Beckett, Samuel 1906–
An Irish-born dramatist, novelist, and poet who writes in both French and in English, Beckett is best known for his play Waiting for Godot. His work combines humor with tragedy, creating an existential, often baffling view of the human condition within a meaningless and nameless void. This theme is reinforced by a literary style that experiments with formlessness and fragmentation of language, and often reflects the influence of James Joyce, to whom Beckett was both secretary and literary colleague. The translator of his own works from French to English, Beckett has received numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Whereas for Proust the emancipation from time is possible, being brought about by memory and even more satisfyingly by artistic creation, for Beckett it is impossible. Not only does Beckett require emancipation from the spatial dimensions as well as from time …, but also, for him, neither memory nor art is a means to salvation. The powerlessness of memory against the disintegrating force of time is, for example, one of the themes of Krapp's Last Tape, while art appears everywhere in Beckett as a kind of absurd but inescapable imposition, a "pensum" exemplary of the absurd punishment that is our life, so that the idea of escape through art has become no longer the joyous certainty it is in Proust but a kind of impossible dream. Beckett's themes are therefore anti-Proustian as much as they are Proustian, but the initial impulse is in each case the same: the sense of life as an exclusion from some timeless inner essence, and the attempt to use art as a means of escaping from time and rejoining that essence.
Beckett's dualism of the self and the non-self, timelessness and time, essence and existence, belongs to a lengthy tradition, and in particular his affinity with certain forms of baroque sensibility (and especially with Descartes) is well recognized. (pp. 152-53)
The irrelevance of death, art as an absurd pensum, and life as a long exile—these three closely interrelated ideas form the theme of the novel-trilogy, Molloy, Malone meurt, and L'Innommable, a theme that can be stated in two ways as the unattainability of the self or, conversely, the inescapability of existence…. [This] theme depends on the notion of a self conceived not dynamically, as an instrument, but spatially, as a place—but paradoxically, as a non-dimensional place, outside of space and time. This conception, which is central to Beckett, is traceable at least as far back as his first novel, Murphy. Murphy's main aim in life is to escape from it, that is, to escape from an outside world of "pensums and prizes" into the inner world where there is "only Murphy himself, improved out of all knowledge," a world that for him is creditably represented by a padded cell, that is, a kind of defined emptiness where, as Beckett puts it, "the three dimensions, slightly concave, were so exquisitely proportioned that the absence of the fourth was scarcely felt." (pp. 153-54)
A mote in the dark of absolute freedom, a pebble in the steppe, a tiny plenum in the immensity of the void, something autonomous and separate from the void (as blind Hamm is a separate mote in the visual world), but not separated from it by a wall—such is the self in Beckett: something undefinable in space, something dimensionless, but something (we can call it consciousness), and something which, because it is dimensionless, exists outside the world of space and time and is by definition unattainable within that world. As such, it is like the center of a circle (which we know to exist but cannot attain because each attempt to circumscribe it merely creates not a center but a new circumference which itself has a new and equally unattainable center, and so on), so that to approach the self is to embark on an infinite process comparable to attempting to express the value of a surd to the last decimal point. Life as the pursuit of self thus becomes the endless, hopeless task of pursuing an infinitely receding something which—resisting definition and being inseparable from what surrounds it—has the characteristics of nothing. In this way, Beckett points up the inescapable absurdity of the ineradicable human belief in a principle of inner life—call it what you will: essence, self, personality or soul—for whose autonomous existence there is no shred of evidence beyond our belief in it, while at the same time establishing a basic image of life as endless exile from the pursuit of an infinitely unattainable self.
In the trilogy, the first two novels record an escape from space and time, and the third supposes a consciousness capable of surviving such an escape. For this reason, the dilemma propounded in the work is posed most crucially in the turn of the page between Malone and L'Innommable. The former novel ends with two words that between them express the end of time and the abolition of space: "plus rien." But the first words of L'Innommable are: "Où maintenant? Quand maintenant? Qui maintenant?" so that the timeless and spaceless "who" that has mysteriously survived the abolition of space and time nevertheless immediately asks of itself precisely the old questions: where (in space) and when (in time) am I? It cannot conceive of itself except falsely, and so the wearisome business of self-pursuit goes on beyond death…. [If] Beckett wished, the work could go on spiralling into itself forever, commenting on itself, and mirroring in its form the operation of the mind engaged in the endless task of seeking its own unattainable core (and many of Beckett's other major works are, similarly, self-perpetuating mechanisms of one kind or another).
But although L'Innommable does finally tail off into interminability, it is not as one might expect the interminability of the infinitely tightening spiral, but a more linear one. For eventually the novel resolves into nothing more nor less than a thin stream of disembodied language…. The Unnamable becomes simply its own voice, talking on and on endlessly in the hope that one day, perhaps by pure chance, it may put together the combination of words that will name it, and thus destroy the duality it is condemned to. Language is thus given the task of making subject and object of consciousness coincide, of making the non-self self, time timelessness and space spacelessness—a task it cannot fulfil, for the voice issuing from the soul of the Unnamable knows only the language of the outer world, of time and space, the language it shares with others, which leads it to suspect that it must itself be only a creation of others. To speak the language of the self, it will have to invent a new language, of timelessness and spacelessness. (pp. 154-55)
[Where] political brinkmanship has been keeping us for so long on the threshold of hell-on-earth, Beckett's characters are in the not much more enviable position of being on the endless, uncrossable brink of entry into a kind of paradise (the paradise of eternal self-possession), so that for them existence is a purgatory-on-earth, a purgatory of exclusion and waiting. They are in a kind of no-man's-land, lying somewhere, somehow, between their existence in time and their life in eternity, neither the one nor the other, but with characteristics of each. Typically, their lives are over but have not ended, and so nevertheless are still going interminably on, in which they are like Dante's Belacqua (a figure who constantly haunts Beckett's imagination), who has been condemned, although his life is over, to live it through again in expectation of admission first to purgatory proper (for he is as yet only in ante-purgatory) and thence eventually to paradise itself…. (p. 157)
It is [in Godot] (and also perhaps in certain of the final pages of Comment c'est, the more recent work in which Beckett has successfully carried the struggle with language back into the novel form) that Beckett goes closest to speaking the language of eternity on his own account, and thus to stepping over his personal brink into silence. In describing the threshold, he conveys to us powerfully, in the destruction of our normal categories of time, an apprehension of the timelessness of the self. But—and here is the inevitable rub—the very ambiguity of the threshold, which he thus turns to such good account, at the same time defeats his purpose, for in that ambiguity resides also the old dualism, so that the more he uses it to convey to us the sense of the timeless essence, the better he describes an existence endlessly excluded from while endlessly tending towards that essence. In so doing, he speaks ultimately not of the essence itself but only of the threshold, that region of being where existence and essence, non-self and self, time and timelessness endlessly co-exist, in the strange, ambiguous, inescapable half-world of semi-exile that is Beckett's image of our human condition. (pp. 167-68)
Ross Chambers, "Beckett's Brinkmanship," in AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Language and Literature Association (copyright © 1963 by the Australasian Language and Literature Association), May, 1963 (and reprinted in Samuel Beckett, edited by Martin Esslin, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965, pp. 152-68).
