April 28, 2010

Beckett – mode d’emploi

Sometimes I tire of the curatorial hush that so often accompanies any citation of Samuel Beckett (although at other times, unfortunately, I have participated in it). So I was particularly delighted to find the following detournement of the famous ‘sucking stones’ passage of Molloy in the February 2010 issue of Holly White, a poetry zine out of London:

Good. Now I can begin to suck. Watch me closely. I take a cock from the right pocket of my greatcoat, suck it, stop sucking it, put it in the left pocket of my greatcoat, the one empty (of cocks). I take a second cock from the right pocket of my greatcoat, suck it put it in the left pocket of my greatcoat. And so on until the right pocket of my greatcoat is empty (apart from its usual and casual contents) and the six cocks I have just sucked, one after the other, are all in the left pocket of my greatcoat. Pausing then, and concentrating, so as not to make a balls of it, I transfer to the right pocket of my greatcoat, in which there are no cocks left, the five cocks in the right pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the five cocks in the left pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the six cocks in the left pocket of my greatcoat. At this stage then the left pocket of my greatcoat is again empty of cocks, while the right pocket of my greatcoat is again supplied, and in the right way, that is to say with other cocks than those I have just sucked. These other cocks I then begin to suck, one after the other, and to transfer as I go along to the left pocket of my greatcoat, being absolutely certain, as far as one can be in an affair of this kind, that I am not sucking the same cocks as a moment before, but others. And when the right pocket of my greatcoat is again empty (of cocks), and the five I have just sucked are all without exception in the left pocket of my greatcoat, then I proceed to the same redistribution as a moment before, or a similar redistribution, that is to say I transfer to the right pocket of my greatcoat, now again available, the five cocks in the right pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the six cocks in the left pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the five cocks in the left pocket of my greatcoat. And there I am ready to begin again. Do I have to go on? There was something more than a principle I abandoned, when I abandoned the equal distribution, it was a bodily need. But to suck the cocks in the way I have described, not haphazard, but with method, was also I think a bodily need. Here then were two incompatible bodily needs, at loggerheads. Such things happen. But deep down I didn't give a tinker's curse about being off my balance, dragged to the right hand and the left, backwards and forewards. And deep down it was all the same to me whether I sucked a different cock each time or always the same cock, until the end of time. For they all tasted exactly the same. And if I had collected sixteen, it was not in order to ballast myself in such and such a way, or to suck them turn about, but simply to have a little store, so as never to be without. But deep down I didn't give a fiddler's curse about being without, when they were all gone they would be all gone, I wouldn't be any the worse off, or hardly any. And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all the cocks but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another, and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or swallowed ...

Besides giving voice to some very interesting subtextual possibilities in the original passage – and, just as importantly, being funny – this little gem of conceptualist appropriation serves as an example of what Beckett should be to us: a Beckett-for-use, as opposed to Beckett-as-museum-piece.

No author is listed on the page the detourned Beckett passage occupies in Holly White. However, there’s a poem on the facing page with the author identified as Hidenoyama Raigoro, so I hazarded the guess that both pieces might be the work of this same writer. Raigoro, my research team soon informed me, was a notable nineteenth-century sumo wrestler. Clearly, then, the act of appropriation had gone the other way: while composing Molloy Beckett had lifted the passage from the work of a nineteenth-century sumo wrestler and homoerotic poet and substituted “stones” for the original “cocks.” The intrepid archivists at Holly White had merely disinterred and printed the restored version of the passage.

Yet surely Beckett would’ve had the stones to leave the cocks in, so there had to be another explanation. Who, then, was hidden behind “Hidenoyama”? I googled a snippet of the suckfest to see if it had ever appeared anywhere online. The search produced a single hit, which directed me to an internet forum: the Oral Sex Thread (“Who’s Up for Going Down?”) at the BUST Lounge. Auralpoison, for example, writes:

I point the cock the right way so it just goes down my throat. If it hits my tongue, it's a taste somewhere between the taste of musky mushrooms & a pool. There's an oddly metallic tang.

And geekchickknits has a suggestion:

Relax and think about creating space in the back of your throat - the root of your tongue melting into your voice box and your soft palette lifting up behind your nose. If you start yawning, you're on the right track. Don't force it, breathe, and don't let him push you down or hold your head in place - if he skull fucks you like this, you'll either have trouble breathing or your gag will kick in and it will not be nice!

There is a genial debate on swallowing versus spitting, dayglowpink recommends using condoms while blowing boyfriends with genital herpes, and, in an amusing interlude, ihateoly offers the following anecdote:

This reminds me of a girl that had a beer booth at the Seattle Octoberfest a couple years ago who was selling OPB aka Original Pussy Beer. Supposedly she used her own vaginal yeast to make the beer, but it turned out to be a joke. But still. In a sexual context, swallowing someone's come is fine, but mixing it with food seems just wrong to me.

Finally, near the bottom of the page, someone assuming the screen name larabuckerton posted the Beckett riff, signing off with a smiling emoticon and a postscript: “I’m new here obv.!!! There’s only one more comment on that page after larabuckerton’s offering, a reader’s terse “Ummm WTF?

