More Walls: Contemplations of Samuel Beckett and Herman Melville

wall5More Walls: Contemplations of Samuel Beckett and Herman Melville
(Thoughts After Reading Glenn Wallis’s Post “Samuel Beckett Stares at a Wall”*)

[Unmoderated comments are permitted on this post.]

by Alan Seltzer

[Beckett] has just spent three weeks in his country house. He took walks, played the piano often, read a little. He has been reading Heine’s last poems, and he tells me that they are like lamentations. But he prefers doing nothing. Spending hours looking out the window. He is particularly fond of the silence. He also describes the sound of cartloads of beetroots as they pass his house. (Juliet 37)

Samuel Beckett was a practitioner of meditation, but he would not have labeled himself as such. He valued stillness and he valued silence, though they could at times be unbearable for him. My thought is that Beckett, in his work, might provide some useful insights into ways of thinking about meditation. How or whether he viewed silence and contemplation in relation to his art, I don’t know. There are references in interviews and conversations about his engagement with silence. The above passage is from Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde by Charles Juliet. It references a conversation with Beckett on November 11, 1977, when Beckett was 71 years old. In the passage Glenn quotes in his post on Beckett (May 18, 2013) from Lawrence Shainberg’s “Exorcising Beckett,” Beckett states that he has been staring at walls “for fifty years.” But he observes about wall staring, when told of Shainberg’s Zen practice, “you don’t have to know anything about Zen to do that.” And that is the point. Beckett’s “practice” needs no doctrines, no rituals, no beliefs, no prescribed methods, no anything. And certainly no hope, no expectations, no goals. And, of course, he would not even consider his silent sitting a practice at all. When Shainberg describes his own Zen practice, Beckett responds with perplexity: “Why, he asked, did people do it? Were they seeking tranquility? Solutions?” Beckett did not, could not, seek either. As Shainberg says, Beckett was curious about Buddhism, and there were aspects of mysticism he liked (Juliet 39), but he could never accept any system or doctrine. And perhaps the main reason was that he saw no hope or solutions for the human condition. He asserts this repeatedly in his work and elsewhere. He tells Juliet, for instance, in their conversation of October 24, 1968, that he has not read Eastern philosophers: ” ‘They suggest a way out, whereas I felt there was none. One solution–death.'” Continue reading “More Walls: Contemplations of Samuel Beckett and Herman Melville”

Samuel Beckett Stares at a Wall

wall[Meditation] is a faith, with the sufficiency of faith, intended by necessity to remain empty but which necessarily evades this void by its repopulation with objects and foreign goals provided by experience, culture, history, language, etc. Through its style of communication and “knowing” it is a rumor—the [Asian] rumor—which is transmitted by hearsay, imitation, specularity and repetition.1

That passage came to mind while reading texts and watching video on the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society website.2 Laruelle is talking about philosophy, but the statement works equally well for meditation (and its varieties: contemplation, mindfulness, centering prayer, even yoga, tai chi, and so on). Much of what I read and heard about contemplation on the Center’s website struck me as reasonable enough. A typical example:

Contemplative Practices cultivate a critical, first-person focus, sometimes with direct experience as the object, while at other times concentrating on complex ideas or situations. Incorporated into daily life, they act as a reminder to connect to what we find most meaningful.

That’s reasonable—as an opening. An awful lot of questions would have to be asked about the statement, though. What, for instance, is this “first-person focus” of direct experience? What, for that matter, is “direct experience”? Anyone who has been reading this blog knows how attuned some of us are to the machinations of unacknowledged ideology. For instance, concerning this overlap between first-person accounts and experience, a reader recently wrote to me:

[T]here is a built in petitio principii that makes the viewpoint unfalsifiable. The ideology includes a meta-message regarding the autonomy of (meditative) experience as a veridical source of knowledge. This seems to be what [B. Alan] Wallace is up to with his emphasis on “first-person” experience, arguing from an assumption that such experience is autonomous and not already formed by ideology.

I agree with that assessment. It succinctly identifies the big question for meditation: is it a vessel for ideology or a science of ideology?3 Does the practice, in fact, produce new knowledge, about, say, subjective experience or the intransitive world, or does it merely reinforce the views provided by doctrine? I’m still holding out for the former (barely). So, I’d want to ask the people at the Center why, if they believe that meditation-contemplation holds such natural human promise (as the director says, in effect, on a video), do they incessantly populate it “with objects and foreign goals provided by experience, culture, history, language, etc.”? Why not let the practice do its work, unencumbered by over-determining doctrine? I am not going to offer a critique of the Center’s site here. I am more interested in the wide-spread x-buddhist phenomenon of what Laruelle calls here “re-population.” Continue reading “Samuel Beckett Stares at a Wall”