Sculpting with Dust
Back, way back, in my early twenties, I was fascinated by the works of Samuel Beckett, the centenary of whose birth fell on April 13, last Thursday. The centenary has had considerable coverage. I read some of that coverage, and even contributed a couple of notes about Beckett to NRO's group blog, The Corner.
Youthful infatuations are, of course, best left buried, undisturbed, and unvisited, for fear of disillusion, embarrassment, and shame. I had not thought about Beckett for years, and would have let the current flurry of Beckett commentary pass without adding anything more to it than those Corner notes, except that on Sunday, I had a Beckett moment. Old memories awoke, a dim flame flickered from embers I had thought long cold, and I was overdue with a column for National Review Online, so I thought I would offer you a brief, personal celebration of Samuel Beckett.
Here is an account of the Beckett moment. It was Sunday, and I was walking my dog. It was not just Sunday, in fact, it was Easter Sunday — a time when Christians, even those like me whose faith (I am sorry to say) has dwindled to near the vanishing point, are called to reflection. Furthermore, it was an exquisitely beautiful day. The sky was clear, the sun was bright, the air warm and fresh. First blossoms had appeared on the trees, and some of their petals were floating down lazily in the sunlight, carpeting the ground here and there with great soft disks of pink and creamy white. There were birds singing everywhere, and no roar and clatter of landscapers' machinery to drown them out. (Long Island's battalions of Aztec landscapers apparently don't work on Sundays, and in a surely pardonable deviation from NR's editorial policy, I was momentarily glad that Americans are no longer willing to operate gardening equipment for themselves.) It was a perfect day. I had done my taxes, my new book had gone to the printers, and I was at peace with the world.
Not for long. As a constitutional pessimist, born under the sign of Saturn, I can't see an apple without thinking about the worm that, I know, lurks inside it. On this occasion it was watching my dog that let the dark thoughts in. Boris is fifteen, a great age even for a small dog. The vet tells us that our beloved mutt is stone deaf and ninety percent blind. He — Boris, not the vet — is still keen on his daily walk, but has slowed down noticeably the past few months, his hindquarters beginning to weaken. Soon, by the inexorable decrees of Nature, there will be no Boris. From thinking of that, I of course got to thinking about my own passing. I'm no spring chicken, either. I tried to summon up Horace's great ode "Eheu, fugaces," and found I could only remember the first stanza. That — not the ode, the not being able to remember it all — depressed me further.
Meanwhile, as these Saturnian thoughts were seeping in, the sun went on shining, the sky went on being cloudless, the blossoms went on blooming, and the birds went on trilling. I was overwhelmed by the glory, complexity, and mystery of creation. Trees! Stones! Grasses! Flowers! Creatures! Air! Light! All on a great ball of rock rolling around a star! Which itself is only the merest speck!
I thought of the immensity of the cosmos — to be exact, I thought of a picture in Astronomy Magazine, a picture I had been looking at just before I came out. The picture is on page 36 of the May issue of Astronomy. It shows a field of remote galaxies with, picked out by a helpful arrow, a minuscule red dot. That dot is a quasar with a redshift of 4.75, which means it is about 75 billion trillion miles away; or, to put it another way, that its light has been making its way to us for ninety percent of the lifetime of the universe. And yet, the whole shebang will wink out into nothingness, instantly, for me at least, just a handful of years from now. There will then be — so far as I am concerned — nothing, nothing, n—o—t—h—i—n—g, for endless eons, just as there was all through the beginningless eons before I lurched into the world.
That was when the Beckett moment arrived. A sentence came into my mind from Beckett's 1965 piece Imagination Dead Imagine, the entirety of which I read into a tape recorder one day back in 1967 for a college production that was, in fact, never produced. I had conscientiously memorized the piece to get the rhythms right, and find I can still "do" the first few and last few lines. Well, the sentence I thought of, walking my dog on Sunday, was the second in the piece, as follows: "Islands, waters, azure, verdure, one glimpse and vanished, endlessly, omit."
