October 14, 2007

Poverty as Metaphysics

Filed under: Literature — duncan @ 8:15 pm

“The realisation that art has always been bourgeois is finally of scant interest…” (Samuel Beckett, Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit)

Here’s a way to read Beckett: by making destitution metaphysical, Beckett goes as far as he can in rejecting art’s relation to production while remaining within the form of art. Beckett’s tramps are utterly unproductive, but because this non-production is not real, but allegorical, his protagonists’ travails can reflect back on the lives of Beckett’s audience. In this sense Beckett’s poverty is the mirror image of Proust’s wealth: the one minimalist, the other expansionist, both make a social position into an aesthetic and philosophical experience. It could be said of Beckett what Walter Benjamin said of Proust:

”This disillusioned, merciless deglamorizer of the ego, of love, or morals – for this is how Proust liked to view himself – turns his whole limitless art into a veil for this one most vital mystery of his class: the economic aspect.” (The Image of Proust).


  1. I guess the same could be said about Nick Hornby today. I once read somewhere that Nick Hornby’s books have such a wide appeal because he essentially writes for people who hate to read. Hornby’s novels, however, seem to capture the middle class experience more than they portray working class destitution (I’m not really sure what you mean about Beckett since I haven’t read anything by him). George Orwell and Stephen Crane adroitly capture the drudgery of destitution in their books Down and Out in Paris & London and Maggie respectively. You must keep in mind that Stephen Crane preceeded Beckett, but this hardly matters as the phenomenon of limning the downtrodden social classes in an aesthetic and philosophical tone goes back as far as The Bible (and probably further). What you said about Beckett could be applied to Dickens, Chaucer or Mark Twain–but you make an interesting point nonetheless.

    Comment by robertjerome — October 17, 2007 @ 6:24 pm

  2. Robert – yeah, I mean, I think the same can be said of much literature. I totally agree about Hornby. ‘How to Be Good’, if I remember right, has an exemplary middle class couple at its centre. The doctor protagonist’s sense of her own virtue is undermined when her formerly misanthropic partner becomes a paragon of charity – inviting homeless people to come live with them, etc. The objects of this charity are never convincingly described, and the whole thing falls apart when Hornby decides to start parodying do-goodism, rather than pursuing (what seemed like) his original project – imagining the effects of an alternative vision of the good life on a middle class home. It’s a while since I read it, though. At any rate – the end result is to bolster our sense of the middle class family as ideal social unit – and to use poverty as a foil in the construction of this ideal. Similarly, even though Dickens aspires to cram the whole of British society into his books, the perspective is always a bourgeois one – which is I guess why the central middle class characters often seem so bland: they’re the only people to escape Dickens’s extraordinary powers of caricature. And Orwell’s sense of the lives of the people he encounters on his poverty tourism is almost non-existent.
    I’m afraid I haven’t read Stephen Crane, so I can’t comment on Maggie. The reason I mentioned Beckett was that in general he’s unrelenting in his rejection of the apparatus of the novel. He’ll throw out everything, and one of his methods is the creation of characters who are utterly destitute. But this also means throwing out the real meaning of their destitution. Poverty becomes a metaphor for the human condition – and is thereby recuperated for bourgeois consolation. Beckett says (speaking of van Velde, but also himself) that his project “has nothing to do with art” – but in this respect Beckett’s work remains in literature’s mainstream.
    Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying these people aren’t great writers (well, perhaps not Hornby…) I’m just saying that literature’s claims to universality should be taken with a pinch of salt – because literature has almost always been driven by the perspective of the leisured classes.

    Comment by praxisblog — October 20, 2007 @ 4:14 pm

  3. In response to your last comment–“literature has almost always been driven by the perspective of the leisured classes”–I came across this interesting juxtaposition between rich and poor in A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket.

    pg. 28 “Even though Count Olaf’s house was quite large, the three children were placed together in one filthy bedroom that had only one [lumpy] bed . . . Without curtains over the cracked glass, the sun streamed through the window every morning, so the children woke up early and sore each day. Instead of a closet, there was a large cardboard box that . . . would now hold the three children’s clothes, all piled in a heap.”

    pg. 37 “[Justice Strauss led the children] through an elegant hallway smelling of flowers into an enormouse room [which was a] library. Not a public library, but a private library; that is, a large collection of books belonging to Justice Strauss. There were shelves and shelves of them, on every wall from the floor to the ceiling, and separate shelves of them in the middle of the room. The only place there weren’t books was in one corner, where there were some large, comfortable-looking chairs and a wooden table with lamps hanging over them, perfect for reading. Although it was not as big as their parents’ library, it was as cozy, and the Baudelaire children were thrilled.”

