Fizzles by Samuel Beckett (1973 to 1975)

The ‘fizzles’ are eight short prose pieces by Samuel Beckett. He wrote seven of them in French in the early 1960s and translated them into English a decade later, apart from Still, which he wrote straight into English in 1972.

Order and names

Some of the fizzles are unnamed and are identified by their numbers or first few words ‘in speech marks’. There’s no particular logical order and different publications have varied the order and not necessarily included all 8, but they tend to be arranged as per an edition published by Grove Press which Beckett reportedly approved:

  • Fizzle 1 ‘He is barehead’
  • Fizzle 2 ‘Horn came always’
  • Fizzle 3 Afar a Bird
  • Fizzle 4 ‘I gave up before birth’
  • Fizzle 5 ‘Closed place’
  • Fizzle 6 ‘Old earth’
  • Fizzle 7 Still
  • Fizzle 8 For to end yet again

Foirades

In French their title is Foirades and a ‘foirade’ translates as ‘squitters’ or ‘jitters’, a flop or failure. According to the Faber Companion to Beckett he himself referred to the Fizzles as ‘wet farts’ or attempts to break wind quietly (you should never underestimate the element of sheer, bucket, gutter, potty-mouthed crudity in lots of Beckett, his obsession with bodily functions and the crudest Anglo-Saxon terminology e.g. the prominence of the c word in How It Is or casual remarks such as ‘I considered kicking her in the cunt’, in First Love).

Going beyond closure

Regarding the content, the Companion spends a lot of time on their publishing history and gives just a one-sentence interpretation, namely that the Fizzles were – when written in the early 60s – attempts to go beyond the closure or ending implied in a work like The Unnamable.

This is certainly a way to think about how the fizzles all concern different personages, are in different voices, appear to be exploring different scenarios. Obviously they are unified by a) being about derelict characters with dysfunctional minds b) conveyed in prose which experiments with various strategies, most notably Beckett’s familiar tactics of i) Repetition of key phrases, and ii) Oblique syntax i.e. missing out verbs or adding multiple phrases without indicating their relationships with punctuation or prepositions.

But within this overall approach, each fizzle is like an experiment with a different approach to his themes. It helps that most of them are relatively short, barely half a page, which adds to the sense that they are offcuts of a larger work, fragments at a tangent from a bigger vision.

Fizzle 1 ‘He is barehead’

An unnamed male protagonist, ‘destitute of history’ and ‘near to death’, wearing uncomfortable clothes, possibly ‘prison garb’, barefoot, is walking endlessly uphill so his head is bowed, but through a narrow place where he’s constantly banging his shoulders and arms, sometimes it narrows so much that squeezing through hurts his arms and shoulders even draws a little blood, there’s no chance of seeing through the gloom so more and more he closes his eyes, he reviews his body – the legs, the head, the heart – no complaints, he zigs to the left, he zags to the right, sometimes he stops to lick the walls, behind it he hears the sound of an enormous fall or drop, but mostly there is silence; he makes a distinction between the air here which is ‘foul’, and ‘the other, the true life-giving’, suggesting he is underground and heading always upwards towards the surface, towards ‘the open’ (which explains the gloom, the silence, the foul air, the uphill gradient) and his memory endlessly pores over the maxima and minima of his experiences, the loudest fall, the quietest fall, the sweetest wall lick, and so on, indefinitely.

Fizzle 2 ‘Horn came always’

First person narrator describing how a character named Horn always came in the dark, the narrator would send him away after 5 or 6 minutes, 5 or 6 years since anyone had seen the narrator, it’s some time before s/he has gotten out of bed, it (the body’s injuries) are sure to show, but no-one at any price is to see her face, hence making Horn come at night, Horn’s visits don’t seem to be for sex, the narrator asks Horn questions e.g. ‘And her gown that day?’ Horn gets out his notebook, checks, and answers, once she asked him to turn on the flashlight so she could see his face, as the torchlight faded she was certain it was him, definitely him, but she has only to pass her hand over her eyes or take off her eyeglasses for the image to fade, that’s why she prefers looking at the ceiling, although she did get out of bed the other day and she thought she had long ago ‘made my last journey’, she’s started making little journeys hanging onto the bars of her bed; in a bizarre, surreal and presumably humorous last few sentences she blames her decrepitude on ‘athletics’:

What ruined me at bottom was athletics. With all that jumping and running when I was young, and even long after in the case of certain events, I wore out the machine before its time. My fortieth year had come and gone and I still throwing the javelin.

Fizzle 3 Afar a Bird

A third-person narrator describes the progress of an unnamed character walking, as so often in Beckett, across a ‘ruin-strewn land’, taking little wary steps, resting after every ten steps:

that image, the little heap of hands and head, the trunk horizontal, the jutting elbows, the eyes closed and the face rigid listening, the eyes hidden and the whole face hidden,

Strange phrasing suggests the narrator was ‘inside’ this figure, somehow and somehow was given birth to:

but birth there had to be, it was he, I was inside… I’m inside, it was he who wailed, he who saw the light, I didn’t wail, I didn’t see the light…

More strange phrasing suggests the observer and the actor are one and the same, and when he comes to describe his death it sounds as if the soul is describing the death of the body, boasting that he will survive, certainly it sounds like a psyche or persona split in two:

he is fled, I’m inside, he’ll do himself to death, because of me, I’ll live it with him, I’ll live his death, the end of his life and then his death, step by step, in the present, how he’ll go about it, it’s impossible I should know, I’ll know, step by step, it’s he will die, I won’t die, there will be nothing of him left but bones, I’ll be inside, nothing but a little grit, I’ll be inside

Wow, this obviously echoes the title of Not I but also the duality in one mind or one narrative of The Unnamable, but is genuinely spooky, like a ghost story where the ghost is inside the head of the lead character.

Fizzle 4 ‘I gave up before birth’

This appears to be a close variation in number 3. It’s interesting to compare 4 and 3 because the topic is identical, the notion of a narrator being inside a man who he confidently predicts will die by he, the narrator will survive, and a score of other notions stemming from this idea – but version 4 is much more pure, it is much clearer about the plight and its consequences and so, maybe surprisingly, is less effective than 3. 3 is more obscure and contains ambiguous or impenetrable phrases, but for that reason, comes over as the more genuinely deranged of the pair, and therefore more likely what an unhinged soul or body-occupier would actually sound like i.e. deeply worrying.

Fizzle 5 ‘Closed place’

Opens with a typically incoherent sentence:

All needed to be known for say is known.

Which indicates it is the speech of yet another character whose mind is collapsing, and at the same time hints at profound meanings which are not immediately translatable into standard prose. In fact, the very next two sentences are considerably clearer:

There is nothing but what is said. Beyond what is said there is nothing.

This sounds like a Zen Buddhist saying, not that meaningful in itself, but designed to prompt meditation and pondering.  From this abstract opening, the text goes on to become the description of a place rather than a person – a vast ‘arena’ big enough to hold ‘millions’ who spend their time;

wandering and still. Never seeing never hearing one another. Never touching’

This vast space is divided up into millions of equal lots:

Just room for the average sized body. Stretched out diagonally. Bigger it has to curl up.

In other words this ‘arena’ has distinct similarities with the claustrophobic ‘hell’ described in The Lost Ones. It’s also one more example of Beckett’s obsession with conceiving the precise space and geometry of human bodies and the claustrophobically closed spaces they inhabit. The arena is also a ‘ditch’ a few feet deeper than the surrounding surface.

Some of these ‘lots’ are bright, some are dark, making a patchwork quilt. Above the arena, light is shed down onto the bright squares. ‘In the black air towers of pale light. So many bright lots so many towers.’ There is a track all around the ditch, a step up from it and just wide enough for one to walk. That’s it.

The precision of the imagining makes it very close to Dante’s imagining of the afterlife, except without any of Dante’s personality, humanity, characters, dialogue, interactions, and religious, legal and moral symbolism.

Fizzle 6 ‘Old earth’

Flavour is conveyed by quoting:

Old earth, no more lies, I’ve seen you, it was me, with my other’s ravening eyes, too late. You’ll be on me, it will be you, it will be me, it will be us, it was never us.

With a kind of surreal or delirious inconsequentiality the narrator abruptly declares:

It’s a cockchafer year, next year there won’t be any, nor the year after, gaze your fill.

The narrator appears to turn on the light to watch them flying towards the river. And this morphs into surprisingly obvious and sentimental memories:

For an instant I see the sky, the different skies, then they turn to faces, agonies, loves, the different loves, happiness too, yes, there was that too, unhappily. Moments of life, of mine too, among others, no denying, all said and done.

Fizzle 7 Still

Another surprisingly naturalistic description of someone sitting quite still at a window watching the sun set in the south west. The phrase ‘quite still’ is repeated to create that intensity.

As so often what comes over is Beckett’s intense imagining of the precise position of the human figure and of its movements. We don’t get a name or spoken words or thoughts or emotions. None of that interests him.

Sitting quite still at valley window normally turn head now… Even get up certain moods and go stand by western window… at open window facing south in small upright wicker chair with armrests. Eyes stare out unseeing till first movement some time past… Normally turn head now ninety degrees to watch sun… Even get up certain moods and go stand by western window… Eyes then open again while still light and close again in what if not quite a single movement almost…

Except the figure is not still. On closer examination he, she or it is trembling all over. This sets up a dynamic opposition which then rings through the rest of the short text which goes on to describe the position or positions of this human in the usual excruciating detail:

Legs side by side broken right angles at the knees… Trunk likewise dead plumb right up to top of skull seen from behind including nape clear of chairback. Arms likewise broken right angles at the elbows forearms along armrests just right length fore arms and rests for hands clenched lightly to rest on ends…

It makes you realise that these descriptions of precise bodily movements and the super-precise stage directions he gave for his later plays, are all cut from the same cloth:

The right hand slowly opening leaves the armrest taking with it the whole forearm complete with elbow and slowly rises opening further as it goes and turning a little deasil till midway to the head it hesitates and hangs half open trembling in mid air. Hangs there as if half inclined to return that is sink back slowly closing as it goes and turning the other way tillas and where it began clenched lightly on end of rest.

These could almost be stage directions for one of his hyper-minimalist late dramaticules. The poetry or the drama is in these very limited, small-scale but super-precisely described physical gestures.

Fizzle 8 For to end yet again

It is quite ironic that one his post-war short stories was titled The End because, of course, Beckett never finished ending, he was endlessly ending. Or was compelled to end endlessly, over and over again, the sentences trying to assemble meaning from broken fragments at odds with each other, incomplete, trying to reach an end:

For to end yet again skull alone in a dark place pent bowed on a board to begin.

Like so much of Beckett’s prose it works by the incantatory repetition of certain key words phrases which build up a strange, not a romantic power, something more modern and metallic and baleful.

  • skull
  • alone in the dark, alone in a dark place
  • grey sand as far as eye can see
  • leaden dawn

To our surprise the narrator mentions that here in this waste of sand as dawn arrives over a leaden grey sky, ‘amidst his ruins the expelled‘! The Expelled is of course the title of one of the four long short stories wrote right at the end of the war, and all the stories rotate around the same figure who has been ‘expelled’ from his home by ‘them’. Is this ‘expelled’ the same guy? Or is everyone expelled in Beckettworld? Is everyone condemned to the same eternal trudging across grey dusty landscapes or circling round rubber cylinders (The Lost Ones), bent double climbing endless hills (Enough), haunting the ruined refuge of Lessness?

As usual there is no name, no character, no personality, no psychology, no dialogue, no thoughts, no humanity; it’s all about the bodies:

Same grey all that little body from head to feet sunk ankle deep were it not for the eyes last bright of all. The arms still cleave to the trunk and to each other the legs made for flight.

It’s odd that he specifically uses the word ‘hell’ and then goes on to mention the ‘refuge’. Is this meant to be a kind of summary, pulling together themes scattered through the fizzles (and other texts, the ‘refuge’ which appears throughout Lessness – this and Lessness seem very closely linked)?

Astonishingly two white dwarfs appear. They are trudging through the dust, inevitably, with the just as inevitable bowed backs. No-one walks with a spring in their step and a song in their heart in Beckettworld. The dwarfs are so alike the eye cannot tell them apart and they are carrying, between them, a litter, such as the rich rode in in Roman times. They are not pretty dwarfs:

Monstrous extremities including skulls stunted legs and trunks monstrous arms stunted faces… Atop the cyclopean dome rising sheer from jut of brow yearns white to the grey sky the bump of habitativity or love of home

Can he see it, this scene, ‘the expelled [person] amid his ruins’? Is it him regarding the two dwarfs carrying their litter. This scenario gives the text more key words and phrases to repeat and circle:

  • litter
  • dwarfs
  • ruins
  • little body

‘The expelled’ falls amid his ruins in the white dust, the dwarfs let drop their litter once again. Is this hell:

hell air not a breath? And dream of a way in a space with neither here nor there where all the footsteps ever fell can never fare nearer to anywhere nor from anywhere further away?

No.

No for in the end for to end yet again by degrees or as though switched on dark falls there again that certain dark that alone certain ashes can

It can’t be the end because the end is endless. It can never end.

One thing leads to another

Apart from the obvious aspects of these pieces – they are very unlike anyone else’s ‘stories’ or prose pieces, the lack of character or dialogue or plot – one thing that comes over strongly in most of them is the sense of free association. What I mean is one thing leads to another, one idea throws up a phrase or notion which the text then moves onto with no real, external logic, no logic of events, certainly, but the logic of association.

As Tristram Shandy had shown 200 years earlier (1759) the idea of building a fictional text by letting one idea suggest another which suggests another was hardly new, and prose which tried to capture the so-called stream-of-consciousness had been developed in their different ways by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce during and just after the Great War.

Hard-hearted prose

What makes these pieces’ use of a sort of stream-of-conscious approach so different is their hard quality. There is a hard, stiff quality about Beckett’s prose. And there is a hard quality about the descriptions. They are more often than not descriptions of people in some kind of mental or physical extremis, and yet there is never any softening of the style or of the attitude. There is no compassion. Everything is described in a kind of forced, compelled way which sometimes verges on the mechanical or robotic.

This is most obvious, maybe, in Beckett’s obsessive concern with the body of his characters, not just with the tortured contortions or trials he often puts it through, but the mechanical way he lists body parts and enumerates actions, with the detachment of an anthropologist.

Some day he’ll see himself, his whole front, from the chest down, and the arms, and finally the hands, first rigid at arm’s length, then close up, trembling, to his eyes. He halts, for the first time since he knows he’s under way, one foot before the other, the higher flat, the lower on its toes…

You can read into the pieces a certain compassion for these figures, but it isn’t actually there in the pieces themselves. They are hard to the verge of being feeling brittle.