That's what we get, one glimpse — a brief flash of light (as someone else, not Beckett, said) between two infinities of darkness. Such, at any rate, was my thought at that moment, that Beckett moment.
Arriving home and checking my bookshelves, I found that my college infatuation had been so thoroughly buried that I didn't own a single work of Beckett's. Going in to NR for an editorial conference the next day, I tried to cadge all four volumes of the Collected Works from NR's literary editor, Mike Potemra, on whose shelf I had noticed them. Mike, however, said he was using them for a column he himself was planning to write. I went off to Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue, where they wanted $96 for the four-volume set, way over my budget. I settled for Richard Seaver's Samuel Beckett Reader at $15.95, took it home, and renewed auld acquaintance. All quotes in what follows are taken from Seaver's book.
Beckett is best known for his play Waiting for Godot, written in French 1948-9, first performed in that language 1953, first performed in English (in London) in 1955. There is a synopsis of the play here. As can be seen from the synopsis, it is a play in which nothing really happens. In fact, Godot being a two-act play, nothing much happens, then it happens all over again. The stage directions for Act Two actually begin: "Next Day. Same time. Same place." (And that name, by the way, is pronounced "guh-DOH" in the U.S.A., but "GOD-oh" elsewhere. Beckett himself favored "GOD-oh." However, he hotly denied that any reference to God was intended, so that perhaps the U.S. pronunciation is really more apt.)
Plays in which nothing much happens are nowadays pretty routine. Harold Pinter wrote a shelf-full of them, and got the Nobel Prize for his efforts. (As, by the way, did Beckett, in 1969.) Even in the 1950s such plays were not a new thing; Eugène Ionesco had already launched his "theater of the absurd," and prototypes can be traced further back, to the Dadaists of the 1920s. Godot would not have been such a success in its time, and would not still be remembered and performed, if it did not stand at least level with both its predecessors and its successors (Pinter's plays, for instance). Very briefly speaking — and this is just my own take on the matter — the predecessors were either too nakedly nihilistic, too solipsistic, or too pointedly anti-bourgeois, while the successors were too content-free, too easily satisfied with creating a mood while offering only faint hints, if any, of what referent, what human situation, might lie behind the mood. Beckett's work stands above what came before in that line, and above what came after, for having adapted form so uniquely well to some actual content.
For Beckett's plays and other works, though nothing much happens in them, are not about nothing — are not content-free — and it is not particularly difficult to grasp their point. Beckett himself explained what he was doing very well, his reputation for secretiveness and obfuscation notwithstanding. (The first mini-biography I ever read of him, in some "Modern Dramatists" series, included the arresting sentence: "Some of his friends think he is married.") Here he is doing so in the New York Times, May 6, 1956:
I'm working with impotence, ignorance … My little exploration is the whole zone of being that has always been set aside by artists as something unusable — as something by definition incompatible with art.
Beckett set himself to make what he could from the dross of life, rather like those sculptors who take their raw materials from junkyards. For his later works, in fact, even that analogy is too strong. It would be more accurate to compare late Beckett with a sculptor who had decided to work with dust bunnies, lint from the spin drier, and fluff out of his navel. His raw material is, as he said, the discards, the negatives of life.
The remarkable thing is that Beckett did make something of his chosen material. He made a picture of life in the round, first by showing us the verbal trickery that we use to convince ourselves there is some point to it all, then by stripping away that trickery in an attempt to give us the bare thing itself, unobscured by language. This being the mid-20th century, Beckett's view of "verbal trickery" was an exceptionally wide one. It included, for example, all religion and pretty much all philosophy. That was the temper of the times. In our kinder, busier, better-furnished, and philosophically more modest age, a little Beckett goes a long way. I was relieved to see that it still goes some way, though.