The world of Samuel Beckett is full of paradoxes—deliberate contradictions which negate every possibility of movement, knowledge, rationality, understanding, and coherence on the part of the creatures that inhabit that curious world. Yet, the more these creatures are immobilized, dehumanized, the more they find themselves sequestrated into fictional and verbal impasses, the more freedom they seem to gain to extricate themselves. Quite often, they counteract the fiction (the "hypothetical imperatives" as Molloy says) imposed upon them by a fictional paradox of their own.
Thus most statements made by the voice (or the many voices) speaking in Beckett's fiction—whether that of the author disguised as an ironic (or unreliable) narrator, or that of the narrator-hero (certainly unreliable) seemingly responsible for his own fictitious existence—lead to flagrant contradictions. (p. 103)
Fiction … need not agree with reality, especially when it is explicitly presented as sub-fiction—counterfeit inventions of the characters themselves. Since the author never speaks in his own name in [Molloy], however, the reader is under the impression that what is stated omnisciently is reality. Thus the statement, "It was not midnight. It was not raining," produces the effect of being real, of being the truth, even though it is a fictitious illusion, and what becomes clearly questionable, clearly unreliable, is the sub-fiction written by Moran: "It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows." (p. 104)
[In most of Beckett's fiction the] paradox results … from the fact that there is a confusion between representation (events told in the past) and invention (events told in the present). (p. 105)
Consequently, the negative part of the statement that closes [Molloy] ("It was not midnight. It was not raining.") is not only in direct contradiction with what is being written by Moran, but also with the whole second part of the novel, and by extension, since the second part of the novel is postulated against the background of Molloy's own counterfeit fiction, the entire narrative becomes a paradox…. Molloy [speaks] of the confusion that exists between actuality (the present) and the pseudo-reality (the past) created by the conscious writer. It would indeed be preferable for Molloy (and similarly for Moran) not to try to relate what he thinks happened, for as he well knows "what really happened was quite different." But since Molloy, like all the other Beckettian creatures that are given the delusory power to talk for themselves, cannot "hold his peace" and must go on talking, we can assume that what he is telling us is a lie. Thus when he says, "I said, etc.," speaking of the past in the present, he is merely inventing a fiction even though he claims "I quote from memory."… In fact, earlier in his narrative, Molloy makes it quite clear that his predicament as narrator-hero (narrator/narrated) forces him to deal in contradictions: "Not to want to say, not to know what you want to say, not to be able to say what you think you want to say, and never to stop saying, or hardly ever, that is the thing to keep in mind, even in the heat of composition."…
The whole fiction of The Unnamable is based on the same obligation to speak, to go on speaking ("you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on"), even if it means inventing, getting more and more caught up in the liar's paradox. (pp. 106-07)
One could quote endlessly passages from the novels and plays of Beckett which negate one another as they are brought together: statements which end into verbal impasses from which the speaker extricates himself by formulating other statements that contradict what he has just said. Most readers of fiction object to seeing taken away with one hand that which they have been given with the other, but unless they can accept this "anti-fictional" aspect of Beckett's fiction they will continue to deal with it as a paradox. Undoubtedly, it is this kind of uncertainty, this backtracking ambiguity which gives Beckett's fiction its paradoxical aspect, as though it were constantly on the brink of crumbling into nonsense, into self-negation. Only if one accepts the interplay between two levels of rhetoric can one gain an understanding of the Beckettian paradox. In other words, when reading Beckett, one must constantly guard against imposing on the fiction one's own notions of order, truth, plausibility, and reality.
Beckett, of course, did not invent fictional ambiguity. He merely exploits it to its utmost degree of confusion…. It is only when we attempt to reconcile the contradictory aspects of the Beckettian dialectic on the basis of our preconceived notions of fiction that the paradox is created. Too often, we are guilty of reading paradoxes into Beckett's fiction because we cannot accept that which destroys itself as it creates itself—that which is contrary to common sense, or that which points to itself, even though ironically, as paradoxical. And yet, the primary meaning of a paradox is, as defined by the most basic dictionary: "a tenet contrary to received opinion;… an assertion or sentiment seemingly contradictory, or opposed to common sense, but that yet may be true in fact." This definition can indeed apply to the whole Beckett canon, and more specifically to the narrator-hero's ambivalent role as a recipient of fiction and a dispatcher of fiction, as a creature that is both, as the Unnamable says of himself, "the teller and the told." (pp. 109-10)
[Moran admits] the failure of his quest, the negation of his fiction.
But in fact, what is negated here is not fiction itself, but a traditional concept of fiction, the concept of storytelling. Neither Moran, nor Molloy, nor the Unnamable, nor any of the other narrator-heroes, has been able to tell a coherent story about himself or about his invented playmates. This is undoubtedly the most crucial if not the most original aspect of Beckett's creative process: his fiction no longer relates a story (past realities reshaped by the process of imagination into an artistic form), but it simply reflects upon itself, upon its own chaotic verbal progress, that is to say upon its own (defective) substance—language. (pp. 111-12)
Beckett, [unlike Gide], is subtly hidden in the voice of his protagonists to the extent that they are capable of speaking against their "irresponsible" creator, accusing him of trying to impose upon them not only a story when there is no story to tell, but also words when words are meaningless…. This curious reversal of roles, whereby the voice of fiction speaks against itself, is possible because having no longer a story to tell ("of course he has no story") through his characters, the author simply allows his story-less creations to define themselves on the basis of their own substance—words, empty words, until there will be nothing more to say…. (p. 114)
As such, Beckett's fiction becomes a denunciation of the illusory aspect of fiction—stories which pretend to pass for reality. But the truth is that fiction is not reality, it is simply a language which tells its own story, its own true story. Beckett's speaking words are telling the truth about themselves: they are telling us that they are words: "Words, mine was never more than that, than this pell-mell babel of silence and words."… This shift from a language that tells a story to a language that tells its own story ("I say it as I hear it," that is "how it is") reveals how Beckett's fiction has passed from one level of rhetoric to another, and as a result how the Beckettian paradox—a paradox created by the dual level of storytelling—has itself been negated. (pp. 114-15)
All the fiction that precedes the moment when Moran goes back into the house to write his report is set on a dual level of storytelling. In all these works, a narrator, more or less self-conscious, more or less present and active in the story, reveals by his interventions (as Gide does in Les Faux-Monnayeurs) the fraudulence of fiction on the basis of a split between two levels of narration. Only in Watt and in Molloy does the narrator succeed in becoming a counterpart for the protagonist of the novel (Sam-Watt, Moran-Molloy) thus creating the Beckettian paradox. In the other early novels and stories, the narrator is merely a distant witness of the fiction, but not an active participant. (pp. 115-16)
Starting with Malone Dies, pseudo-reality and sub-fiction unify into a single level of rhetoric as author, narrator, and narrator-hero converge into one voice. Thus from a narrative that describes experiences as though they had been lived in the past, the fiction beyond Molloy relates experiences lived in the present, or rather in a kind of present-future condition. (p. 116)
Who is telling the truth? Is Moran telling the truth about the lie of his and of Molloy's fiction? Or is Malone lying about his fictional truth? We are again caught in the vicious circles of the liar's paradox. For if Molloy, Moran, and their predecessors are telling the truth it is about a lie (the lie of fiction), and if Malone and his successors are lying, it is about the truth of their condition (verbal authenticity). Beyond this one will never know, or rather one can only hope, as does the voice in the Texts for Nothing: "And yet I have high hopes, I give you my word, high hopes, that one day I may tell a story, hear a story, yet another, with men, kinds of men as in the days when I played all regardless or nearly, worked and played."… (p. 117)
Raymond Federman, "Beckettian Paradox: Who Is Telling the Truth?" in Samuel Beckett Now, edited by Melvin J. Friedman (© 1970 by The University of Chicago), University of Chicago Press, 1970, pp. 103-17.
