The Literature of Silence
Yeats's Blessings on Von Hügel
James Agee wrote of Buster Keaton’s hat:
One can never forget Keaton wearing it, standing erect at the prow as his little boat is being launched. The boat goes grandly down the skids and, just as grandly, straight on to the bottom. Keaton never budges. The last you see of him, the water lifts the hat off the stoic head and it floats away.
Some years later Hugh Kenner wrote The Stoic Comedians, meaning Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett. Flaubert is the Comedian of the Enlightenment, Joyce the Comedian of the Inventory, Beckett the Comedian of the Impasse. In The Counterfeiters Mr. Kenner takes a second look at these matters, but more diversely now with the aid of new metaphors largely culled from mathematics and linguistic philosophy. The metaphors insist upon diverse illustration, so a topical Index, not included, would go beyond the following list set down by Mr. Kenner as an indication of the terrain to be crossed:
This exposition will include, because its subject did, a variety of themes which the Dewey Decimal system (a Romantic artifact) prefers to keep in different parts of the building: the Enlightenment; Buster Keaton (stoic comedian); bad poetry; Albrecht Dürer; Joyce; Swift, Pope; closed systems, mathematical and mechanical; Charles Babbage and his Calculating Engines; the late history of Latin abstract nouns; Andy Warhol; Gödel’s Proof; horses, computers, games; a clockwork duck that suffered from indigestion; and a man who wore a gas mask to ride his bicycle.
Keaton is here still the inspiration, the governing figures are still to be found in Agee’s prose, and the book should perhaps have been called The Stoic Comedians, Vol. II.
Reverting to Vol. I, we find that “the stoic is one who considers, with neither panic nor indifference, that the field of possibilities available to him is large perhaps, or small perhaps, but closed.” The stoic comedian, like Beckett, “selects elements from a closed set, and then arranges them inside a closed field”:
The Impasse of Beckett’s comedy is a closed field by specification. From the moment when we encounter Murphy upside down,naked beneath the rocking chair to which he is bound, crucified, in fact, on a piece of Victorian furniture, to the long blazing interval during which Winnie, buried first to the waist and then to the neck, discourses of Happy Days, Beckett’s wry adaptations of Christian iconography have immobilized the body of the sage the better to set his mind free, or relatively free, in a freedom guided by limit, number and system.
In the new book Mr. Kenner again surveys the closed field and the comedy of limit, neglecting only one consideration, that the stoic comedian on this reading makes nonsense of the grand axiom of modern literature, the imagination as an endlessly creative force. Let that pass. The theory of the closed system was first expounded for literary purposes by Elizabeth Sewell in The Field of Nonsense, the classic study of Lewis Carroll. Mr. Kenner has…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.