The forum post was dated January 21 2009, predating the passage’s Holly White appearance by a year. I googled “Lara Buckerton” and found that a poet of that name resides in Newcastle. Well, there we had it – Lara Buckerton of Newcastle was the artist responsible for the marvelous Beckett detournement!

My search could’ve ended there, but the elusive Lara had piqued my inner Zhivago, so I decided to cyberstalk her a little further. Another hit directed me to Justin Katko’s “Report on the 2008 SoundEye International Poetry Festival / Cork, Ireland, 3-6 July 2008,” in Dusie #8. This piece turned out mostly to be about New Brit Poet types (e.g. Keston Sutherland et al.) doing readings and hanging out at the festival, which was cool with me because I’m just discovering the work of these poets and want to read everything I can find (what they’re doing is so much more vital and innovative than almost anything going on in prose fiction right now).

And here was where I finally caught up to my Lara – in a passage where Katko reports on an especially impressive reading given by Jow Lindsay:

Daily, Jow gains unheard-of powers as a poet and a thinker, his particular means of taking and deferring position (in the same swig) rivaled by no one I can think of; which is to say let’s make sure, as a community, that he doesn’t DISAPPEAR. Because I wonder, like, when he will finally put out a book of his poems. I think that it would do the Word some good; with or without his permission. People you must believe it, and act swift on this belief. Sure, there’s that Insane Dump of work (as Lara Buckerton) up on Onedit 10, but a book is something that can actually sit on different stuff anywhere you take it.

Oh. So Lara is after all only a pseudonym of Jow Lindsay, or better yet, a heteronym, since Jow has used a number of them. He might also be Francis Crot, Helen Bridwell, Kyle Storm Best-Chetwynde, Delilah Glaxo-Kleitmann, Axl Prose, and, for all I know, Samuel Beckett. For this he has my nomination for the Post-avant Pessoa Award (speaking of DISAPPEARing poets). And since folks in this crew have been known, in defiance of all accepted protocols of authorial hygiene, to actually share heteronyms, who knows if the “Lara Buckerton” who posted the Beckett detournement at the BUST oral sex forum was even the same “Lara Buckerton” who, according to Justin Katko, left “that Insane Dump of work . . . up on Onedit 10” and goes by the name – highly dubious now that I think of it – of “Jow Lindsay”?

My search had led me into a death-of-the-author mis-en-abyme, and it ultimately told me less about “who wrote the detourned Beckett piece” than it did about my own impulse to assign literary paternity: was this impulse not part and parcel, after all, of what had led me at other times to participate in the curatorialism that reified figures such as Beckett into museum pieces, into altars for worship rather than opportunities for divine profanation? Yet the practices of appropriation and detournement in conceptual poetics – the very practices that I had savored so in the Holly White “sucking stones” piece – implicitly disavow (or at least burlesque) this very same impulse. Here, then, was a contradiction in my aesthetic commitments.

But far from a merely personal tic, this contradiction, I think, is the local expression of a broader one that is constitutive of the modernism/avant-garde divide. Modernism does not reject the “autonomy” of art that has always been a mainstay of bourgeois aesthetics (Kant, etc.), but rather reflects its particular historic intensification, in which artistic means (i.e. form) increasingly become the content of the works themselves. As Peter Bürger puts it in Theory of the Avant-Garde, “the apartness from the praxis of life that always constituted the institutional status of art in bourgeois society now becomes the content of the works.” It is only with the appearance of the historical avant-garde in the first half of the last century (Dada, etc.) that the autonomy of art itself is effectively confronted with the possibility of its negation. Bürger again: “The avant-garde intends the abolition of autonomous art by which it means that art is to be integrated into the praxis of life.” The corollary of these two approaches to art is two opposed views of the artist, the modernist high priest versus the avant-garde provocateur.

“Apartness from the praxis of life” versus “integration into the praxis of life” – these seem as good a way as any to think about what distinguishes Jow Lindsay’s (or whoever’s) Molloy riff from so many curatorial citations of Beckett. We see this in particular with the passage’s appearance at the BUST oral sex discussion forum, where the integration into the everyday is quite literal. But it’s even implied to some degree in Holly White itself, which is about as basic and DIY as zines get (photocopied 8½ X 11 sheets, folded and stapled). And there’s a mode of reception that runs roughly parallel to this: rather than “aesthetic distance” and “disinterested contemplation” (those ancillaries of museums and alibis for the sheen of the “status” commodity), the Beckett detournment opened up an avenue for a more engaged relationship with the “work,” a series of defamings and reframings that continued through my own appropriation of the passage into this blog post. It reminds me, finally, of something John Berger writes in the first chapter of Ways of Seeing:

Adults and children sometimes have boards in their bedrooms or living-rooms on which they pin pieces of paper: letters, snapshots, reproductions of paintings, newspaper cuttings, original drawings, postcards. On each board all the images belong to the same language and all are more or less equal within it, because they have been chosen in a highly personal way to match and express the experience of the room’s inhabitant. LOGICALLY, THESE BOARDS SHOULD REPLACE MUSEUMS.

Emphasis mine.