The experience of exile—reinforced for Beckett by his early life as Protestant in a Catholic country, as intellectual in a bourgeois family, as artist in academia, and at this particular time by his very real exile as a vagrant Irishman in London—is apparent everywhere in his poetry, but in a particularly striking and concentrated way in the images of the poem entitled "Enueg I" [in his first volume of poetry, Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates]. Here we see "a dying barge … in the foaming cloister of the lock"; "on the far bank a gang of down and outs"; a child excluded from a game at which the narrator himself is no more than a spectator; the narrator described again, "derelict, as from a bush of gorse on fire in the mountain after dark,/or, in Sumatra, the jungle hymen,/the still flagrant rafflesia." Further on in the poem: "a lamentable family of grey verminous hens,/… half asleep, against the closed door of a shed,/with no means of roosting" and finally, "a small malevolent goat, exiled on the road,/remotely pucking the gate of his field." Such an accumulation of figures makes interpretation easy enough. However, if the images reveal the solitude of the poet, they are not without ambiguity. The child, reassured, chooses after all not to try again to enter the playing field from which he had been once rejected, and the goat seems only half ready to give up his liberty. Similarly, the darkness of the mountain or the jungle appears barely preferable to the fire that destroys as it illuminates or to the putrid beauty of the parasitical flower. Only the river that beckons offers momentarily a possible escape to one who knows neither how to adapt to social existence nor how to suffer total isolation. He does not respond to the call, however, and "Enueg I" remains without true conclusion.
There are, in effect, other solutions, and Beckett's poems function as imaginative modes for exploring and testing conceivable alternatives. Caught in the anguish of such a dilemma, what are the options for a being at once demanding and lucid? First of all revolt, now through violence, now through obscenity…. The need for violence, curiously accompanied at times by an equally irresistible compassion, becomes masochistic in one poem—without however ceasing to be completely lucid. The burlesque scene of flagellation, done in a mixture of English, Latin, Italian, and French, is a demonstration of verbal virtuosity quite as much as a psychological catharsis. Sometimes revolt is under the sign of irony or bitter sarcasm, and sometimes it takes the form of classical understatement translating a calm but hopeless opposition, a simple refusal that knows its own futility before that which is unacceptable and at the same time inevitable. Such is the "nay" that ends "Malacoda."
In several poems a religious solution seems to offer the possibility of a satisfactory reconciliation…. The poems are sprinkled with explicit allusions to Christ, but He appears not as Savior but as Man the victim of fathomless injustice. In the last lines of "Serena III," which refer both to a town south of Dublin and to the Rock of Ages in the Protestant hymn (and beyond to the Old Testament), he definitively rejects the religious solution: "Hide yourself not in the Rock keep on the move/keep on the move."
His quest, renewed always one more time, does not at all exclude attempts to adapt himself to life in the society of men, to find his "place in the sun." Even the humble fly succeeds, and the adder is warm and well fed in her well-lighted glass home; but as the allusion to Pascal suggests, it seems that human space has been wholly usurped. Lacking the talent of a Defoe or an Aretino, he is unfortunately incapable either of prostrating himself abjectly before The City, or of conquering it by force ("Serena I").
And so only flight is left. To escape what one can neither win nor vanquish seems the last hope. But escape where?… [The choices can scarcely fail to suggest both womb and grave (there are many examples scattered through the poems of enclosed, protected places).] A Freudian's field day! Still, meaning is hardly hidden…. The juxtaposition of beginning and end, womb and grave, occurs in Waiting for Godot in the striking image of the women who give birth astride a tomb. Here, the young man walks on and on toward he knows not what. There, the old man has stopped walking and waits—for he knows not what. In the last poem in the collection the themes of flight and suicide, the definitive flight, come close to joining, as in "Serena I," but in the last analysis the tension remains unresolved. (pp. 179-81)
The true solution, however, is his poet's art. As the poems themselves make clear, the closed-in place is not solely the womb, nor the grave that resembles it. It is something more positive than these two forms of movement toward nothingness. The place of refuge is above all the little world hidden inside the skull. Even while it recalls death, always present beneath the appearances of life, the image of the skull suggests the microcosm so admirably evoked in the novel Murphy, written during the same period. "Who knows," asks the narrator "what the ostrich sees in the sand?"… Working in an asylum for mental patients, Murphy came to loathe "the complacent scientific conceptualism that made contact with outer reality the index of mental well-being…. [All his experience] obliged him to call sanctuary what the psychiatrists called exile and to think of the patients not as banished from a system of benefits but as escaped from a colossal fiasco."… As for Murphy himself, he considered what he called his mind "not as an instrument [designed to record facts from the outer world] but as a place, from whose unique delights precisely those current facts withheld him."… As far as he was concerned, therefore, there was an absolutely fundamental conflict between the two worlds. "His vote was cast. 'I am not of the big world, I am of the little world'."…
It would be difficult to overstress the importance of this passage. However, the link between inner asylum (the key word in "Echo's Bones") and artistic creation comes not in the novel but in the poetry. "The Vulture," of special importance because of its initial position in the group of thirteen poems, was inspired by lines from Goethe that contain a comparision between a soaring bird scanning the earth for prey, its wings motionless, and the lyric that hovers on the edge of becoming. In Beckett's poem, the vulture drags "his hunger through the sky/of my skull shell of sky and earth." (Here already we have the tendency to interiorize that creates the microcosm.) Then the bird, dropping toward an intended victim, finds itself "mocked by a tissue that may not serve/till hunger earth and sky be offal." An esthetic point of view that helps to explain the entire collection can be discovered lying half hidden in the lines of this opening poem. In effect, the microcosm of the imagination can be not only a place to live but also the little world of a literary work. Any attempt to isolate it totally from the big world would no doubt be vain, but there is certainly a tendency in this direction. Implemented, it will produce an individualistic art concerned above all with the exploration of the self, an introspective art difficult of access, hardly popular in any sense, but singularly "modern." It will reflect the need of those living at a time when social institutions disintegrate and reform unceasingly to take stock, to find (at least to seek) a more stable inner reality. So much the worse if this reality turns out to be as shifting and elusive, similarly destined to disintegration, equally unreal. (pp. 182-83)
Echo's Bones is indeed under the sign of Ovid, and the poet's theme as well as practice is poetic metamorphosis. A Freudian interpretation would miss the mark if it failed to take account of the essential metaphoric movement that extends the imagery of enclosures and makes both womb and tomb figures of the microcosm of transforming imagination…. It is art that makes possible the last and best transformation of reality. Only the poet can fix forever the ideal vision that in its way corrects the cruelty of the human condition. (pp. 183-84)
Lawrence E. Harvey, "A Poet's Initiation," in Samuel Beckett Now, edited by Melvin J. Friedman (© 1970 by The University of Chicago), University of Chicago Press, 1970, pp. 171-84.
