Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Deleuze, Bacon, Beckett, and Minnis

[Note: This post was written by James Pate.]

Below I’ve posted sections from a paper I delivered at the &Now conference in Buffalo, New York back in the fall. The paper was written on cards, some of which I have lost, but I’ve tried to tie the various pieces together as much as possible. I’ll post more soon, but this is the first part:

Philosophers sometimes write best when they’re not writing philosophy. Sartre’s book on Genet is one of his most far-reaching, full of fascinating digressions, and escaping the occasionally bloated Hegelianism of his more straightforward philosophical work. Similarly, Deleuze book on Francis Bacon in many ways gives the reader some of his best examples of his concept of “the body without organs,” as well as introducing fascinating new concepts such as the Figure (which is directly related to the body without organs) and the Diagram.

It’s the Diagram that I want to focus on, relating Deleuze’s notion of a certain type of pictorial space to the writings of Beckett, Tom McCarthy, and Chelsey Minnis. Deleuze begins his section on the Diagram by saying that we all live with clichés in our heads, virtual clichés, and that for the painter this is a problem since he or she approaches a blank canvas that is already haunted by previous painterly gestures, by a thousand commonplaces. For Deleuze, there is no such thing as a blank canvas. So how can a painter escape from the realm of the virtual cliché? Deleuze argues that Bacon finds an especially original approach (and one that relates to Deleuze’s concept of Force): he commits a kind of violence against the canvas. He throws paints, makes marks, blotches, and scratches: he creates a non-illustrative space, a Sahara desert, what Deleuze calls a “catastrophe.” As Bacon said: “I rely on chance as much as possible and push the paint around until something happens. I think of myself as an instinctual painter, being as close as possible to the nervous system and the unconscious…One doesn’t know what one’s instinct is, why one retains one hazardous mark rather than another.”

At this point Bacon is working on a manual level similar to the Abstract Expressionists. But for Deleuze this is a starting point, not an end point. Deleuze says that for Bacon heads and even Figures begin to emerge from this Diagram, and a certain rhythm is created. (This concept of the Diagram echoes Deleuze’s notion of the war machine too -- that dynamic that clears off what already exists, opening up a new space.) Deleuze believes that without the use of rhythm the Figure (a non-humanist body or form shot through by Force -- hiccups, pain and pleasure, shitting, orgasm, etc.) is not possible -- and that it is this emphasis on bodily forms that crystallize around rhythm that makes Bacon akin to certain major painters of the past, like Michelangelo.

It’s always dangerous comparing painterly concepts or practices to writing, since the metaphors can become way too vague, or loose. Words simply aren’t paint, and what Bacon does on canvas is impossible in language. How many times are we told that this or that practice “opens up possibilities”? Yet “opens up possibilities” has become a deadly cliché itself. But I am drawn to the idea of a writing practice that tries to not so much erase itself as obliterate itself, that uses a kind of Deleuzian Diagram to create its own Sahara within the text, a “catastrophe” that might bring forth its own expressive (instead of representational) Figures.

Beckett in The Unnamable does exactly this. The narrator at first seems to even dwell in this Sahara. The distances are blurred, time is jumbled, confused. The very first words of the novel place the reader in this world (or non-world) of absolute collapse: “Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, I say. Unbelieving.” There is a movement forward--the following line is “Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on”--but this need to move, which takes the form in Beckett usually as a need to speak, even when the speaker wishes he or she could simply shut up, is as unknowable as anything else in this landscape. It is dynamism without meaning, or rational purpose. (Deleuze argues that Bacon is not a simply a pessimist because of his focus on force; the dynamism in Beckett works in a similar way. A true miserabilist would not write at all.)

