Works of Simple Witnessing, and Other News


On the Shelf

An 1861 lithograph of the Great Fire of London.


  • The “Art Under Trump” essays have been coming fast and loose all week. Today, Margaret Atwood weighs in, sounding a bit leery, a bit tired of wondering what will come of it all. Even as she endorses certain creative forms over others (sorry, satirists), Atwood suggests that artists might be powerless to curb their own suppression. Keep your eyes open, write down what you see, and maybe take out a safe-deposit box: “Some will produce ‘witness art,’ like those artists who have responded to great catastrophes: wars, earthquakes, genocides. Surely the journal-keepers are already at work, inscribing events and their responses to them, like those who kept accounts of the Black Death until they themselves succumbed to it; or like Anne Frank, writing her diary from her attic hiding place; or like Samuel Pepys, who wrote down what happened during the Great Fire of London. Works of simple witnessing can be intensely powerful … American artists and writers have seldom been shy about exploring the fissures and cracks in their own country. Let’s hope that if democracy implodes and free speech is suppressed, someone will record the process as it unfolds.”
  • The fourth and final volume of Beckett’s letters is here, covering 1966 to 1989, which means it contains Beckett’s musings on 1968 (“was ever such rightness joined to such foolishness?”), surviving tragedy (“don’t give up that bottle, whatever you do”) and, naturally, death. David Wheatley writes, “As the light dwindles, however, the real pleasure lies in the ‘black diamonds of pessimism,’ to borrow a phrase from the early work Dream of Fair to Middling Women, in which much that is moving and memorable about these letters crystallizes. ‘Dans vos ruines je me sens à mon aise,’ he tells Cioran in 1969, acknowledging receipt of Le mauvais démiurge. To Lawrence Shainberg in 1979, Beckett confesses the ‘preposterous conviction’ that ‘here in the end is the last & by far best chance for the writer.’ ‘I work on, with failing mind, in other words improved possibilities,’ he tells Herbert Myron in 1980, relishing his receding prospects. ‘I try to think,’ he writes in Watt-like cadences to Franz Wurm, also in 1980, ‘with what mind remains, that now is the time at last, the chance at last, in these remains, with those remains, though think is not the word, at last not the word.’ ”