Before Beckett, one would have thought it a highly unlikely enterprise to construct a drama about a pronoun. Yet Beckett's preoccupation with the medium of theater has been a steady concentration in learning how to do more and more on stage with less and less. In Not I, completed in 1972, the stage is in darkness and "the empty space" before us is almost literally empty. To one side is a mouth, disembodied, suspended in space and throbbing with an undulating pulsation of lips, teeth, and tongue. Never formulating any integer as unified or coherent as a sentence, Mouth gives shape to words and phrases as segmented as itself; they begin as an unintelligible verbal onslaught, get beaten into life as they rise in crescendo toward an agonizing scream, then settle themselves down once more into their dull incomprehensible drone.
To the other side of the stage is a silent, elongated, hooded figure, "sex undeterminable," standing on an invisible podium four feet above stage level, covered from head to bottom of platform in the folds of a black djellaba. This mysterious towering figure interrupts the monologue at four strategic moments, raising its arms "in a gesture of helpless compassion," then slowly returns them to its sides. The repeated gesture lessens with each recurrence "till scarcely perceptible at third." Although Auditor is "fully faintly lit," only a sharp spotlight illuminates Mouth, an isolated, unconnected, gabbling orifice furiously opening and shutting. (p. 189)
Beckett's Mouth, that "God-forsaken hole" hysterically speeding up the momentum behind Dr. Johnson's swift determination of "beating the track of the alphabet with sluggish resolution," tells a story. Yet the tale is characterized throughout by a "vehement refusal to relinquish third person." Each movement of Auditor is preceded by Mouth's insistence that the story she tells is about "she," not "I" ("what?… who?… no!… she!"), hence giving, in one of its several dimensions, the title of the play. And yet the story Mouth seems compelled to tell unendingly ("something she had to tell … could that be it?"), like the tales other Beckett heroes recite, bears an uncanny resemblance to its own situation on stage. A silent old woman, "coming up to sixty … what?… seventy?… good God!… coming up to seventy" …, is looking aimlessly for cowslips in a field one early April morning. "Suddenly," no, "gradually," she begins talking nonstop and has been continuing along those lines ever since. A cruel April indeed. For the voice issuing from Mouth is that of an old woman in extreme terror, half-remembering past events, trying to recall the incidents of a barely understood life, perhaps her own, but one so painful that she refuses to acknowledge it as hers—she can only face it by making it a third person.
Mouth, like her third-person scapegoat, has thus been living a disconnected psychological hell…. Beckett's method of allusion is through gross distortion: Eliot's "spring rain" is now a verbal downpour, breeding in this case not the promise of lilacs, but rather the fleurs du mal of present and uncomprehending misery.
Beckett had earlier played a charade with "The Waste Land" in "Whoroscope," which borrows from Eliot the device of discontinuous form and its technique of allusiveness, carried in this instance by the young Beckett to typically absurd proportions. (pp. 190-91)
Mouth's third-person protagonist had, in fact, tried to open her own mouth on several occasions long before that fateful April morning within the Proustian budding grove. Yet each opportunity—in a courtroom, a supermarket, a public lavatory—had proved a failure or an embarrassment. Her present purgatory is thus a making up for lost time. In the few years left for her, encapsulated for us in the few minutes of stage time, she must get in all the words she may have needed to say during her lifetime of silence. Beckett has told us before that "silence once broken will never be whole again." In Not I he takes himself quite liberally at his own double entendre.
Why is Mouth so compulsive in its stubborn refusal to abandon the security of the third-person singular? For it is precisely this uneasy conflict between pronouns which sets the major tension of this play into motion. (p. 191)
In Not I … Mouth is no longer searching for a coexistence with its authentic first-person singular, but is instead frantically running away from such an encounter. For what it discovers in the "I" is its own bête noire. Like Buster Keaton tearing up a series of old photographs of himself in Beckett's "comic and unreal" Film, Mouth is determined to obliterate any relationship with its own agonizing past. The staging of the play suggests both a religious confessional—Auditor's attentive cowled figure, the mouth pouring out words while the rest of the face remains hidden in the darkness—and also a literally dislocated personality: an old woman listening to herself, yet unable to accept that what she hears, what she says, refers to her. All she acknowledges as her own is an unrelenting "roar in the skull." (p. 193)
The Jungian psychologist M. Esther Harding has projected an identity crisis resembling the uneasy situation in Beckett's play in a study called, most fortuitously, The "I" and the "Not I"; A Study in the Development of Consciousness. Jung used the term "process of individuation" for a program of psychic development accompanied by a progressive increase in consciousness. A person who is unconscious of himself does not live—life just happens to him. (p. 194)
The parallel between the disconnected psychological state poised in Not I and Jungian theory becomes even more curious when we consider for a moment the pronoun in its title not as pronoun, but as Roman numeral: for the visual images exposed before us on stage are not I, but II…. The extreme contrast between figures I (Mouth) and II (Auditor) is, therefore, not so much thematic and symbolic as it is literal and visual…. By focusing and refocusing at least four times during the course of the play, the audience's attention is absorbed exclusively with images I and II with no interference of extraneous commodities like face or body to interrupt the stark antagonism between Mouth and Auditor, that shadowy figure fully but faintly lit.
In Harding's Jungian terminology the "shadow" is the figure who appears in our dreams; it will be of the same sex as the dreamer, since it really presents part of his personality…. What Jung discriminated as the ego was that conscious part of the psyche focused in a center called the "I"; but the unconscious part of the personal psyche is focused and personified as a sort of alter ego, the shadow. We are all dimly aware of this alter ego residing somewhere inside us. It acts in us almost as if it were another being, another self, with whom we can carry on a conversation, taking part in an inner discussion or conflict when we are of two minds about a problem; it can sometimes initiate actions which we ourselves would not perform. The shadow is really a part of the personality. As long as it remains unconscious, the human being can never be whole and suffers as a consequence the pain of disintegration…. It is important for the individual to become united with his shadow, giving it a place in the totality of his "I." By accepting the black substance which adheres to the shadow, we take the first step in the individuation process and in the development of a true self-consciousness.
But Mouth is an image not of wholeness, of a reconciliation of opposites, but of fragmentation and destruction. Although there arises within Mouth a great need to confess the sin of its personal shadow so that the excluded parts of its personality may be accepted as part of its whole psyche, this confession is distanced to the fiction of a third person. Obliged to become whole, to face a situation which seems beyond its capabilities, perhaps as the result of a neurotic disturbance, the task Mouth undertakes is to confront its own shadow. But Mouth can only succeed in accepting its dark and sinister qualities by "cloaking" them through personification and projection. (pp. 195-96)
[If] we are to accept the Jungian parallel, the overtones are immediately cloudy: Mouth's projection would sometimes be the "she" of its own story, sometimes the shadowy figure of Auditor. Neither situation accounts for the possibility that the "buzzing" in the brain Mouth mentions might be a "stream of words" running through Auditor's own hooded head, nor the possibility that the silent figure of Auditor is as consistently wordless as the "she" of Mouth's story before the whatever-it-was that took place in the field. The Mouth-Auditor duality is susceptible to a series of explanations, not the least of which would see Auditor as goad for "the words … the brain … flickering away like mad." (p. 197)
It is, in fact, this peculiar convolution of possible explanations, backtracking on one another as surely as the words and phrases of the monologue itself, that is the particular richness of Not I. As we are forced to focus and refocus on figures I and II, so we are forced to focus and refocus on the variety of overlapping explanations, encountering each time in a new light the same visual stimulus. Like a lens focusing on the same image from a multiplicity of camera angles, so Beckett makes us do with our eyes on stage the work that is usually accomplished in cinema by what is called in this play "the whole machine."
