Whoroscope was Samuel Beckett’s first major publication. It is a long poem, written originally in English, and published in book form by the Hours Press after winning a prize offered by the publisher for the best poem on the subject of time. The first-person narrator of the work is René Descartes, the seventeenth century French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, and the poem is so full of obscure allusions to his life and times that, at the publisher’s request, Beckett added a page and a half of notes to the ninety-eight-line piece. In fact, the notes are almost as interesting as the poem itself, and, without them, it is unlikely that the average reader would even recognize Descartes as the speaker.
Whoroscope is an important poem not only because it marked Beckett’s official entry into the literary world but also because it introduced the basic themes that continued to occupy him as a writer and thinker. Clearly, Beckett himself recognized this fact, because he chose to keep this early work intact in the subsequent collections of his poetry, Poems in English and Collected Poems in English and French, which include all the works discussed here. In many ways, Whoroscope is quite unlike the author’s later writings. The structure of the piece is open, without rhyme or regular meter. The poem shows the influence of the French surrealists in its associative juxtaposition of images, but the influence of Joyce is also apparent in the punning title and in the body of the text.
On first reading, it is not at all obvious that this is a poem about time. From the opening line, Descartes rambles on, apparently at random, about various events in his life, without respect for chronology or even historical accuracy. In the closing section, it becomes clear that the philosopher is on his deathbed and that his ramblings are the result of illness and fever. In a sense, his life is flashing before his eyes. He is trying to grasp the fullness of time at the moment of his death, and a closer reading shows that the sequence of memories is not random at all but associative, each a memory leading to the next—not in chronological order but in the order dictated by Descartes’s subjective thought process.
In fact, the poem is very much about time—the time of a man’s life and the attempt to recapture lost time in the instant before time runs out. The Joycean influence in Descartes’s stream-of-consciousness narrative is evident, but it is also obvious that Beckett has learned a great deal from Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927, Remembrance of Things Past), which the young Beckett knew well—so well, in fact, that in 1931 he published Proust, a book-length study of this French masterwork.
Whoroscope, then, is about time as the great destroyer, time that eats up a man’s life and leads only to death. It is important to remember, however, that this poem is about the lifetime of a particular man, Descartes, and there is good reason for Beckett’s choice of this philosopher as his narrator. Like Beckett himself, Descartes was a transitional figure, the father of modern philosophy and the opponent of Aristotelian scholasticism. He and his contemporaries initiated a new age in Western civilization, an age that is only now passing away, and, in his poem, Beckett pays tribute to other great thinkers such as Galileo and Francis Bacon, who directed Western thought into the era of science and rationalism.
Descartes was a great builder, but he was also a great destroyer of the philosophies of the past, and, in the poem, he speaks with pride of “throwing/ Jesuits out of the skylight.” He devoted his life to the development of a new system of thought, but, in so doing, he also undermined the Aristotelian metaphysics that had served as the basis of European philosophy for centuries. Ironically, while Descartes was destroying his predecessors, the time of his own life was destroying him.
This is one of the key themes of Beckett’s work: the fact that death comes to all living things, without reason, without justice, regardless of whether one is innocent or guilty. As Beckett writes in a later, untitled poem, man lives “the space of a door/ that opens and shuts.” He is born to die; he is dying even in the womb, losing time from the moment of conception, and there is nothing that can stop or even delay this process. Each man’s life cancels itself, moment by moment.
The historical Descartes died while in the service of Queen Christina of Sweden, a harsh woman who forced the aging philosopher to call upon her at five o’clock each morning although he had been in the habit of staying in bed until midday all his life. This change in his routine, coupled with the northern weather, led to his final illness. In the poem, the fictional Descartes refers to Queen Christina as “Rahab of the snows.” Rahab was a biblical harlot mentioned in The Divine Comedy (c. 1320) of Dante (whom Beckett has called “the only poet”), and so it would seem that the Queen is the whore of the title. In his notes to the poem, Beckett points out that Descartes kept his birthday secret so that no astrologer could cast his horoscope. The philosopher was opposed to such mysticism, not only because it was unscientific but because he felt that many people let their entire lives be dictated by astrology; he even knew of two young men who had allowed themselves to die simply because their horoscopes had predicted death for them. With this knowledge, the Joycean pun of the title becomes clear. Queen Christina, the harlot, has cast Descartes’s death, which was present from the moment of his birth. His “whoroscope” is her prediction of his inevitable end.
This theme of the inevitability of death, of death as a necessary function of birth, runs through the poem in the form of a recurring motif. Again in the notes, Beckett explains that Descartes liked his morning omelette to be made from eggs that had been hatched from eight to ten days—that is, eggs in which the embryo was partially developed. Time and again in the poem he asks about his morning eggs: “How long did she womb it, the feathery one? . . . How rich she smells,/ this abortion of a fledgling!”
For Beckett, the egg is the symbol of the fetus conceived only to die, its brief span of life lived out in the instant between nonexistence and nonexistence. The time of the egg is the time of the philosopher as well. As with all human beings, Descartes is dying before he has even really lived, and, like the fledgling in the egg, he is dying for no purpose, simply because that is the way things are.
Beckett explored the themes of the inevitability of death and the meaninglessness of life time and again in his works, but he has always coupled these themes with another: the necessity of going on, of raging against the inevitable, of refusing to accept man’s fate. In the poem “Serena III,” he insists that human beings must “keep on the move/ keep on the move,” and, in Whoroscope, he depicts Descartes first as angry, cursing his fate, then as begging for another chance at a life he has never managed to understand, a “second/ starless inscrutable hour.” There is no reason for him to go on, and yet, as a human being, he must.
For Beckett, man must die, but he must also live and think and speak, as Descartes does, even to the last possible instant. He must live in his own inner world which is always dying, and he must also live in the outer world which will live on after him and which, therefore, is not his. This theme of the conflict between the inner and the outer worlds which runs through Beckett’s later work is present in Whoroscope as well. The very structure of the poem, which follows the philosopher’s associative thinking, places the narrative within Descartes’s inner mind, though in the end it moves to the outer world, to “Christina the ripper” and to her court physician, Weulles, who is attending to Descartes in his last moments. In his inner world, Descartes is alive and reliving his past, but it is the outer world which is leading him to inevitable death. Descartes devoted his life to trying to understand the outer world, but the very foundation of his thought, the dictum “cogito, ergo sum” (“I think,...
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