POSTMODERN LITERATURE:

 

 

BECKETT AND MORGAN – TWO PERSPECTIVES ON POSTMODERNISM

 

 

It may be that some rough beast will slouch again toward Bethlehem. It may be that some natural cataclysm, or extraterrestrial intelligence will shock the Earth  into some sane planetary awareness of its destiny. I have no prophecy in me, only some slight foreboding, which I express now to remind myself that all evasions of our knowledge and actions thrieve on the absence of consensual beliefs, an absence that also energizes our tempers, our wills. This is our postmodern condition.  

(Ihab Hassan, The Postmodern Turn )

 

While the action of studying the concept of Modernism, defined as attitude and trend which  appeared at the end of the 19th century, can not be utterly done without discussing the historical, philosophical and sociocultural background of Modernity, one can not apprehend the idea of Postmodernism without understanding the world and the context that have made it possible.

Whether it is considered a reaction to Modernism, or a part of it, the Postmodern trend holds specific traits which can be traced  not only in the worldwide culture, but also in several aspects of life. Concepts as post industry, cultural imperialism, post history are symptoms of a world that has suffered dramatic changes. For example, the informational boom brought upon by technological and mass-media development, had as outcome a total access of every individual to any bit of data, at any time, in any place. Hence, a postmodern man is empowered to question the validity of any rules, theories and conventions as he is constantly confronted with a shifting environment, speed changes and an accelerated rhythm of life.

The atrocities of the Second World War coupled with developments in genetics, robotics, and space exploration (just to mention a few) are reflected in nihilism and existentialism philosophies, presenting the image of a man as a fluctuant entity, surrounded by relative values, incapable of seeking ultimate truths and haunted by the disintegration of ideologies that once he has held sacred.

The phrase God is dead. Let’s go back to life represents the death of Modernism and the emerging of a new life trend. Modernism ends either in the silence of self referential anti language or in the white noise of the violent avant-gardes. Ideas such  as art is alternative life, man is the centre of the universe, metaphysical attitudes towards destiny and the obsession of finding ultimate meaning, are replaced by self-imposed statements as life is art, by a hedonist approach of the world of an  individual who lives in a sensual, superficial universe.

Eclectic and versatile, the postmodern world lacks of violence and aggressiveness. (Nothing or no one can shock anyone anymore ).The death of elitist arts-the crisis of Modernism- becomes the source of Posmodernism vitality.

Paradoxically, there is an increased art productivity, created by artists from various fields: Andy Warhol (pop-art), Merce Cunningham, (dance) John Cage (music), The Beat Generation (poetry), Lyotard, (philosophy) Deleuze, Foucault, Kuhn (science), Kristeva (semiotics), Jencks (architecture), Kripke (mathematics) Pynchon, Vonnegut, Burroughs (prose),etc. The dialogue between culture and subcultures together with the gentle retrievement of all  forms of art, from all times, have made Postmodernism an age of cultural pluralism, where elitist arts still exist, but  not as mainstream.

The tyranny of wholes has been replaced by concepts as indeterminacy, immanence, evanescence, deconstructive approach to knowledge, fragmentarism, decanonization, perspectivism, carnivalization, personism.

 

These aspects will be considered in the literary work of two British writers: playwright Samuel Beckett and poet Edwin Morgan, considered to be representative artists of this wild era.

The position of Beckett among the Postmodern writers is somehow questionable as his oeuvre finds itself (through themes, language and format) between two words. After having studied thoroughly the literary work of the founders of the Theatre of the Absurd (Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, Adamov, Genet) one can not deny their belonging to the Modernism trend as well. Their main themes: alienation, lack of communication, disintegration, the death of gods, are also traceable in the prose of Joyce, Camus, Sartre (modern writers). The only difference is that the former have chosen to express their ideas in a form similar to its content: illogical discourse, unconventional language, plot and characters.

Beckett’s theatre vividly portrays the death of a world (the Modern world), a world which has succumbed to its own decadence.

Apocalypse-now is the mantra of this writer’s plays, as he is showing his readers and viewers a grotesque vision of an infra world populated by infra humans.

One of the main characteristics of his play Waiting for Godot is indeterminacy, a specific Postmodern trait in Ihab Hassan’s perspective. Beckett doesn’t give any clear time and space coordinates. Time is a shifting medium, either taking the form of an endless duration (Didi and Gogo are endlessly waiting for something) or that of an eternal present (the two characters are the only ones who do not change). Words like after and before have lost their meaning in Beckett’s world. The characters fail to recognise one another or to recollect past events because the conscious self is no longer the one who has experienced them. Therefore, inexplicable events happen: time seems to leap back and forth , there are sign of uncanny decay: the blindness and dumbness of Pozzo and Lucky, the revival of the tree.

