By “dying words,” Christopher Ricks does not mean to discuss, literally, Samuel Beckett’s deathbed utterances. If Beckett had indeed articulated some final words, Ricks has nothing to report to his readers—nor to his audience during the 1990 Clarendon Lectures, from which this volume derives. To be sure, Ricks had been acquainted—but only casually—with Beckett. He met the playwright twice, briefly; and the two exchanged a terse correspondence, mostly on technical linguistic topics. After Beckett’s death in December of 1989, a London newspaper requested Ricks to write an obituary, but he declined. Several years earlier, he had written a tribute to Beckett for the Sunday Times (London). Yet in a sense, Beckett’s Dying Words is a definitive obituary for the man, just as it is a supreme tribute. Ricks focuses upon the essential theme of Beckett’s lifetime work as an artist: the quest for dying.
From Beckett’s earliest publication, an essay treating James Joyce, Our Examination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (1929), to his last posthumously published work,Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1992), the dour Irishman penned his “dying words”; all his inquiries into death, from Whoroscope (1930) to Nohow On (1989), center around words that come to terms with dying—with puns, tricks of language, play of ideas, private and public ironies. Fully to appreciate Beckett as a person and as an artist, the reader must observe, without flinching and without distaste, the writer obsessed with death. Ricks’s special contribution to our understanding of Beckett is his steady, empathetic observation of the writer’s death-words. In a true sense of the word, Beckett is consumed with morbidity, that is the matter of dying, and with language that expresses a condition of dying.
Ricks divides his study, as presumably he had organized his lectures, into four main parts, which are chapters of the book. The chapter subtitles describe the content of each part: “Death,” “Words That Went Dead,” “Languages, Both Dead and Living,” and “The Irish Bull.” A brief “Postscript” dated December, 1989, concludes the volume with commemorative pages.
Once the reader manages a passage through the turbulence of chapter 1, the rest of the book is smooth sailing. In that first part Ricks argues that the death instinct in literature is quite as powerful as that of vitality. Moreover, he insists that the “wish to die” is every bit as keen as the urge to endure. Although Beckett is at the center of this investigation, he is by no means the only advocate. Ricks cites, among others, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, A. E. Housman, Sebastien Chamfort, and Thomas Hardy. A unifying argument of these sometime advocates of death-over-life is expressed without equivocation by the chorus in Sophocles’Oedipus at Colonus:
that it is better to be dead than alive; that the greatest good is never to have been born. Whereas the notables mentioned above—and other writers as well—have been quoted on occasion to approve Sophocles’ sentiments, Beckett of all writers is most persistent in his philosophical assent. Just as The Oxford Book of Death (1983) provides an anthology of brief readings on the topics of dying and death, so Beckett’s work, taken in totality, offers his readers a similar “anthology,” but one that is philosophically unified.
Ricks treats this matter, one which may trouble some admirers of Beckett’s writings, forthrightly and with sympathy. His approach is never condescending, as from a healthy to an unhealthy mental consciousness. For Ricks, Beckett’s point of view is not curious, odd, or unwholesome. To him Beckett is morbid not in a...
(The entire section is 1569 words.)