Can there be an “abstract literature”? In his review of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume II: 1941–1956 John Banville says No. At best, abstract writing can aspire to some form of, to quote Beckett, “nominalistic irony.” Banville rejects Pascale Casanova’s claim that Beckett’s Worstward Ho was “the triumphant culmination of Beckett’s effort to forge an “abstract” literature,” a “pure object of language, which is totally autonomous since it refers to nothing but itself.” Banville counters that Worstward Ho “cannot but refer to things outside itself” and notes Casanova admits “One cannot advance the hypothesis of an absolute independence of the text with respect to the world, grammar and literary convention.”
Beckett himself had written that “my language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it,” and hoped for a time “when language is best used where it is most efficiently abused” and where he could “drill one hole after another into [language] until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through.” Beckett also asked, “Is literature alone to be left behind on that old, foul road long ago abandoned by music and painting?… Is there any reason why that terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the word surface should not be dissolved?”
Banville suggests such aspirations are futile:
[W]ords are not like paint or musical notation. Language is a vulgar medium; it rubs up against actuality at every point…it is not anything sacred that sets the word apart, but something profane. Language must speak, that is its essence. There could only be an abstract writing, as there is abstract painting, if words were to lose their meaning, that meaning that we have commonly consented they should have. And what then would they be? Mere noise.
In this vision: writing is not like those representational or plastic arts capable of entertaining abstraction; music or paintings are not “vulgar” media; they do not “rub up against actuality at every point”; music is not committed to “speaking” in the way that language is; musical notations are not like words. Somehow, because of their looser anchoring with “actuality,” music and painting accommodate abstraction; language cannot; total loss of meaning is required for abstraction in language, literature, and writing.
First, Banville is certainly correct to say that words have their meanings by our “common consent.” And the suspension of this consent could render them “noise.” But is this noise just “mere noise”? Wouldn’t the creation of such “noise” at least make possible an “abstract” literature that bears the same relation to “concrete” literature that, for instance, noise bears to “structured, melodic” music? Would Banville consider noise music artists provide abstract music? They employ, for example, distortion, to engender a suspension of “common consent” for understanding sound.
Second, Banville claims, “There could only be an abstract writing, as there is abstract painting, if words were to lose their meaning.” But is there a loss of meaning in abstract painting? That seems counterintuitive: in abstract paintings there is a playfulness with convention and with anchored meanings but the result of this, especially in the encounter of those who “look,” is the further creation of meaning. So, if this abstract “literature” is to be “read” then how could words lose meaning? To be “read’ implies meaning-making. There is further tension here: if words are to lose meaning we do not even have “writing” any more.
Banville’s imposition of the condition that words lose meaning for an abstract writing or literature is well-meant, but it is excessive; the “absolute independence” that Banville seems to think impossible for an abstract literature is actually self-defeating for the project, it is not something it needs to, or should, aspire to. The “abstract” literature Beckett aspires to could merely be a partial dispensing with representational or syntactic convention. It need not be an absolute terminus but rather, experiments with dismantling linguistic convention that provide partial glimpses of the loss of meaning. We might even see the glimmers of abstract literature in nonsense rhymes! We certainly would see it in the experimental forms of writing that Beckett might have in mind, in his attempts to “effectively abuse” the language and “tear apart” its “veil.”
But these encounters with the possible or partial losses of meaning can not but be further conducive to the creation of meaning. So Banville is certainly right that an abstract literature would not be possible because of the total loss of meaning, but the reason for that lies elsewhere. Such an abstract literature would not be “literature”; it would not be “writing” being “read” any more.