Unfree association

Back to the free association idea, take Fizzle 2, ‘Horn came at night’, it’s tempting to think that Beckett simply free associated it. The progress of ideas is: ‘Horn always came at night’. So straightaway you suspect that is a rude pun, ‘horn’ being slang for erect penis, ‘came’ being the common verb describing orgasm, all helped along by the night-time setting. Then you can see Beckett thinking this is far too obvious and immediately intruding a bit of Beckett business, a kind of spurious precision, by saying that the narrator only hosts Horn for 5 or 6 minutes, and going one step further to remove it from the world of porn or even faintly sensual writing by stating that Horn always switches on his torch to consult his notes. What torch? What notes? Why is he taking notes?

And the thought that she only lets him visit for 5 or 6 minutes leads to the question why the short intervals – which prompts Beckett to concoct the idea that it’s because the narrator is ashamed of how she looks. ‘It was five or six years since anyone had seen me’. Which leads onto the thought that she is changing her mind, emerging from her self-imposed exile, and determined to let herself be seen again.

That all happens in the first paragraph, but the point I’m making isn’t about the subject matter, it’s about Beckett’s process of moving quickly from one idea to another. And I’m trying to bring out the way the ideas don’t exactly flow. It isn’t stream of consciousness in the way Woolf or Joyce were trying to capture what thinking actually feels like, were trying to give a realistic description of the way our thoughts endlessly link together.

Beckett’s version is much more contrived and hard-hearted than that. It’s more like a deliberate attempt to avoid realistic stream of consciousness, and replace it with a sequence of arbitrary and unexpected developments. The same sense of arbitrary develops characterises the end of fizzle 2 when the character suddenly starts blaming their physical decrepitude on athletics, all that running or jumping when they were young.

Or take the equally incongruous and ‘random’ appearance of two dwarfs carrying a litter across a bone dry plain in fizzle 8. This and other odd and arbitrary developments, like the sudden appearance of the cockchafers in fizzle 6, arise from no known logic, no realistic depiction of the world or of the mind, but reflect a kind of contorted, unfree association.

What appears to be a random arbitrary thought occurs, and then directs the text down along a new course.

And no sooner has he thought of them, these random features, than they are subjected to the usual tough-minded treatment of Beckett’s prose strategies:

  • obsession with the body and its precise posture and movements
  • obsessive enumeration or listing of activities or attributes
  • above all the obsessive, meaning-draining incantation of a handful of key words or phrases which either deepen and intensify the reading experience, or drive you nuts with frustration, depending on your mood and inclinations

Luxury literature

Beckett is usually promoted as the purveyor of world-class pessimism, bleakness and nihilism, a poet laureate of impoverishment, decay and collapse.

But by the time I began reading serious literature in the mid-1970s, he was already a world-famous figure, with a Nobel Prize to his name. Any play he wrote was immediately put on at the Royal Court Theatre with a massive press fanfare, and any prose he wrote was liable to be printed in full in the most prestigious journals or newspapers. It was impossible, in other words, for anyone to be more famous or successful in the field of literature than Samuel Beckett was.

Not only that, but by the mid-70s Beckett was also becoming known for collaborating in high-end, elite de luxe editions of his works and Fizzles is a good case in point. In 1973, soon after the Froisades were published in French, Beckett was introduced to American artist Jasper Johns and they agreed to work together on an illustrated version of the English translation, Fizzles.

Johns chose just five fizzles and to create a little ‘artist’s book’ containing both French and English versions (he chose fizzles 2, 5, 1, 6, and 4). Johns created 33 images plus the book’s end papers. The resulting book was published with the title Foirades/Fizzles in an edition of 250 copies, signed by both creators. I saw some of the illustrations at the big 2017 Jasper Johns retrospective at the Royal Academy.

What the exhibition showed is that although Johns is famous for painting the American flag and other everyday artifacts, he went through a big black and white phase and that’s when the fizzles project took place. The rather grim, rough-hewn, black and white abstract shapes, or shapes made of black and white letters of the alphabet, are appropriate for the semi-abstract texts, with their lack of colour and repetition of black (fizzles 1, 5, 8) and in particular grey, which dominates fizzle 8 (‘Grey cloudless sky grey sand as far as eye can see’).

Many of these limited editions found their way into the collections of the V&A or Museum of Modern Art and so on, or into the hands of the usual art market investors. Nowadays they change hands for $30,000 or more.

I know I’m being naive, but for me aged 17, there was something very off-putting about knowing that this supposed prophet of immiseration and the extremity of human consciousness, was in reality fawned on by cultural elites around the world who fought like ferrets for the privilege of staging his latest 10-minute play or publishing his latest 3-page prose masterpiece, and that the the supposed poet laureate of impoverishment and collapse in reality collaborated in creating luxury collectors’ items designed to find their way into the hands of the super rich and the art elite.

It’s taken me all this time to overcome my antipathy to Beckett because of his association with the Art and Theatrical and Financial Elite, and to try and read his works objectively, for what they are.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Ping by Samuel Beckett (1966)

Ping is a very short text, just 908 words long. Beckett wrote it in French with the title Bing then translated it into English.

It is in one continuous block of prose, like The Unnamable. It uses a fanatical amount of verbal repetition like How It Is does, taking a handful of key phrases and repeating them in almost every sentence to build up a sense of hysteria.

As so often the vocabulary is plain and simple except for a handful of distractingly unusual words, in this case ‘haught’ (7 instances), ‘unover’ (6 instances) and, of course, the title word, ‘ping’ (37 instances).

The word ‘white’ is particularly repeated and the work’s original title in French was, apparently, Blanc, reminding us of various attempts to create pure white poetry unstained by meaning by the likes of the French poet Stephane Mallarmé. The word ‘white’ is repeated 93 times, making up over 10% of the words used. Ping occurs 37 times, 4%.

The text

All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one square yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just. Traces blurs light grey almost white on white. Hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle. Light heat white planes shining white bare white body fixed ping fixed elsewhere. Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white. Bare white body fixed white on white invisible. Only the eyes only just light blue almost white. Head haught eyes light blue almost white silence within. Brief murmurs only just almost never all known. Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white. Legs joined like sewn heels together right angle. Traces alone unover given black light grey almost white on white. Light heat white walls shining white one yard by two. Bare white body fixed one yard ping fixed elsewhere. Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white. White feet toes joined like sewn heels together right angle invisible. Eyes alone unover given blue light blue almost white. Murmur only just almost never one second perhaps not alone. Given rose only just bare white body fixed one yard white on white invisible. All white all known murmurs only just almost never always the same all known. Light heat hands hanging palms front white on white invisible. Bare white body fixed ping fixed elsewhere. Only the eyes only just light blue almost white fixed front. Ping murmur only just almost never one second perhaps a way out. Head haught eyes light blue almost white fixed front ping murmur ping silence. Eyes holes light blue almost white mouth white seam like sewn invisible. Ping murmur perhaps a nature one second almost never that much memory almost never. Whitewalls each its trace grey blur signs no meaning light grey almost white. Light heat all known all white planes meeting invisible. Ping murmur only just almost never one second perhaps a meaning that much memory almost never. White feet toes joined like sewn heels together right angle ping elsewhere no sound. Hands hanging palms front legs joined like sewn. Head haught eyes holes light blue almost white fixed front silence within. Ping elsewhere always there but that known not. Eyes holes light blue alone unover given blue light blue almost white only colour fixed front. All white all known white planes shining white ping murmur only just almost never one second light time that much memory almost never. Bare white body fixed one yard ping fixed elsewhere white on white invisible heart breath no sound.Only the eyes given blue light blue almost white fixed front only colour alone unover. Planes meeting invisible one only shining white infinite but that known not. Nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn invisible. Ping murmurs only just almost never one second always the same all known. Given rose only just bare white body fixed one yard invisible all known without within. Ping perhaps a nature one second with image same time a little less blue and white in the wind. White ceiling shining white one square yard never seen ping perhaps way out there one second ping silence. Traces alone unover given black grey blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white always the same. Ping perhaps not alone one second with image always the same same time a little less that much memory almost never ping silence.Given rose only just nails fallen white over. Long hair fallen white invisible over. White scars invisible same white as flesh torn of old given rose only just. Ping image only just almost never one second light time blue and white in the wind. Head haught nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn invisible over. Only the eyes given blue fixed front light blue almost white only colour alone unover. Light heat white planes shining white one only shining white infinite but that known not. Ping a nature only just almost never one second with image same time a little less blue and white in the wind. Traces blurs light grey eyes holes light blue almost white fixed front ping a meaning only just almost never ping silence. Bare white one yard fixed ping fixed elsewhere no sound legs joined like sewn heels together right angle hands hanging palms front. Head haught eyes holes light blue almost white fixed front silence within. Ping elsewhere always there but that known not. Ping perhaps not alone one second with image same time a little less dim eye black and white half closed long lashes imploring that much memory almost never. Afar flash of time all white all over all of old ping flash white walls shining white no trace eyes holes light blue almost white last colour ping white over. Ping fixed last elsewhere legs joined like sewn heels together right angle hands hanging palms front head haught eyes white invisible fixed front over. Given rose only just one yard invisible bare white all known without within over. White ceiling never seen ping of old only just almost never one second light time white floor never seen ping of old perhaps there. Ping of old only just perhaps a meaning a nature one second almost never blue and white in the wind that much memory henceforth never. White planes no trace shining white one only shining white infinite but that known not. Light heat all known all white heart breath no sound. Head haught eyes white fixed front old ping last murmur one second perhaps not alone eye unlustrous black and white half closed long lashes imploring ping silence ping over.

