THE LIFE AND CULTURAL AFTER-LIFE OF SAMUEL BECKETT A CENTURY AFTER HIS BIRTH
By Miles Beller
In the spaces between things, in the gaps and in the silences, in the remaindered moments that nobody remembers, steals Samuel Beckett.
His is the ill-literature of the gloriously banal transformed into the eternally transcendent. His is the country of cliché as epiphany, of the simple-minded utterance piercing the long funnel of night. Before Samuel Beckett stripped down modernism to its shanks and sinew, actors gestured and emoted and made speeches about love and philosophy, intention and explanation; words, words, words, and then more words, words, words. Before Samuel Beckett -- a long-faced Irish expatriate with hair like flames who arrived a century ago and died in his early 80s late in the 1980s -- there was a theater of purpose and of rectitude, an art of cause and effect, of reason and of rationalism. And this, for Beckett, was the problem.
Well…yes…prior to Samuel Beckett there were others only too happy to upturn the art-as-usual cart. In fact, there was no shortage of saboteurs bent on overthrowing what was long established on stage and on the page, as well as wedged in frames and hauled up onto pedestals.
Frenchman Alfred Jarry messed with bourgeois standards of culture and class through his series of mad, inspired harangues; his Ubu plays of the late 1800s and into the new century. Here were screeds against propriety and sobriety and the way things were to be done, n’est pas. And…yes…before Beckett there was Marcel Duchamp and the delusional Dada gang that had sprung up in Zurich in 1916, with its subversive manifestos and guerrilla harangues proclaiming the death of logic and the futility of purpose. “Like everything in life, Dada is useless. Dada is without pretension, as life should be,” declared the movement’s edict, concluding, “Dada is a virgin microbe that penetrates with the insistence of air into all the spaces that reason has not been able to fill with words or conventions.”
And, too, there were Duchamp’s “readymades”-- prosaic, mass-produced utilitarian stuff presented as bonafide art works. A snow shovel and a comb were displayed with the gravitas befitting the Venus de Milo or the Mona Lisa. (In fact, da Vinci’s venerated Mona was fair game for Duchamp’s sport; the artist sketching a mustache and a wispy goatee on a cheap reproduction of the famous gal and scrawling beneath “L.H.O.O.Q,” letters that when uttered in French sounded out a pun on the phrase "Elle a chaud au cul," which translates idiomatically as "She is hot in the ass.")
But most notorious was Duchamp’s Fountain. Here was a commercial white glazed ceramic plumbing fixture manufactured by a New York company that Duchamp signed “R. Mutt” and submitted in 1917 to a non-juried art show. However, ruling officials deemed it unfit for exhibit, denying it a spot in the event.
Four years earlier, Duchamp’s painting of a Nude Descending a Staircase had scandalized America while on view in the landmark New York “Armory Show” of 1913. Nude turned more than a few heads while striding into history with its mechanized deconstruction of the classic female figure into a disjointed assemblage of unwieldy robot-like parts. Here was a defiler of Renaissance feminine grace and contemporary taste, a picture shattering symmetry in the cause of chaos. Consequently, Nude was mocked as “an explosion in a shingle factory” and dissed by The New York Times. Although The Times found the Armory Show “Wagnerian in scope,” it was “Rienzi, not Parsifal,” with more than a few of the works evoking “..the sudden backward jump toward savage art …”
Surely Duchamp upped the ante with The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), a piece constructed from 1915 to 1923 and characterized by onlooker as “a diagram of an ironic love-making machine…” So it seemed “The Golden Mean” had forever been tarnished and corrupted and turned crudely mean.
Indeed, there have always been art anarchists and anti-satus-quoers; flingers of epigrammatic vitriol who have roiled the established order and rallied and railed to derail convention and received wisdom. Surely more than a few of your own favorite card-carrying contrarians and disputatious avant-garde experimentalists have floated into consciousness while reading this. Perhaps you thought of Antonin Artaud, who acted on his dictum of “…putting an end to the subjugation of the theatre to the text…to recover the notion of a kind of unique language half-way between gesture and thought.” Or maybe you were considering Luigi Pirandello, who spun theater’s enacted “realty” head over heels with such devious inventions as Six Characters In Search of An Author; casting form as function to render something revelatory and revolutionary. Consequently what’s so special about Sam Beckett?
Well, Beckett, deploying an undertow of humorous pathos and vaudevillian trumpery – think of Chaplin penguin walking backwards into bathos and pity but periodically slowing to lyrically embrace the commonplace and mundane – made the pedestrian and the downright trite into something quixotic and moving. He made the ephemeral and the discarded into something lasting and beautiful, and not despite but because of their banality. And, too, there is a humanity undergirding Beckett’s texts, an unspoken but tacit affection for those ridiculous creatures called men and women pratfalling through their lives while shambling to eternity’s rude bed.
Ironically, now decades after the initial outburst of derision and disgust greeting Beckett’s misbegotten riffraff and counted-out has-beens, his existential vagrants and Everyman extras are honored as the very personification of modernity. In fact, his purposefully incidental characters have become the incarnation of the "post-modern" era and beyond. The jaundiced wanders and refractory wonderers roaming Beckett’s landscape now emit an iconic discharge synonymous with our age and its malaise. Just as Edvard Munch delivered that furtive figure on a wavering bridge between the old and the new, just as Herman Melville captured a chilling isolation through a walled-off office worker named Bartleby in a story bearing the same name, so has Beckett given form and shape to how we live.
