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Posts from the ‘Samuel Beckett’ Category

Pandemic Time


Without appointments and concerts, without events and other things that remind me of the date, I find myself looking at the calendar more often, trying to fix in my mind a place to lodge myself in the stream of time. Is it Sunday or maybe Monday? But to be honest, the calendar that seems more like the true pandemic calendar is the one that hangs on my wall made by the German artist Hanne Darboven in 1971 as a gift for one of her collectors, which I acquired years ago. It’s a calendar for the year 1972 and Darboven carefully filled all of the spaces surrounding the actual calendar with wavy black lines. It doesn’t seem like much at first, but it’s connected to a large body of work she did with calendars over several years.

When I saw some of the calendar works by Darboven (1941-2009) for the first time I was struck by the fact that they depicted the way I felt about time, about eternity slowly unfolding before me.  The cinematic version of time passing, which often shows a succession of calendar pages disappearing off the screen, blown away by the breeze, was never how I understood time. For me, it’s the constant repetition, the endless mimetic motion of the hand up and down, left to right, the same gesture day after day after day. That feels like time.

Hanne Darboven. Cover of her limited edition, self-published artist’s book 1975.

These obsessive, wavy lines became one of Darboven’s signature marks, one that she used for years in scores of works. Each line is a simple unbroken set of waves that appears to have been made with a medium-tipped black marker. The line rises and falls, undulating like a word comprised only of the lower-case, un-dotted letter “i” or an endless line of the letter “u” written in cursive, leaning slightly to the right. This line is repeated time after time, filling the allotted space. It’s a recognition of the underlying sameness of every cycle of day and night, followed by another day and night. But it also feels like a form of penance (I will not chew gum in class anymore. I will not chew gum in class anymore. I will not . . . ) When I was young, the very idea of eternity (and eternal life) frightened me unbelievably.

Darboven lines
Hanne Darboven. Untitled. c. 1972. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Darboven’s wavy lines remind me of something from the early pages of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, when the title character watches from his mother’s house as two men—who he calls A and C—walk toward each other in the distance.

The road, hard and white, seared the tender pastures, rose and fell at the whim of the hills and hollows. The town was not far. It was two men, unmistakably, one small and one tall . . . At first a wide space lay between them. They couldn’t have seen each other, even had they raised their heads and looked about, because of this wide space, and then because of the undulating land, which caused the road to be in waves, not high, but high enough.

The other artist whose sense of time matches this pandemic was the Japanese artist On Kawara (1932-2014), especially his Today Series of paintings (also called his Date Paintings). Each of these black-and-white paintings conveyed only the current date and he had a self-imposed requirement that each of these paintings would be completed on the day in which he started them. In addition, the language and format of the date had to conform to the country where he was staying at the time. Upon completion, the painting would be housed in a box accompanied by a daily newspaper from date and the city where the painting was made. These are paintings for days on which there appear to be no past and no future.

On Karawa 4 Mars 1973
On Kawara. 4 Mars 1973. Acrylic on canvas.

On Kawara also published a two-volume limited edition book called One Million Years. The first volume, Past, is dedicated to “all those who have lived and died,” and covers the years from 998,031 BC to 1969 AD. The second volume, Future, is dedicated to “the last one,” and begins with the year 1993 AD and ends with the year 1,001,992 AD.

On Kawara One Million Years a
On Kawara. One Million Years. 1999.

Manuscript Genetics & Samuel Beckett

Over at the Samuel Beckett Digital Manuscript Project website, the future possibilities for literary research are being expanded.  A collaborative project of the Centre for Manuscript Genetics (University of Antwerp), the Beckett International Foundation (University of Reading), the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (Austin, Texas) and the Estate of Samuel Beckett, the website significantly improves the  digital tools for scholarship into Beckett’s manuscripts, bringing the results (at least theoretically) to everyone.  Here’s how the website describes the aims of the project:

The Beckett Digital Manuscript Project aims to contribute to the study of Beckett’s works in various ways: by enabling readers to discover new documents and see how the dispersed manuscripts of different holding libraries interrelate within the context of a work’s genesis in its entirety; by increasing the accessibility of the manuscripts with searchable transcriptions in an updatable digital archive; by highlighting the interpretive relevance of intertextual references that can be found in the manuscripts. The Project may also enhance the preservation of the physical documents as users will be able to work with digital facsimiles.