Obsession with posture

There is, as usual with Beckett, obsessive and obsessively repeated concern for the precise configuration of the human body. What happens if you extract the phrases solely describing the body?

white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn…
bare white body fixed only the eyes only just…
hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle…
bare white body fixed…
bare white body fixed…
head haught…
legs joined like sewn heels together right angle…
bare white body fixed one yard…
white feet toes joined like sewn heels together right angle…
bare white body fixed one yard…
hands hanging palms front…
bare white body fixed…
head haught…
mouth white seam like sewn…
white feet toes joined like sewn heels together right angle…
hands hanging palms front legs joined like sewn…
head haught…
bare white body fixed one yard…
nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn…
bare white body fixed one yard invisible…
long hair fallen white invisible…
head haught…
nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn…
bare white one yard fixed…
legs joined like sewn heels together right angle hands hanging palms front…
head haught…
legs joined like sewn heels together right angle hands hanging palms front head haught eyes white invisible fixed front…
head haught…

Well if you do this the quality of repetition becomes more obvious, as does the importance of the precise physical posture of the figure.

Physical posture as the seed of the pieces

It’s never really clear that these postures relate to anything else at all, no known symbolism, whether astrology or yoga or the kama sutra. Beckett just seems to have conceived of (generally old and decrepit) human bodies in different contorted and uncomfortable postures, and then built texts around them (All Strange Away, Imagination Dead ImagineHow It Is, Enough).

For example, once he had conceived of a decrepit old human body crawling through mud and imagined the right leg moving up along with the right arm in a kind of crab-like movement to shunt itself forward through the mud, then virtually the whole of How It Is follows fairly logically.

Or once he had conceived of a decrepit old man so spavined that he walks literally bent double and can only see the little patch of grass and flowers at his feet, then the text of Enough flows fairly logically.

In each case the positions need to be described in as concentrated and abstract way as possible to achieve the writing degree zero minimalism he was aiming at and this creates a kind of basic mantra or chant which will be repeated ad nauseam, with tiny variations, and will form the scaffold of the piece.

Then, like a christmas tree, the various baubles and bangles can be added – the blue eyes, the white hair, the confined space (as is so frequent in these so-called ‘closed space’ works) and then just the bare minimum possible of sputtering mind or consciousness, in this case the half dozen references to the almost obliterated faculty of memory to suggest the last gasping ghostly operation of something which was once ‘mind’.

Other strands

A shorter extract could be made focusing on the colours because, despite the emphasis on white, there are other colours, namely black, grey, blue, rose. A slightly longer one focusing on the references to eyes. Or the half dozen references to memory. The references to Ping, whatever he, she or it is. So the text can be parsed out into blocks around each of this handful of themes. Or into strands of spaghetti, a whole plateful of text woven out of what, when you single them out, are only ten or so separate strands.

David Lodge tries to salvage the piece for the tradition

Novelist and critic David Lodge, in a 1968 review of Ping, suggests that the ‘consciousness’ depicted in the piece makes repeated efforts to assert the possibility of colour, movement, sound, memory and another person’s presence, only to collapse each time into the acceptance of colourlessness, paralysis, silence, amnesia and solitude. He suggests Ping is:

the rendering of the consciousness of a person confined in a small, bare, white room, a person who is evidently under extreme duress, and probably at the last gasp of life.

Maybe. It’s one approach. It’s an attempt to situate Beckett or a Beckett text within the tradition of realistic or psychologically coherent fiction, as if it was in any way about anything like a human being depicted in anything like the way one is usually depicted in realist fiction.

Ping seen as incantation

Personally, I wouldn’t bother. I think Ping and the other short prose works of the period are more like incantations, spells or chants. Certainly they all benefit from being read out loud. Words can never escape having meanings (well, words in a language you understand). But they are also susceptible to rhythm and pattern, the pattern of sounds (vowel, consonant, long or short sounds, plosives and sibilants) and the rhythm of the way the same words place in different orders or interactions, take different weight or rhythm.

The ostensible meaning may well be the depiction of yet another Beckett protagonist, speaker or ‘voice’ on the verge of conking out. But the text is also, quite obviously, an assemblage of sounds, arranged with obsessive repetition with variations and the continual addition of small new details, to give the thing a dynamic, a sense of a continually changing, rather shimmering surface.

The crucifixion

Lastly, I won’t make a big deal out of it, because I don’t think the text fully intends it, but when I read:

bare white body fixed… hands hanging palms front white feet heels together

I had a vision of the crucifixion and thereafter couldn’t get it out of my mind, despite the repeated references to some kind of container ‘one yard by two’, the characteristic ‘closed space’ of these mid-1960s prose pieces.

And having highlighted the importance of the central physical posture to all of these mid-60s prose pieces, and the obsessive way Beckett repeats descriptions of the contorted, painful position at the centre of each text, it dawned on me that the great Positioned Body in our tradition, the archetypal image of a human body bent into an agonising posture in Western civilisation is, of course, the body of Christ nailed to the cross.

I’m not familiar with Beckett’s biography, I’ve no idea whether he was ever a Christian believer, but he was born and bred in Ireland which is a land dominated by churches and Catholic imagery. So I’ll leave it at just the simple thought: maybe all the contorted, painfully positioned and obsessively described bodies which haunt Beckett’s prose are aftershocks, knackered variations in a different mode, in a modernist style, in a post-nuclear lens, of the original contorted, painfully positioned body which underpins our civilisation.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Reflections on the monotony of poetry

Reading Poetry In the Thirties and then The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse, an unexpected theme emerges which is:

The boring repetitiveness of so much of the poetry; the extraordinarily narrow range of language and the incredibly restricted vocabulary it uses.

When I was at school they told me English had the biggest vocabulary of any European language. You wouldn’t have thought so from reading these poems.

So many of the poems seem like the result of moving an extremely limited number of verbal counters into slightly varying combinations.

The monotonous repetition of a handful of ‘poetic’ buzzwords eventually drains them of all meaning and makes many of the poems feel very samey.

