“Watteauer and Watteauer”

Detail from Watteau, “The Feasts of Venice” (c. 1717)

In a letter to Cissie Sinclair written in 1937, Beckett wonders if he is avoiding going to see Jack Yeats on his Thursday “at-home” evenings because of the growing significance of Yeats’s work for his thinking about images.  At least, that is one of the implications of the way Beckett talks about Yeats.  Thomas McGreevy, one of Beckett’s most important sounding-boards about art, had taken up one of Beckett’s comments about Yeats–that he “gets Watteauer & Watteauer”–at a key moment in his book on the painter, but in the letter to Sinclair Beckett seems worried that he (or McGreevy) was making too much of the similarity (Letters I, 535).  Beckett writes that

Watteau put in busts and urns, I suppose to suggest the inorganism of the organic – all his people are mineral in the end, without the possibility of being added to or taken from, pure inorganic juxtapositions – but Jack Yeats does not even need to do that.  The way he puts down a man’s head &  woman’s head side by side, or face to face, is terrifying, two irreducible singlenesses & the impassable immensity between.  I suppose that is what gives the stillness to his pictures, as though the convention were suddenly suspended, the convention & performance of love & hate, joy & pain, giving & being given, taking & being taken (536).

The conventionless rhetorical games of Didi and Gogo, the constrained stillness of scenes between Hamm and Clov, the sedimented space between Winnie and Willie, but also the disorienting side-by-sideness of Molloy, Moran, Malone, and the Unnamable: the clearing of the throat that goes alongside the performance, neither part of it nor separable from what follows.

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nobody loves moralists

Sea Island Hotel (c 1930)
Sea Island Hotel (c 1930)


Zbigniew Herbert

We walk by the sea-shore
holding firmly in our hands
the two ends of an antique dialogue
—do you love me?
—I love you

with furrowed eyebrows
I summarize all wisdom
of the two testaments
astrologers prophets
philosophers of the gardens
and cloistered philosophers

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denying dunedin

Maurice Utrillo, “Rue du Mont Cenis” (1910)

In 1966 a forty-year-old James K. Baxter returned to the University of Otago, having that year published one of his most successful collections, Pig Island Letters.  Yet the memories and landscapes surrounding his adolescence are not revisited with the same elaborate abstractions that characterized his early verse.  In “Travelling to Dunedin,” Baxter begins to use the unrhymed couplets that will become the dominant medium of his late work.

We ride south on a Wednesday

Into the clearer weather, 

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“on mirror mirrored”

Norah McGuinness, “First Snow” (1949)

In On the Boiler (1939), W.B. Yeats’s Swiftian impersonation of a “mad ship’s carpenter” in Sligo who used to stand on a boiler to denounce his neighbors, the poet (or the collapsing mind of the speaker) rails against the degeneration of European culture.  The customs and ceremonies of old Europe–including, but not restricted to, the smashed Big House culture in Ireland that Yeats had relied on for so many years–were being degraded by commercial production and fetishized by fascism.  But for Yeats there was no going back, or rather, there was only going back.   The mechanization of art was itself an irreversible return to the originating moment of the Western form of life.  “There are moments when I am certain,” Yeats wrote

that arts must once again accept those Greek proportions which carry into plastic art the Pythagorean numbers, those faces which are divine because all there is empty and measured.  

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“of employing my thoughts”

The unemployed in Ford Madox Brown’s “Work” (1865)

‘Enterprise and effort,’ he would say to us (on his back), ‘are delightful to me.  I believe I am truly cosmopolitan.  I have the deepest sympathy with them.  I lie in a shady place like this, and think of adventurous spirits going to the North Pole, or penetrating to the heart of the Torrid Zone, with admiration.  Mercenary creatures ask, “What is the use of a man’s going to the North Pole!  What good does it do?”  I can’t say; but, for anything I can say, he may go for the purpose–though he don’t know it–of employing my thoughts as I lie here. 

Take an extreme case.  Take the case of the Slaves on American plantations.  I dare say they are worked hard, I dare say they don’t altogether like it, I dare say theirs is an unpleasant experience on the whole; but they people the landscape for me, they give it a poetry for me, and perhaps that is one of the pleasanter objects of their existence.  I am very sensible of it, if it be, and I shouldn’t wonder if it were!’ (Dickens’ Skimpole, quoted in Watts, Voices, 20).

“strange systems”

In The Long Revolution, Raymond Williams wrote that

the abstraction of art has been its promotion or relegation to an area of special experience (emotion, beauty, phantasy, the imagination, the unconscious), which art in practice has never confined itself to, ranging in fact from the most ordinary daily activities to exceptional crises and intensities, and using a range of means from the words of the street and common popular stories to strange systems and images which it has yet been able to make common property (39).

Poetry, for example, often stows words from etymologically distinct orders within newly concrete constellations, freezing a piece of roadside sediment into the recognizable machinery of metaphorical or rhetorical conventions from a different language.

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nose and muscles

Edgar Degas, “Landscape: Cows in the Foreground” (c.1890-1893): “I decided to be Degas for a day” begins one of Ives’ plays — so what faculties or what muscles would I use? How are these haunches in this environment?

“Who would not rather walk,” blazes Wyndham Lewis in big print in Blast, “ten miles across country (yes, ten miles, my friend), and use his eyes, nose and muscles, than possess ten thousand Impressionist oil-paintings of that country side?” (Blast No. 1, 1914, 130).  The only thing better than fully using those sense organs and body movers is something “very abstruse and splendid” but nonetheless driven by “NECESSITY.”  The Impressionists, Lewis sneers, were too enthralled by a particular “sensibility” associated with “Life” to progress very far beyond the realist Daumier, who combined “great plastic gifts with great literary gifts.”  Degas, Lewis writes, offered a few moderately useful innovations, but overall tended to mislead his followers into decadence.

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