Beckett, Samuel (Vol. 18)
Beckett, Samuel 1906–
Beckett is an Irish-born playwright, novelist, poet, critic, essayist, short story writer, and translator who now resides in Paris and writes predominantly in French. He is usually grouped with Pinter, Genet, and Ionesco as a member of the Theatre of the Absurd. Beckett, according to Robert Martin Adams, "has kept open the possibilities of humanity by cutting the throat of literature and forcing his readers to confront naked conditions of mere existence—without sham exhilaration or despair, but coldly, very coldly." His existential, absurdist themes are reinforced by a style that experiments with formlessness and fragmented language, reflecting the influence of James Joyce, to whom Beckett was both secretary and literary colleague. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. Beckett has had a major influence on contemporary drama. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, 14, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[From] his earliest prose Beckett gives himself a persona, a personal representative whom he can know and probe as cosa mentale, yet he presents him at first as engaged in the non-existent external world, and his resource must then be to show the connexion as grotesque, so that the character alternately attempts it and withdraws from it, in burlesque indecision: this is what we may call the Belacqua phase of Beckett.
More Pricks than Kicks (1934) is (as might be guessed from its obscene though unassuming title) marked and annulled by the author's frantic self-consciousness: in these short stories Beckett is never done with torturing the language, which constantly approximates to fine writing and is constantly brought back to the level of jest or parody. The persona here is Belacqua, a character taken straight from Canto IV of the Purgatorio, where Dante sees him as 'more idle than if laziness itself were his sister'. In Dante's poem Belacqua is found among those souls who out of sheer sloth have always postponed repentance in their mortal life, and who are condemned to wait for their admission to Purgatory for a period equivalent to that of their stay on earth. Here we surely have a foretaste of Waiting for Godot. But it is worth noting that while for Dante's Belacqua 'waiting' is a period of expectancy and looking forward, for Beckett's it is a completely negative experience. At any rate in...
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The characters of Beckett's plays, from Waiting for Godot to those in the dramatic pieces comprising Ends and Odds, take their places in a playworld in which the atmosphere is permeated with a sense of the absurd. Invariably, Beckett's characters are metaphors for modern—or universal—man, puzzling over his inability to detect an intelligible pattern and suffering the consequent anguish of a futile search for meaning. The characteristic state of mind of a Beckett character is despair. (p. 53)
By virtue of the self-reflective quality of his theater, virtually every play of Beckett's is populated with metafictional characters. The sole physical presence in Krapp's Last Tape (1958), for example, is simultaneously playwright, performer, and audience…. In Happy Days (1961), Winnie, buried in sand first up to her waist and then up to her neck, is both actor and audience in a world in which one's actions, limited though they may be, must be witnessed in order to be authenticated…. And, perhaps the most pared-down presentation of self and other, the screenplay Film (1964) gives us a clear sense of actor and audience through the unspeaking characters of O and E, observed and observer, who in the end merge into one man's self-perception.
Among the more extended examples of Beckett's sense of the theatricality of life is Waiting for Godot, in which Didi and Gogo, surely the...
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[Both Footfalls and That Time] are short, austere dramas, comparable to Not I…. Their actions are located essentially in the minds of characters who are listening to the voice(s) of consciousness reeling out, like Krapp's tapes, "ends and odds" of disjointed memories and stories: the fragmented awareness of being in time, but not in harmony with it. Measuring time and being measured by it are the basic topics. The conflict, as almost always in Beckett's works, is between the disintegrating body and the questioning mind, both caught inexplicably in time while slowly moving toward death. The mind and its words attempt to take the measure of the body's existence, trying to tell how it is and was and will be, now and forevermore. The problem, however, as Malone states it, is that "my body does not yet make up its mind"—that is, in the sense of completing and directing it. Even death is kept waiting while the mind broods and babbles over the vast abyss of unilluminated consciousness. Beyond both mind and body stretches the mysterious quiddity of existence, unjustified to man. (p. 473)
Throughout his writing for forty-five years now Beckett has been deeply concerned with the aesthetic and epistemological implications of time consciousness. In his Proust, written in 1931, Beckett rather ingeniously develops an analysis that is one part description of the "inner chronology" of Proust's art and another...
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Eric P. Levy
The Lost Ones demonstrates, as clearly as any of Beckett's longer efforts in prose fiction, how much each successive work depends on what has preceded. This is not simply a matter of treating the familiar themes of fruitless motion, attrition, or the inevitable return to solitary confinement. Beyond these, the text reaches back to earlier works for both the details of the story and its narrative approach….
The text introduces us to a severely geometric world: the interior of a cylinder where a tribe of naked bodies pursues a barren existence. Crowded into a small space, each body has just enough room to stand. Since each is moved by the need to search "for its lost one" and indeed seems animated by nothing more than this necessity, some order must prevail in the cylinder for motion to be possible. (p. 164)
The Lost Ones far more concerns the limitations of narration than the torment of bodies in a cylinder. The story becomes a symbol or means of representing the movement of the narrator behind it, and only by remembering this will we discover what necessity drives the Lost Ones. Repeatedly, we are reminded that everything in the story, from the dimensions of the cylinder to the behaviour of its people, exists only as a narrative object at the whim of its narrator. Recurring phrases such as, "for the sake of harmony," "seen from a certain angle," "always assuming," and "if this notion is maintained,"...
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"Reduce, reduce, reduce!" wrote Marcel Duchamp, proclaiming a new credo for artistic composition. Beckett has taken the manifesto at its word, for in his short prose pieces to construct means quite literally to reduce. Ideas collapse into words, contemplation backslides into sensation, and stories revert to color, texture, sensibility, and sensuality. Definitively incomplete, Beckett's formal condensation undermines the elusive and sometimes suspicious relations between his minimalist prose and all other things: "Objects give us everything," Duchamp continued, "but their representation no longer gives us anything." Disengaged from representational imagery and therefore not emblematic, Beckett's work makes us discover in residual prose the literary potential of compressed and frequently abstract patterns, their human overtones, their fleshy colors, and, above all, their pervasive texture of "mucous membrane."
As early as Imagination Dead Imagine Beckett offers us a story without the intrusion of any proper subject: "No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead, good, imagination dead imagine. Islands, waters, azure, verdure, one glimpse and vanished, endlessly, omit." Beckett asks his reader to imagine a totally white world in which imagination itself has finally died…. Concentrating on images drawn, abstracted, and metamorphosed from nature, Imagination Dead Imagine...
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