Sunday 23 July 2017

How experimental Literature borrows techniques from other Arts - non-verbal analogies as explanations of form, focusing specifically on Becket’s Endgame and Eliot’s The Wasteland.

One of the more interesting things about writing surrealistic/irreal fiction is that you can be more experimental, not just in subject matter but also in form, whether it be experimenting with cut-ups in "Life's What You Make It" or "concrete prose" and diagrams in "Blot" (all in Ugly Stories for Beautiful People).  Writers of experimental literature have long looked to other art forms to inform or influence their work in their own medium, whether it be the Modernists looking to collage and surrealism in the visual arts in the early Twentieth Century or the likes of Jeff Noon looking to the audio delays and distortion of dub reggae at the end.  The French poet Paul Valery suggested that literary texts often strive to emulate the harmony of music and dance. In this way he tried to explain what he believed were the differences between poetry and prose through the analogy of walking and dancing. He believed that prose was like walking - it has a direct object, an aim directed towards some object which we mean to reach, and once that purpose has been fulfilled it is of no more relevance. Verse, on the other hand, is like dancing, a system of acts that has no purpose or function other than the movements which are ends in themselves. Because of this, he believed that verse was meant to be enjoyed again and again, but was not suitable for the description or narration of events as this gives the words a functional purpose which verse cannot carry. Similarly, in the same way that walking uses the same limbs etc as dancing yet the two acts are different, he believed that poetry and prose were different, even though they use the same words, forms and tones. However, how helpful are these non-verbal analogies  in explaining the nature and function of experimental form?  I hope to answer this by restricting my discussion to two well-known “experimental texts”; The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot and Endgame by Samuel Beckett.

Valery was not the first to see elements in common between the arts (both verbal and non-verbal), and poetry in particular has much in common with music. While there are exceptions, most forms of music and poetry make strong use of rhythm, and both forms make use of sound, whether it be a piccolo trying to evoke birdsong, or by the use of assonance and alliteration in poetry, for example, the repetition of the "s" sound in a poem describing the sound of the sea. Similarly, even though either can exist in their own right, both art forms generally try to evoke an image of something, whether it be a journey down (The Blue) Danube or a description of Mendelsohn's Fingal's Cave; or a journey around Eliot's London or Joyce's Dublin. Finally, even though there are exceptions, both art forms have accepted forms around which they are structured. Poems can rhyme or be in free verse, be narrative or descriptive, and be in any number of stress/unstress metrical forms e.g. iambic pentameter. Similarly, music can be a symphony or a concerto, be written for a quartet or a full orchestra, and so and so forth. (Although many of these forms and "rules" were challenged by the Modernists of the 20th Century such as Joyce and Eliot, and Stravinsky and Schoenberg).

However, when discussing the form and structure of a Modernist work such as Eliot’s The Waste Land or Beckett’s Endgame, analogies with other art forms such as music, can be very helpful, as the apparent lack of "plot" and naturalistic elements (character, setting etc) can often make Modernist works difficult to appreciate in a conventional "literary" sense. One rarely asks what a piece of music is "about", as it describes a scene or evokes an emotion or mood, and much Modernist work also has this quality. For example, The Waste Land, does this, without, unlike many poems, really telling a story. It is thus structured very much like a piece of music. For example, most music has a theme which is repeated and developed through variations on this theme, and there is usually a conflict or interplay between these variations. The musical piece is held together by echoes and repetitions of the theme, and of motifs reminding the listener of particular moods.

The Waste Land, does not have a story or a narrator as such, but a central theme which is emphasized through different characters - a theme of spiritual deadness, of the sterility and futility of life, perhaps lines 1-7 and 19-24 coming the closest to describing the central concerns of the poem, although, unlike music, the theme develops (and can develop) gradually.

There are also, as with much music, "variations" of this theme. All of the characters whether they are rich or poor, aristocratic or in a seedy pub, a "real" secretary or a Classical mythical figure (such as the Fisher King or the questors of the Grail legend) are spiritually deadened, and by use of social variety, and the contrasting and counterpointing of certain "scenes" (such as the rape of Philomel and the Thames-girls accounts (292-305), Eliot is achieving much the same effect as a composer changing a few notes in his musical theme. Indeed, it can be argued that Eliot's allusion to other literary sources to emphasize his theme is much like a composer's having a different instrument section play a refrain.

Eliot also uses echoes (both to other works and to other lines in the poem) creating an effect like that of a piece of music. For example, the repetition of "dead" or "death" sounds through the poem from "the dead land" (2), "the dead tree" (23), "neither/living nor dead" (39-40), "I had not thought death had undone so many" (63), "Where dead men lost their bones" (116), "Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead" (312) to "He who was living is now dead" (328). References to Philomel come in Parts II, III, and V insisting that the reader doesn't forget, and the word "unreal" in line 60 recurs in lines 207 and 376. Similarly, in the pub scene in Part II the line "Hurry up please it's time" occurs like a refrain five times.

Eliot's use of compressed allusion is like a musical theme that is played by different instruments, all valid on their own, yet together strengthening the main theme. For example, he not only writes that London is a spiritual "wasteland" but also refers the reader to Mylae, Baudelaire's nineteenth century Paris, and Dante's medieval Hell, not only repeating the idea of spiritual stagnation, but also suggesting that such ennui and amorality is part of human nature rather than specific to London in 1922.

It is also worth mentioning Korg's comparisons of The Waste Land's structure to that of many techniques used by modern artists - another useful non-verbal analogy. He compared Eliot's method of connecting every part of the poem, through a complex system of parallels, contrasts and allusions, with the shattering and re-arrangement of subject matter pioneered by the Cubist paintings of Braque and Picasso - i.e. the way that they used fragments to distort space and time.

