Samuel Beckett’s discomfiting formulation of ‘a mind like the one I always had, always on the alert against itself ’ has been playing around my own mind over the past few months. To be alert to complacencies of thought is surely a good thing but Beckett’s phrase also seems to imply a mind at work against its own well-being. In my case, that quality of the mind working against itself has been a mark of this difficult period; clarity of thought becoming clouded by an oppressive form of uncertainty even more quickly than usual. This surely comes from being without many of the accustomed means to escape the narrow confines of the individual consciousness when it feels cooped up. We cannot all be like de Maistre, eccentrically involved in the journey around one room. The pleasures of domesticity and the consolations of the ordinary are at least in part granted by our capacity to escape them from time to time; by the facility to enjoy travel, and with it the pleasures of the visual and performing arts, live music, social life, sport, food and drink. Indeed, the freedom to move with the seasons is elementally human, just as redolent of hope for the future as the stagnation of the lazaretto, a long-forgotten and ironic concomitant to travel in an earlier time, is of desolation. Restrictions on movement serve to remind us too that a kind of nourishing transhumance of the soul is involved in those periods of our lives when we can roam around to see the unfamiliar things that then become part of our lasting imaginary.
One contribution here can have nothing directly to do with the present time: an unpublished extract from Beckett’s ‘German Diaries’, in which he writes about the paintings at Potsdam in January 1937. But it speaks to many of the thoughts I outline and it is striking how closely it fits with the concerns expressed by our writers today: travel, art, history and the imagined life are all recurrent themes. Aside from that extract and an original translation from Jens Peter Jacobsen, the material gathered in this volume, Untitled, 2020, was solicited with the aim of providing our writers with an opportunity to reflect in keenly personal ways on the period of lockdown for Covid-19. My hope is that it will also provide an impression to future readers of how we began to make creative sense of this unique moment of crisis. Life can only be lived forwards, as Kierkegaard observed, but it can only be understood backwards
The spring of 2020 marked ten years since the first issue of the London Magazine was produced under its current publisher, Burhan Al-Chalabi. My co-editor, Steven O’Brien, and I intended to mark this anniversary somehow, even before the extent of the current crisis became apparent. Despite the difficulties of the present time, Untitled, 2020 will stand, I hope, as a lasting celebration of the magazine. The title draws on the image that serves as the cover, an ink drawing from 1960 by Barnett Newman produced for his unforgettable sequence of works, The Stations of the Cross. David Sylvester described seeing these paintings as an experience combining prayer with sex and said memorably that they left him feeling like he had one skin the less. When the idea of seeing paintings again in the flesh seemed remote, his thoughts resonated and, as the crisis ran through and beyond Easter, I found myself thinking often about those works and their unnerving balance of despair, uncertainty, light and hope. This image in particular, though all the while encompassed by an ever-increasing texture of many greys, looks beyond deep darkness towards a seam of light. It has a peculiar power at this time and I am very grateful to the Newman estate for permission to reproduce it. I thank too the Beckett estate, Edward Beckett and Mark Nixon for granting permission to print an extract, never before published, from the ‘German Diaries’. It is a wonderful privilege and thrill to be able to include this. I extend my further thanks to all the other contributors gathered here for their generosity in sharing their work and for their unfailing courtesy during the period of this volume’s production.
Lucy Binnersley has worked tirelessly on Untitled, 2020 over the very difficult months just past, and without her enthusiasm and constant editorial eye, the project would not have succeeded. She has my most heartfelt appreciation. I also thank all of the rest of team on the magazine for an extraordinary collective effort: Jack Solloway, Briony Willis, Vishaile Patel and James Riding. Above all, I must acknowledge both Steven O’Brien for many years of happy and harmonious work together and, of course, our publisher, Burhan Al-Chalabi, without whose unfaltering patience and benevolence, we would be nowhere. I dedicate the work to two of the magazine’s true friends: Grey Gowrie and Derwent May.
Matthew Scott lives in west London and the Welsh borders and has lectured in English and American Literature at Reading University since 2006. Before that he taught at Oxford for five years, where he was Departmental Lecturer in English (1740-1832), having written a doctoral thesis there on Romantic literature. He has held visiting positions at Brown University (as a John Nicolas Brown fellow) and Harvard (as a Kennedy Memorial Scholar), and has since lectured at many universities in both North America and Europe. He has published very widely on the literature of Romanticism and on other related matters in the history of ideas.
Buy the print issue of Untitled, 2020.
Subscribe to The London Magazine and receive a copy bi-monthly.
For exclusives from our archive and more, visit our online shop.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry