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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Godot, table for one

OK, here it is, the post some of you thought would never arrive.  Sorry about the delay!  I’ve been thinking about this for over a week now, but didn’t start writing it down ‘til this afternoon.  And it took me all afternoon, so there.

On July 6, my second day in Dublin (after seeing the Yeats exhibit in the National Library), Janet said, “I’ll take Jamie to the café for breakfast, and you can go check out the Book of Kells exhibit at Trinity College.” Janet advised me that I should arrive promptly at 9:30 when the doors open, because the Book of Kells is quite popular among students, tour groups, graphic designers, and the International Ninth-Century Illustrated Manuscript Society.  And I had my own reasons to check out the Book of Kells, not least of which was the fact that when I was a senior at Regis High School in 1977-78, I helped to paint an enormous version of the front page of the Gospel of John for the gymnasium of St. Ignatius Loyola across the street.  You know, Jesuits think that this kind of thing intimidates visiting basketball teams, and they’re usually right.


The Book of Kells just happened to be on exhibit right down the street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that year, but the crowds were so intense that I barely caught a glimpse of the manuscript itself.  So I was especially grateful to get a second chance, nearly thirty years later.

But lo!  When I arrived at Trinity College, the doors were closed and would remain closed (so we were told) until 11.  Janet and Jamie were planning to meet me at 11 to go to the Dublin Zoo, and of course in this foreign land we had no cell phone contact with each other, so I was stuck with 90 minutes to kill on a chilly Dublin morning.  Fortunately, I was in Dublin!  Did I mention that yet?  And that meant that I was surrounded by all manner of cool things to see, in all manner of media.  So I simply walked a few blocks to the National Gallery, where, as Janet had informed me, there was an exhibit titled “Samuel Beckett: A Passion for Paintings.”

The exhibit itself was like a dream of fair to middling women, consisting mostly of paintings that had drawn Beckett’s sustained attention for one reason or another (he spent entire days in the National Gallery in his youth) and, a bit later on, art inspired by or related to his own work.  I wanted especially to see the Bram van Velde paintings that inspired Beckett’s short essay, “Three Dialogues” (the interlocutor in these dialogues is Georges Duthuit).  That’s the piece to which legions of Beckett critics turn when they’re looking for Statements About Art That Are Really Commentaries On Beckett’s Own Work, such as this bit on Tal Coat:

B. – The only thing disturbed by the revolutionaries Matisse and Tal Coat is a certain order on the plane of the feasible.

D. – What other plane can there be for the maker?

B. – Logically none.  Yet I speak of an art turning from it in disgust, weary of its puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.

D. – And preferring what?

B. – The expression 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.

D. – But that is a violently extreme and personal point of view, of no help to us in the matter of Tal Coat.

B. –

D. – Perhaps that is enough for today.

You just gotta love B.’s final contribution to that conversation.  Which, together with the “nothing to express” bit, pretty much encapsulates Godot, Endgame, The Unnamable, How It Is (Comment C’est), The Lost Ones, All That Fall, and maybe even Krapp’s Last Tape as well, together with everything else in the postwar Beckett canon, except for the really funny parts.

The dialogue on van Velde includes these nuggets:

B. – Others have felt that art is not necessarily expression.  But the numerous attempts made to make painting independent of its occasion have only succeeded in enlarging its repertory.  I suggest that van Velde is the first whose painting is bereft, rid if you prefer, of occasion in every shape and form, ideal as well as material, and the first whose hands have not been tied by the certitude that expression is an impossible act.

D. – But might it not be suggested, even by one tolerant of this fantastic theory, that the occasion of this painting is his predicament, and that it is expressive of the impossibility to express?

B. – No more ingenious method could be devised for restoring him, safe and sound, to the bosom of Saint Luke.

The terms of this little exchange will be recapitulated, in different form, in Theodor Adorno’s famous essay “Trying to Understand Endgame,” which argues (if I so may reduce it for the purposes of reconciling the aliment to its manner of dispatch) that it is a mistake to make a “meaning” out of the meaninglessness of Endgame, because “understanding it can mean nothing other than understanding its incomprehensibility, or concretely reconstructing its meaning structure—that it has none.” Adorno’s complaint about existentialism (which underwrites his reading of Beckett, whom he sees as a fellow traveler in this regard) is that it actually rehabilitates meaninglessness, in a sophomoric “alors!  ze meaning is zat zere is no meaning!” kind of way.  And it is hard for criticism of art and literature to take this argument on board properly, you know, precisely because so much of it is invested in the hermeneutic enterprise of deciphering meaning(s), intended and otherwise.

