‘…there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.’
(from Beckett's Three Dialogues with George Duthuit)
‘I’ve written another misery. But I had to do it! I had to do it!’
The consciousness of Samuel Beckett was a terrible place to be, alleviated only by bursts of grim mirth. It was the ‘obligation to express’ that helped Beckett deal with the lonely despair he seems to have been born with. Like Djuna Barnes, ‘the most famous unknown,’ and one of the few women with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship, Beckett cloaked himself in secrecy. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 the French press dubbed him ‘un inconnu célèbre’ and the pictures that were taken of him when he was finally located in an isolated village in Tunisia show his pale blue eyes peering out at the world in hostility and fear. Deirdre Bair, in the introduction to her biography on Beckett, describes his behaviour when she first pulled out a notebook and pencil:
He jumped up and demanded to know what I was doing. Were we not ‘just having a friendly conversation, just two people talking?’ Didn’t I already know that he ‘did not give interviews’, that he ‘never allowed pencil and paper,’ that ‘the question of the tape recorder is one which must never come up?’i
Morris Dickstein, reviewing two later biographiesii of Beckett, describes how Beckett’s life makes ‘a wrenching tale…Beckett had a sense of being his own double, an outsider in his own life.’ Dickstein points out that Beckett was a second generation Modernist who ‘turned towards a dark and mocking humour…Like the man himself, whose gaunt figure, courteous mien and aversion to publicity became legendary, Beckett’s writing took literature as close to silence as we can imagine.’iii Nino Frank,iv who escorted the almost blind James Joyce to visit Beckett in hospital after he had been stabbed by a pimp, describes the encounter as that ‘of two Irishmen marinating in their respective silences.’v There are those who saw Beckett as the wordsmith heir to Joyce, and Beckett was very much part of Joyce’s admiring coterie in Paris. Beckett explains, however, that his writing was an entirely different process than it was for Joyce, who, he said, wrote from ‘omniscience’: ‘In my case, I write because I have to – I don’t mean for money – but for my own needs. I don’t know where the writing comes from and I am often quite surprised when I see what I have committed to paper.’
At school Beckett had been moody, enigmatic, capable of vicious teasing, and took little interest in his studies. He was, however, very athletic and an accomplished cricketer. As a young man, he sat awkwardly on the fringes of conversations, his speech being limited, as Bair describes it, to ‘a series of sighs punctuated by occasional whispered phrases.’vi One of Beckett’s favourite themes was the idea of suicide as an intellectual exercise; he was interested in Schopenhauer’s idea of ‘timely death’, a heroic exit from a shameful existence. vii The philosopher Roger Scruton writes that for Schopenhauer,
the supreme goal of the will is to return to that unconscious eternity from which it emerged: and this striving for annihilation – for the Nirvana of Buddhism – is, Schopenauer argues, the true secret of man’s life on earth.’ viii
Schopenhauer writes: ‘ultimately death must triumph, for by birth it has already become our lot and it plays with its prey only for a while before swallowing it up.’ix Beckett had a similar sense of fatalism, and this idea, that we live only in order to die, frequently crops up in his work: Pozzo, in Act Two of ‘Waiting for Godot’ (1953) says: ‘They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.’ ‘A piece of monologue’ (1979) opens with The Speaker’s chilling and paradoxical statement: ‘Birth was the death of him.’
The ‘dead voices’ in ‘Waiting for Godot’ have been compared to Dante’s souls in purgatory. ‘The Divine Comedy’ was Beckett’s most favoured reading material; right to the end, strapped up in a straight-backed chair to ease his breathing, he continued to thumb through his boyhood copy. In Beckett’s later plays (he called these fragments ‘dramaticules’), death is dramatised as a kind of absence, or, as Keir Elam describes it, ‘absence as presence.’ Robed bodies, heads floating in darkness, disembodied lips that deny their own existence, all these conjure up Dante’s realms of the dead. Elam observes the Dantean imagery in ‘Not I’ (1972) that suggests the Gustave Doré illustration of the ninth circle of the ‘Inferno’:
In Doré’s celebrated representation of the scene in which the poets observe the damned heads of Cocytus, both are draped in dark robes (below). In ‘Not I’, the one internal Auditor, present on stage, is similarly robed in black, and is thus iconically comparable either to Virgil or to Dante.x
Dante encountering the talking heads of the traitors emerging from the frozen lakes of Cocytus, their bodies invisible beneath the ice: I head it say, “watch how you go – take care that your feet do not trample on the heads of the wretched and weary brotherhood”’ (Canto xxxii, 19-24)
Beckett’s family were Irish Protestants; Beckett himself did not appear to subscribe to religion, claiming that ‘at the moment of crisis it has no more depth than an old school tie.’ Yet it is a powerful literary device that he frequently uses. The theme of the uncertainty of hope of salvation pervades ‘Waiting for Godot’ as Beckett confronts the audience with the instability of religious myth. The central icon of the tree takes on a slippery symbolism. The tramps cannot identify it, it has no leaves, they think it could be dead, or not even a tree, perhaps a bush. They debate whether to hang themselves on it, there is talk of crucifixion, salvation, damnation, and the two thieves who were crucified beside Christ. Vladimir questions the accuracy of the Gospels:
VLADIMIR: But one of the four says that one of the two was saved.
ESTRAGON: Well? They don’t agree, and that’s all there is to it.
VLADIMIR: But all four were there. And only one speaks of a thief being saved. Why believe him rather than the others?
ESTRAGON: Everybody. It’s the only version they know.xi
Hugh Kenner describes ‘Endgame’ (1958) – note the title’s reference to chess, the point when there are few pieces left on the board – as a play that betrays the audience into laughter.xii The humour of the prayer session is laced with this sense of betrayal:
NAGG (clasping his hands, closing his eyes, in a gabble): Our Father which art –
HAMM: Silence! In silence! Where are your manners? (Pause) Off we go. (Attitudes of prayer. Silence. Abandoning his attitude, discouraged.) Well?
CLOV: (Abandoning his attitude.) What a hope! And you?
NAGG: Wait! (Pause. Abandoning his attitude.) Nothing doing!
HAMM: The bastard! He doesn’t exist!
‘You must realise,’ Beckett said, ‘that Hamm and Clov are Didi and Gogoxiii at a later date, at the end of their lives….Actually they are Suzanne and me.’ Beckett is referring to Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, whom he eventually married in 1961, and he is alluding to the fact that while they found it difficult to live together, they also found it impossible to leave each other.
Before getting involved with Suzanne, Beckett had a brief, explosive affair with American heiress and art patroness Peggy Guggenheim. ‘Looking back on it now,’ Guggenheim recalled in later years, ‘I don’t think he was in love with me for more than ten minutes. He couldn’t make up his mind about anything. He wanted me around but he didn’t want to have to do anything about it.’ She nicknamed him Oblomov,
from the book by Goncharov that Djuna [Barnes] had given me to read long before…I made him read the book and of course he immediately saw a resemblance between himself and the strange inactive hero who finally did not even have the willpower to get out of bed.xiv
There are Proustian echoes in Beckett’s writing. In an early academic exposition, ‘Proust’ (1931), Beckett uses a Schopenhaurerian filter to formulate a Proustian aesthetic that is, Rupert Wood writes, ‘a well-structured combination of pessimism and a tragic view of existence.’ Beckett notes that for the Proustian individual ‘the aspirations of yesterday were valid for yesterday’s ego, not for today’s,’ xv thus entering into the idea of the individual being made up of a collection of split selves. Wood writes:
Beckett’s analysis of the Proustian aesthetic is centred around an account of the workings of habit upon memory, and the consequences these have for the subjective experience of time. The (Proustian) individual is afflicted by time, for in effect the individual is nothing by a series of individuals. Thus, Beckett states, the desire of an individual at time A cannot be satisfied at time B, for the individual at time B will no longer be the same individual.xvi
Like the Proustian individual, the protagonist of ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ (who records his observations about himself on every birthday) is realised as a ‘series of individuals.’ There is the breathing, visible Krapp (on stage) who listens to the recorded voice of another, absent Krapp, who in turn comments on yet another, even younger Krapp: ‘Hard to believe I was ever that young whelp. That voice! Jesus! And the aspirations!’ Kenner writes: ‘The Beckett books and plays are repeatedly public confessions by men who have cut themselves off and have nothing left but the language to fondle, old language, new language. Keeping going, that’s their job now.’xvii Old Krapp wearily observes ‘What’s a year now? The sour cud and the iron stool.’
