Beckett, Samuel 1906–
A Nobel Prize-winning dramatist, novelist, poet, essayist, critic, short story writer, and translator, Beckett was born in Ireland, and currently resides in Paris. His cryptic, often nightmarish vision creates a world of insignificance and nothingness. Mixing comic elements with tragic, he parallels the helpless plight of his characters with a disintegration of language and form. Philosophically, Beckett has been linked with Sartre, Camus, and Kafka, while stylistically some have compared him with James Joyce. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
One has to go back to Samuel Beckett's first published fictional work to find the image that is to figure almost continuously in the novels as well as in the plays, to find the character round which the Beckett world moved. The collection of short stories which make up the volume called More Pricks than Kicks relates the adventures of Belacqua…. Here is a stasis that was to pursue (or should it be pin down) those creations that were to stand out in so markedly an individual manner.
Nor was it by chance that the hero in this book was named Belacqua. The Dante in the title of the first story gives the clue. The name comes straight out of the Purgatorio. Little seems to be known about him in real life except that he was a lute maker in Florence, a friend of Dante and notorious for his indolence and apathy. He comes into the fourth canto of the Purgatorio…. [Dante's lines describing Belacqua] are reflected in the position taken up by Beckett's hero near the end of the story called "A Wet Night": "[he] disposed himself in the knee-and-elbow position on the pavement."… [Finally] he creeps with his poor trunk parallel to the horizon. Here we have the mode of locomotion that was to be repeated by characters in subsequent novels and in his … work Comment c'est where we are introduced to a painful cyclical crawl, symbolizing, perhaps, among other things, the slow progression of mankind. However, in "A Wet Night" Belacqua desists out of weariness from this method of self-propulsion and takes up the position I mentioned earlier, disposing himself in the knee-and-elbow position on the pavement.
It was thus that Botticelli depicted Belacqua in his drawing to illustrate this canto of the Purgatorio. I have seen it in a reproduction, showing him with his head between his clasped knees and with one eye fixed on Dante and Virgil, suggesting that he is even too weary to raise his head or to join his indolent companions in their mockery of the two poet visitors. (pp. 37-40)
When Beckett changes to writing his novels in French he leaves behind him much of the humor, grim as it was, in his previous work. He has less interest in making his characters indulge in games to pass the time as in Waiting for Godot. They are now concentrating on their pénible task of dying. In the opening passage of Molloy, the narrator says that what he wants to speak of are the things that are left, "say my goodbyes, finish dying." He remembers "in the tranquility of decomposition the long confused emotion that was my life." (May I point out the cynical echo of the well-known Wordsworth definition of poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquility")…. [There is little doubt] that there is an evolutionary process from Dante to the Belacqua of More Pricks than Kicks and through the various stages as manifested by the Murphys, Molloys, Morans, Watts, Estragons, Hamms, culminating in the Pims of Comment c'est.
Beckett has not given up the Belacqua picture. The embryo has haunted him to such an extent that in the final novel of his trilogy, the one called L'Innommable, he tries, in a frenzy of self-examination, to find out who these heroes of his are. He ranges over the characters he has created, Murphy, Watt, Malone, Molloy, Mahood and picks on a new one whom he calls Worm. He wants to reduce them all to silence. He wants to reduce himself to silence and for a moment he finds solace in the thought of Worm. He would rather that Worm took over from the others with whom he frankly identifies himself. To be Worm means to be away from the world, away from all the other characters who have taken possession of him and at last to think nothing, to feel nothing. For this is himself, himself in embryo—literally in embryo. Many pages are given up to the description of womb life, that is life in the womb, if you can call it life. He would rather not call it by that name. There he cannot stir even though he suffers as a result. Indeed with bitter Beckettian irony he declares that "it would be to sign his life-warrant to stir from where he is." It is again Belacqua's weary phrase: "L'andare in su che porta?" What's the use in going up? Never in the history of literature (at least as I know it) has there been so poignant, so despairing a description of birth. Surely no one has ever dared to speak out of the womb as Beckett does here. Perhaps psychoanalysts may be able to send their recumbent patients sufficiently far back into their unconscious to imagine their unborn state but at the very most it could scarcely be much more than a blur—a clouded image based on knowledge acquired in life itself. Thus in the L'Innommable we are back to the foetal image of the unborn, the Botticelli drawing of Belacqua, Dante's Florentine friend, the lazy lute maker.
