Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Notes found in the back of a used Beckett anthology

"In each moment there is a question, made up of smaller questions, made up of smaller sub-questions, divided by both the senses and by experience, held together by emotion, logic, reason...Herein lies the playground of the mind, to seek understanding, weighing each answer according to its source, and only by the receipt of information are these moments connected. If by chance the answers aren't enough, or the questions not right, there is no space between then and now, and certainly no time to tell the difference. There is only repetition. Question everything. Experience the best of everything. Forget the questions and remember how you asked them."
These words were very neatly inscribed, as if in a handwriting-imitative font in their precision, at the back of what Layne rescued for me from the children's theatre's abandoned shelves of books, among them the once-ubiquitous utopian 60s picture book of "The Family of Man," Dan Brown's "Angels & Devils," a tattered "The Book" by Alan Watts, the usual thrillers, diet and self-help remainders, decaying tomes of eighty years ago, a random encyclopedia volume, and a photojournalist's display of "Women Under Apartheid." The Beckett's a newer printing than my fragile secondhand one, with a better cover and "acid-free paper," of the 1976 "I Can't Go On, I'll Go On" cheerily titled "A Samuel Beckett Reader."

It has "Godot," naturally, but also a hint of poetry, his "Dante" essay and his early story with the same name, the often overlooked "The Expelled" and "First Love" (his short stories from mid-century I find unjustifiably rather neglected), part one of "Molloy," a little "Unnamable," (why is it spelled such?) and snips from "Watt," "Murphy," and a few plays; I note "Krapp's Last Tape," which reminds me of a Mark E. Smith title. He already used "Repetition" for one of his very first tunes!

Richard Seaver, Beckett's editor, provided a marvelous thirty-five page introduction-reminiscence which I highly recommend. I am not sure if-- when I wrote my small contribution to the heap of commentary on our most discussed author, with the exception of Joyce, of the last century, on "Beckett's Purgatories" published about six years ago-- I noted then Seaver's final reflection:
"For in his dimming landscape, peopled with clowns and misfits, has-beens and ne'er-do-wells, the malformed and the deformed, those on the threshold of death or already on the other side ("I don't remember when I died"), he has created a stark world far different from our own, hardly recognizable, a nether world, a purgatory, or perhaps Antepurgatory, having nothing whatsoever to do with us.

Our world." (xlv)
Those anonymous words penned in the retrieved copy, not sure-- given my present ignorance and lack of time to find out all I wonder about-- if they're from Beckett's oeuvre. They may have escaped from the nameless reader's mind, commonplace book or thespian mentor. Wherever they originated, they reminded me of the little book I'd been studying in that same setting.

Layne and I sat at the theatre next to my wife as we waited out the three-hour-plus Shakespearean-length performance of the kids' play a few Saturday nights ago. I was trying to scrutinize in the dim tracklight a series of reflections by agnostic Stephen Batchelor. (His "Buddhism Without Beliefs" earned a review in this blog earlier this week. I had a slight backlog of blogposts I saved up. So as not to put out a bewildering series of Buddhist entries in a row, I've been interspersing them from my reading with other topics, but of course, me being me, overlaps and intersects and collisions ensue.)

Batchelor, a former Zen and Tibetan (a rare combination of stripped-down and gussied-up?) monk argues for dismissing the clutter around Buddha, karma, rebirth, gurus, and temples. He favors a therapeutic approach akin to a psychologist in his non-denominational, non-theistic guidance. He admits we as with the Buddha do not know what happened or will happen regarding our place in the universe.

He leaves it at that and goes on to push us past sterility, ritual, and codified belief into a bold acceptance of a mature, democratic, and communally responsible morality that renews what has frozen into mantra, temple, and guru. He proposes a confrontation rather than consolation, derived not from salvation or reward but existential honesty. Layne opened up Zoe Heller's novel "The Believers," which to my surprise opened with a perfectly relevant insight from Antonio Gramsci: "The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned."

I didn't expect the Italian Marxist philosopher to grace with a epigram a story about an Orthodox Jewish family's debates, but I find-- the title, duh-- that the novel's all about trying to come to grips with doubts in a society where some recover traditional values and others reach for contemporary starkness, perhaps akin to a harsh lyric by The Fall or a Beckett poem, the pleasures sought by the comparative few. We place The Fall or Beckett in a nebulous "post-modern, post-punk" realm where one speaks of his or her frustration with our culture, our inheritance of ideas, our place in the economic, religious, and political superstructure that towers over us to perhaps crush us. I lack expertise in Gramsci, but I dimly recall he's on to exactly this same post-modern, existential, ideological predicament. How do we go on when we feel we can't go on? How long, O Lord, how long, as the Psalmist once cried out?