Here’s an A-list of the key, numbingly repeated, buzzwords, at least some of which appear in every poem in these collections:

blood, breast, death, dream, eye, heart, love, pain, red, star, sun, tears, time

What would happen to poetry if these words were simply banned? Or if poets were fined for using them? Almost all the poems in both anthologies would disappear in a puff of banality.

It’s odd, it’s a bit mad even, that poets like to swank about fighting cliché and dead language when in fact reading poetry often feels like being force-fed whole boxfulls of dusty old clichés.

A B-list of overused ‘poetic’ words would include:

bone, breath, clock, dark, dream, earth, fate, flesh, future, grave, life, light, memory, moon, night, road, sorrow, space, year, world

Well over a hundred thousand words to choose from and the poets bang on with the same 20, round and round like a donkey tied to a well.

So many of the poets think they’ve done their job if they’ve strung together ‘blood’, ‘death’ and ‘time’ in a vaguely novel arrangement but in a way, as I read the hundredth poem about ‘blood’ flowing from the ‘red’ ‘rose’ of the dying ‘earth’ etc, I began to think they were undoing something, draining these words of power, and draining their own indignation and compassion by failing to find new words, new vocabulary to express it.

Spender manages, all by himself, to drain the word ‘world’ of any meaning, overtones or symbolism by his obsessive use of it in almost every poem he wrote (and his autobiography is titled World Within World).

The pleasure of older poetry This is why it’s more enjoyable to read old poetry, the more enjoyable the further back in time you go, because you are increasingly likely to be pleasantly surprised by odd and unexpected vocabulary or by different meanings attached to words which have been bled dry in our time.

The success of W.H. Auden Looking at the poetry of the thirties from this angle – on the question of lexical variety – also sheds a different light on Auden’s success. Put simply, Auden had a larger vocabulary than anyone else. In his poetry you can hear Auden continually reaching for unexpected and novel words and combinations. Sometimes they feel contrived, but at least he’s making an effort to refresh poetry from new sources.

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise and alive.

‘Nip’ and ‘solder’ and ‘tableland’, God what a relief not to be reading about ‘blood’ and ‘hearts’ and ‘love’ and ‘time’ and ‘tears’ and ‘graves’. To be fair Auden uses these latter poetic keywords as much as anyone else – but he goes beyond what you could call Baseline Poetic Vocabulary, to deliberately refresh and expand its possibilities.

Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,
The construction of railways in the colonial desert;
Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle…

To-morrow, perhaps the future. The research on fatigue
And the movements of packers; the gradual exploring of all the
Octaves of radiation;
To-morrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing…

‘Octaves of radiation’, nobody could accuse that of being poetic cliché.

I’m not saying both books don’t contain good poems, lots of them, the Val Cunningham anthology is a marvel of diligent research in the archives turning up all kinds of obscure treasures and is a huge cornucopia of delights. BUT the downside of such profusion is the reader can’t help noting the obsessive repetition of the same images and phrases again and again and eventually longs for real variety of diction and phrasing.


Examples

At five the man fell under the trees
The watch flew off stopped at a moon
Of time staring from the dead wrist (Stephen Spender)

World world O world
Youth without promise in our long days
A sun reflected in the muddy stream
An eye duller than last night’s dream (Edgar Foxall)

Death stalked the olive trees picking his men
His leaden finger beckoned again and again (John Lepper)

Backed to the brown walls of the square
The lightless lorry headlamps stare
With glinting reflectors through the night
At our gliding star of light (Stephen Spender)

And on the hillside
That is the colour of peasant bread
Is the rectangular
White village of the dead (Sylvia Townsend Warner)

Why do you not take comfort then, my heart? (Ewart Milne)

It is night like a red rag
drawn across the eyes

the flesh is bitterly pinned
to desperate vigilance

the blood is stuttering with fear  (Laurie Lee)

Time stops when the bullet strikes
Or moves to a new rhyme;
No longer measured by the eyes
Leap, pulse-beat, thought-flow  (Tom Wintringham)

Our enemies can praise death and adore death
For us endurance, the sun; and now in the night…  (Tom Wintringham)

My life confronts my life with eyes, the world
The world with microscopes; and the self-image
Lifted in light against the lens
Stares back with my dumb wall of eyes (Stephen Spender)

Light, light with that lunar death our fate;
Make more dazzling with your agony’s gold
The death that lays us all in the sand.
Gaze with that gutted eye on our endeavour
To be the human brute, not the brute human;
And if I feel your gaze upon me, ever,
I’ll wear the robe of blood that love illumines. (George Barker)

Swells the seed, and now tight sound-buds
Vibrate upholding their paean flowers
To the sun. There are bees in sky-bells droning
Flares of crimson at the heart unfold. (C. Day-Lewis)

Who would think the Spanish war
Flared like new tenure of a star,
The way our rhymes and writings are?
That Hilliard spilled his boxer’s blood
Through Albecete’s snow and mud
And smiled to comrade death, Salud?  (Blanaid Salkeld)

The horror of the nightmare is that it evades
Your steady look, steals past the corner of the eye,
Lurks in the sides of pictures. Death
Is fearful for the fifth part of a second,
A fear that shakes the heart: and that fear lost
As soon, yet leaves and sickness and a chill,
Heavy hands and the weight of another day.

Here in Madrid, facing death
my narrow heart keeps hidden
a love which grieves me but which I cannot
even reveal to this night   (Stephen Spender)

Enemies hidden in ambush
Hidden among the branches;
Weeping comes to the eyes,
Harvests go up in flames,
And hysterical Death
Over the puddles of blood
Howls and dances in rage,
Leaps and fastens on flesh.  (Pla y Bektrana translated by Rolfe Humphries)

You are stalwart, strong;
Young generations of sturdy miners
Have forged you – iron is in your blood.  (Charlotte Haldane)

Dark falls the afternoon,
Dark amid rain and mud…  (José Moreno Villa translated by Stanley Richardson)

I’m singing in every country
Where I tread through the streets of Time…  (Clive Branson)

When from the deep sky
And digging in the harsh earth,
When by words hard as bullets
Thoughts simple as death…  (Tom Wintringham)

In the night, the cause I fight for
Draws a mist of horror up, damps me with blood..  (Miles Tomalin)

There, in the frond, the instant lurks
With its metal fang planned for my heart
When the finger tugs and the clock strikes.  (Stephen Spender)

Searchlights now wipe the windscreen of the sky,
Which once was clear,
When from the garden we saw planes go by
Not dulled by fear.  (H.B. Mallalieu)

Why are there only three emotions, love or hate or fear? The whole world of subtle feelings and emotion in between these extremes – shyness, demurral, shrugging, hesitation, indignation, humour – is absent.

Out of the singing and the dancing came
Civil dissension, bitter deeds, and cruel;
Out of the poet and the murdered fool
The blood leapt rigid in a rage of shame.  (J.C. Hall)

Why is it either primal day or night?

We’d left our training base
And by the time night fell
Stood facing the universe
Singing the ‘Internationale’  (Clive Branson)

Why is every other thought about death? I appreciate they’re poems about war, but other things happen in war apart from just death.

Too many people are in love with Death (Tom Wintringham)

The map of Spain
bleeds under my fingers, cracked with rivers
of unceasing tears, and scraped with desolation
and valleyed with these moaning winds of death.  (Jack Lindsay)

But even now reproaching stars can sound
from death‘s horizon into which they dive…  (Kathleen Raine)

Fear will alight on each like a dunce’s cap
Or an unguessed disease unless death drops
Quicker than the sirens or the traffic stops  (Bernard Gutteridge)

It’s not that it’s inappropriate to write of death during a war, it’s that the word is just bandied around too easily and too glibly, it’s the monotony of this one boring word which becomes so grinding.