I referred earlier to the evolutionary process in the Beckett characters but the word "evolutionary" is hardly the right one in this connection, for it is normally associated with progression, with a series of biological changes, each improving on the previous condition. In Beckett's world the subject who has begun his fictional existence with his head on his knees...
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Beckett's trilogy [Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable] is for all its apparent formlessness a close-knit structural unit, though the novels are related to each other more through their form and direction than through any obvious system of interrelated characters or events. All of them are narrated in the first person. Each of them deals with a figure or figures whose condition is purged of the specific, that is, of those qualities which would detract from his universality or from his status as a metaphor for some aspect of human experience. The heroes of the trilogy are all artists, all writers and hence creators; yet they all exhibit a disgust for life to be matched only by the tenacity with which they hold on to it. All of them are models of the egocentric, but as the series progresses toward The Unnamable the narrators' worlds tighten and shrink. It is almost as if Beckett were examining layer by layer the mind of the artist and the sources of his inspiration. It follows that the Unnamable speaks from within the cave of the self in the voice of some obscene male sibyl. He spews upon the receptive page a steady stream of heavily-punctuated but almost disembodied thought.
In terms of our own experience this third novel is the monologue of a deaf mute who is at least partially blind and totally incapable of movement. Unfortunately for him, this seemingly hermetic existence is only semi-autonomous…. With his range of choice reduced to an almost absolute minimum, he persists in choosing and speculating. If the Unnamable has a body, he has no senses which would enable him to feel it. Nevertheless, he hears voices which assure him of his physical existence. In response to these he pours his being by turns into idealized creations of his fancy. In the past he has identified with the heroes of Beckett's other novels, Murphy, Watt, Molloy, and Malone; now he becomes or posits [Mahood or Worm]…. On one level of interpretation we see these two suffering creatures as projections of the psyche of a suffering god whom we must identify with the Unnamable himself. They are screens for the essential formlessness of the hero, shapes given to the half-formed doubts and the torment of the nameless and the inarticulate.
In this connection the reader familiar with the earlier novels Murphy and Watt will recall Murphy's favorite patient at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, Mr. Endon, the psychotic whose name and condition suggest his function. Mr. Endon is Murphy's ideal, the perfect closed system, impervious to outside influence. His successor, Watt's employer, the godlike Mr. Knott, is in some ways even more so. Consciously or not, all of Beckett's characters are approaching this state. In the trilogy, Molloy is in quest of the womb, Moran is in quest of the Molloy in himself; the bedridden Malone writes out his days from the shelter of a sort of improvised room-womb. But the Unnamable's position is clearly the zenith. It is characteristic of Beckett's humor that this creature, situated on the brink of nirvana, yearns after the world of objects. In him the extremes meet. Paradise leans close to hell. (pp. 130-31)
Although to Beckett's mind all mankind is in purgatory, each of the books in the trilogy contains ironically presented elements of all three of man's postmortal states. Furthermore, each of the three novels puts the ironic emphasis upon one of these states. Molloy is infernal, Malone Dies is purgatorial, and The Unnamable is paradisal. However, paradox is Beckett's stock in trade, and though The Unnamable as a novel depicts an ostensibly ideal state, the novel's central figure is in purgatory. Embodying as he does both the unmerited punishment of Worm and the equally unmerited rewards of Mahood, he is seen as forming a middle ground between heaven and hell.
