A man strapped to a chair rocks in a corner. Another dreams a man into life in a circular temple. Another loses himself in a poem’s commentary. Wonder, paradox, and aesthetic obsession.
One can almost see them writing these stories in the dark. Or better yet, under some sort of crepuscular light: Beckett in London squalor, Borges in a library on the verge of closing, and Nabokov hunched over a toilet tank before his breakfast.
Shadows and gloom don’t quite describe their work. Nor does the word “surreal.” For all the fantasy and symbolistic phantasmagoria, there is something remarkably familiar about it all, an unheimlich quality which tastes of what I would call the crepuscular states of being. The day-dream, the exhaustion, the longing. The tiresome, extended, and often victorious in-betweenness of experience.
Is it any wonder that these authors are often grouped together as either the lasts of modernism or the firsts of postmodernism? Do they hail a bright dawn or a deep night?
I don’t know. Who can know?
The only present is that of their eternal twilight. A present into which world war, social unrest, and Coca-Cola capitalism filtered insidiously, never overtly. Beckett’s Endgame smells like a nuclear blast. Nabokov’s Lolita like strawberry milk in an old American gas station. And Borges is beyond smell.
If Joyce and Woolf and Musil and Eliot and Pound and Stein were the flexing muscles of a new literary era, these three men are that lactic soreness left over when the gates of Auschwitz and Sobibor were opened to the eyes of the world. As Adorno said, “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch.”
Loss. There is so much loss in a day-dream. Or is there too much gain? Is it any wonder Nabokov relinquished a moral dimension to his work? Should we believe him when his characters die of heartbreak? Beckett called himself impotent in light of Joyce’s omnipotence, and yet his plays are black waltzes of torrential meaning. And Borges speaks from the beyond, from realms distorted, stuck in the refractions and reflections of our world.
The world of ideas is wonderful, I think. It truly is. These apostates knew it. It helped their erudition. Between savage mockery (or as the learned ones will diplomatically remind us, Satire) and a eunuch’s obeisance, they teeter between love and skepticism, tickling Schopenhauer’s tender toes on one side or pinching Hume’s cheeks on the other, loving them insofar as they were stimulated by them.
And again, it’s all in-betweenness. It’s all the sunset (or sunrise, depending on your personal disposition or melancholic nature [it’s all you, after all]) colors shining on their work. Better read them fast before the light runs out.