As it is with the multiplicity of possible interpretations of this work, so it is with the drama of the pronoun "I" itself. For Not I is also "not aye," what Beckett has called elsewhere "the screaming silence of no's knife in yes's wound." Unlike Joyce's reverence for "the saying yes" of Molly Bloom, Mouth's monologue consists of a series of negations, "no matter," "no love," "no moon," "no screaming," "no part," "no idea," "no speech," "no stopping," "no sound," "no response," "no feeling," not to mention the endless litany of "nots," "nevers," and "nothings." Parents are either "unknown" or "unheard of" and prayers go "unanswered." An individual is "speechless" and "powerless" and the situation is "painless." Human beings are "incapable" of feeling or simply "insentient." Questionings are "vain," proof is "dismissed," and reason itself is "strange." George Herbert's graceful wreath has been replaced by Beckett's "disconnected" knot, pun intended.
Although Not I appears to be "about" Mouth, not eye (co-starring Auditor as ear), the piece is perhaps a far more subtle vehicle than this unruly trinity would imply. Although Mouth speaks, Auditor hears, and audience sees, Beckett creates for his audience a visual and aural stimulus closely approximating the "matter" of the monologue itself. (pp. 197-98)
Not I brings to the surface our own difficulty in seeing, in perceiving, for this is our annoying situation as members of the audience. Like the "she" of Mouth's monologue, we have no idea what position Mouth or "she" is in—whether standing, or sitting, or kneeling. We see merely "whole body like gone." In Beckett, concentration on eyes leads inevitably to concentration on tears….
As we have difficulty seeing Beckett's "goings on" on stage in Not I, so we are constantly "straining to hear" the words in the concentrated monologue…. (p. 199)
Not I makes us desperately aware of the agonizing limitations of seeing, hearing, and speaking. Yet before Beckett such limitations never seemed so theatrically exciting. Beckett's "drama stripped for inaction" thus implies, ironically, an extraordinary amount of activity radiating from the stage, simultaneously visual, verbal, and aural. The "I" in Beckett's Not I is the most minimal dramatic character in Beckett's minimal theatrical art, the ingénue who, like Godot, fails to make an appearance on the board before the curtain comes down. But while waiting for this first-person singular to arrive, Beckett has set into motion a drama in which each sensory stimulus has the kinetic potential to stimulate all three sensory organs activated in this play. (pp. 199-200)
The theatrical power in this intense monologue is hypnotic, the effect less Cartesian than visceral. Beckett's first-person singular, or more precisely the conspicuous absence of his "I," thus takes its place along with those other heroic pronouns marching through the repertory of twentieth-century theater, Lenormand's "Lui" and "Elle" in Les Ratés and Cummings' "Him" and "Me" in Him. In Not I Beckett has presented us with a multidimensional, multimedia extravaganza, all of this based on the frail drama of a little pronoun making not so much a theatrical debut as a sensational return engagement. (p. 200)
Enoch Brater, "The 'I' in Beckett's 'Not I'," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1974, Hofstra University Press), July, 1974, pp. 189-200.
The appearance of two new books by Samuel Beckett [Fizzles and Ends and Odds] ought to be cause for pleasurable anticipation. But the feeling among many readers must be more like dread these days: his last few books have contained work that is less than major and not very likeable…. We saw Beckett's fragmentary later works as desperate and courageous acts, diminishing islands of utterance being eaten away by silence. When his 35-second play Breath (1969) appeared, we felt that the end had at last been reached: what inessentials remained to be purged?
To have assumed that Beckett could not go on, of course, was to have misread not only The Unnamable, but most of Beckett's work, which is often about ending but seldom about ends. Though his fiction has been fizzling out since The Unnamable and How It Is, and his drama since Krapp's Last Tape and Happy Days, to conclude that it is fizzling according to some predictable pattern is, as we must now realize, unwarranted…. It is disconcerting … to find that in Fizzles and Ends and Odds, Beckett's newest collections of fiction and drama, he has not taken that predictable though unimaginable step beyond Imagination Dead Imagine and Breath.
Finding nothing ahead but silence, Beckett has apparently stepped to the side. We ought to remember with gratitude that Beckett is not a hack and has not stepped back to parody the trilogy or Godot. But in publishing these spare variations on some of his less consequential later work—there are reminders here of Words and Music, Eh Joe, The Lost Ones, Ping, and so on, in addition to less recherché material—he has forced his readers to re-examine his later work as a whole…. Beckett's late work is like Pound's fragmentary blurtings near the end of the Cantos. If we imagine them submitted by an unknown poet to a magazine of which we are the editor, their defects as poetry are apparent. But with 800 pages of Pound's intellectual and spiritual history behind them, they acquire the power to move us. A few Beckettian fragments might be viewed as adjuncts to the great works of Beckett's middle period, testimony that the power of such works as The Unnamable and Endgame was felt even by their creator. But there are now enough fragmentary works in print that they seem to demand consideration on their own merits: the fizzling-out is too protracted. (pp. 776-78)
The eight prose fictions in Fizzles are written in a variety of Beckettian styles. There is the relatively conventional style of the Nouvelles or part 1 of Molloy (Fizzles 1 and 2), the endless, breathless, comma-spliced sentences of The Unnamable (Fizzles 3 and 4), and the spare, staccato style of Imagination Dead Imagine…. (p. 778)
The rather low-grade pleasures of recognition are certainly not the only pleasures to be had from Fizzles. Not one of these pieces is utterly bereft of Beckett's beauty and nobility of style: not one could have been written by another hand. Consider this passage, which ends Fizzle 6:
Ah to love your last and see them at theirs, the last minute loved ones, and be happy, why ah, uncalled for. No but now, now, simply stay still, standing before a window, one hand on the wall, the other clutching your shirt, and see the sky, a long gaze, but no, gasps and spasms, a childhood sea, other skies, another body.
Here everything is exactly right. The subject matter is typical of the later Beckett—the rush of involuntary memory and the regret it occasions for lost love and a wasted life. (p. 779)
The sort of energy Beckett used to put into prose fiction now seems to be expressed in his drama. Since The Unnamable and How It Is, prose has become almost exclusively a meditative medium for Beckett. Narrative is increasingly the function not of prose but of drama. One effect of this is the sort of half-drama we have in the television play Eh Joe or the stage play Not I…. In both these plays, stories or fragments of stories are told to an unspeaking listener, by a voice whose source is unseen in Eh Joe, and only an illuminated mouth in Not I. The most extreme example to date, and one of the most effective, is That Time, one of the three high points of Ends and Odds…. Three identical yet distinct voices talk, turn and turn about, out of the darkness at Listener, of whom we see only the illuminated face. The illuminated face in the dark is a minor motif in Beckett's late work: see Fizzle 2, in which a character named Horn is ordered by the narrator to light his face with a flashlight, or Play, in which the characters are compelled to speak when a spotlight is trained on their faces. In both of these works, the light is unpleasant, intrusive, inquisitorial, reminding us of E's pursuit of O in Film, and the television camera's pursuit of Joe in Eh Joe. In That Time, the light that constantly illuminates Listener's face is not obviously an instrument of torture as it is in Play, but its relentlessness is an apparent accompaniment to the threefold voice, which is the stream of the listener's divided consciousness, babbling on at him in the second person without punctuation:
… did you ever say I to yourself in your life come on now (eyes close) could you ever say I to yourself in your life….
