“I always thought old age would be a writer’s best chance. . . . Now my memory’s gone, all the old fluency’s disappeared. I don’t write a single sentence without saying to myself, ‘It’s a lie!’ So I know I was right. It’s best chance I’ve ever had.”
Samuel Beckett to Lawrence Shainberg, quoted in New Yorker, September 12, 2016.
This quote caught my eye while I was thumbing through the old issue at a laundromat because this is how I feel these days, that everything I write is a lie.
But what do I mean by “lie” and what does Beckett mean by “best chance”?
I used to think that even if I wrote about something that others had written about before, that thing hadn’t been written about by me – that is, because my “me” was the only one of its kind in the universe, it had an automatic fresh take, a “unique perspective,” and that made what I wrote worthwhile.
Now I think that even if such a fresh “me” exists (an iffy thought), I feel like I’m only adding to a pile of cultural sameness whose prime law seems to be distraction and endearment – distraction from our predatory politico/capitalist regime and, at the same time, endearing us to the havoc so that the system can continue.
So, the “lie” I’m writing is not an untruth – alternate fact, fake news, that sort of thing – but it becomes, to use the generation-revealing lyric, “another brick in the wall.” My special “me” doesn’t liberate anyone or anything.
And so the question shifts to “Why write?”
Possible answers. Because I simply enjoy the act. Because adding light to a dark night is a good thing, even if, at the moment, it seems the darkness prevails. Because if what you do improves the life of even one person, then what you have done has worth.
All useful self-ratifying excuses – but they come from a sentimentalized Christian ethos that underlies most art work in our culture: self-sacrifice as a good thing, the disciplined life in a wayward universe, the virtuous upward fight against gravity, that good (of some type) will/must win out.
But, of course, this ethos is a lie of the feel-good sort. In art, people will demand that the brave win out over the rogues and will swear that they do want their hearts touched and souls moved to make them better people.
But life as actually lived outside of theaters and museums does not seem ruled by the values people said they sought in the art they took in. Unlike religion, where values are turned into rites and duties that root life in a manufactured meaning, art can give us the feel of living life properly, with compassion and grace, but eventually, like anything that’s consumed by humans, it leaves behind more waste than progress, and while the spirit is willing, the flesh is, indeed, weak.
If I take the word “lie,” though, and shine the light of “best chance” on it, I think I see clearer what Beckett was getting at. The lie is not an untruth but a solvent. It is the opposite of the certain, the ordained, the fated, the theological.
And old age is the last best chance to tell the lie, to be dissolute (which comes from “dissolve”), because, hopefully, by that time, with memory and fluency gone (both being tools that distract and endear), there is nothing left to either gain or lose by the writing, and freed from achieving an end, the writing can just be, saying what it pleases, wide or thin, with tight grain or veiled fog, freeing the writer and reader from any orthodoxy that sells a certainty or any art that promises a benefit or any advertising that says a thing can replace a soul.
Now I see what he was meaning. This is my best chance. And so, using another Beckett quote (amended) – “Lie again. Lie better.” – let the dissolute begin.