Now we can walk into the picture easily
To be the unknown hero and the death…  (Bernard Gutteridge)

Ask of the eagle that yelped overhead
where in the blaze of death the Spanish workers blocked
the Guadarrama passes with their dead.  (Jack Lindsay)

And any more poets who rhyme ‘death’ with ‘breath’ deserve to be shot.

Why are the only parts of the human body the heart, the eye and blood?

Men, worlds, nations,
pay heed, listen to my cry pouring out blood,
gather together the pulses of my breaking heart
into your spacious hearts,
because I clutch the soul when I sing.  (Miguel Hernandez translated by Stephen Spender)

Scorched and splintered lie its stones,
Blood is dust with flesh and hair…  (Miles Tomalin)

There are over 650 named muscles in the human body, over 200 bones, and scores of other fluids besides blood and tears. But only blood and heart and eye are ever mentioned, and not just occasionally, but over and over again, three body parts endlessly re-arranged by a madman.

Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view. (John Cornford)

Why are the only things above us the sky, the sun, the moon and the stars? The clouds come in a hundred forms, the weather is complex and changeable, constellations and stars twinkle.

The sun warmed the valley but no birds sang
The sky was rent with shrapnel and metallic clang.

Ten years of sun and shadow. Ten years of the premonition of love and the omen of death… (H.B. Mallalieu)

Why is the only flower any of them have heard of ‘the rose’?

Can’t you smell the rose held in their teeth
Tighter than death?  (Clive Branson)

The centre of my heart like a red tree
Puts forth a hand and indicates the common red rose  (George Barker)

Why are there only two colours, red or black? It’s extraordinary, when we know that the human eyes can distinguish between about ten million shades of colour, that all the colours the poets in this collection refer to are red and black.

Out of the newsprint blows this wind of honour,
pause reading amid the traffic blast. Seal down,
red as the heart, the oath that we must swear
if we are still to live on such an earth  (Jack Lindsay)

Why is the only animal the dog? OK, the ox also appears a few times. There might be a few chickens. Are they all the animal species which exist in Spain or which poets can imagine?

The world is full, full of millions of things, hundreds of thousands of plants and animals and fungi, the entire range of modern machinery and technology, thousands of colours or moods of weather or human feelings, the thousands of words for the millions of intricate specificities of life.

It’s amazing how much of all that is left out of these poems, excluded by their narrow notions of poetic correctness, by their over-concern with a handful of ideas and images, with their incredible poverty of vocabulary and imagination.


Related links

Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery by James Walvin (1992)

Tobacco for the pipes of Englishmen, rum to temper the squalor of life between decks on British warships, coffee for the fashionable society of London’s clubs, sugar to sweeten the miserable diet of working people – these and other tropical products spilled forth from the cornucopia that was the slave colonies of the Americas. (Introduction)

James Walvin

James Walvin is Professor of History Emeritus at University of York. He is the author or editor of thirty books, most of which have been about the history of slavery and the slave trade. In 2007 he was curator for the Parliamentary Exhibition on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and was also adviser to the Equiano Exhibition held in the Birmingham Art Gallery.

A thematic approach

Black Ivory isn’t a chronological history. You realise this when you come across, in chapter two, an account of the famous legal case, Somerset versus Stewart (1772) which helped to crystallise the movement for the abolition of slavery. It feels odd to start the slavery with its ending. Here, as in many other places, chronology, is completely abandoned.

Instead, the book explores the issue of slavery thematically, with chapters devoted to how the slaves were captured and bought in Africa, how they fared on the notorious Atlantic crossing, their landfall and auction in the West Indies or America, life on the slave plantations, the prevalence of disease and death, issues of sex, recreation, religion, rebellions and runaways – before a final section returns to the ‘crusade’ against slavery by reformers in Britain, and its final abolition.

The trade in slaves was made illegal in 1807. Britain abolished the actual condition of slavery, throughout the British Empire, in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Figures

It is a pretty well-known story. Both my kids studied the Slave Trade at school, and we are reminded of it every October during Black History Month, plus the occasional documentary, TV series or movie. I remember the impact of the original TV series of Roots, shown back in 1977. I was horrified by the movie Twelve Years A Slave, and so on. It is not an overlooked part of history.

That said, on this reading, some stories or insights stood out for me:

Unknown figures How contested the numbers are. Some authorities say 12 million captive Africans were transported to the Americas, some say 15 million.

The Middle Passage The perils of the Middle Passage when a high percentage of the slaves died in the appalling conditions below decks, are well known. About 12.5% – or 2 million – of all the Africans transported died on board ship.

Deaths in Africa But I hadn’t thought so much about the ‘wastage’ i.e. deaths and disablements caused to captives within Africa, on their sometimes very long journeys to the coast. These began with kidnapping, capture in war, being sold on by their African owners, followed by periods of slavery to local people en route, being passed on along sometimes very long trails to the sea, and ultimate sale to white ship captains.

A large percentage of captives died during this process and, even when they made it to the coast, captives often spent months at the coastal forts built by slave companies, in grim prison conditions, waiting for a ship to dock, and here many more died in  a misery of starvation and disease.

Taking all this together, Walvin quotes a guesstimate that as many as 24 million Africans were initially enslaved, within Africa, in order to produce the 12 or so million who were enshipped across the ocean.

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Death on arrival And I hadn’t realised that the high mortality rate continued after the slaves’ arrival in the Caribbean or America. Their health undermined by the squalor of the Atlantic crossing, plus mental deterioration and depression, plus being thrown into harsh forced labour in an alien environment filled with new pathogens, mortality rates were as high as 33% after the slaves arrived.

A third of imported slaves died in their first three years in the West Indies; on the Chesapeake (the tobacco-growing plantations of Virginia) about a quarter of imported slaves died in their first year.

It is this high rate of ‘wastage’ which made the trade so voracious, so insatiable for new flesh, for the century and a half or so from the capture of Jamaica from the Spanish (1655) to the abolition of the trade in 1807.

Gender imbalance Twice as many men were transported as slaves, as women. (p.119) It was thought that men were tougher and would make better workers.

In Walvin’s chapter on ‘Women’ he describes how the tiny island of Barbados was an exception in having a more equal balance between the sexes, and also more white women among the planters. The result was a marked ‘civilising’ or restraining influence on the male planters i.e. less sexual violence against women slaves.

This can be deduced from the markedly lower number of mixed race births during the 1700s, compared to other islands more dominated by single white men, who raped and impregnated their African women with impunity.

Lack of accounts

Given the enormous numbers involved it is striking how very, very few accounts we have by slaves of their experiences. One of the most important was by Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797), captured as a boy in the Igbo region of what is today southeastern Nigeria, transported to the Caribbean and sold as a slave to a captain in the Royal Navy, then on to a Quaker trader, eventually earning his freedom by trading and careful savings, in 1766.

Eye witnesses Walvin quotes the journals of a ship’s doctor, Alexander Falconbridge, who gives evidence of conditions onboard a slaver, and we have the testimony of John Newton who was a slave ship captain until he underwent a religious experience and became an abolitionist.

(I feel a strong sense of unreality every time I read the fact that it was this John Newton, who admits in his journals to torturing slaves, who went on to write the inspiring hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, the hymn which President Obama sang at the funeral for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, shot dead in a Charleston church by a white supremacist).

Walvin quotes from a few plantation owners – from the voluminous journals of plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood, from the aptly named Thomas Roughley, from Robert Carter and William Byrd, from a journal kept by Lady Nugent who visited Jamaica. But all in all it’s striking how few accounts there are of the entire system and experience.