Listener's smile, "toothless for preference," with which the play ends, both welcomes the silence and anticipates the fading of the light.
In That Time, several Beckettian themes which usually appear in isolation are brought together—the self divided into perceiver and perceived (cf. The Unnamable), the "anguish of perceivedness" (cf. Film—the phrase appears in Beckett's introductory note to the original project), and the tormenting memory of a lost, or abjured, love…. (pp. 780-81)
While That Time is more successful on the page, Footfalls only comes to life in the theater. In production, this play … is overwhelmingly powerful. Like That Time, it has complexities which we might think more appropriate to a work meant to be read than to be performed…. [Unless] we read the speeches in Footfalls carefully and sympathetically, we are liable to miss their power because of Beckett's fussy stage directions. To read a play requires more of the imagination than to read fiction: we cannot simply submit to the author's vision, but we must stage the play in our heads. (pp. 782-83)
In Ghost Trio, the fourth piece in the "Ends" section of the book … the difficulties [of Footfalls] become impossibilities. There is every chance that a tape of this television piece … would be worth seeing, but the average reader—and I mean the average Beckett reader—will probably find his patience exhausted before he is able to put together the diagram, the camera movements, the music cues and the speeches in his imagination. As for the "Odds," unambitiously subtitled "Roughs for Theatre and Radio"—odd is the word. "Theatre I" with its abortive pseudocouple (a blind man and a cripple) vaguely resembles Endgame, and "Radio I" vaguely resembles Words and Music. "Theatre II" and "Radio II" resemble nothing on God's earth. They come closest perhaps to early Ionesco, and "Radio II" ends with what may be the lamest speech Beckett has ever put in the mouth of a character:
Don't cry, Miss, dry your pretty eyes and smile at me. Tomorrow, who knows, we may be free.
The uneasiness that Beckett's admirers must have experienced on hearing of the publication of Fizzles and Ends and Odds, then, is justified, though only in part. Not I, That Time, and Footfalls are surely equal to all but Beckett's very best drama (that is, Godot, Endgame, and Krapp's Last Tape), which means that they are remarkable indeed. But the rest of Ends and Odds, and most of Fizzles, is what most readers must have suspected, and what the apologetic titles indicate: very minor works by a very great writer….
[Of] all great writers, Beckett is among the most uneven. Against the manifest grace and clarity of the trilogy, Godot Endgame and the rest is the ungainliness and eccentricity of Mercier and Camier or (excuse the heresy) Watt. The value of Fizzles and Ends and Odds (and whatever similar collections have been or may be published) is not so much intrinsic as contingent. These scraps from Beckett's workshop expand our sense of the milieu from which the greater works came. And more importantly, the imperfections of these scraps help us realize with what difficulty and against what odds those greater works were achieved. (pp. 783-84)
David Gates, "Scraps from Beckett's Workshop," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1977, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 53, No. 4 (Autumn, 1977), pp. 776-84.
Beckett's living dead do not even walk—in the novels they hobble and crawl, in the plays they are remarkably stationary. Beckett presents in his plays unindividuated characters with stylized faces, whose single names do not name the, give no clue to family, class, nation (we do not identify Vladimir as Russian or Pozzo as Italian). His characters come from nowhere, belong nowhere, have no occupation or place in society. There is no society. Society appears as the small band that beats Estragon when he sleeps nights in a ditch. Godot beats his messenger's brother; Pozzo beats Lucky. Beating seems the last vestige of the social principle; and for certain pairs (Pozzo/Lucky, Hamm/Clov) the tyrant/victim relation is all that remains of love. Beckett goes further than early Eliot, who portrays the breaking down of our civilization; Beckett portrays the period after the wreck.
His plays are set on the waste land—Waiting for Godot on a country road with only a bare, black tree; Happy Days on an "expanse of scorched grass"; Endgame in a room into which are carried reports of a lifelessly gray sky and sea. This waste land, like Eliot's, signifies sexual and spiritual sterility; but it also signifies the site of a vanished civilization, where a few survivors exist in scattered pairs. The pair is the minimum unit necessary for human existence, since human existence is dialectical: these people need to be seen, heard, remembered, need above all to talk, in order to assure themselves they exist…. The waste land is the void over which the self puts forth its few threads, precariously.
The waste land is also a spatial extension without landmarks and therefore without direction, without distinctions of place and therefore without locations. To Vladimir's question in Act II, "Where were we yesterday" if not here, Estragon replies: "How would I know?… There's no lack of void." The place we're at is "indescribable," says Vladimir to Pozzo, who doesn't remember being here yesterday. "It's like nothing. There's nothing. There's a tree." Since the tree is the one landmark, there's no place to go from it; just as there is no place to go from the room in Endgame, or from the mound in which Winnie is buried to the waist. That is why the characters are largely stationary, and why even when they intend to go—as Vladimir and Estragon do finally, as well as Clov in Endgame—they remain.
Nature has not been restored by the disappearance of civilization; for whatever catastrophe destroyed civilization also destroyed nature. "There's no more nature," says Clov. The blind Hamm, whom he serves, longs atavistically to feel a ray of sunshine on his face and hear the sea, but there is no sun and the tideless sea makes no sound. "What a blessing nothing grows," says Winnie. The waste land represents a condition beyond civilization and nature.
The props in these plays are like the random artifacts dug up by archeologists; one has to read back through them to the coherent civilization that gave them meaning. Though only Krapp's Last Tape specifically takes place in the future, all these plays suggest the future of the last men…. (pp. 120-22)
Time in Beckett is the other void represented by the waste land, a void to be deliberately filled. (p. 123)
Vladimir, the rationalist, uses the word "waiting" for what we do in time, and the name Godot for the direction of our wait. Estragon, the irrationalist and former poet, remains skeptical. In this pair, the rationalist gives such direction as there is. In the other pair, the thinker Lucky enslaves himself to Pozzo, the man of power; the two are traveling, and Pozzo gives so strong a sense of direction that Estragon wonders whether Pozzo is Godot. (Traveling and waiting are Beckett's two images of existence; waiting predominates in the plays.) By Act II, however, Pozzo has disintegrated; he has grown blind, Lucky has grown dumb, and all four in their physical decrepitude fall into the same heap. Bodily decay marks time—but faintly, because Beckett's characters are old and decayed at the start; the rapid decline of Pozzo and Lucky is exceptional, an example of dramatic compression. Pozzo's refusal to name the day when disaster struck suggests that the decline is to be understood as the slow inevitable work of time. (pp. 123-24)
Continuities of place, time, identity are connected, and depend upon memory. Because of the lack of memory, time in Beckett's plays has a limited backward extension, which relates to a lack of depth in space and identity. Krapp, in Krapp's Last Tape, is the only character who dwells on memory and remembers in detail; but he remembers by playing tapes—through what Beckett in his book on Proust calls, using Proust's terms, "voluntary" or mechanical, rather than "involuntary" or organic memory. Krapp therefore establishes no connection with the past…. As a character he has no depth, since the memory is not inside him; he moves only a little within his "den" and, accordingly, little present time elapses. In Beckett's plays, the counter-part to the characters' lack of depth is their immobility or near immobility within a very limited extension of space-time. Beckett's characters lack the unseen third dimension of memory and unconsciousness; they exist almost entirely in what they do and say. This is curious in a writer who has praised Proust for accomplishing just the opposite, for creating infinite depths of character through extensions of time, memory, unconsciousness. Like the movement in painting that starts with post-Impressionism, Beckett's dramatic art strives to be statically two-dimensional in order to evoke sheer existence—"presence," as Robbe-Grillet calls it in his essay on Beckett's plays. ["Samuel Beckett or 'Presence' in the Theatre," see excerpt above].