Everything is arbitrary. Changes are unpredictable. There can’t be any anticipation of the future, based on objective facts or on a cause-effect reasoning, as, at any time, for no reason, the roles they are playing can be reversed.  The return of their abandoning God(ot) can mean both salvation and damnation.

Living in an ontological void (existentialism influence), Gogo and Didi can not separate the past, from the present time. This inability also projects Godot’s arrival in a context of great ambiguity. They are beings reduced to a theatrical now; there is no psychological substance to give their life meaning. While Vladimir seems obsessed with time and remembering (active attitude towards time), Estragon is the perfect amnesiac (indifference towards time) and Pozzo, the character who portrays the effect of the decay of time. Time is biological regression, is the image of life as failure, continuous agony and growing into death.

The only way to really experience time, in Beckett’s vision, is by waiting. Waiting for redemption, for a meaning, for a better life, for death-no matter what the reason is, waiting becomes the only thing that extracts these two characters from their existential nothingness and makes them superior to Pozzo and Lucky and to other similar people.

This is, in my opinion, the optimistic view of Beckett’ play. We have been abandoned by God, we have no touchstone to rely to, yet, in spite of all the suffering and boredom of existence, we are constantly waiting for something beyond our small existence. We have kept our appointment ! How many people can say that? says Vladimir. The death of everything that we once have held sacred becomes the source of our vitality. Beckett’s legacy is the legacy of the Postmodern era: a cheerful apocalypse.

The scenic space in Waiting for Godot , through its emptiness and neutrality, becomes a metaphor of uncertainty. Although, the characters are standing on a country road, they are unable to leave that place or leave each other, as if they are damned not to.  Despite its openness, the impression that this bizarre space is giving is one of claustrophobia, of meaningless agony. No one really comes, no one really goes away.

Another aspect of Postmodern writing is fragmentarism, generally traceable within the plot or the construction of the character. As Beckett’s characters are merely types who move away from plot towards the concept of theatre verite, towards more visual forms, one can approach the structure of his play by considering it an open system. Vladimir and Gogo’s tragedy of mortal existence is chronic incompleteness. The setting is stripped to a minimum of  scenery and props, the names of the characters are fragments of names. Even more, their bodies are fragmented, mutilated and dishevelled towards unrecognition.

Ridiculous clowns, incapable of  laughing at the world anymore, Beckett’s characters are non heroes  living in an anguish generating – medium. Reminiscents of existentialist protagonists, Gogo and Didi  are primarily guilty of having been born. Life itself becomes  a source of terror. The Theatre of the Absurd takes upon itself the role to investigate and to express through imagery and sounds the most profound human fears, the carnivalization  of all existence.

Considering the aspect of authorship in regard to Beckett’s work, one can find an answer in the writer’s own confession on the legitimacy of his art. While he admits to several influences from various fields (dance, music, light design, the avant-gardes), Beckett considers himself to be the only author  of its final staged plays. The claim of authorship, in his case, can be drawn from his connection to two important modern writers: Joyce and Proust, his work taking the form of a fictional testimony (as a complex reflection of the complexity of the real world) of the complicated relation between Modernism and Postmodernism.

Whether we tend to evaluate Modernism in terms of Postmodernism or to reverse the procedure, whether we try to affirm one by the expense of another, we will end by doing something of both. Modernism does not suddenly cease so that Postmodernism may begin. They now coexist!

Another specific trait of the Postmodern writers is their fascination with form, their interest in the shape of their ideas (Beckett’s theatre pieces are less plays of ideas and more plays of images and sounds).

This can be read as a normal reaction to the increased development. in the real world, of forms through which the message is sent towards the receiver.  Television and talk-shows, cinematography and its special effects, surreal music video-clips, sensational multimedia shows, worldwide Internet – all these hi-tech, new formats have been shaping the viewers’ perception of reality  for the last 50 years, creating new needs, new demands, new hierarchies of values. Literature have kept up with this increased interest in external form by experimenting with imagery, subject matter, language and form.