The purpose of the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project is to reunite the manuscripts of Samuel Beckett’s works in a digital way, and to facilitate genetic research: the project brings together digital facsimiles of documents that are now preserved in different holding libraries, and adds transcriptions of Beckett’s manuscripts, tools for bilingual and genetic version comparison, a search engine, and an analysis of the textual genesis of his works. The work on this project proceeds in a modular way. Once the electronic genetic edition of a work is completed, the accompanying analysis of the work’s genesis is published in print with a selection of facsimile images. – Dirk Van Hulle & Mark Nixon

I hope this is the wave of the future and that more libraries and estates will enter into projects such as this one.  Unfortunately, the Beckett project limits access to those willing to pay annual fees starting at  €25 and going upward.  I’d love to see something like a day- or week-pass offered.  Nevertheless, I encourage Vertigo readers to go check out the partially-locked, albeit still impressive demo.  If the demo leaves you asking still more questions, read the Manual and the Technical Documentation for a much more detailed sense of how the tools work.

Equally impressive is the project’s dedication to transparency, seen not only in the thorough documentation noted above, but also in the excellent section on Editorial Principles.

[By the way, I’ll be taking a short break from my ongoing coverage of the new book Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook.  I’m headed out of town momentarily and have decided that a tome weighing in at 1.495 kilograms will not be in my carry-on luggage.  More in a week or so.]

The Amnesia of the Future: Sans Soleil


Chris Marker’s 1982 Sans Soleil is a deliberately elusive film that masquerades as a documentary, much as W.G. Sebald’s digressive tales pretend to be non-fiction. Without even attempting to summarize this decidedly non-linear film, suffice it to say that it consists of a woman’s voice “reading” letters that have been sent to her by a cameraman or filmmaker (Marker’s alter-ego) who travels to Iceland, Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Okinawa, and San Francisco. But the real map of San Soleil‘s territory covers history, memory, anthropology, folklore, time… all topics that are common to Sebald’s books as well. (At markertext you can find a transcription of the full narration of Sans Soleil.)

Marker and Sebald are both pessimistic about the trajectory of civilization and the seeming inability of human nature to overcome its own destructive nature, yet neither manages to be nihilistic. What interests me is that they both gnaw away at the prospect of some kind of redemption, even if it’s against their better judgment. Sans Soleil begins somewhat optimistically with the narrator saying “The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness.” However, at the end of the film we learn that the village in the background of this photograph (on the Icelandic island of Heimaey) was buried by a volcanic eruption. Nature condemns optimism, it seems.


“How far is it from the point where we find ourselves today back to the late eighteenth century, when the hope that mankind could improve and learn was inscribed in handsomely formed letters in our philosophical firmament?” Sebald asks in his essay An Attempt at Restitution. As we know, Sebald despaired constantly only to have some chance meeting or coincidence give him a restorative burst of energy and renew his boundless sense of curiosity. When he posed the question “So what is literature good for?” he made his now often-quoted statement that “only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship.” I’m inclined to think there is an emphasis on the verb attempt.

Marker despairs, too. “We do not remember. We re-write memory much as history is written.” Faced with “the amnesia of the future that history distributes through mercy or calculation to those it recruits,” the in Sans Soleil is a Diogenes searching for something authentic. Marker returns several times to a film clip of a woman in Guinea-Bissau. The narrator recites “I see her, she saw me, she knows that I see her, she drops me her glance, but just at an angle where it is still possible to act as though it was not addressed to me, and at the end the real glance, straightforward, that lasted a twenty-fourth of a second, the length of a film frame.” The real glance. Straightforward. This fragile one-twenty fourth of a second momentarily undermines the cynicism that otherwise permeates the film. This human connection may not be enough to save the world from destruction, it may not even offer hope, but, if nothing else, it seems to be a reason to continue.

So even as Marker and Sebald catalog the ways in which history and nature defeat every attempt to be hopeful, both cling to an ethical practice in their art as a path toward a personal act restitution. Is this just a quixotic attempt to resist the inevitable? It’s hard not to think of the final pages of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable and its unnerving ending:

I can’t go on, you must go on, I’ll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you never know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.