The result is that although Walvin has structured his themes so as to give a comprehensive overview of the different elements of slavery, he is often forced to speculate in order to fill in the details of various aspects of slave life, and this rather weakens the punch of his narrative:

We do not know how much co-operation existed between the slaves. Did the strong help the weak? Or did the greedy and the desperate take advantage of their weaker shipmates to satisfy their own cravings? (p.52)

We will never know the full extent of their mental suffering… While it is difficult to prove the point, it seems fairly clear that depression often worsened slaves’ physical condition. (p.55)

What we can never know about the slave trade is the extent of capricious, casual or sadistic violence involved. (p.57)

It was likely that slaves continued to use their own names… (p.63)

What went through their minds, those new slaves, as they shuffled off to their first day’s work? (p.66)

We can only speculate how far this development of slave communal living was a transplantation of African village life. (p.84)

The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had cut off the supply of new Africans and most planters felt obliged to reorganise their gangs and make more pressing demands of them to make up the shortfall. What effect this extra effort had on the health and fertility of women slaves we can only speculate. (p.123)

[Persistent lack of enough food led to thefts which were savagely punished]. What effect this had on the mental equilibrium, particularly on those who had endured the Atlantic crossing, we can only speculate. (p.149)

Children inherited their mothers’ slavery, and belonged to her master. Did this, as some have claimed, alienate the slave fathers? Were they stripped of their manhood and their sense of primacy within the family group by the superior and overriding power of the slave-owner? It is of course hard to tell and the evidence is contradictory and confusing. (p.210)

I am not questioning the immensity of the suffering. I am just pointing out that Walvin’s book never stops reminding the reader that there is a surprising lack of evidence and testimony about large aspects of the slave experience, and so that historians of slavery like himself are continually forced to speculate and guess – and that this makes, in many ways, for a rather frustrating read.

Undermining the exceptionalism of slavery

Walvin is obviously outraged by the existence of slavery and its thousands of disastrous and humiliating ramifications for its millions of victims – but he often undermines his own indignation by placing the suffering of the Africans in contexts which, surprisingly, tend to minimise or lessen it.

For example, his chapter about the Middle Passage is grim enough, with a description of the layout of the average slave ship, the appalling lack of space, and the reality of the lake of vomit, blood, faces and urine which the slaves were soon lying in with the result that it was a continual problem for slavers that so many of their charges died en route.

But he lessens the appalling thrust of his descriptions by pointing out that, as a proportion, more European sailors died during the Atlantic Crossing than blacks! The slave mortality rate was around 12%, but the mortality rate among European crew was as high as 20%!

Similarly, he emphasises the ubiquity of violence in intimidating, coercing and punishing the slaves aboard ship. But again undermines the initial impact, by telling us that ordinary members of a ship’s crew were also subject to appalling discipline and were also frequently put in chains or flogged, sometimes to death.

Time and again he points out that this, that or the other aspect of slave life was appalling – but then undermines the impact by going on to say that, of course, a lot of this was true of the sufferings of non-slaves – poor sailors, poor servants in England, the poor everywhere.

Slaves were not alone in enduring overcrowding, poor food and insanitary conditions on board ships: it was the lot of indentured (free) labour travelling to America in the seventeenth century, of convict labour travelling to Australia and of naval and military postings. (p.52)

The masters often lived in great material comfort; slaves lived in primitive housing and wore the simplest of clothes. The masters ate lavishly, the slaves survived on the most basic of diets. We could of course paint a similar picture for the gulf between rich and poor in Britain at much the same time. (p.73)

Plantation slaves everywhere lived in meagre circumstances. Their homes were generally ignored by visitors or residents; when noticed they were airily dismissed. (But so too were poor domiciles in Europe.) (p.84)

[Slave] babies who died in that period were not accorded full burial rites, but it has to be said that much the same was true in Britain at the same time. (p.148)

Slaves were not alone in requiring a new discipline when transplanted into an utterly alien working environment. The same was true for working people translated from rural to the first industrial occupations of early nineteenth century Britain, and a similar story unfolded in North America among immigrants employed in new industries. (p.237)

Slaves were not the only people to be beaten. Whipping a child or striking an inferior were broadly accepted [throughout society]. (p.238)

Beating people was not of course restricted to slaves. When industrialisation began to absorb ever more people in Britain in the early nineteenth century, the most bitter complaints were often about the physical abuse of workers. In the textile industries, parents objected fiercely to the whippings and cuffings doled out to their children. (p.242)

In other words, the net effect of Walvin’s book is regularly to make you reflect that almost everyone in Georgian and Regency Britain and America suffered appalling levels of physical abuse, exploitation and the most unbelievably violent punishments, up to and including frequent doling out of the death penalty.

You are just reeling from another description of brutal punishments meted out to, for example, runaway slaves, before Walvin is pointing out that the same level of brutality – being put in the stocks, in irons, whipped, flogged, beaten, publicly hanged – were punishments just as readily administered by the British in Ireland or in the new convict colony of Australia.

The surprising autonomy of slave life

His chapter about working life on the plantations paints a grim picture of very long days of unremitting and back-breaking labour. That’s what I expected. What surprised me was the extent to which many slaves had a surprising amount of autonomy, both about the work they did, and how they did it, and the length of the working day.

The ‘task system’, widespread in the rice plantations of the Deep South, allotted slaves a task for each day and, when they were complete, their time was their own, to tend their gardens, to practice crafts, make music, be with their family, whatever.

I was surprised to learn that in the tobacco plantations, slaves often created their own villages and had their own houses with their own veg plots. They developed sophisticated creole languages. They were given days off to cultivate their plots, and took every opportunity to let off steam by dressing up, singing and dancing.

His chapter ‘Slaves at Ease’ gives plentiful evidence that slaves made music wherever possible, out of anything – creating rhythmic work chants in the tobacco or sugar cane fields, making drums and shaker type instruments from whatever was at hand, and learning the fiddle in particular if given half a chance.

Slave festivals such as the two or three-day John Canoe festival became well-known events when every slave dressed up in whatever costume could be manufactured, and danced and sang all day long.

The ‘crop-over’ was the period when the final harvest sugar cane or tobacco was completed and was traditionally a period of celebration, music and dancing. And, as so often, Walvin highlights how similar it was to non-slave contemporary culture.

These activities look remarkably like many of the pleasures of common people in pre-industrial Europe; their leisure moments dictated by that special mix of the rural year, prevailing religious custom and the powerful traditions of local popular culture. (p.175)

I imagine it’s the last thing Walvin intended, but his description of slave spare time recreation makes it sound like a lot of fun, more fun than my spare time.

Another surprising thing is to learn that slaves often had sufficient autonomy to make money. The brutal and sexually exploitative slave owner Thomas Thistlewood kept a diary which is a goldmine of sociological detail. Among other things, it shows that many of his slaves were free to sell whatever produce they generated on their cottage plots, including livestock and creatures caught down by the river (turtles). They were allowed to take these to local markets on their days off and the sharp traders among them became well off. For example, Thistlewood details his favourite slave concubine making him presents of a gold ring, among fruits and other luxury foodstuffs. A slave giving her owner high-quality gifts!

Something similar happens in his chapter on domestic servants. In the houses of the big planters black domestics were often treated harshly and subject to sexual attack by white men – but there were also myriad opportunities for them to exert their own power and influence, suckling and bringing up the master’s white children, teaching them black fairy tales and songs, and in the process often rising to positions of influence and even power over their white families.

