Some thoughts on Beckett's Mouth and Johnson's Sun

by on Jan.02, 2012

from Bosch's Garden

Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible

– Frank O’Hara

The philosophy of representation—of the original, the first time, resemblance, imitation, faithfulness—is dissolving; and the arrow of the simulacrum released by the Epicureans is headed in our direction. It gives birth—rebirth—to a ‘phantasmaphysics.’

— Foucault, from “Theatrum Philosophicum”

I’ve just finished reading Kent Johnson’s controversial book A Question Mark Above the Sun, and I’ve also been rereading some Beckett plays for a paper I’m writing for a conference, and though Beckett and Johnson are worlds away from one another in just about everything, they do have one thing in common: both are obsessed with making “voice” an unnatural manifestation, a spectral effusion. Both undermine certain basic principles of “authentic” creativity.

Often, the idea of the writing hinges on various notions of “the private”: I shape my experience, I tell my story, I find my voice, I am part of a community of other people finding their voices.

As well-meaning as this rhetoric might be, it is also short-sighted and exclusionary. Experience becomes another type of private property. The “I” becomes singular and substantial, and the Subject must be fenced off in order for self-coherence to remain in place.

Writing becomes not an act of invention, but an investigation into roots and origins. Writing becomes not a search for new ways of thinking and experiencing, but a search for foundations, for psychological certitudes.

It has been argued that this vision of writing, of Art in general, dates back to the rise of the Humanist tradition. Here, the human becomes central and controlling. And the inhuman (phantoms, the irrational, all that falls outside of common sense) becomes something we fear and place on trial within the court of human reason.

Both Foucault and Artaud made the argument that something was lost with the rise of Humanism. If one of our standard historical narratives describes the rise of Humanism as a development that has freed us from religious dogma and superstition, Foucault in particular argued that a certain notion of self was consolidated: a self that spoke with his or her own voice, a self that was substance and amplitude.

And it put into place a worldview that would become increasingly positivistic. Fiction would be fully separated from truth. Being would be separated out from non-being, and extra-being.

In other words, Foucault saw Humanism as a form of exorcism. And we fall into the error of thinking that our latest truth has become free of metaphysics, whereas really all that has happened is that our metaphysics is now based on the division between fiction and truth, the corporeal and incorporeal, etc.

Yet Foucault also believed the age of Humanism (thanks to Nietzsche, Blanchot, Artaud, etc.) was coming to an end. He wrote, “As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.”


Then there’s Beckett’s Not I, a play that is literally a mouth speaking. In fact, the stage notes call the mouth “Mouth,” as if the character were not a character at all but a mouth that has simply appeared in the dark.

And it’s not a universal mouth, a mouth that speaks some substantial human truth. Rather, it is an anonymous mouth. A person who speaks but who does not know where her voice is coming from. A mouth possessed by a voice, or a series of voices.

The mouth says at one point in the play: first thought was . . . oh long after . . . sudden flash . . . she was being punished . . . for her sins . . . a number of which then . . . further proof if proof were needed . . . flashed through her mind . . . one after another . . . then dismissed as foolish . . . oh long after . . . this thought dismissed . . . as she suddenly realized . . . gradually realized . . . she was not suffering . . . imagine! . . not suffering! . . indeed could not remember . . . off-hand . . . when she had suffered less . . . unless of course she was . . . meant to be suffering . . . ha! . . thought to be suffering . . . just as the odd time . . . in her life . .

“First thought” instead of “my first thought.” And not “I was being punished” but “she was being punished.” Memory becomes so saturated by the world that the self brims over and becomes an element of the world.

Beckett even uses a certain positivistic language, but only to make fun of positivism’s certitudes: “further proof if proof were needed…flashed through her mind…one after another…” The proof is not controlled by an analytical self. Instead, it’s a flash, one following another.

Anonymity, voices from out of the dark that could be our own, our own voice already out there, in the dark, thoughts that flash at us, logic no more rational than the language of delirium and mysticism, no more human than a flash of lightning.


