current one has been shown to be outmoded, obsolete, or insufficient?

Brown's summary, however admirable albeit put to the service of a surprising argument and audience, cannot find room for what I'd add. That editrix of that Beckett collection, Colleen, pointed out to me what I agree with: she'd have rather met Beckett than Joyce, as Sam was more compassionate, more moral. The resistance is the most well-known example, but Anthony Cronin's biography tells of other generous gestures, all untrumpeted, none of the handshake at the banquetwhile holding up the enormous check. The bestowal of his Nobel Prize winning on up-and-coming unknowns--a MacArthur grant predecessor?-- and his care for the son of an early liaison and the maintainance of the boy's mother once Sam had been told of the results of his long-ended affair--not to mention Sam's love for a Kerry Blue Terrier!--all endear me to him.

Beckett makes another appearance later in this issue. In John Leonard's reviews of new books--what a lucky monthly column to get to write--he looks in at Robert Greenfield's bio of Timothy Leary (Harcourt, $25). It got savaged in the NY Times, and predictably a handler of his estate and a son both signed a complaint to the Book Review lamenting that the book only harped on the negative but did not accentuate the positive. Hard to do, perhaps, when one of his wives kills herself after he left her, and later a neglected daughter would do the same. Leonard observes, accurately, how feckless--that Oirish word for wouldn't Tim have been left at fourteen by a drunken and womanizing pa himself--the Merry Pranksters were as they went off to Millbrook, dumping the ones who had drank the Kool-Aid off at a Houston loony bin while the survivors drove off playing their mandolins. "One of the reasons America hates the Sixties may be because so many of its performance artists, like Jerry Rubin and Hunter Thompson, were such tiresome clowns, showing off instead of hunkering down." That is, failing to lay the ground for real, lasting, substantial social change rather than the escape beckoning through a sheet of Mickey Moused acid-dipped stamps. Beckett? Well, he refused to meet with our jester as the latter traipsed about on his lysergic Grand Tour.

Lewis Lapham, in his typically mandarin column, does make a similar point this month. The Dems have abdicated their role, over the past quarter-century resembling "a troupe of performance artists capable of little else but the showing of emotion." The scriptwriters, fundraisers, and pols all weep crocodile tears for the little men beaten down and the beasts killed and the tribes decimated, "for any aggrieved interest group that knows where to send the check." Mau-mauing the flak catchers, as our bard Tom Wolfe once put it. "When, however, it comes to the work of restructuring the status quo, they find reasons not to fool around with the heavy machinery--to say nothing possibly unpatriotic or uncivil, to stay the course in Baghdad, vote for the bankruptcy and drug-prescription bills, endorse the windfall tax laws comforting the corporations and the top-tier rich."

I read Dorothy Healey's obit today--once "the Red Queen of Los Angeles" as our hometown rag called her in her heyday. I always wondered how she got the Irish name; she's actually a daughter of Hungarian Jews, and the obit made no mention of a spouse, only a son (who co-founded the DSA--whatever happened to them? I think they got absorbed by the Dems in the time that Clinton was laying the groundwork for his ascension.) At least she had the sense to doubt the party post-56 and to leave it in '68, although she never renounced her communism, only the party version. What makes someone so committed that they spend most of their nine decades totally caught up in radical activism? Does Healey leave a better legacy than Leary?

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