In an essay for 3:AM Magazine, Richard Marshall explores the connections between Samuel Beckett and the nineteenth-century German Romantic painter
Try and walk in on the dark rooms of Caspar David Friedrich and Samuel Beckett, headway into the paradise space of ‘Two Men staring at the Moon’ and a few lingering reminiscences. Bon chance! There’s a barrier, like an inversion of the moonlit interior’s of Bunuel’s ‘The Exterminating Angel’. There the characters mysteriously can’t exit, here we can’t enter. What’s this stuckness about? I propose the strange necessary illusion of vagueness. Vagueness engenders the illusion of the sorites paradox. Beckett identifies it as his crux in ‘Endgame’: ‘“Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap. I can’t be punished any more.’ The old Greek problem of the heap – how many grains of sand make a heap? – leads to impasse. The transition looks like a zone of indeterminacy, a smeared threshold which itself is vague and therefore an infinite regress of higher order versions of the same. And hence the stuckness. It seems we must complete an infinite task in a finite time. In the Beckett quote the key word is ‘suddenly.’ The mystery is easily solved if we stick to simple everyday classical logic. There must be a particular grain that ‘suddenly’ makes the switch between non-heap and heap, and vice versa. So old Greek mystery is solved at one level and its mystery switches to: how come we don’t know which grain?
In all to be understood is the totality of voice, face, eyes, presence, dexterity, weight, violence, madness in whatever portion we can bear to find. Our stuckness is a kind of ignorance that bears down on near enough everything. Everywhere. I sketch an ecluse, a gate if you like, controlling a stretch of water in which barges change level. Friedrich’s and Beckett’s art is, suppose, a matter of switching levels like barges in a canal. They work at the suddenness of change where everything is seemingly stuck and the switching point genuinely unknown. Everything in them is a reevaluation. Darkness and storm are the elements. They are both Protestant after all, so their art is a version of humming ‘Now the Day is Over’ howled face-down in the mud, enjoining another exhausted metaphysics of impossible guff, asses to the unwiped sky. Both Friedrich’s paintings and Beckett’s theatrical objects are examples of deep sympathies between hymnals ‘Lead Kindly Light’ and ‘Rock of Ages’ and across these to the impossibility of knowing the first day of redemption, death, birth, spring, winter and damnation. Both are tireless. Their attitude towards the unknowability is a mix of comedy and the overwrought, in other words, baggy life in all its sweats, rather than perfumed exhaustion. Life is endured as a borderline, a threshold, as Killeney Strand shingle and dune imagined by Beckett between Dublin and 6 Rue des Favorites in 1948:
‘the way is in the sand flowing/between the shingle and the dune/the summer rain rains on my life/on me my life harrying fleeing/to its beginning to its end/my peace is there in the receding mist/when I may cease from treading these long shifting/thresholds/and live the space of a door/that opens and shuts.’
Also known as ‘The Cross On the Mountains’, Caspar David Friedrich had been working on his ‘Tetschener Alter’ throughout 1808. It was his first oil done in his own studio in Dresden. Presented in a darkened room, the painting on a table draped with black cloth within a frame by Gottlob Christian Kuhn of Eucharist signs of bread and wine, ‘The Tetschener Altar’ is a strange and discomforting performance. You can see emerging the beginnings of the great adventure you see in some paintings, an imploring reach to grasp something not secured, not yet given up, the stuckness that isn’t exhaustion but more, as Beckett has it, ‘fidelity to the prison house’ and ‘the afterbirth of the unfeasible.’ An essential vague threshold.
Read the complete essay at 3:AM Magazine.