Which brings me to Kent Johnson’s A Question Mark Above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery of the Famous Poem “by” Frank O’Hara. While reading it, I was struck by the idea of literary possession in the book. Johnson argues that Kenneth Koch might have written the poem “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” himself, as a last tribute to his late friend.

Johnson brings out several pieces of evidence. No one had seen the poem before Koch read it at a memorial, though O’Hara was known for sharing his poems with his friends and acquaintances. And even Joe LeSueur, in his wonderfully free-associative book Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, wonders about the origin of the poem. He makes no suggestion that Koch wrote it, but he does wonder why no one (not even himself, who was O’Hara’s roommate for nine years) had come across it.

As many readers of Montevidayo know, the book has set off quite a bit of debate, some of it fairly acrimonious. I wonder how many of the book’s detractors have actually read it, though. Johnson begins by calling his project a thought-experiment, and there is an entire middle section that reads like a comic version of a spy novel. (It turns out a few British poets have formed a secret society that is meant to keep the truth of Koch’s authorship from public view.) The book is hardly a die-hard polemic insisting we must now all read “A True Account…” as a Kenneth Koch poem.

Nor is Koch the villain. In fact, his act of writing the poem (if we go along with Johnson’s thought-experiment) would be an act of incredible generosity. As Johnson writes: As scandalous as such measure in the abstract may seem, it would hardly have been an inconsistent or unethical one, were Koch’s intent to perpetually gift such “dictated” homage to his poetic companion, to have the poem truly and forever belong to him. Possibly replacing, that is—to assert the anomalous but circumstantially possible scenario—‘A True Account…’ for another, no doubt less extraordinary text, one still extant in the O’Hara oeuvre but now unmoored from its occasion.

And the book is very moving. O’Hara either wrote a poem that is truly creepy in its foreknowledge -– in fact, Brad Gooch in his book City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara called the poem “almost too neatly prophetic” –- or the poem is a work of possession, of a literary haunting in the most extreme sense. Koch would allow O’Hara’s voice to “speak” one last time.

Which isn’t to say I believe Koch did write it. If forced to come to an opinion, I would say the evidence is still in O’Hara’s favor. (Johnson at one point in the book says much the same thing.) But thought-experiments can have an aesthetic dimension. Just because the experiment might not be true, it can still produce powerful effects.

There’s a famous Borges story called “Three Versions of Judas” that in an odd, roundabout way reminds me of Johnson’s book. In the story, which Borges writes as an essay, the narrator (or rather the fictitious scholar the narrator is talking about) begins to wonder if Judas was not actually the son of God. If the Messiah was meant to redeem humanity through his suffering, wouldn’t Judas, one of the most despised figures in history, be a figure of almost incomprehensible misery? As Borges writes, “God became a man completely, a man to the point of infamy, a man to the point of being reprehensible – all the way to the abyss.”

Of course, Borges is not writing a theological tract here. And it’s clear he doesn’t expect the reader to believe the arguments being made. But as a thought-experiment, it’s an amazing meditation of suffering, sacrifice, Messianic thought, and historical memory. In a similar way, you do not have to accept Johnson’s claims to find Sun to be a powerful book about voices we hear in the dark that might or might not be our own…

7 comments for this entry:
  1. adam strauss

    Oh lovely–I like this a lot: “both are obsessed with making “voice” an unnatural manifestation”; and this: “Just because the experiment might not be true, it can still produce powerful effects.”

  2. Feng Sun Chen

    this is super interesting! i especially like the thoughts on humanism as a final exorcism and thinking about this in the light of contemporary writing that tries to inversely exorcise the human. what would a self-exorcism be?

    this also makes me think of JM’s post on parody and the Solar Anus… mainly because the central images are the sun and the mouthhole, but perhaps there are other layers to do with the connection between parody and possession

  3. Feng Sun Chen

    i guess this article already answered my question before i asked it. if these authors dislocate the mouth from the body, that is a self-exorcism.