He also compared it to the artistic technique known as collage, in that Eliot used real quotations, songs, objective realism etc and placed them next to imagined and mythical characters and situations, the many elements supporting each other so that the sum of the work has a greater (or different) meaning than the sum of its parts. Finally, he argued that there were similarities between the "paranoiac-critical" (or "double image") paintings of the Surrealist painters like Dali, and Eliot's method of transforming every episode, character and symbol in the poem into something else under the pressure of its context. For example, Korg argued, "...Mr Eugenides, because he is one eyed, is also the merchant in the Tarot pack, and because he is half-blind, has a certain relationship with Tiresius" (Korg, 1960), in the same way that a hand can also be a kneeling figure in a Dali painting, even though the image itself doesn't change. However, in my opinion Korg is pushing the analogy too far here. The similarities to collage are easy to understand, yet despite its dream-like quality in places, I do not believe it was ever Eliot's intention to create a "paranoiac-critical" effect in literary terms. Indeed, the linking of characters argued by Korg, robs the poem of power by reducing the universality of the loss of faith in all these people in all the various times.

Beckett's Modernist play Endgame, like The Waste Land, puts a lot of emphasis on form and structure. There is no real cause-effect plot, and little in the way of character development because of what happens in the play, and much of the dialogue is not naturalistic, but poetic. Here too, non-verbal analogies can be useful. Like much music, nothing really happens in Endgame, yet there is a theme (here that of the futility, sterility and pointlessness of life) which is explored and developed in different ways, in this example through the different characters and their actions and reactions. Indeed, the very text of the play can be likened to a musical score, Beckett's stage directions being very precise including silences, mannerisms, tones of voice etc. He even said that his plays should be performed like music (Coe and Havely 1995, p25). Indeed, like a symphonic composition there is a very varied pace and mood, from long soliloquy-type speeches and Hamm's story, to snappy dialogue (sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes tragic: " is corpsed" (Beckett, Endgame, p71)), and sometimes nihilistically obscure, ("What time is it?"/"The same as usual." (Beckett, Endgame, p95)).

Similarly, like a musical piece (and indeed The Waste Land and many other Modernist works), there are echoes and repetitions of the theme, such as the repetition of "There are no more bicycle wheels (p97), more pap (p97), "....sugar plums" (p120), "tide"(p123), "navigators" (p125), "rugs" (p126), "pain-killer" (p128) etc, as well as a repetition of ideas, the reply "the same as usual" being repeated several times to emphasize the lack of change or purpose in the room, and the questioning of what is happening (with typically obscure (and again, repeated, answers e.g. "something is taking its course" (note how passive the concept makes them)) emphasising, through subtle variations, the main themes.

Endgame also refers to other literary works (eg The Tempest, The Iliad, and Richard III), although to nowhere near the extent of The Waste Land), so, as a piece of drama it is more difficult to compare with visual art.....collage or Cubist theories are of little importance here (although perhaps at a push, the tiny events such as the introduction of the flea and Nell and Nagg, which appear like "action" but aren't.... apart from their creating a subconscious wholeness to the play, could be likened to the effect of an abstract painting -it shows perhaps a blob of colour (in Endgame's case undeniably grey), yet has great emotional affect).

However, the repeated actions (eg Clov's fetching of the steps and the glass) are very choreographed by Beckett (the word itself is important), so the importance of physical movement in space, often in silence, was obviously well understood by him, and he obviously considered it important (as he did the appearance and dress of the characters, again going into great detail on how they should look).

Like much Modernist work, Endgame does not portray a mimetic copy of the natural world, there is little cause-effect narrative "plot", the ending doesn't offer any kind of conclusive "closure", neither the setting or the characters are recognisably "real", and the characters occasionally refer to themselves as being characters in a play - they "break the fourth wall" in a way that is not recognised as "normal" by the audience (for example a soliloquy), but with lines like:

CLOV What is there to keep me here?
HAMM The dialogue. (p121-122),
CLOV This is what we call making an exit. (p133).

Thus, it can be seen from these two works, how Modernist writing has to emphasize form and structure (e.g. use of allusion, "collage", repetition of ideas etc) in order to still convey a message or a theme, without the use of naturalistic characters or cause-effect plots, and as such other non-verbal art forms can help our understanding of them by shifting our focus from "what happens?" or "what are they about?", to "what emotional impact does it have?"

What happens when one uses Modernist and Postmodernist techniques with prose which does have characters and cause-and-effect plots (no matter how bizarre they may be), is what I hope to be exploring through my own work.


Beckett, S. (1958) Endgame, in Owens,W.R. (ed) (1991) The Drama Anthology, The Open University, Gateshead, Athenaeum Press.

Coe, T. and Havely, C.P. (1995) "Drama" in A319 - Block 1 - Introduction, Norwich, The Open University.

Eliot, T.S. (1922) The Waste Land, London, Faber and Faber.

Korg, J. (1960) "Modern Art Techniques in The Waste Land" in Martin, J. (1968) A Collection of Critical Essays On The Waste Land, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall.

Martin, G. (1991) "What was Modernism?" in Literature in the Modern World: Impact of Modernism (Course A319), Norwich, The Open University.

Martin, G. (1991) "A study guide to The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot" in Literature in the Modern World: Impact of Modernism (Course A319), Norwich, The Open University.

Martin, G. (1991) "Poetic language" in Literature in the Modern World: Impact of Modernism (Course A319), Norwich, The Open University.

Scholes. R. (1978) "Towards a Semiotics in Literature", in Walder,D. (1990) Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Valery, P.(1957) "Remarks on Poetry", in Walder,D. (1990) Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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