The trick with any dust-sculpting enterprise is to keep up reader interest. In Godot, Beckett does that by means of word-play, comedic tricks, and dirty talk. Unfortunately comedy is perishable, and not all of Beckett's has lasted well. Playgoers still laugh dutifully at the quips in Godot:
Estragon (with finality): Critic!
He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.
… but their hearts can't really be in it. Similarly with the smut, which looks tame now. The only even halfway still-shocking thing in Godot is a reference to one of the physiological consequences, to the human male, of being hanged — the same consequence George Orwell (who had actually attended hangings) mentioned in a 1946 essay:
Hanging is a barbarous, inefficient way of killing anybody, and at least one fact about it — quite widely known, I believe — is so obscene as to be almost unprintable.
I wonder if that fact is still widely known?
Beckett was born to a Protestant family in Dublin, and thus belonged to that legion of Protestant-Irish writers — Shaw, Yeats, Wilde, C.S. Lewis — who gave so much to modern English literature. He first went to Paris at the age of 22, and struck up a friendship with James Joyce. He struck up even more of a friendship with the City of Light, and settled there for good in 1939 after some wandering between London, Dublin, and various German cities. He actually, with characteristic perversity, hurried to Paris on hearing that war had been declared, saying that he preferred Paris in war to Dublin in peace. He had a very creditable war, joining a resistance cell of eighty, only twenty of whom survived the war. At one point he fled to the unoccupied zone of France with the Gestapo at his heels.
From 1945 he wrote mostly in French. The reason he gave for this was: "In French it's easier to write without style." Beckett seems to have regarded language as a sort of temptress, the joy of its sounds and figures for ever tugging one astray from the writer's main task, which is, to describe the truth as he sees it.
Critics and Beckett-ologists have made much of this, and there are reasons to doubt that Beckett was being completely honest with us, or with himself. The 1961 story How It Is, for example, was originally written in French, with the title Comment C'est. This is a pun on commencer, "to begin." In English, the pun is lost. So … what happened to escaping the temptations of language? If Beckett had written the piece in English in the first place, he would not have been tempted to that pun.
I suspect that Beckett wrote in French partly for the pleasure of using a language he had taken the trouble thoroughly to master, partly because, since he had settled in Paris, French offered him more direct opportunities to be published and staged. That is no more than a guess, but I think it is at least as plausible as Beckett's own explanation.
In his later works, those written after 1960, Beckett, perhaps realizing that the vaudevillean trappings of Godot would not support the weight of his theme, stripped down his work to a minimalist scale in pieces like the 1965 piece Imagination Dead Imagine, which occupies just three and a half pages and contains no active human beings at all, unless you count the narrator … which, come to think of it, you most definitely should.
What happens in this, er, story? Well, the narrator omits, or has omitted for him, all those "islands, waters, azure, verdure," all the familiar backdrop of existence, and finds he is left with only a great whiteness to contemplate. In the whiteness is a small rotunda, with two humans, a man and a woman, inside it. They are lying on their sides, curled up in fetal positions, "back to back head to arse." They hardly move, though they are not sleeping. It is very warm. Then light and heat diminish, down to black darkness and freezing point. Then back up to whiteness and warmth, and so on up and down. All this is described in infinite detail. The narrator departs and returns, to find that the movements of heat and light have lost their regularity. At last he becomes impatient with watching:
Leave them there, sweating and icy, there is better elsewhere. No, life ends, and no, there is nothing elsewhere, and no question now of ever finding again that white speck lost in whiteness, to see if they still lie still in the stress of that storm, or of a worse storm, or in the black dark for good, or the great whiteness unchanging, and if not what they are doing.
Bleak stuff. It has a peculiar power, though — enough, at any rate, to have stayed lodged in my mind, without there having been any effort on my part to retain it, for forty years.
In between the vaudeville frolics of Godot and the minimalism of Imagination Dead Imagine stand the plays Krapp's Last Tape (1958) and Happy Days (1960). I like these best of all Beckett's work. This is the point of balance, midway in his flight from the temptations of language, character, and humor to the arid brevity of pulsing lights and barely twitching figures.
