Blog Post

... between Two Points (2 of 2)

Nauman walks the walk. Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) (1968) does the work of envisioning Watt’s “way of advancing” for you.  I have cast Beckett’s description of Watt’s walk as creating a series of imperatives for the reader: you have to envision Watt’s “way of advancing,” then you have to edit that vision to account for unbending knees and feet, then again for position of head and arms. But really, it’s your prerogative (cue Bobby Brown).

You don’t have to do anything with Watt’s walk—perhaps especially if you can come up with a sophisticated explication of its philosophical, literary, mathematical, postmodernist, existential, or absurdist significance.

Watching Nauman’s 40+-year-old film reminded me that with Beckett, it’s often in fact easier, quicker, and plain old more convenient to launch into such explication than it is to imagine physical space as Beckett imagines it.  With respect to Beckett’s prose fiction, it can be simpler to go theoretical and explain Watt’s walk than to go physical and see Watt’s body in space. Like all of the art in the current apexart show, Nauman’s Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) (1968), enacts a reading.  In the quiet, empty space of his studio, Nauman flings, turns, and heaves his body through space as Beckett describes.  Equally important, Nauman flings, turns, and heaves s-l-o-w-l-y.  The artist’s walk looks like a series of modified Yoga poses. He pauses between each pivot and kick to hold his posture, find his balance, adjust the angle of hip to chest, and reorient his body.

Whether you, as a reader of Beckett, go in for the mental exercise of visualizing Watt’s “way of advancing” between two obscure points or whether you read right through it on your advance from page 1 to The End, you’re unlikely to slow down over Beckett’s prose as effectively as Nauman does. Or as effectively as Nauman gets the viewer of his film to slow down over Beckett’s prose.  The artist sustains his bizarre, controlled movement for an hour.  Already ten minutes in, you forget that Nauman-Watt is ostensibly “advancing” at all.

Nauman’s title is more than descriptive. Slow Angle Walk states the pace that the artist emphasizes in his reading of Beckett’s narrative. No one would call Watt a page-turner; but very few of us would undertake to walk like Watt for an hour, either. Beckett’s fictional depiction of a body in motion is an extreme manipulation of the incongruity between temporally bound narrative and temporal human existence. The single take of Nauman's film collapses that temporal gap.  Slow Angle Walk makes a reading of Watt’s movement take as long as it would for you, in your daily non-fictional life, to wait for Watt to arrive.  To put in the figural geometric terms of the title: let's imagine an obtuse angle that figures the standard relationship between fictional temporality and real, fiction reader's time.  Nauman’s Watt-walk redraws that relationship as an acute angle.  In Slow Angle Walk, the act of reading and the read-of experience take about the same amount of time. Nauman reminds you that you can finish reading Watt, and in the fictional world that Beckett creates, Watt would still be “advancing east” back on page 30.

(Imagine having an appointment with this guy!  It's entirely fitting that Nauman's film ends not with an arrival but with a bodily pivot and a blank screen. By that point, the artist has shown you how exhausting Watt’s walk would be.  Beckett envisions a walk that necessarily preempts the commuter’s--or the mathematician's or the literary critic's--aim of efficient progress from point A to point B.  Where I joked in my last post about wanting to sit down and regroup, so to speak, by the end of Slow Angle Walk, Nauman deserves a seat and a drink. Instead, at the end of the film, you're still sitting there in apexart, waiting for Watt to arrive.)

Nauman’s is a literal-minded reading. Or maybe a literal-bodied reading. Either way, I mean that in a "way-to-go!" sense. Nauman enacts a refreshingly matter-of-fact reading of Beckett.  Plus, if I put on my stickler hat, Nauman is not precisely literal: where Watt’s arms dangle at his sides, Nauman clasps his hands behind his back; where Beckett imagines Watt as a spectacle on a “public road,” Nauman stages Watt in the closed, emptied-out, quiet space of his studio—a space more in line with the kind of sparse stage setting one associates with Beckett the dramatist than with the peopled space of Watt’s “public road.” I’d love to see a version of Slow Angle on a public street in New York—maybe on Canal Street near apexart, a la Improv Everywhere's Frozen Grand Central, which went viral in 2008.

In the program that accompanies You can't get there from here but you can get here from there, curator Courtenay Finn suggests that Nauman’s “embodiment of a fictional character allows him to penetrate a narrative, blurring the boundaries between the fictional and the real.” To me, the “boundaries blurred” are time-bound. If Slow Angle Walk were only ten minutes long, I’m not sure it would press past a sight gag (albeit a successfully goofy sight gag). By presuming the physical reality of the fictional, and by sustaining that presumption over an hour, Nauman’s walk slows you down. His embodied reading reminds me of what’s still—to borrow Beckett’s habitually extreme boundary for physical motion—“possible” in reading, watching, and teaching Beckett.

Assistant Professor of English, Dickinson College
Claire Seiler's research and teaching focus on modern and contemporary literature and culture in the U.S., England, and Ireland. Her work makes an inquiry of inconspicuous terms that inform twentieth-century literary criticism, among them "midcentury" (which she investigates in her first-book-in-progress, titled "Midcentury Suspension") and the "generation" (the problematic category that organizes her next project, on twentieth-century poetics). Her work has been published in Twentieth-Century Literature, Comparative Literature, Modernism/Modernity, and elsewhere.