This place of collapse and catastrophe is how Beckett scrapes away at the usual novelistic gesture of attempting to establish a sense of narrative plentitude--that feeling that a story is unfolding before us. In The Unnamable, only a few scraps, a few images, appear before us. Malone passes by (though it could well be Molloy); the narrator seems to be sitting “like a great horn-owl in an aviary.” The narrator does not want to bring these scraps together into a cohesive whole, however. He writes: “The thing to avoid, I don’t know why, is the spirit of system.” (Has there ever been a more anti-dialectical writer than Beckett!) But in this place of catastrophe (what I see as being a literary echo of Bacon’s Diagram) a certain rhythm develops: mainly a rhythm consisting of the need to speak, to begin, even though the narrator suspects there will be no ultimate benefit, no higher place to stand in order to take in the full scene. He says: “The best would be not to begin. But I have to begin. That is to say I have to go on. Perhaps in the end I shall smother in a throng.” There is no God-like perspective for the narrator. This is a place without History in the Hegelian and Marxist sense. There’s only the throng, and the fear of being smothered in it.

There are also the bodies in Beckett, and while it might be a bit of a stretch, I would argue that they relate to the Deleuzian Figure. The anonymous quality of Beckett’s characters is well known, with so many wearing the same shabby clothes and hats. The facelessness plays a part also, with maybe the most famous example of this being the mouth in Not I. (Not enough has been made of the monstrous and/or anonymous bodies in Beckett, I think: so much emphasis is placed on voice instead. But the voices in Beckett always arise from someplace, even if only a single desperate mouth.) The bodies themselves are such tortured, contorted things: they are sometimes on crutches, sometimes getting their low-hanging scrotums tangled up in their bicycles, and frequently they are immobile, as in the case of the narrator of The Unnamable who sits (or thinks he might sit) with his hands on his knees and tears streaming down from his “unblinking eyes.” But the best example of the Beckett figure as a Deleuzian Figure would be the person (the name keeps changing) without limbs who sits in a jar across the street from a chop-house: “Stuck like a sheaf of flowers in a deep jar, its neck flush with my mouth, on the side of a quiet street near the shambles, I am at rest at last.” But there is no rest. The physical immobility is a by no means a sign that the dynamism is lessening. The thinking and questioning go on unabated. And even without limbs the body continues to move: “I could never bear to be idle, it saps one’s energy. And I open and close my eyes, open and close, as in the past. And I move my head in and out, in and out, as heretofore…For with a kind of tossing and writhing I succeed in imparting to my trunk the degree of rotation required.” Such convoluted gymnastics, what Deleuze calls “athleticism,” resembles the contorted torsos in so many of Bacon’s triptychs, where the material body mass seems to be a blurred smear of movement. Though a movement that seems to go nowhere, a movement defined by its lack of progressive trajectory. (We see this also in the way Molloy and many other characters crawl or walk in circles.)

Chelsey Minnis’ Bad Bad could be said to be Pop poetry (and I mean that as a compliment: Deleuze once said what he did was POP philosophy). Minnis creates a persona in these poems that could have come from one of Warhol’s films: a narrator that is a weirdly menacing mixture of naiveté and startlingly insight and playful viciousness. It is powerfully original stuff, and one of my favorite books of poetry in the past five years. And as strange as it might seem to relate such a colorful, funny book to Beckett’s The Unnamable (with its reputation for being difficult, teeming with exhaustion and dry despair--a reading Adorno did his best to promote, saying that Beckett’s humor was mirthless), Beckett’s monstrous text really IS funny (Adorno was wrong). And the humor in Minnis is frequently used to make fun of supposedly profound themes or ideas, much as it is in Beckett; in “Prefaces” for example, she plays with the idea of “poems” and “poetry” so much (“Poetry is like picking your fox coat up off the floor and saying goodnight…//There are some very cut-rate lines in this…) that the notion of Poetry as a refined spiritual or political force in the world starts to look absolutely ridiculous. “I write it with a distaste for any other opportunity,” she tells the reader.

Also, like Beckett’s Malone, who constantly undercuts his own eloquence by pointing out what a great line he has just written, Minnis’ persona continually adds a flippant remark to place some of her most vivid lines within a comical framework. The reflective lines, “And that is why I go against so many things in life…// I have gone against many things in life…// And it has always been rewarding…” is followed by the less contemplative line, “But none so much as when I have gone against my mentor!”