There is as little forward as backward extension in time. The characters only dimly remember the last cycle and do not anticipate the rebirth that would bring round the next…. Although there are echoes of Eliot throughout Beckett—his main characters are "hollow men"; like the speaker in "Gerontion," they are old, with ruined senses, disembodied consciousnesses representing the old age of a culture—such echoes are particularly noticeable in Endgame. (pp. 124-26)
Hamm's "Then let it end! with a bang!" echoes the last lines of "The Hollow Men": "This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper,"—lines that turn all the games and rituals of the poem into an endgame. The whole theme of lost memory, individual and cultural, recalls Eliot—though Beckett is even more satirical than Eliot…. Hamm's father and mother, Nagg and Nell, represent the pre-World War I world of sensuality, sex, joy; they still laugh, tell jokes—they try to kiss but can't reach each other from their separate ash cans…. Nell's recollections of happiness one April afternoon, rowing on Lake Como, parody the opening recollections in The Waste Land of prewar romantic experience. The Waste Land's "'Do/You remember/Nothing?'" is echoed by Vladimir's appeal to Estragon to confirm the continuity of Acts I and II: "Do you not remember?… Do you not remember?" (pp. 126-27)
Even the positive impulse of these plays, the unaccountable vestigial tenderness that ties into pairs these almost unfeeling characters, can be compared to the unaccountably minimal "notion" in [Eliot's] "Preludes" of "some infinitely gentle/Infinitely suffering thing."… Beckett does not, like Eliot, develop this minimal intuition, because he does not acknowledge the enduring underlife and the archetypes emerging from it. He reverses the direction running from Wordsworth through Eliot, in that he deliberately avoids the archetypalization of characters; his characters are symbolic only negatively, since they symbolize the lack of life: Hamm does not fulfill the God-King-Father archetype suggested. In the trilogy of novels, the personae and fictions tried and discarded suggest mythical figures—Ulysses, Hermes, Jesus—but the shifting references do not, as in The Waste Land and Ulysses, reinforce the characters' identities but reduce them. The shifting references that in The Waste Land produce an accretion of contents produce in Beckett's trilogy a "gradual reduction of contents," which in Dieter Wellershoff's words "appears as a progressive process of de-mythologization."
That is why identity in Beckett approaches zero, with the difference between life and death almost imperceptible…. There is certainly no rebirth of self in these characters; they are all locked into an old self, they are all, to borrow Beckett's terminology in the Proust book, prisoners of habit. When they do suffer because they have for a moment broken through to an awareness of their suffering, the release is not, as in Proust, involuntary memory—it is a glimpse, through the structured world of habit, into the void: a momentary awareness of their own nothingness. The discarding of selves in the trilogy leads to the same void; the process is not rebirth. (pp. 127-28)
The characters have most "presence," are existentially most powerful, when their being is reduced to the one last flicker of self-consciousness. (p. 129)
Although all these plays approach the quality of Winnie's monologue in that the characters speak mainly to hear themselves, only Krapp is alone. That may be why Krapp's Last Tape is the only one of the plays discussed so far to end on a purely negative note, without any sure sign of tenderness…. Krapp's comments and the tape we hear—an utterance of thirty years ago—do not make a true dialogue since the earlier self, in repudiating a still earlier idealistic self of ten years back (whose recording he reports having just played), has already made the choice for discontinuity which the onstage Krapp merely repeats. We have here Proustian and Wordsworthian layers of time; but because the memory represented by the tapes is mechanical or voluntary, Krapp does not in Wordsworth's phrase bind his days together…. (p. 130)
Since consciousness can never know its own extinction, since "the individual," as Martin Esslin puts it, "can never become aware of his own cessation, his final moments of consciousness must remain, as it were, eternally suspended in limbo and can be conceived as recurring through all eternity." This is the point of the Dantesque stage work Play, where the dead are locked into the cyclic memory of their passionate lives. They evolve purgatorially toward a higher understanding of their lives; hell is the aborting of illumination and the inescapable return in memory to the way they thought and felt in life.
Play is unusual for Beckett in that it presents three main characters—M, the man; W1fi his wife; W2fi his mistress. In their memories of life there were never more than the usual two on stage; M imagines all three, after death, drifting idyllically in a rowboat—the rowboat is a recurring image of happiness in Beckett. Two seems to be the number for life, three for heaven, one perhaps for hell; these characters partly inhabit all three places. They are described in the stage directions as three heads protruding out of "three identical grey urns" that touch one another. "They face undeviatingly front throughout the Blay. Faces so lost to age and aspect as to seem almost part of urns. But no masks." This is a model because character, even being, comes so close to zero. Identity is reduced even farther in Not I…. The characters of Play are almost undifferentiated consciousnesses: "Faces impassive throughout. Voices toneless." The specific exclusion of masks shows Beckett as even more impersonal than Yeats; even masks suggest too much personality.
The utterances are monologues. The three are not present to each other; each thinks the other two still alive. Yet the touching urns suggest that the three are united through pattern. (In the novel Molloy, the tramp Molloy and the proper citizen Moran are similarly united through a cyclical pattern of which they are unaware.) The inquisitorial spotlight, which plays Dante's questioning role, solicits each character individually, leaving the other two in darkness. When in the moving choral passages all three faces are illuminated, they speak in unison but say different things—a sign that only pattern unites them. (pp. 133-35)
Their life story of lust, betrayal, hatred is unusually passionate for Beckett; Play follows the cyclical structure of Noh drama, in which ghosts relive their passionate lives then fade back into death. But the point is as usual in Beckett's plays: the characters have more "presence" now that they have less vitality, they understand each other better now that they speak monologues than when they spoke to each other. Now they pity each other, wish each other well. (p. 135)
To see phenomena as play is to deprive them of being by reducing them to pattern. When will some higher understanding reduce to pattern their present state so that they can pass out of existence? In the end M feels himself scrutinized by a higher understanding represented apparently by the spotlight: "Looking for something. In my face. Some truth. In my eyes. Not even." He feels himself passing out of existence either because he is completely understood, or because the spotlight as absolute eye is mindless so that he does not feel himself perceived: "Mere eye. No mind. Opening and shutting on me. Am I as much—." There is a blackout, then spot on M. "Am I as much as … being seen?" There is a blackout, then the faint spots on three faces with which the play began. The play is repeated. Neither complete understanding nor complete oblivion—perhaps they are the same—can be attained, because consciousness cannot conceive its own extinction. Since there is only consciousness reflecting on itself, the thought of breaking through to an outside reality is only a thought that leads back to the round of consciousness.
