Mute Musewise

John Barth, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” The Atlantic Monthly, 1967

…One of the modern things about these two writers [Beckett and Borges] is that in an age of ultimacies and “final solutions” — at least felt ultimacies, in everything from weaponry to theology, the celebrated dehumanization of society, and the history of the novel — their work in separate ways reflects and deals with ultimacy, both technically and thematically, as for example Finnegans Wake does in its different manner. One notices, for whatever its symptomatic worth, that Joyce was virtually blind at the end, Borges is literally so, and Beckett has become virtually mute, musewise, having progressed from marvelously constructed English sentences through terser and terser French ones to the unsyntactical, unpunctuated prose of Comment C’est and “ultimately” to wordless mimes. One might extrapolate a theoretical course for Beckett: Language after all consists of silence as well as sound, and mime is still communication (“that nineteenth-century idea,” a Yale student once snarled at me), but by the language of action. But the language of action consists of rest as well as movement, and so in the context of Beckett’s progress, immobile, silent figures still aren’t altogether, ultimate. How about an empty, silent stage, then, or blank pages* — a “happening” where nothing happens, like Cage’s 4’33” performed in an empty hall? But dramatic communication consists of the sense as well as the presence of the actors; “we have our exits and our entrances”; and so even that would be imperfectly ultimate in Beckett’s case. Nothing at all, then, I suppose; but Nothingness is necessarily and inextricably the background against which Being, et cetera. For Beckett, at this point in his career, to cease to create altogether would be fairly meaningful: his crowning work; his “last word.” What a convenient corner to paint yourself into! “And now I shall finish,” the valet Arsene says in Watt, “and you will hear my voice no more.” Only the silence Molloy speaks of, “of which the universe is made.” …

*An ultimacy already attained in the nineteenth century by that avant-gardiste of East Aurora, N.Y., Elbert Hubbard, in his Essay on Silence, and much repeated to the present day in such empty “novelties” as The Wit and Wisdom of Lyndon Johnson, etc.

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