Beckett, Samuel (Vol. 11)
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.)
A. J. Leventhal
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...
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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...
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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. (p. 12)
For all his obvious familiarity with a wide range of philosophical speculation, Beckett has persistently rejected the philosopher's quest for a systematic statement about the nature of reality…. It is by the operation of habit, he argues in Proust, that man contrives to ignore changes both internal and external, and so imposes a system upon the flux of experience. He insists that 'the creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day', and glosses 'habit' as 'the generic term for the countless treaties concluded between the countless subjects that constitute the individual and their countless correlative objects. The countless selves that constitute 'the individual'...
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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 correspondence between some of the places occupied and the imagined interior of the human skull. But this correspondence is not needed to establish the sphere of human consciousness as the place described in each piece. Since Watt's futile struggle with the macrocosm, the successive heroes (except for the distraught protagonist of From an Abandoned Work) have descended ever deeper into the recesses of the microcosm. It is hardly possible that the surreal landscapes and interiors of this fiction are anything other than soulscapes of the mind. That the slime of How It Is and the sulfurous light of The Lost Ones resemble Dante's hell implies nothing more than Beckett's conviction that to be conscious is to be in a kind of hell....
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Ted L. Estess
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 play" the foundational metaphor of his entire literary cosmos. (pp. 5-6)
Playing … is the principal strategy by which Beckett's people establish existential meaning, however ephemeral and truncated, in a time when all inherited paradigms of meaning have dissolved into nothingness. Shuttled against the collapse of what Beckett terms the "teleological hypothesis" as legitimation for existence, Beckett's characters find a way of continuing a-telic play…. Through play, his characters go on after the old structures of meaning have paled into insignificance and before new structures—e.g., Godot, the self, the end—have appeared. Whether these new structures of human significance will emerge is a moot question...
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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 Beethoven quartet, the most eloquent voice was that of a girl not speaking, simply pacing, pacing, very possibly a girl not there, since the last spills of light did not show her at all. Beckett's words, some for her, some to her, some about her, were uttered by a mouth we could not see, and were never more beautiful.
This gentle, generous, punctilious man appears on no talk shows, offers no opinions, grants no interviews, and writes sentences. I could show you a Beckett sentence as elegant in its implications as the binomial theorem, and another as economically sphynx-like as the square root of minus one, and another, on trees in the night, for which half of Wordsworth would seem a fair exchange. The declarative sentence, he...
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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)
Leonard Michaels, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 4, 1977.
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