  4. Kent Johnson

    I just saw this post yesterday. Very interesting take, James, and thanks so much for writing at such original angle about the book.

    Regarding this possession thing with Koch, it’s fascinating that he specifically wrote of such condition himself. Take a look at this, from his poem “Homage to Frank O’Hara” (it was one of the quotes in the book we were forced to suppress–I assume that one can still cite passages online without getting hauled to court!), written after the revelation of “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island”:

    Sometimes it seems to me I am possessed by the
    spirit of Frank O’Hara and should write his poems
    as he would have written them now but
    the only ones I know are ones he’s already written
    and those are what these turn out to be.

    Furthermore (as pointed out in a last-minute addendum to the book–the text discovered by John Latta in a dusty issue of Art and Literature), Koch was writing AS Frank O’Hara (albeit under the pseudonym of Koichi K. O’Hara) *only a few months before* O’Hara’s death– and doing so (as “A True Account” does!) by channeling the voice of Vladimir Mayakovsky. In fact, Koch and O’Hara had merged their identities a number of times in various collaborative poems written for the most part in the 50s (though their greatest collaboration was probably on Koch’s early and near-epic “When the Sun Tries to Go On”), and to the point where their lines for all purposes become, as in “The Mirror Naturally Stripped,” untraceable. As Hazel Smith remarks, discussing these collaborations in her book *Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara*:

    “The poem does not attract attention to itself as a collaboration…. Instead, it foregrounds a shared subjectivity: the dissolution of the difference between people through the adoption of a common literary code and a fabric of shared experience and reference.”

    So one could say that O’Hara and Koch certainly practiced, in their great friendship, some measure of mutual possession of the other… Maybe it’s not that big of a leap, really, given such selfless textual crossing between them, to imagine a poetic act of self-immolation by Koch, where an elegy-ode of grief and homage is placed, as strange gift, under the name of his lost friend.

    I think I’ve mentioned that the expanded second edition of A Question Mark above the Sun is scheduled to come out in July. Fewer than 100 copies of the first edition were printed, so not that many people have yet been able to judge the merits of the reasonable-doubt hypothesis for themselves.

    Thanks, James.

  5. Jared

    This remains a fascinating topic. Going in another direction only to circle back around, this reminds me of George Carlin’s bit about the stuff that comes off our bodies and out of our orifices. Fingernail clippings, hair, shit, mucus, all of this stuff “used to be us” but now it’s gone through a separation (exorcism?) that compels and fascinates even as it disgusts.

    Relating this to Joyelle’s Bug Time, when the swarm is swarming together, who knows what shit belongs to whom? Likewise, food becomes common and goes from plenty to scarcity and back again in moments, while shelter becomes an infestation, a colony, a hive. This in opposition to the “human” tendency to separate, to keep my fingernail clippings separate from yours, to have some feeling for my own shit but to see yours as anathema, something to be flushed down a discreet toilet fixture and away.

    Very interesting, then, to revisit this idea of Koch and O’Hara in a type of infestational relationship where words, like shits, mingle and become lost in an identity that appears more complex than a simple I/we dialectic. There is the I that is me and the I that is you, the me that is I and the me that is you, the we that is I and the I that is us, and so on. Very compelling to think about in the present social juncture…

  6. Johannes

    Yes, and I think Mary is right to point to Joyelle’s parody post. I like how according to Kent’s account, there’s not just O’hara’s version of Mayakovsky, but also Kent’s account of Koch’s possible version of O’Hara (and that weird name of their merger)… Johannes

  7. James Pate

    Good points, all…

    There’s a line from Mayakowsky’s “A Cloud in Trousers”: “I feel / my “I” / is too small. / Someone stubbornly bursts out from me.”

    In Bug Time one face might bursts out from another face, one mouth could start speaking in other voices. It’s not so much that the private becomes public, exactly. Rather, the whole binary between private and public gets lost in the swarm. In Kent’s book, O’Hara speaks through Mayakowsky who might be speaking through Koch…etc…