Although Beckett never consciously expressed Existential views, his writing is full of Existential motifs: emptiness, repetition, characters preoccupied with going nowhere, ‘condemned to be free,’ as Sartre puts it, and a sense of the absurd in a world that has lost its centre of meaning. Beckett’s characters, isolated in time and space, have a clownish, tragic quality; they torment and console themselves, asking questions they cannot answer. Kenner notes how hard it is to read Beckett ‘for the story’: ‘by the time we arrive on the scene, as readers or as spectators, the story is over.’ What we experience, as Kenner writes, is ‘the wreckage the story has left.’xviii This is not unlike our own lives, in which we seem to arrive as late-comers for a performance, and have to piece together the past by hearsay and assumptions based on individual and collective memories, all subject to instability. Beckett writes:
Proust had a bad memory…The man with a good memory does not remember anything because he does not forget anything…There is no great difference, says Proust, between the memory of a dream and the memory of reality…It insists on that most necessary, wholesome and monotonous plagiarism – the plagiarism of oneself.xix
The twentieth century saw the growing influence of Freud and Jung on writers and artists. In 1935, Beckett, while undergoing analysis for severe psychosomatic symptoms (panic attacks, bouts of flu, boils and cysts in awkward places, and various other manifestations of inner demons) was taken to hear a lecture by Jung, then 60, at the Tavistock Clinic in London. It made a powerful impact on him. Jung argues that a complex has a tendency to ‘form a little personality of itself’’:
Because complexes have a certain will power, a sort of ego, we find that in a schizophrenic condition they emancipate themselves from conscious control to such an extent that they become visible and audible. They appear as visions, they speak in voices which are like the voices of definite people.
These complexes become what Jung terms ‘fragmentary personalities,’ and Jung maintains that writers and poets are able to dramatise and personify the contents of their minds:
When he creates a character on the stage, or in his poem or drama or novel, he thinks it is merely a product of his imagination; but that character in a certain secret way had made itself. Any novelist or writer will deny that these characters have a psychological meaning, but as a matter of fact you know as well as I do that they have one. Therefore, you can read a writer’s mind when you study characters he creates. xx
What Beckett described as ‘the dark he had struggled to keep under’ was ultimately to become, as Bair writes, ‘the source of his creative inspiration.’xxi Beckett understood that writing had to begin from within himself, and Kenner relates how Beckett
has said that he will sit motionless two or three hours at his writing table, trying to ‘descend into the darkness.’ Once down in the dark, though, where traditions are queried, he is taut with vigilance.xxii
With increasing confidence, Beckett dramatised his own psyche. This excavation is weaved into his writing: Molloy, a character compelled to write down his thoughts, Malone, who writes in an attempt to know himself, and Krapp, who fills his isolation with his own voice from the past. Kenner argues that the ‘torment of self-repetition’ Beckett devises for many of his characters ‘is related to his sense that the writer, try as he will, has ultimately only his one life to draw from and builds each vicarious being on himself.’xxiii
Beckett’s bilingualism seems to have been a form of emotional release in allowing him to escape his inherited literary tradition. At Trinity, Dublin, Beckett had shown exceptional qualities as a French scholar, and he chose to live more of his life in France than he ever spent in his homeland of Southern Ireland; during WWII he worked for the French resistance and was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance. He was furious at being described as an ‘Irish’ writer on the cover blurb of ‘Murphy’. Ann Beer writes:
Never drawn to Celtic Ireland, and repelled by what he saw as the Catholic church’s repressive tendencies, Beckett was the offspring of a family for whom French was the obvious first foreign language, a civilizing European tongue…In both critical and imaginative writing, he seemed to grasp that the ‘old ego’, both ‘minister of dullness’ and ‘agent of security’xxiv could be left behind, and the new ego welcomed, through the shifts of consciousness and expression that an acquired language made possible.xxv
Beer sees Beckett’s early critical monograph on Proust ‘as a catalyst of crucial importance. It catapulted him into the other language, at least for a preliminary skirmish.’ Beer also observes that ‘Beckett’s reluctance to discuss bilingualism in depth suggests that it worked at a profound level of his psyche, a level that he neither wanted to, nor perhaps could, expose.’xxvi This urge to break, or at least resist, the habit of his mother-tongue, could be linked to the relationship he had with his mother, which Bair describes as a battle of wills that began when Beckett was three years old and ‘continued, through periods of rage and depression, for the length of May Beckett’s lifetime.’xxvii In a letter to his good friend Thomas McGreevy, Beckett writes: ‘I am what her savage loving has made me.’ He told Peggy Guggenheim that he had, in her words, ‘retained a terrible memory of life in his mother’s womb.’