But the part of Bad Bad that I want to focus on is the middle section, starting with “Double Black Tulip” and ending with “Foxina” -- the section where the dots run wild. This is the section that I see as relating to Deleuze’s notion of the Diagram. To describe how the pages look is difficult. On each page a handful of phrases appear separated by several lines of ……….. Sometimes even the dots vanish, leaving blank page space. At other times the dots themselves are separated by a certain amount of space. Minnis is not the only contemporary poet to use the long lines of dots to create blank spaces within a text, but the dots work in a very specific way in Bad Bad. Though they create an initial effect of making the text seem blotted out, with parts missing, on a closer reading it is clear that one phrase does relate to the one that appears later on the page, making the dots an example of an ellipse that has gone haywire. For example, the line, “The truck is haunted because you’re seduced when you drive and that’s why you’re riding it on tantalizing gravel a truck that is driving by itself down the lover’s lane,” actually does make sense when written out (that is, no words have been “blotted out”), but the line in the text takes up three-fourths of a page, much of it being various ellipses.

So how do I see this section of Bad Bad as being somehow similar to the Diagram? The effect of reading these poems on the reader is that you feel like the poet is using the ongoing ellipses and blank spaces to create a weird syntactical rhythm within the text, a rhythm of stuttering thought and slippery-slope reason, much like the all-out use of the ellipsis in Celine’s later novels. But with one big difference. Celine uses his ellipses to create his famously vigorous and enraged voice. The use of dots and blank space in Minnis seems to do the opposite -- the voice (at least in my reading) implodes, with only a series of beautifully odd and decadent images remaining. It is difficult to imagine this cluster of poems in Bad Bad as even being read outloud.

My central point is this…I find the Deleuzian Diagram a fascinating concept that could be applied to writing as well as the visual arts. Also, there is no singular way of using the Diagram (“using” being the wrong word here--but I can’t think of a better one at the moment). Beckett draws us immediately into a world of collapse where writhing bodies slowly take shape from an exhausting dynamism (the need to speak on and on, to begin). In Minnis, dots and blank spaces are used to create a rhythm that tears away at the voice being issued forth between those dots.

More later, on Tom McCarthy’s Remainder


Blogger Aaron Apps said...

Wonderful post. Especially the way you described/categorized Bad Bad. I thought it was spot on.

Also, that is unquestionably one of my favorite texts by Deleuze. Haven't read the Beckett novel. I'll have to check it out.

Best, Aaron

9:48 PM  
Blogger Jon Cone said...

You mention Sartre's SAINT GENET: ACTOR MARTYR -- I am referring to the 1963 Bernard Frechtman translation -- a book I first encountered more than twenty years ago. I wrote an essay on it, somehow. Right now I'm re-reading it, finding it more novelistic than philosophic; though it is a wonderful hybrid form, in any case, and I could certainly see it being reissued by Dalkey Archive or Featherproof.

7:29 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Great post James. Though I don't think the elipses in Celine and Minnis are entirely different. More about that later.


7:37 AM  
Blogger JP said...

Hi Jon,

I love that book by Sartre: I stumbled on it back in high school and it's pretty much what got me interested in philosophy. There IS something novelistic about it, though I hadn't thought of that before. The section on evil ("the devil is classical")is fascinating.


9:02 AM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Very good. Sorry for the late entry - Busy Busy Busy. I'm going to have to think about figure and diagram, a lot.

The stutter, as described by Deleuze (going to have to go back to that essay) he uses to describe Beckett... lots of possibilities in regards to contemporary poetics - I'm deploying it in aid of Catherine Meng (who can be very Beckett-esque, though by no means derivative - difference and repetition, you know). This could contribute more. Maybe Minis has something like that going on somewhere (Bergvall uses punctuation to stammer her texts, make them stagger.....)

3:05 AM  

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