Literature moves towards anti literature and in doing so reinvents forms that become progressively crazy and disruptive: neo picaresque, black burlesque, grotesque, gothic, nightmarish science fiction.(Hassan,1987)

A master of concrete experimental poetry is the poet Edwin Morgan, in whose literary work one can easily distinguish innovative traits, which can serve as arguments in favour of establishing a separation line between Modernism and Postmodernism. The feeling I have while reading his poems is one of freedom, of total liberation of poetry from metaphysics, transcendence, metaphors and profound symbols. By doing that, Morgan has inserted his fictional universe into the harsh reality of the street, into the chaotic and fluid reality of everyday life and most of all, he has replaced the famous modern principle of the impersonal creation act with the one of personism ( Hassan, 1990), which means a strict dependency of the literary text to the biography of its creator.

Morgan’s poems are descriptive, long, chaotic, deeply concerned with social, identy issues, overwhelmed by snapshots  images of the present time.

With a ragged diamond / of shattered plate-glass/ a young man and his girl/are falling into a shop-window.

 

 The reality reflected by them is distorted by an unlimited subjectivity, marked by colloquialism. Morgan has sent poetry back into the street, as he is a creator of spoken poetry, poetry conceived as oral message.

Ah know ah tellt them lies at the enquiry./Aah sayed ah thought the wean wis dead/when ah took it tae the incinerator./ but ah didny ken fur shair, did ah?

 

 Ironic and self-ironic, sometimes even aggressive, his verse is imaginative deriving into science fiction, playfull  and able to prove an outstanding lexical and shape dexterity, totally impregnated with cultural allusions, wittily inserted through meta textual and self referential strategies.

No. You must go back to your planet. Go back in peace, take what you have gained but quickly./ Stretterworra gawl gawl…/ Of course, but nothing is ever the same, now is it? You’ll remember Mercury.

 

Memories of Earth is actually an elaborate scenario, a dazzling spiral of words built by using leitmotivs and recurrent images. The constant appeal to an imaginary world, to a world from beyond the common people’ grasp, it itself made of the most concrete details, gives the poem the specific superficial tone of Postmodern art. The dominant emotion is one of unreality and melancholy.

The stone we are to enter is well marked/ lies in a hollow and is as big as my fist./Indeed the temptation to cup it, lift it, throw it / is strong. We resist. Whatever signals it gives/ or is through to give, only not just to faint/ to raise the interest of central monitors,/to us it’s silent, like the stone it is.

 

A fascinating world lives within the words of the poem A Home in Space. The Postmodern artist believes only in the reality he himself has created. Hence, his texts have dreamy-like qualities, are utopic  and psychedelic, relate to everything and to nothing. And most of all, beyond any aesthetics and contexts, they express the inner freedom of the creator.

Laid-back in orbit, they found their minds. They found their minds very clean and clear. Clear crystals in swarms outside were their fireflies and larks. (…) One night, or day, or month, or year, all gathered at the panel and agreed, agreed to cut communication with, with the earth base, and it must be said they were, were cool and clear as they dismantled the station and, and gave their capsule such power that, that they launched themselves outwards, outwards in an impeccable trajectory, that band of tranquil defiers, not to plant any, any home with roots but to keep a, a voyaging generation, and as far, as far as would ever be a home in space, space that needs time and time that needs life.

 

Morgan comes very close to the reality of the avant-gardes with his  form experimental poems. He decomposes and recomposes the reality synthetically in schizoid poems whose final meaning is almost undetectable, the poetic energy having been sucked away by the process of cutting and pasting incongruent bits of the world, in colourful collages. The feeling I get from reading them is one of organised dissemination of image and semantic bits into an overcrowded poetic space, the only thing truly significant. As like the chaos is getting organised while it is still happening.

The reader can not understand the poem from the beginning and  he is forced to recreate it, to read it and inject meaning into it. The outcome of this process is not the ability to perceive the real structure of the poem, which hasn’t existed from the start, but the ability to perceive the structure of the reader’s own mind reflecting upon the poem.

any classification is superior to chaos

 

an                          is    p  rior  to    a

 

any                       is    p   rior to    a

 

         ass               is    p   rior  to   a s

 

(Levi-Strauss at the Lie-Detector, 1974)

Somehow similar to rock lyrics, Morgan’s verses  are as simple as life, as breathable as air. They ooze of authenticity and laconism. They are like ready-made, pop-art objects, toys of paper whose message is subordinated to the poetic dexterity.

The great value of Edwin Morgan’s poetry resides in the discovery  of Postmodernism as a relevant, viable world.

The great value of Samuel Beckett’s work resides in his ability of gathering, in a perfect blending, the end of a world and the beginning of a new one.

This is what Postmodernism is all about: the gentle retrievement  and revival, towards a fertile creative cohabitation, of all the cultural trends from any time and space, of all the individual voices from all over the world.