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05 JANUARY, 2012

A Rare Look at Samuel Beckett’s Doodle-Filled Notebooks

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What colored crayons have to do with deadpan philosophical humor and the gargoyles of Notre-Dame.

Novelist, playwright, poet, and Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) is one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. As a hopeless lover of marginalia and voyeur of famous creators’ notebooks, I was thrilled to discover these excerpts from the original manuscript of Watt, Beckett’s second novel and a pinnacle of his signature deadpan philosophical humor, courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The manuscript consists of 945 pages spanning six notebooks and loose sheets, written in ink and colored crayons between 1940 and 1945, and features a wealth of doodles, sketches, mathematical calculations, rhyming schemes, and drawings.

Watt is a whale of a manuscript—a white whale. Among the thousands of modern manuscripts in the Ransom Center, it glows like a luminous secular relic. It is, at moments, magnificently ornate, a worthy scion of The Book of Kells, with the colors reduced to more somber hues. The doodles, cartoons, caricatures, portraits en cartouche include reminiscences of African and Oceanic art, the gargoyles of Notre-Dame, heraldry, and more. Beckett’s handwriting is at its most deceptively cursive. Eppur si legge! And it ‘reads’ in other ways too. Jorge Luis Borges, examining Watt tactilely, sensed something of its extraordinary qualities, which, obviously, must transcend the visual. He asked his companion to describe it to him. This she did in detail, Borges nodding, ‘Yes, yes,’ with a happy smile throughout her description.”

The first notebook of Watt signed and marked 'Watt I,' with the following note: 'Watt was written in France during the war 1940-45 and published in 1953 by the Olympia Press.' On an inserted sheet, Beckett has written, 'Begun evening of Tuesday 11/2/41.'

The first page of the second notebook of Watt is dated '3/12/41.'

The first page of the third notebook of Watt shows the date '5.5.42'

The cover of the fourth notebook of Watt is marked 'Poor Johnny / Watt / Roussillon,' and page 1 is headed, 'Roussillon, October 4th 1943.'

A page from the typescript of Watt

On the cover of Notebook 5 of Watt Beckett has written in variously colored inks, 'Watt V/Suite et-fin (et-fin crossed through) /18.2.45/Paris/Et début de L'Absent/Novembre-Janvier 47/48.' He has indicated that L'Absent is Malone Meurt. Page 99 has the note, 'End of continuation of Watt. Conclusion in Notebook VI.'

Although in Notebook I, Beckett placed the completion of Watt in 1945, he concludes the sixth notebook with 'Dec 28th 1944/End.'

For more voyeuristic indulgence, don’t forget these five peeks inside the notebooks and sketchbooks of cultural icons across art, design, and science.

Thanks, Elana

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04 JANUARY, 2012

Drawing Mental Illness: Artist Bobby Baker’s Visual Diary

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Harvesting the daily flow of consciousness, or what group therapy has to do with marine life.

Despite our proudest cultural and medical advances, mental illness remains largely taboo, partly because the experience of it can be so challenging to articulate. But when performance artist Bobby Baker was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 1996, followed by a breast cancer diagnosis, she set out to capture her experience and her journey to recovery in 711 drawings that would serve as her private catharsis over the course of more than a decade. In Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me, Baker makes, at long last, this private experience public through 158 drawings and watercolors — poignant, honest, funny, moving, shocking — spanning 11 years of mental, physical, and emotional healing, a journey Marina Warner aptly calls in the preface a “chronicle of a life repaired.” The book is at once a personal journal and a tenacious thesaurus that helps translate the misunderstood realities of mental illness into an expressive and intuitive visual language the rest of the world can understand, reminiscent of the wonderful Drawing Autism.

I think mental illness is the worst of anything. The hierarchy of suffering is sort of bound into our society. But my personal experience is that the isolation and anguish of severe mental illness was much worse than…having something physical that people could understand better.” ~ Bobby Baker

From how the tears flow into her ears when she does yoga (Day 320) to the weight gain side effects of medication (Day 397) to the uplifting “butterflies of academia” (Day 579) to the strain of chemo (Day 698), Baker’s illustrated micro-narratives are startlingly raw, yet incredibly eloquent and layered.

Day 303

Day 320

Day 397

Day 470

Day 526

Day 579

Day 690

Day 698

The sequence of the drawings follows the artist’s painful but, ultimately, triumphant recovery, with the last stretch of pictures exuding a kind of cathartic exhale, a “huge, happy, light-headed relief,” as Warner puts it. Baker’s favorite drawing is from Day 771, titled “The Daily Flow of Consciousness,” which she believes represents her current state:

Day 771

Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me is magnificent in its entirety. The Guardian has a wonderful audio slideshow of Baker’s work, narrated by the artist herself.

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04 JANUARY, 2012

19-Year-Old Isaac Newton’s List of Sins

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What mother’s box of plums and sugar has to do with settling the age-old tension between science and religion.

Sir Isaac Newton is one of the most remarkable, prolific, and influential cross-disciplinary scientists in human history. The Newton Project, one of these important digital humanities projects, catalogs the 4.2 million published and unpublished words by Newton, which are made available as interactive diplomatic transcriptions. Among them is this curious list of 48 sins 19-year-old Newton self-admittedly “committed” before Whitsunday:

BEFORE WHITSUNDAY 1662

  1. Using the word (God) openly
  2. Eating an apple at Thy house
  3. Making a feather while on Thy day
  4. Denying that I made it
  5. Making a mousetrap on Thy day
  6. Contriving of the chimes on Thy day
  7. Squirting water on Thy day
  8. Making pies on Sunday night
  9. Swimming in a kimnel on Thy day
  10. Putting a pin in Iohn Keys hat on Thy day to pick him
  11. Carelessly hearing and committing many sermons
  12. Refusing to go to the close at my mothers command
  13. Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them
  14. Wishing death and hoping it to some
  15. Striking many
  16. Having uncleane thoughts words and actions and dreamese
  17. Stealing cherry cobs from Eduard Storer
  18. Denying that I did so
  19. Denying a crossbow to my mother and grandmother though I knew of it
  20. Setting my heart on money learning pleasure more than Thee
  21. A relapse
  22. A relapse
  23. A breaking again of my covenant renued in the Lords Supper
  24. Punching my sister
  25. Robbing my mothers box of plums and sugar
  26. Calling Dorothy Rose a jade
  27. Glutiny in my sickness
  28. Peevishness with my mother
  29. With my sister
  30. Falling out with the servants
  31. Divers commissions of alle my duties
  32. Idle discourse on Thy day and at other times
  33. Not turning nearer to Thee for my affections
  34. Not living according to my belief
  35. Not loving Thee for Thy self
  36. Not loving Thee for Thy goodness to us
  37. Not desiring Thy ordinances
  38. Not long {longing} for Thee in {illeg}
  39. Fearing man above Thee
  40. Using unlawful means to bring us out of distresses
  41. Caring for worldly things more than God
  42. Not craving a blessing from God on our honest endeavors
  43. Missing chapel
  44. Beating Arthur Storer
  45. Peevishness at Master Clarks for a piece of bread and butter
  46. Striving to cheat with a brass halfe crowne
  47. Twisting a cord on Sunday morning
  48. Reading the history of the Christian champions on Sunday

Besides the list’s endearing earnestness — which brings to mind Woody Guthrie’s 1942 New Year’s resolution list — it also contains intriguing counter-evidence for the age-old tension between science vs. religion, standing in particularly stark contrast with modern scientists’ unabashedly nihilistic attitude towards “God.” And for those of us who prod organized religion with the rational stick of skepticism, it’s an intriguing perspective shift to consider that a groundbreaking scientists could also be a pious man.

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