Batchelor now joins prominent skeptics, of course, but I suspect from the Scotsman's past in Korean and Tibetan monasteries that his journey towards bracing if discomforting diminishing of truth that we can seek and never cling to took him too from a youth trying to renew tradition-- during perhaps the counter-cultural heyday? His book, to its credit, does not boast about his own revision of his beliefs into their negation. He erases himself to let us into his insights. There, in the heart and mind where true messages wait, he found that, as the Buddha and Jesus both warned, outward displays of piety as Pharisees and lamas, popes and preachers, imams and gurus may indulge in may well cloak only hollowness inside the empty idol worshipped.

(My bedtime reading that kept me up past midnight four nights straight, Martha Sherrill's "The Buddha from Brooklyn," [reviewed by me on Amazon US and here] examines the risks of such veneration. It's as far from Batchelor's vision as the Vatican's from a Quaker house of prayer. A New Age healer becomes singled out by a visiting Tibetan lama as an reincarnated holy woman. Current emanation of suburban middle-class often-divorced, often-remarried, eventually bisexual mom takes on, so to speak, much more than the outward trappings of what becomes a "tulku" most. Credit cards, black leather, tight jeans, and Lee Press-On nails help spread in her curious justification her message to those who will see her name on the bills she generates therefore will earn merit. She gains a $10k monthly income, half the budget of the temple, tax-free thanks to the service and sweat tithed by those who turn from once getting tipsy with their gal-pal to prostrating themselves before "Jetsunma" in the "guru deity" practice and Correct View obedience for living versions of enlightened beings. Such earnest and exhausting (both financially and physically) veneration delights most of her awed or cowed-- and disgusts a few of her weary and cheated-- followers at soon America's largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in 90's Maryland. Sherrill pushes beyond this [un]tidy exposé, however.)

Batchelor's brief but weighty book (I already reviewed it, #104, on Amazon US where for a dozen years it's provoked debate) can be read by anyone, and I think secular and atheist readers might benefit most. In a section on "emptiness," that fundamental teaching of the dharma, he tells us how:
"much of the time we fail to register what is happening here and now. We are reliving an edited version of the past, planning an uncertain future, or indulging in being elsewhere. Or running on automatic pilot, without being conscious at all.

And instead of a coherent personality that stretches back into an unbroken line to a first memory and looks forward to an indefinite future, we discover a self ridden with gaps and ambiguities. Who "I am" appears coherent only because of the monologue we keep repeating, editing, censoring, and embellishing in our heads. (24)
He adds later that we are less the hero of a B-movie starring ourselves but as "more akin to the complex and ambiguous characters who emerge, develop, and suffer across the pages of a novel. There is nothing thinglike about me at all. I am more like an unfolding narrative." (82) Becoming aware of this impels us towards an "ethics of empathy," refusing to cling to habits and routines. We cannot hold on to our ego (cf. Brian Wilson?) to sustain our fragile and evanescent self; rather, Batchelor urges: "Instead of taking ourselves so seriously, we discover the playful irony of a story that has never been told in quite this way before." (83)

Whether the lyrics of The Fall, an article I penned on purgatory and liminality, a happenstance scrawl in a secondhand book, or my current choice between the covers, we all seek, as I do, to construct out of what we find around us our world-view. We try to make "sense" out of the facts and images and sounds and sights in and out of our heads, waking and dreaming. They float away, as insubstantial, but the words remain, as Smith, Batchelor, Beckett, and even the Buddha know, to guide others long after we die and head towards whatever "unnameable" emptiness will embrace us again.

Cartoon: Calvin & Hobbes philosophically sum up their meaning of life. Thanks to this via the superb "Samuel Beckett On-Line Resource Site & Archive Links" Of course, that assiduous compiler also found this, on a " link" with bits from Beckett that Buddhists liked. Out of five pages of observations by various hands (Emily Dickinson's three poems shine terribly pure), Beckett is he who dies with the most quotes wins.

(P.S. See also my matched blog post tomorrow, "Beckett, Buddha, Bees, Beavis & Butthead: 'Sam I Am'".)

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