Black triumph

The net effect of these chapters, and of Walvin’s book as a whole, is to take you beyond the narrow cliché of young slave men being worked to death and brutally punished in concentration camp-style tobacco and sugar plantations – and to make you realise that something this vast, a social and economic enterprise and experiment this enormous and so far-reaching, spread its impact all over the West Indies and the south of America and created entirely new social realities.

There were black settlements on every plantation, black quarters in the booming towns where freed blacks lived and traded with slaves up for the market, blacks creating new languages, creole and pidgen hybrids of English and African languages, creating a world of social, economic and power opportunities for the slaves, many of whom rose to become overseers of plantations and factories, ended up running the business, became skilled clerks and administrators, as well as acquiring a wealth of other trades and skills.

Walvin tells us that black sailors were working on British ships in increasing numbers throughout the 18th century, and my recent reading of the American War of Independence gives ample evidence of how black soldiers fought on both sides of that, and subsequent, American wars.

So, despite the odd way he sometimes waters down the power of what he’s saying  by making comparisons to the sufferings of poor whites in Georgian England or colonies, overall Walvin’s book paints a broad and convincing picture of the institution of slavery as more than a self-contained, tightly compartmentalised aspect of West Indian and British-America life, but more like an enormous tide or tsunami which swept over the Indies and Americas.

Slave labour not only fuelled the economy of the colonies and the motherland, but transformed everything it touched, infusing African and black personnel into every aspect of imperial life, as sailors, soldiers, traders and craftsmen, as artisans and musicians, as domestic servants rising to run entire households, as the creators of new languages, customs, styles of music and story-telling.

The black or African element penetrated every aspect of imperial life, colouring it and transforming it for ever. Black Ivory shows how the African contribution became vital to British and American economics, culture and society for at least three centuries. Mechal Sobel wrote a book about slavery in 18th century Virginia and its title summarises this collaborative nature of what happened: The World They Made Together.

Southern reluctance to let go

On a smaller note, Black Ivory also helps you understand how, although it ends with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, the institution was so multi-faceted, had become so intertwined not only with the economic but with the social and cultural and personal sphere of the American South (by which I mean the ubiquity of black servants, nurses, valets, stable hands, plantation managers and overseers and so on who had become intimate family members and intricately entwined in all aspects of southern life) that it was literally impossible for white southerners to conceive of life without their black slaves, black domestics and black dependents.

Which goes a long way to helping you grasp why slavery in the South could only be abolished after a gruelling, bloody and devastating civil war.

It doesn’t make you sympathise with the southern slave states. But it does give you a sense of the way that every aspect of life had become utterly imbued with the presence of blacks – slaves or free – so utterly intertwined with them, that southerners literally couldn’t conceive of life without them.

So although its sub-title is a History of British Slavery, by the end I felt that calling it a history of ‘slavery’ was too narrow, too limiting and too negative – almost insulting.

What Walvin’s book feels like, by the end, is a record of the thousand and one ways in which Africans / blacks / slaves triumphed, rose above and remodelled the institution which sought to dehumanise them, and not only shaped West Indian, American and British life, but became an essential, integral part of it.


Related links

Other posts about American history

Youth by Joseph Conrad (1898)

Youth, the shortish short story (30 pages) Conrad completed in June 1898, sees the debut of Charles Marlow, Conrad’s alter-ego, the fictional narrator of this and his two most famous stories, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. Marlow’s arrival marks a step change in the quality of Conrad’s work.

Marlow enforces discipline

Because the story is narrated by a character, not by the omniscient narrator he’d used in all his previous works, Conrad has to make a big effort to rein in the stylistic excesses I have described in previous posts. For example, Conrad’s short story The Return strikes me as being almost unbearable to read for its sustained note of manic hysteria. Conrad uses free indirect style to take us inside the mind of Alvan Hervey as his wife’s infidelity triggers what feels, trapped inside his head, like a nervous breakdown. In fact, this is just another outing for the hysterical, panic-stricken, horror-obsessed nihilism which characterises all of Conrad’s fiction up to this point.

It is with immense relief that one turns to Youth because this hysteria is reined right in and Conrad’s stylistic excesses, though still noticeable at moments, are in general held in abeyance in order to foreground the practical, no-nonsense voice of Charles Marlow.

Plot

The plot is simple. The 20-year-old Marlow is second mate on the Judea, contracted to take coal from Newcastle to Bangkok. The boat encounters a number of problems which repeatedly delay its departure from England, then it hits storms off Africa, and then the coal in the hold begins to spontaneously burn as they enter the Indian Ocean.

Eventually the crew are forced to abandon ship, and Marlow docks in the East having commanded a 14-foot ship’s boat and crew of two for the last week of the ill-fated journey.

Style

The style is blessedly restrained. Both the character of Marlow and the nature of the ‘story’ i.e. a detailed account of the maritime problems encountered by the ship – dictate a much more factual style than anything Conrad had previously written.

We had been pulling this finishing spell for eleven hours. Two pulled, and he whose turn it was to rest sat at the tiller. We had made out the red light in that bay and steered for it, guessing it must mark some small coasting port. We passed two vessels, outlandish and high-sterned, sleeping at anchor, and, approaching the light, now very dim, ran the boat’s nose against the end of a jutting wharf.

Shorter sentences. Fewer subordinate clauses. Much more factual content. A lot less tautology or redundancy. A blessed relief, though the old Conrad is still there, straining at the leash:

O youth! The strength of it, the faith of it, the imagination of it! To me she was not an old rattle-trap carting about the world a lot of coal for a freight—to me she was the endeavour, the test, the trial of life. I think of her with pleasure, with affection, with regret.

There was not a light, not a stir, not a sound. The mysterious East faced me, perfumed like a flower, silent like death, dark like a grave.

This was the East of the ancient navigators, so old, so mysterious, resplendent and somber, living and unchanged, full of danger and promise.

But the familiar lyricism, the repetition and apposition, is justified by the fundamental idea – that this is the character Marlow’s paean to the vividness and optimism of naive and romantic youth. Well, just about justified.

Framing device

Youth starts with the identical setting made famous by Heart of Darkness, i.e. after dinner in London five mature and successful men of the world who have all experienced the sea sit and smoke cigars, chatting. The anonymous narrator is one of them; he sets this scene, describes the audience a little, and then lets Marlow begin his tale.

The frame device, the tale-within-a-tale, does several things:

  • It distances the tale. No matter what happens we know that Marlow survived and is telling it to us now. Though we are caught up in the events he narrates, we are not actually lost in a moment-by-moment helter-skelter of hysteria with a totally unpredictable outcome, as we are in the key scenes of Almayer or An Outpost
  • Marlow is telling his tale to a suave and knowing audience. This has an important effect in toning down the hysterical style of the earlier novels and stories. Although Marlow is still given lines of improbable lyricism, Conrad is conscious of them, limits them, and excuses them – Marlow himself justifies them as he speaks them – because this is a tale of high spirits and boyish optimism.
  • Marlow is English. Unlike the protagonists of Almayer and Outcast and Outpost and Karain. It is as if hysteria is characteristic of the lesser Europeans, the Dutch and Belgians. Conrad emphasises Marlow’s Englishness by making him use the upper-class slang of the day – ‘Pon my soul’, ‘The deuce of a time’. And the Englishness of narrator and audience guarantees a sang-froid, the famous stiff upper-lip, which limits and disciplines Conrad. Enforces restraint. And his prose is all the more effective for it.

For those who like patterns, it is pretty that Conrad published Youth, Heart of Darkness and The End of The Tether in one volume in 1902 (Youth, A Narrative, and other tales) – one representing youth, one representing maturity, one representing old age.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

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