Understanding Samuel Beckett

In 1923 Anotonin Artaud writes a poem which might act as a cue or marker for the Samuel Beckett canon:

“All communications are cut
in front
behind
all around
and the last ties which still cling to man must be cut
we are without roots”

And the irony: So much nothingness has been written about so much written Nothingness. In his lifetime and continuing with the experimental fiction of today, Samuel Beckett scandalizes the literary conventions, the accepted tropes, the fatigued Fichtean curves, and re-evaluates the terms and conditions of how the novel appears, and how it must change. At age twenty-three, he writes:

“Here is direct expression – pages and pages of it. And if you don’t understand it, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is because you are too decadent to receive it. You are not satisfied unless form is so strictly divorced from content that you can comprehend the one almost without bothering to read the other. This rapid skimming and absorption of the scant cream of sense is made possible by what I may call a continuous process of copious intellectual salivation. The form that is an arbitrary and independent phenomenon can fulfill no higher function than that of stimulus for a tertiary or quartary conditioned reflex of dribbling comprehension.”

Beckett viewed habit and routine as the disease of the times. Perhaps this is why his novel Watt concerns itself for the most part with habit and routine: Committee-men looking at each other, piano tuners tuning a piano, the history and dilemma of leftover food given to a starving dog, Erskine’s key and Erskine’s habits, Mr. Knott’s idle pacing the room from bed to door, from door to fire, from fire to window, ad nauseam. And all the while, Watt remains on the ground floor – the ground floor of all knowledge, interaction, and sensibility. Raymond Federman (a Beckett acolyte who went so far as to dedicate his book Journey to Chaos to Beckett) writes in his essay, “Fiction Today or the Pursuit of Non-Knowledge”:

Literature becomes the explanation of why the writer cannot write, why he constantly confronts the failure of expression and communication, why he can no longer represent the world faithfully and truthfully� The writer knows nothing or comprehends nothing because there is nothing more to know or comprehend, or rather because there is too much to know and comprehend.

On expression, Beckett states that “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.” On language Beckett searches beneath the surface, beneath the heavy-coding of linguistic values. In a 1937 letter, he states a need to relearn language “in order to get at the things (or Nothingness) behind it.” This is perhaps best expressed in Watt, after the piano tuners arrive and perform their duty:

“What distressed Watt in this incident of the Galls father and son, and in subsequent similar incidents, was not so much that he did not know what had happened, for he did not care what had happened, as that nothing had happened that a thing was nothing had happened, with the utmost formal distinctness, and that it continued to happen, in his mind, he supposed, though he did not know exactly what that meantâÂ?¦ “

Beckett wrote for the most part of his career in French. Odd for an Irish writer whose exile from Ireland was entirely self-imposed; yet not so odd for a writer like Beckett, whose canon cherishes and despairs within the confines of intellectual despair, who closes his novel Molloy, with his protagonist claiming an understanding of an incomprehensible interior voice: “But in the end I understood this language. I understood it, I understood it, all wrong perhaps.” Top critic Martin Esslin, who coined the phrase “Theatre of the Absurd” wrote about Beckett’s choice:

“He chose to write his masterpieces in French because he felt that he needed the discipline that the use of an acquired language would impose upon himâÂ?¦ In other words, while in his own language a writer may be tempted to indulge in virtuosity of style for its own sake, the use of another language may force him to divert the ingenuity that might be expended on mere embellishments of style in his own idiom to the utmost clarity and economy of expressionâÂ?¦ Yet the fact that in his own translations the English language perfectly renders his meaning and intention shows that it is not just a surface quality that he prefers in French, but the challenge and discipline it presents to his powers of expression.”

Relearning his native language and combining that with a foreign code and sensibility Beckett is able to, perhaps not accept, but to cultivate a greater potential of what he fights against: “There is no communication because there are no vehicles of communication.” In Claude Mauriac’s essay on Beckett he states:

“That anyone who speaks is carried along by the logic of language and its articulations. Thus the writer who pits himself against the unsayable must use all his cunning so as not to say what the words make him say against his will, but to express instead what by their very nature they are designed to cover up: the uncertain, the contradictory, the unthinkable.”

Beckett is the most bizarre of literary teachers. His body of work consists, for the young creative writing student, rules being broken, conventions shattered, and a seeming self-congratulatory indulgence: In Watt we see “population explosions,” where unnecessary characters with little or no importance arise (the Lynch family, for example); in MaloneDies Beckett gives us essentially what is called “The Bathtub Story,” where his character stays in a solitary confined space without once moving, with the audience coming to terms with this fatal immobility, in this case, the title character remains in bed throughout; in his play Waiting For Godot, Beckett’s most celebrated and commercially successful play, the audience is treated to a program of not very much, two characters commenting on civilization, endlessly waiting, performing routines, and unnecessarily philosophizing, also known as the “Hobos-in-Space Story;” in Watt, we have a character who is essentially a “Weird Harold” character, that is, a character who is obscure and lost, random and inconsequential, fascinating by dint of his grotesque belonging in fictitious representation. (Stern, 233-4)

Yet in each of these broken and guttered rules, we find an ingenious consistency in Beckett’s work – yes, he’s able to pull all of these off, and yes, he is to blame for younger generations’ heavy-handed indulgences; Beckett’s success lies in its core, a cultivated ennui, a fiction which is both concerned only with itself and its form, and fiction that is concerned with the crisis of imagination, the lack of new imagination. In writing his own fiction, Beckett must cut himself away from the world, must cut off ties to the points of reference in the physical and external world, and represent a new set of linguistic and rhetorical values. Experimental writer Ronald Sukenik states in his collection of stories The Death of the Novel and Other Stories:

“The contemporary writer – the writer who is acutely in touch with the life of which he is a part – is forced to start from scratch: reality does not exist, time does not exist, personality does not exist.”

And so it is that we have the Beckett canon that rejects the hostile conventions of knowledge and sensibility and replaces that chasm with the knowledge of non-knowledge. The below is from his novel Malloy:

“For to know nothing is nothing, not to want to know anything likewise, but to be beyond knowing anything, to know you are beyond knowing anything, that is when peace enters into the soul of the incurious seeker.”

And he presents longing in a way wholly different from melodramatic interplay between sentiment and longing. In his commissioned study of Proust, Beckett outlines the course for his own values literature, themes and situations which explicitly arise in Watt:

“If love is a function of man’s sadness, friendship is a function of his cowardice; and if neither can be realized because of the impenetrability of all that is not ‘cosa mentale,’ at least the failure to posses may have the nobility of that which is tragic, whereas the attempt to communicate where no communication is possible is merely a simian vulgarity, or horribly comic, like the madness that holds a conversation with the furniture.”

Beckett’s form demands us, then, to read with the acceptance of failure in mind; if we come to the work with the easy contrivances in expectance, then we fail to understand that in which there is nothing to understand. Martin Esslin explains the difficult majesty in Beckett’s plays, which can translate also into the structure, or non-structure, of his novels:

“If only one could discover some hidden clue, it is felt, these difficult plays could be forced to yield their secret and reveal the plot of the conventional play that is hidden within them. Such attempts are doom to failureâÂ?¦ Instead of linear development, they present their author’s intuition of the human condition by a method that is essentially polyphonic; they confront their audience with an organized structure of statements and images that interpenetrate each other and that must be apprehended in their totality, rather like the different themes in a symphony, which gain meaning by their simultaneous interaction.”

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