Back to Sam, talking to Georges:

The history of painting, here we go again, is the history of its attempts to escape from this sense of failure, by means of more authentic, more ample, less exclusive relations between representer and representee. . . .  My case, since I am in the dock, is that van Velde is the first to desist from this kind of estheticized automatism, the first to admit that to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living.

The claim that van Velde is the first to abandon the “occasion” of painting (the object, the aliment, the donneé) is silly, because you could speak about almost any abstract artist in this way.  But you see, no doubt, how handy these remarks are as glosses on Beckett himself.  And if you want to read more, you can pick up a copy of Disjecta, which also includes Beckett’s very early essay on Joyce, “Dante . . . Bruno . Vico . . Joyce” (actually, ridiculously early—the precocious lad was all of 23) as well as excerpts from “Dream of Fair to Middling Women.”

Anyway, I tooled around the exhibit in a state of mild pleasure for about half an hour, and stopped to hear the audio accompaniment to Jack Yeats’s 1942 painting, “Two Travellers,” which looks like this . . .


. . . and which the exhibition cannily links to the opening pages of Molloy, which contain a description of two travelers meeting (and the fine line, “they looked alike, but no more than others do”).  And that reminded me, in turn, that I’d been meaning to reread Murphy for many years, and why not stop and pick up a copy on my way back to meet Janet and Jamie at Trinity College?  It turned out that there is a little bookstore called “Books Upstairs” right across the street from Trinity, and they were happy to sell me a copy of Murphy and a copy of Beckett’s early collection of short stories, More Pricks than Kicks.


Now for a detour into graduate school.  I first read Murphy in 1983, in a Modern Novels class taught by Daniel Albright.  I met Janet in that class, as it happened.  I thought she was cool.

However, we quickly learned that we had strikingly different tastes in literature.  We agreed on the brilliance of Yeats, of course.  But I tended toward the Beckett-Borges end of the late-modern early-postmodern spectrum, with its endless halls of mimesis mirrors and its twisted sense of humor, and she preferred literature that, oh, I don’t know, involved actual “people” doing actual “things.” If I had a lamentable weakness for pointless metafictional play, she had a lamentable weakness for Lawrence’s Women in Love, which, in the immortal words of Andy Bienen, our good grad-school friend and eventual co-writer of Boys Don’t Cry, “reads like someone put a pistol to Nietzsche’s head and forced him to write a Harlequin romance.” (The other problem with Lawrence, especially in that book, is that he just doesn’t trust you to read him: here, dammit! he says, this is what I mean!  why won’t you listen to me Birkin?  He is a genius, I tell you! And then Gudrun dances in front of a bunch of cows.) Janet suggested, at the time, that at the heart of the Beckett-Lawrence Impasse was a larger distinction between “dry” writing and “wet.” To date, this critical distinction has not drawn nearly the attention it deserves.  And as our lives gradually intertwined, she gave up some of her enthusiasm for the excessively wet, and I gave up some of my enthusiasm for the excessively dry, and we were married.  Now she teaches (among other things) women and the avant-garde, decadence, manifestoes, and things with twisted senses of humor, and she handles Women in Love with the appropriate protective outergear.  And I teach American literature, though I have to say these recent posts are reminding me that I used to do other things too.

I remained a Beckett partisan all through Albright’s Auden-Beckett Seminar of 1984, partly because no one else wanted the job and partly because Beckett is really very, very funny.  I don’t know why everyone forgets this, in the midst of all his expressions 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.  In Molloy, for example, you can find

the pretty quietist Pater, Our Father who art no more in heaven than on earth or in hell, I neither want nor desire that thy name be hallowed, thou knowest best what suits thee, etc.  The middle and the end are very pretty.

-- which is a good deal funnier (in my humble opinion) than that other writer’s much more famous “nada” routine.  And although Adorno wouldn’t say so, parts of Endgame are downright knee-slappin’ and rib-ticklin’:

HAMM: Nature has forgotten us.

CLOV: There’s no more nature.

HAMM: No more nature!  You exaggerate.