Bair writes that it was in 1939 that Beckett ‘made his first groping attempt towards conceptual expression in a foreign language.’ In this unfinished essay called ‘Les Deux Besoins’ (The Two Needs) Beckett explores the idea, Bair writes:
that art results from the artist’s quest to rid himself of extraneous knowledge in order to refine his perceptions into a clear, distilled vision of the fundamental inner being: art comes from the abandonment of the macrocosm for the pursuit of the microcosm. Man is doomed to failure, for he can never commit or abandon himself completely to his inner voice. The eternal struggle to do so – and the artist’s constant turning inward – creates conflict, and in turn forces him to create art. This vision of the preordained failure of the artist gives rise in Beckett’s noncritical writing to the figure of the quest-hero, doomed to follow the tortuously turning path of his inner self on an endless, timeless plane where there is no real definition, no end and no accomplishment. The goal is always tantalisingly beyond reach. On the one hand, it is a grim, joyless task, this pursuit of art. On the other, it is the true way to find satisfaction – peace lies only in pursuit.xxviii
The subjective experience for an audience when exposed to a Beckett play can be an uneasy one. They have to understand that, as in life, there is not a world of meaning waiting for them up on the stage, they must create meaning for themselves. In ‘Waiting for Godot’ Beckett evokes a feeling of shifting surveillance, and that it is not just the actors that are being laughed at:
VLADIMIR: Charming evening we’re having.
VLADIMIR: And it’s not over.
ESTRAGON: Apparently not.
VLADIMIR: It’s only beginning.
Martin Esslin wrote succinctly of the attitude towards ‘Waiting for Godot’ that most Parisians held after the first production:
Beckett first aroused attention by a succès de scandale. Whenever Waiting for for Godot opened after its first night in Paris it became the topic of conversation. Was it not an outrage that people could be asked to come and see a play that could not be anything but a hoax, a play in which nothing whatever happened! People went to see the play just to be able to see that scandalous impertinence with their own eyes and to be in a position to say at the next party that they had actually been the victims of that outrage.xxix
Beckett always refused to explain his work. ‘The professors know more about it than I do,’ he said. Critical recognition and success allowed him to be generous with his money, for affluence meant little to Beckett. Back in the early days, when the writing came hard and publication was meagre, a friend from Trinity College had suggested to him how he might write a book that would make his fortune, as well as his reputation; in reply Beckett had snapped: ‘I’m not interested in stories of success, only failure.’ As he writes in ‘Worstward Ho’ (1983): ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
i Bair, Deirdre, 1990. Samuel Beckett, Vintage.
ii James Knowlson Damned to Fame and Anthony Cronin Samuel Beckett.
iii New York Times, 3.08.97.
iv one of the first film critics to use the term ‘film noir’.
v related by Edna O’Brien in The Guardian Review,11.03.06
vi Bair, ibid
vii Arthur Schopenhauer, 1788-1860. The World as Will and Idea
viii Scruton, Roger, 2004. Modern Philosophy, Pimlico.
ix Unsourced: http://en.wikquote.org/wki/Arthur_Schopenhauer
x Elam, Keir, 1994. ‘Dead heads: damnation-narration in the ‘dramaticules’ in The Cambridge Companion to Beckett, (ed. John Pilling) C.U.P.
xi Luke 23, 31-43 ‘Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.’
xii Kenner, Hugh, 1973. A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett, Thames and Hudson.
xiii Vladimir and Estragon
xiv Guggenheim quotes from Bair, ibid
xv Beckett, Samuel, 1987. Proust and three dialogues, John Calder.
xvi Wood, Rupert, 1994. ‘An endgame of aesthetics: Beckett as essayist’ in The Cambridge Companion to Beckett.
xvii Kenner, ibid
xix Proust and three dialogues, ibid
xx quotes cited in Bair, ibid. These lectures were published as Analytical Psychology, Its Theory and Practice, Routledge.
xxi Bair, ibid
xxii Kenner, ibid
xxiv quotes from Proust and three dialogues, ibid.
xxv Beer, Ann, 1994. ‘Beckett’s Bilingualism’ in The Cambridge Companion to Beckett.
xxvii Bair, ibid
xxix Martin Esslin ‘Is it All Gloom and Doom?’ New York Times 24.09.67.