The Krapp of Krapp's Last Tape is the only character in the one-act play. He is a shabby man of sixty-nine. It has apparently been his habit to make a tape recording every birthday. In the play he listens to a tape he made thirty years before, when he was thirty-nine. The taped voice of Krapp-39 mentions that he has been listening to a tape from ten or twelve years earlier, say Krapp-28. Krapp-39 mocks Krapp-28, and Krapp-69, listening, joins in the mockery. Then Krapp-69 mocks Krapp-39 … yet keeps rewinding to an encounter Krapp-39 describes, a moment of tender contact, not explicitly sexual, with a woman.
Though short, spare, and still a tad vaudevillean — it even has a banana-skin joke — Krapp's Last Tape is quite moving, skillfully collapsing a human life down to some half-remembered fumblings, forgotten insights (probably false), and digestive complaints. You come away thinking: Yep, that's it, that's what it all boils down to. And if you're unlucky, the mood will stay with you for a day or more.
Happy Days is more elaborate, and, by Beckettian standards, more upbeat. There's a synopsis here (and Happy Days is not in Richard Seaver's compendium). Winnie, the heroine, babbles on cheerfully for an hour and a half, in spite of being slowly engulfed by sand. Her husband, Willie, is mostly non-committal. (Though not as non-committal as I mis-remembered in one of my Corner posts. Well, it's been a long time.) Like the bums in Godot, Winnie flirts with suicide, but not very seriously. Why not? Well, because human beings aren't, mostly, made like that. We cook up reasons for going on — the anticipated appearance of Godot, in the bums' case, or Willie's barely-discernible affection in Winnie's. If we can't think of any reasons, we slog ahead anyway, from sheer habit. "I can't go on. I'll go on." That's How It Is, Comment C'est.
In the first place, plainly Beckett was not consciously a charlatan. He toiled away, plowing his narrow furrow, until he was well into his forties, living in poverty, with very little to show for all his efforts. That doesn't guarantee quality output, of course. You could say the same of Tiny Tim, or any number of other artists who lived, and frequently died, in well-merited obscurity. It does indicate sincerity, though.
And then there is the clarity and consistency of Beckett's vision. His account of the world is not a very comforting one, and you may think it's not a true one, but it's clearly stated and thought through, it hangs together, and Beckett pulls no punches. You were surely born; you will surely die; in between, not much of consequence will happen, and you'll forget most of it by the end, anyway. "And no, there is nothing elsewhere." Our nature as creatures, however, is to keep buggering on. With any luck you'll make it through, and you may get a few laughs, and transient moments of tenderness, along the way, though likely you'll forget them too, eventually. People who think they can make sense of it all are kidding themselves; but good luck to them anyway, and to you.
Well, it's not the height of life-embracing affirmation. It's not quite nihilism, either, though, and it might very well be true. All of us, I think, have moments, at least, lying awake on a gray early morning perhaps, when we suspect it is true. When those moments arrive, here is Samuel Beckett to describe the scenery.
1. When I wrote this, I had not yet read Peter Ackroyd's 2002 book Albion, on page 59 of which occurs the following:
There is a word in Old English which belongs wholly to that civilisation — "dustsceawung," meaning contemplation of dust. It is a true image of the Anglo-Saxon mind, or at least an echo of that consciousness which considered transience and loss to be part of the human estate; it was a world in which life was uncertain and the principal deity was fate or destiny or "wyrd."
2. Well enough, I am told, to have been mentioned in an episode of South Park.
3. Worse yet, I seem to know a dismaying number of people who think that the theater, the main arena of Beckett's success, is all hokum. Who actually goes to the theater any more? Not counting school and college productions featuring friends or their children, I haven't been to a non-musical stage play myself for several years. Is staged drama really, still, a part of our living culture? Well, Mark Steyn goes to the theater, I know. He gets paid for it, though. Who else?