    The dust jacket for this books informs the reader that the plot, “tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children,” who, “lead lives filled with misery and woe.” One could almost argue that this a tale about the plight of poverty. But–keeping in mind the latter example of the plush library of Justice Strauss–we have to ask ourselves who is really reading and discussing this book. It certainly wouldn’t be the children living in filthy homes with lumpy beds and cracked windows, would it?

    I think I just went out of my way to prove your point for a second time that literature is almost always driven and informed by the perspective of the leisurely classes.

    Comment by robertjerome — October 23, 2007 @ 10:38 pm

  4. Heh. yeah – those children’s books are agents of oppression. Vive la revolution! 🙂

    Comment by praxisblog — October 25, 2007 @ 10:11 am

  5. Oh okay, I can’t resist. So your archetypal childrens’ story is Cinderella: an account of the extraction of surplus value to fuel bourgeois consumption. But Cinderella doesn’t question the economic and social system that enforces her labour. Oh no! Instead, she marries some ‘Prince Charming’, and becomes part of the elite responsible for the lack of social opportunity that trapped her in a life of menial labour in the first place! These ‘ugly sisters’ and ‘wicked stepmother’ are scapegoats for the system! Not only that: the story enforces patriachy. Cinderalla’s woes begin when women take over her family unit. She can only escape by submitting to the control of a strong male figure. Compulsory heterosexuality! Phallocentric normativity! Fight the ideology, sisters! Cinderella is a traitor; when Prince Charming is overthrown by the worker’s revolution, you know she’ll become a new Eva Peron, using a myth of working class and female solidarity to further oppress the fairytale kingdom’s populace.

    Well. The gag in the Lemony Snicket novels is that the set-up is more or less the same as Cinderalla’s – but the children never escape their misery. The whole thing’s fun because just when the logic of the fairy tale implies that justice will prevail, some new disaster comes along. The stories would obviously make little sense outside the context of traditional fairy tale narratives.

    But we sympathise with the Baudelaire orphans not just because they’re oppressed, but also because they’ve been robbed of their rightful wealth – which still manifests itself in the form of cultural capital. When they visit Justice Strauss’s library, as you say, we’re told “it was not as big as their parents’”. And this, not their poverty, is a large part of the reason for our sympathy for them. I don’t have any very useful ideas about the relation between actual and cultural capital. (My bad. More work needed.) But clearly this cultural capital is central not just to the books’ plots, but to their form. All the books are characterised by their roccocco language and literary allusiveness. If I remember right, one of the stories involves a butterfly collector named ‘Sirin’. What kind of readers can be expected to know that ‘Sirin’ was Nabokov’s Russian pen-name (or, for that matter, that Nabokov collected butterflies)? So I totally agree: the books’ readers are assumed to possess substantial cultural capital, and this is what binds them (us) to the books’ protagonists.

    Anyway, I’ve only read the first few ‘Unfortunate Events’ books, so I can’t comment properly. What happens at ‘The End’?

    Next week: how fluffy puppies helped destroy trade-unionism.

    Comment by praxisblog — October 25, 2007 @ 4:16 pm

  6. I wish I knew what happens at the end of the Snicket series. I picked up Book The First the other day on a whim and it made me think about your comment on literature and social classes. Regarding what you said about the Nobokov allusions, I couldn’t help noticing that the character Count Olaf resembles Fagin from Oliver Twist in more ways than a few. This naturally invokes sentiments of anti-Semitism and I am still trying to figure out what the author is implying by creating such a detestable character based on an outmoded stereotype from the 19th Century. Maybe this was accidental on the writer’s part, but alas, how many literary allusions actually turn out to be accidental (even if the writers want us to think they are)?

    Anyway, enough said about that. I am debating reading on in the series. I can’t fathom reading all 8 or 9 books but I can forsee reading parts 1 and 2. I want to see the movie as I believe Jim Carry plays one of the main characters and I like him as an actor.

    The address to my wordpress blog is:

    I understand the links from my name and picture don’t work for some reason. My brother has a similar-themed blog and the address for his blog is:


    Comment by robertjerome — October 25, 2007 @ 5:49 pm

  7. Robert – thanks for the links. I hadn’t thought about Olaf and anti-semitism. Maybe I’ll take another look next time I’m in a bookshop. Meanwhile, you’ve got me wanting to watch the movie…

    Comment by praxisblog — October 26, 2007 @ 12:59 am

  8. Forgot to say – I like the blogs.

    Comment by praxisblog — October 26, 2007 @ 2:15 pm

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