But enough commentary, enough, er, crit chat. What of the dirty little details, the stats and aspects constituting the life? For the record, the central "facts" of Samuel Beckett’s “b & d.” are 1906 –1989, with him arriving on Good Friday of April 13, 1906. Beyond this, he was the son of a well-off Protestant family in Dublin. His father was a surveyor, his mother a nurse before marrying. Beckett received a B.A from Dublin’s Trinity College in 1927, concentrating in French and Italian, and worked as a teacher in Belfast and a lecturer in English in Paris. He also became a pal of James Joyce, taking dictation as well as copying passages of a work that was to evolve into Finnegans Wake. (Is there not something exquisite about the big cheese of high modernism relying on the future poobah of literary minimalism to get his words right?)
When Beckett’s father died he received some money, allowing him to relocate to London where he underwent psychoanalysis. And, in fact, during this time, Fall 1935, Beckett attended a lecture by Carl Jung that profoundly altered his thinking and his writing. For during this talk, Jung spoke of a patient, a young girl, who Jung came to realize "…had never really been born." This notion caught Beckett, seized him, really, and was to reside within him for many years. In a radio play Beckett wrote two decades later, a woman ardently recalls seeing Jung. "…It was just something he said, and the way he said it, that have haunted me ever since…" She goes on to recount precisely what Jung said and how he said it. "Then he (Jung) suddenly raised his head and exclaimed, as if he had had a revelation. The trouble with her was she had never really been born!"
As Colin Tóibín recently pointed out in The New York Review of Books about the passage above, Beckett, at the time, was actively exploring the distinctions between being and thinking and, consequently, had been reading a great deal centered on this issue. Moreover, as Tóibín further notes, Beckett "could make characters in his fiction mirror his own plight, characters who had not fully been born, who had come forlorn into the world, whose predicament was an essential alienation, which could be not be cured and was almost comic."
And, in point of fact, this would form the nucleus around which Beckett’s idiosyncratic (and often cagily idiotic) sojourners would orbit. As for Beckett’s own personal history, it continued following a path seemingly snatched from one of his own scripts. For 1938 found him hospitalized for a stab wound inflicted by a pimp that Beckett refused to pay. During this period, too, Beckett met Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, a piano student he would eventually marry. It was Dechevaux-Dumesnil, who in 1969, when told Beckett had snared the Nobel Prize, labeled it "a catastrophe." For his part, Beckett skipped the Nobel ceremony, instead sending his publisher and friend, Jérôme Lindon, to pick up the prize.
During the early 1950s Beckett’s central fiction works were published. Originally written in French, they are Molloy, Malone , Meurt, and L'Innommable. These also include Watt, the last novel he wrote in English and a book featuring a central character able to shape shift. Concerning his language shift, Beckett thought it was easier creating "without style" in French than English, this in line with his effort to fashion "a literature of the unword."
Undoubtedly, Beckett’s best known and most celebrated piece is En Attendant Godot, in English Waiting for Godot, a play focused on two lost souls, Vladimir and Estragon, who loiter close by a spindly tree on a forsaken roadway while anticipating the coming of the elusive Godot. Composed in 1949 in French and published in English five years later, this work is largely taken from conversations between Beckett and his wife, so Beckett informed a reporter during one interview. The “plot” posits two hapless travelers who go nowhere while making time pass by cracking jokes, snacking on bits of food, and swapping notions about the never-arriving Godot. Occasionally another character or two strays on stage, breaking the pervasive ennui. These principally are the overbearing Pozzo and his put-upon servant, Lucky. And through it all, Vladimir and Estragon babble on; their mutterings a mishmash of tenderness, stupidity, anger, and hope. And yet out of their cliches and kvetching, their trivialities and banalities, arises a sort of profound and stirring poetry. “We are all born mad,” Estragon tells Vladmir, adding, “Some remain so.” In another exchange, Estragon speaks of “All the dead voices,” to which Vladimir offers, “They make a noise like wings.”
What the critics have offered concerning Godot in particular and Beckett’s oeuvre in general is best voiced by veteran reviewer Brooks Atkinson, who from the very first sentence of his appraisal warned “Don't expect this column to explain Samuel Beckett's ‘Waiting for Godot’… It is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” Although Akinson could not adequately clarify what he had seen, he did know Beckett had rendered something powerful and enduring. “He (Beckett) has strong feelings about the degradation of mankind, and he has given vent to them copiously. ‘Waiting for Godot’ is all feeling. Perhaps that is why it is puzzling and convincing at the same time…” However, such sentiment misses the point. Rather than running on “all feeling,” Beckett comes by his power through precise crafting and shrewd playing. He stringently controls matters by keeping them clipped and concise, extracting all excess till the thing is wrung dry.
With advancing age, Beckett thought he was nearing a truer state from which he could more exactingly say what he wanted. At 76 he remarked "With diminished concentration, loss of memory, obscured intelligence... the more chance there is for saying something closest to what one really is. Even though everything seems inexpressible, there remains the need to express. A child needs to make a sand castle even though it makes no sense. In old age, with only a few grains of sand, one has the greatest possibility."
Though these grains ran out for Beckett in 1989, he continues exerting a gravitational pull on our sensibilities and consciousness. Quite so, while gone nearly two decades, he not only more firmly appears to define and delineate the way we see things but seems to dictate the very direction our nugatory obsessions go. In addition to his enduring influence on theater and writing, Beckett’s sparse yet evocative modernism commands a sure grip on our psyches; how we meet and hold the world in our heads. While James Joyce rendered literature as encyclopedic everything, worlds within worlds in a cosmos of words; Beckett advances absence as essence, skeletal phrases of idiotic incidentals and slapdash trifles serving as knockabout sacraments to history’s errant, unending march.
Miles Beller is an editorial board member of Psychological Perspectives.