Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Scissors trousers bollocks

Re-reading Beckett's Dying Words by Christopher Ricks, a wonderful critical engagement with the writer and an example of close reading at its best. Younger readers may never have come across close reading, or what the French call explication de texte. It was developed in Cambridge in the 1920s by I. A. Richards and his pupil William Empson, was later taken up in the middle of the last century by the New Critics and has since fallen in and out of favour. Close reading is defined as 'the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text.' Why this should strike anyone as being an optional and even outlandish approach to the better understanding of poetry or prose is beyond me, but things have changed and new orthodoxies prevail, especially in academia.

At one point Ricks ropes in Anthony Burgess:

There is a moment in an Anthony Burgess novel when the man in danger, fascinated as any good Burgess-man is by language, watches someone advance on him with a pair of scissors, and can only marvel at such intersections of the singular and the plural as the three which comprise his imminent fate: scissors / trousers / bollocks.

Ricks is referring to a moment in chapter 14 of the tersely-titled Burgess novel M/F, published in 1971: 

Miss Emmett clackclacked at his crotch, thus bringing into the same area of action the three dual forms: scissors, trousers, ballocks.

Ricks is reminded of a remarkably similar 'intersection of the singular' in Beckett's great novel Watt (written during the war and published in 1953) and I'll have to check that reference before adding it to this blog. Scissors, trousers, bollocks sounds like an eye-watering sado-masochistic version of the childhood game stone-paper-scissors. 

But back to Ricks and Beckett's Dying Words. It's wonderfully clever and erudite and incisive as well as generously wide-ranging. It includes this gem (new to me) from John Gielgud’s obituary of the German actress Elisabeth Bergner: 

An amazingly original and enigmatic personality of enormous fascination, I am very proud to have known her.

An example, says Ricks, of “the tempting self-attention which a dangling participle may effect.” 


Quotations © Faber and Faber and The Estate of Anthony Burgess



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