Is this usurpation of the world by consciousness the catastrophe that seems to have preceded all these plays, making Beckett's characters seem survivors of some terrible wreck? The catastrophe is to some extent the world wars (there are hints of this in Godot and Endgame); it is to a greater extent old age when, with the wreck of the body, life retreats into a consciousness that is itself failing. But the clue to the catastrophe's main meaning is Vladimir's statement: "What is terrible is to have thought."… The catastrophe is in Blake's terms a fall in perception. To have thought is to have killed off the world, to have drawn it all inside the skull. After that no more thought is possible (Vladimir: "We're in no danger of ever thinking any more"); for genuine thought is about something other than itself. All we can do now is invent the talk, games, rituals necessary to cover the void. Talk has become a substitute for thought. "We are incapable of keeping silent," says Estragon. "It's so we won't think." (pp. 135-36)
Beckett's art is distinguished by such powerful images as this of human existence suspended over a void made palpable.
The destructive thought alluded to would seem to be Descartes'. For it was Descartes who, after dismissing the inherited world by an act of doubt, reestablished the world on the principle, "I think, hence I am." He thus cut mind off from body, especially since he did not recognize that thought requires a sensuous object. He made mind the center of life and identity in an otherwise mechanical world; he gave us the image, which haunts Beckett, of mind surrounded by void…. Beckett's first published poem, Whoroscope, is a dramatic monologue spoken by Descartes; and the Cartesian split defines the geography of self which, in the manner of Wordsworth with Locke and Eliot with Bradley, Beckett accepts and fights throughout his work—perhaps because he feels his own selfhood that way, and feels Descartes' amputation of self predictive of our time. (pp. 137-38)
It is because Beckett modifies Descartes by treating body as a disintegrating rather than as an efficient machine that so many Beckett characters drag around old inadequate bodies that seem hardly to belong to them and require the aid of bicycles, crutches, wheelchairs. Beckett assumes romanticism has failed in its attempt to answer Descartes by establishing the organic connection of mind with body and of the mind-body self with nature. "We should turn resolutely toward Nature," says Estragon, modulating, as he and Vladimir often do, from personal into cultural experience. "We've tried that," says Vladimir. We have tried romanticism.
One might draw the opposite conclusion, one might say that Beckett is a romanticist working negatively through satire of the isolated self. But it is likelier—since Beckett apparently resembles the heroes of his fiction—that he could not square with his experience of his own self romantic accounts of the self's infinite possibilities for expansion and for transforming the external world. The best evidence of Beckett's anti-romanticism is this: that whatever positive impulse he does generate comes from reversing the Wordsworthian direction, from withdrawal rather than projection of self. (pp. 138-39)
Beckett's reversal of the Wordsworthian direction is curious, since in his book on Proust he uses Wordsworthian categories to describe Proust's achievement in a direction that we recognize to be Wordsworthian. As in Wordsworth, habit is the villain. Habit and the ego represented by an habitual organization of the world screen us from reality. We break through in periods of transition "when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being"—when, lifting the veil of familiarity, we experience world and self as flowing, as alive and threatening because unrationalized. The insight fades as we proceed to rationalize that experience into a new habitual organization of the world. Life in Proust (and Wordsworth) proceeds through such cycles of birth, death, and rebirth of self and the world it perceives. The breakthrough is accomplished by "involuntary memory," which is as in Wordsworth a form of forgetting that leads us to the permanent self underlying the "succession of individuals" that accompany the "succession of habits."… Our permanent self is unconscious; we have access to those unplumbable depths where it resides only through unconscious memory; only the unconscious is creative: "From this deep source Proust hoisted his world."
Having described so precisely and sympathetically what Proust is doing, Beckett in his plays and fiction does the opposite. In the plays his characters remain prisoners of habit, in the trilogy they have little conscious memory; in both plays and novels they have no unconscious memory, no unconscious, no depth—which is why his mode is comic rather than psychological. Depth is projected as action and landscape. (pp. 139-40)
Nevertheless, Beckett's characters, unlike Proust's, see—when they break through the screen of habit—not unformed vitality, as in Proust's periods of transition, but the void. They have negative epiphanies ("Moments for nothing"), the reverse of Wordsworth's and Proust's insights into process. Consequently there is no rebirth of self in Beckett; there is only reduction—through the discarding of false selves in the trilogy and through the lack of content in the plays. (p. 140)
Beckett pursues the inaccessible self throughout his work, but never gets there as Proust and Wordsworth do, instantaneously, with the magic of memory and imagination. The plight of Beckett's protagonists confirms Wordsworth's belief that self and the world can only be known through the senses that connect them, through sensation passing into thought that passes back into sensation. (p. 141)
Beckett's characters conspicuously lack a sensuous life. Their hatred of sex confirms Lawrence's observation that sex contemplated coldly by the disembodied mind must seem disgusting…. Death in Beckett is birth reversed; these characters have almost returned to the womb, but cannot quite die because death is a physical event whereas consciousness cannot conceive its own extinction. "If only I were alive inside," says the jarred head of The Unnamable, "one might look forward to heart-failure." This voice, which cannot avoid naming and renaming the unnamable self, says later: "Ah if only this voice could stop, this meaningless voice which prevents you from being nothing, just barely prevents you from being nothing and nowhere."
Beckett dramatizes with a force unequalled in our literature the solipsistic condition of modern man who must fabricate reality out of his own head…. The voice of The Unnamable finds not only himself but his environment a fabrication of his own words: "wherever I go I find me, leave me, go towards me, come from me, nothing ever but me." "Everything was tainted with myself," writes Lawrence who, in his poem "New Heaven and Earth," breaks out by discovering through touch the otherness of his wife's body. Indeed, Beckett's characters exemplify all that Lawrence, Yeats, and other modern writers I am discussing most feared for the future of human identity. It is from such solipsism, such final diminution and retreat of the vital outgoing Wordsworthian self, that Yeats and Lawrence try to deliver us.
Since Beckett's work—which emerged in the 1950s—follows theirs, he clearly does not think that they and others who have tried to reconstitute the romantic self have succeeded. He seems to insist that, in spite of all the fine writing, his portrayal of the diminished self remains, to quote the title of his prose poem, How It Is. Beckett, who thoroughly understands the romantic position, poses a problem for a literary study such as this one. For if the problem of identity is a real problem in modern life, then can literature do anything about it, can the best writing in the world make us restructure our identity? Beckett would seem to be saying that things can only get worse, seeing that God is dead and has been dead so long that Beckett's characters often seem to have forgotten His name. Nietzsche and the post-Nietzschean romanticists tell us that man can transcend himself and thus give himself the identity he used to derive from God's eye. Beckett says he cannot.
Yet Beckett's report on humanity is not the worst conceivable. For his characters, who belong to the idealistic side of the Cartesian split, suffer from their desolation; except for the parodied Winnie, they do not think they are happy—as do the cheery, efficient last men (the objective, mechanical men who have not transcended themselves) of Nietzsche's devastating satire [Zarathustra.]… These are the machines, not Beckett's disintegrating solitaries. These collective men—who deny life's pain, rubbing against each other and taking drugs to ward it off—are more easily recognizable in the world around us than Beckett's essentially religious characters who require only one companion to assure them they exist and whose humanity resides in the awareness we share with them of what is lacking. (pp. 141-44)
Robert Langbaum, "Beckett: Zero Identity" (originally published under a different title in The Georgia Review, Winter, 1976), in his The Mysteries of Identity (copyright © 1977 by Robert Langbaum; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 120-44.