In his article "Dante … Bruno. Vico … Joyce," Beckett defines hell as "the static lifelessness of unrelieved viciousness. Paradise the static lifelessness of unrelieved immaculation. Purgatory a flood of movement and vitality released by the conjunction of these two elements."
Although the preceding passage was designed to explain Joyce's concept of existence, Beckett seems also to be defining his own view. We need not be surprised therefore that at each stage in his heroes' adventures apparent hell and apparent heaven give way to the only reality which man knows, that is, the constant purgatory of existence…. Thus the questing creatures, Beckett's tormented heroes, can, in spite of their apparent progress toward the pure state of bodilessness, do nothing more than accomplish the purgatorial spiral, moving ever inward—toward the immaculate and endless purgatory of The Unnamable. His...
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Just as the 'quality of language' in Proust was more important than 'any system of ethics or aesthetics' [according to Beckett], so the quality of an experience in Beckett's theatre becomes more important than any system of 'meaning' that might be extracted from the words of the text or from the 'symbolism' of the sets, characters, and actions. A dramatic art is created that is 'symbolic without symbolism'.
The purpose of this article is to explore further the implications of [his] statement 'form is content, content is form' for Beckett's drama and to show that the allegorical approach, which is misleading when applied to the novels, is even less appropriate as a response to the plays....
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The most basic questions [in criticism] have to do with what in conventional literature would be called character and setting. But Beckett's reduction has robbed us of the use of these terms; at best we can speak only of the person or persons described in the pieces and the various places occupied. Who are the persons and where are the places?… [The Beckettian hero] is Everyman on his way from womb to tomb, traveling a journey not of his own choosing, but one thrust upon him by some obscure bungler who seems to be in charge of things…. [Each] is man suffering the absurdity of being forced to live on the planet Earth.
That the particular area of suffering is the hero's mind is suggested by a...
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John Calder has estimated that, if the present production of books continues unabated, Beckett will by the year 2000 rank fourth behind Jesus, Napoleon, and Wagner among the most written about persons in the world! While it is understandable that the puzzles of this very puzzled man would provoke such a plethora of books and articles, it is rather ironic that a writer who is "at home on the path of silence" would command such a talkative audience. (p. 5)
Beckett is not fully appreciated as what he is: a player. Persons who have noted the element of play in Beckett have tended to construe play as merely one dimension among others in Beckett's vision. A more adequate reading locates in "existence is...
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All the literary turns of [Beckett's] work never obscure his vital presence for me—that of an Irishman talking on and on, endlessly imagining forms, his words, pauses, silences mysteriously reinventing our sense of reality and time. No one writing today takes such complete pleasure in language as Beckett. No one is as conscious of the responsibility and delight of passing that pleasure on to his audience. (p. 58)
Maureen Howard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 4, 1977.
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"A unique moral figure," I wrote of [Beckett] five years ago, "not a dreamer of rose gardens but a cultivator of what will grow in the wasteland, who can make us see the exhilarating design that thorns and yucca share with whatever will grow anywhere." It's 30 years—is that conceivable?—since he wrote "Godot," a play still perfectly vital, its eloquence spare then, still spare now, het positively garrulous by the standards he sets himself today. In the late months of his 72d year, he bends more and more effort on fewer and fewer words, still pursuing his impossible ambition of making silence sing. The most frequent stage direction in "Godot" was "Pause." Last year in "Footfalls," a play like a late...
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Among living writers, I most admire Samuel Beckett because he is the least living of them. "Imagination Dead Imagine," he says, as if he already speaks to us from the other side. Nothing in his work is the least fashionable, and yet no other writer—not even Virgil or Dante—has been more avant-garde than Beckett. And very few writers—excepting Swift and Kafka—have been so funny and terrifying at once as Samuel Beckett. The great ones always speak from the other side….
As for his language—the basic and ultimate test of a writer's value—Beckett compares well even with great modern poets. For this I admire him most of all. (p. 62)
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