CLOV: In the vicinity.

HAMM: But we breathe, we change!  We lose our hair, our teeth!  Our bloom!  Our ideals!

CLOV: Then she hasn’t forgotten us.

HAMM: But you say there is none.

CLOV: (sadly): No one that ever lived ever thought so crooked as we.

HAMM: We do what we can.

CLOV: We shouldn’t.


HAMM : You’re a bit of all right, aren’t you?

And then there’s Clov with the telescope:

CLOV: Things are livening up.

(He gets up on ladder, raises the telescope, lets it fall.)

I did it on purpose.

(He gets down, picks up the telescope, turns it on auditorium.)

I see . . . a multitude . . . in transports . . . of joy.


That’s what I call a magnifier.

The last line would not be harmed by being delivered in a Groucho Marx voice.

And Murphy is widely acknowledged to be one of the funniest things in the Beckett oeuvre.  So funny, in fact, that when Janet and I shared a pint in that Sandycove pub the next day (you remember, when Jamie snapped this picture), we took turns opening the book to random pages, reading aloud, and making each other laugh, much to Jamie’s delight.  For who could resist lines like

Murphy had lately studied under a man in Cork called Neary.  This man, at that time, could stop his heart more or less whenever he liked and keep it stopped, within reasonable limits, for as long as he liked.  This rare faculty, acquired after years of application somewhere north of the Nerbudda, he exercised frugally, reserving it for situations irksome beyond endurance, as when he wanted a drink and could not get one, or fell among Gaels and could not escape, or felt the pangs of hopeless sexual inclination.

Or this?

How different it had been on the riverside, when the barges had waved, the funnel bowed, the tug and barge sang, yes to her.  Or had they meant no?  The distinction was so nice.

Or this?

For an Irish girl Miss Counihan was quite exceptionally anthropoid.

Or this?

Some days later he was taken up for begging without singing and given ten days.

There’s even a deft little one-sentence parody of Lawrence (perhaps even Birkin himself!), when Murphy cries, “My God, how I hate the charVenus and her sausage and mash sex.” And the exchanges between Wylie and Neary are priceless, particularly this one:

“Do not quibble,” said Neary harshly.  “You saved my life.  Now palliate it.”

“I greatly fear,” said Wylie, “that the syndrome known as life is too diffuse to admit of palliation.  For every symptom that is eased, another is made worse.  The horse leech’s daughter is a closed system.  Her quantum of wantum cannot vary.”

Finally, for those of you who have not read the novel (and my household now has four copies—perhaps we’ll give one away to the five millionth visitor to this site), don’t miss the thrilling game of chess between Murphy and Mr. Endon.  It is a classic all by itself.

But before I finished Murphy, late the next week somewhere in the south of France, a shocking thing had happened (that’s the final sentence of chapter five, for those of you keeping score at home): I had turned against it.  I was no longer convinced that any of us should care what happens to Murphy (and he does meet an early and inexplicable end, and his remains are treated in a most unfortunate manner), and I began to want to read literature that, oh, I don’t know, involves actual “people” doing actual “things.” At one point Beckett writes,

All the puppets in this book whinge sooner or later, except Murphy, who is not a puppet.

And I thought, yes, very well, but you know, André Gide managed to pull off this kind of puppetry in Lafcadio’s Adventures (Les Caves du Vatican) and The Counterfeiters (Les Faux-Monnayeurs), and still write novels of considerable emotional power.  (The image of men stationed at the ends of lifeboats to cut off the hands of people who, in trying to save themselves, would capsize the boat. . . .) Beckett, by contrast, is just gaming.  Some of it is good fun, as when he relays various characters’ tales—“Celia’s account, expurgated, accelerated, improved and reduced, of how she came to have to speak of Murphy, gives the following”—and has other characters comment unkindly on the results: “‘But I beseech you,’ said Mr. Kelly, ‘be less beastly circumstantial.  The junction for example of Edith Grove, Cremorne Road and Stadium Street, is indifferent to me.  Get up to your man.’” But some of it is a bit tedious, like “the above passage is carefully calculated to deprave the cultivated reader,” and some of it, like “MMM stood suddenly for music, MUSIC, MUSIC, in brilliant, brevier, and canon, or some such typographical scream, if the gentle compositor would be so friendly,” stands as, well, part of the nothing new on which Murphy’s sun perpetually shines.

I began to think I was getting old and tired.  Nearly 45 now, and have I wearied of the verbal play that delighted me in my youth, so much so that I want only good stories about recognizable people?  I thought of the Säure Bummer - Gustav Schlabone debate over the relative merits of Rossini and Beethoven in Gravity’s Rainbow, in which Gustav mocks Rossini fans:

“Why doesn’t anybody go to concerts anymore?  You think it’s because of the war?  Oh no, I’ll tell you why, old man—because the halls are full of people like you! Stuffed full!  Half asleep, nodding and smiling, farting through their dentures, hawking and spitting into paper bags, dreaming up ever more ingenious plots against their children—not just their own, but other people’s children too!  just sitting around, at the concert with all these other snow-topped old rascals, just a nice background murmur of wheezing, belching, intestinal gurgles, scratching, sucking, croaking, an entire opera house crammed full of them right up to standing room, they’re doddering in the aisles, hanging off the tops of the highest balconies, and you know what they’re all listening to, Säure?  eh?  They’re all listening to Rossini!  Sitting there drooling away to some medley of predictable little tunes, leaning forward elbows on knees muttering, ‘C’mon, c’mon then Rossini, let’s get all this pretentious fanfare stuff out of the way, let’s get on to the real good tunes!’”

Now, I didn’t turn completely against Murphy, mind you.  (And for the record, Säure Bummer does have a few rejoinders, chief among which is, “a person feels good listening to Rossini.  All you feel like listening to Beethoven is going out and invading Poland.  Ode to Joy indeed.  The man didn’t even have a sense of humor, I tell you.”) I will continue to sing its praises in a qualified fashion, as I have here.  I know its place in literary history, and I know that Beckett was deliberately taking aim (wicked aim, at that) at the already-calcified tradition of Enormous Modernist Characters, both of the Stephen and Bloom variety (whose inner lives are so finely wrought and complex that the narration of a single day takes hundreds of pages) and of the Kurtz and Gatsby variety (whose mysterious elusiveness renders them renderable only by eloquent yet compromised participant-observers who somehow manage to survive to bring us the tale).  Those puppets (Neary, Wylie, Celia, Miss Counihan) may be puppets, but they’re puppets for a reason, and they’re treated quite differently than is Murphy, about whom Beckett claimed to have written with a “mixture of compassion, patience, mockery and ‘tat twam asi’ . . . with the sympathy going so far and no further (then losing patience) as in the short statement of his mind’s fantasy on itself” (this from a 1936 letter to Thomas McGreevy, also reproduced in Disjecta).  What’s more, a little playful narrative self-consciousness isn’t a bad thing at all, at all.  Nor is that distinctly Irish madness in the literature-of-ideas vein that also gives us the likes of Flann O’Brien.  So don’t get me wrong.  I may be middle-aged, and I may be increasingly impatient with certain kinds of narrative noodling, but I’m not going over to the Other Side just yet.  They’ll have to put a pistol to my head before I reread Women in Love.

But the point remains that Beckett was a fair to middling novelist . . . and a simply amazing, groundbreaking playwright.  For all kinds of reasons, the theater proved more congenial than did the novel to his curious mixture of whimsy and rigor, his facility with bringing some of the drier strains of Western philosophy together with the work of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.  And as I say in an aside in What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, I think his influence on French poststructuralism—on Derrida, Lyotard, and Baudrillard especially—has been underestimated.  I suggested this kind of obliquely about ten years ago, when I remarked that the debt of Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins to Lyotard (which is profound) could be rendered by way of Beckett, like so:

HAMM:  What is the relation of the subject to the nation-state?

CLOV:  There’s no more nation-state.

HAMM:  No more nation-state!  You exaggerate.

CLOV:  And no subject, either.

HAMM:  So what is there to keep us here?

CLOV:  The dialogue.

People who have better reading knowledge of French than I (for Beckett wrote his late works in French, then translated them back into English) might disagree with this little intuition of mine.  But I toss it out anyway, for what it’s worth.  Whereas with regard to Beckett’s influence on Harold Pinter and thousands of other living playwrights, there is nothing more that can be said.

Nothing more!  I exaggerate.  We can’t go on, we’ll go on.

Posted by Michael on 07/25 at 04:39 PM
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