Beckett's Dying Words the Clarendon Lectures, 1990

by Christopher B. Ricks
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By “dying words,” Christopher Ricks does not mean to discuss, literally, Samuel Beckett’s deathbed utterances. If Beckett had indeed articulated some final words, Ricks has nothing to report to his readers—nor to his audience during the 1990 Clarendon Lectures, from which this volume derives. To be sure, Ricks had been acquainted—but only casually—with Beckett. He met the playwright twice, briefly; and the two exchanged a terse correspondence, mostly on technical linguistic topics. After Beckett’s death in December of 1989, a London newspaper requested Ricks to write an obituary, but he declined. Several years earlier, he had written a tribute to Beckett for the Sunday Times (London). Yet in a sense, Beckett’s Dying Words is a definitive obituary for the man, just as it is a supreme tribute. Ricks focuses upon the essential theme of Beckett’s lifetime work as an artist: the quest for dying.

From Beckett’s earliest publication, an essay treating James Joyce, Our Examination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (1929), to his last posthumously published work,Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1992), the dour Irishman penned his “dying words”; all his inquiries into death, from Whoroscope (1930) to Nohow On (1989), center around words that come to terms with dying—with puns, tricks of language, play of ideas, private and public ironies. Fully to appreciate Beckett as a person and as an artist, the reader must observe, without flinching and without distaste, the writer obsessed with death. Ricks’s special contribution to our understanding of Beckett is his steady, empathetic observation of the writer’s death-words. In a true sense of the word, Beckett is consumed with morbidity, that is the matter of dying, and with language that expresses a condition of dying.

Ricks divides his study, as presumably he had organized his lectures, into four main parts, which are chapters of the book. The chapter subtitles describe the content of each part: “Death,” “Words That Went Dead,” “Languages, Both Dead and Living,” and “The Irish Bull.” A brief “Postscript” dated December, 1989, concludes the volume with commemorative pages.

Once the reader manages a passage through the turbulence of chapter 1, the rest of the book is smooth sailing. In that first part Ricks argues that the death instinct in literature is quite as powerful as that of vitality. Moreover, he insists that the “wish to die” is every bit as keen as the urge to endure. Although Beckett is at the center of this investigation, he is by no means the only advocate. Ricks cites, among others, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, A. E. Housman, Sebastien Chamfort, and Thomas Hardy. A unifying argument of these sometime advocates of death-over-life is expressed without equivocation by the chorus in Sophocles’Oedipus at Colonus:

that it is better to be dead than alive; that the greatest good is never to have been born. Whereas the notables mentioned above—and other writers as well—have been quoted on occasion to approve Sophocles’ sentiments, Beckett of all writers is most persistent in his philosophical assent. Just as The Oxford Book of Death (1983) provides an anthology of brief readings on the topics of dying and death, so Beckett’s work, taken in totality, offers his readers a similar “anthology,” but one that is philosophically unified.

Ricks treats this matter, one which may trouble some admirers of Beckett’s writings, forthrightly and with sympathy. His approach is never condescending, as from a healthy to an unhealthy mental consciousness. For Ricks, Beckett’s point of view is not curious, odd, or unwholesome. To him Beckett is morbid not in a pejorative but a descriptive sense of the word. Moreover, Ricks places Beckett’s morbidity into the context of philosophical discourse, rather than psychological aberration. Although aware of Freud’s concept of the death impulse beyond the “pleasure principle,” Ricks chooses not to examine Beckett from a Freudian stance. To put the issue bluntly, Ricks appears to believe that the Irishman’s viewpoint is correct, or at least defensible. With wit and sanity he examines the larger implications of the death-urge. More than a study of Beckett’s dying words, Ricks’s slender volume is one of the great twentieth century essays on the subject of dying.

In Ricks’s judgment, Beckett was aware of different kinds of death. One form of literary death is the demise of language, of words that no longer are “alive” with meaning. Ricks shows how Beckett parodies words that have become “abstracted to death”; phrases that are merely cliche’s; words that have achieved a “resurrection” into different usage; and words (as well as ideas) that deserve an obituary. To probe Beckett’s language, Ricks uses both English and French versions of the writer’s work. Because Beckett customarily translated his writing from one language to the other, he was acutely sensitive to the slightest variation in the tone of different speech forms. Ricks is similarly sensitive to language. A master of French, Ricks perceives the finest nuances of meaning that Beckett had intended to suggest in words from both tongues. Indeed, Beckett’s Dying Words ought to be useful for translators, no matter what languages they use; for Ricks understands perfectly the art—and dangers—of translation.

As a matter of fact, as a stylist Ricks at times appears to be a continuation of Beckett. Such praise is great, but not excessive. Close, attentive reflection upon Beckett’s language has had the admirable effect upon Ricks of imitating many of the master’s virtues. Like Beckett’s prose, Ricks’s is spare, direct, musical, incantatory. His principle is one of condensation—of making the most of the fewest words; and of clarity—of making the obscure appear obvious. These stylistic talents are also gifts of the poet. At his best, Ricks’s prose resembles poetry.

At no point in the book is the virtue more apparent than in the final section, “The Irish Bull.” Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “a self-contradictory proposition…in modem use an expression containing a manifest contradiction in terms or involving a ludicrous inconsistency unperceived by the speaker,” the Bull is further defined as “often with [the] epithetIrish,” although the word “had been long in use before it came to be associated with Irishmen.” Ricks cites the OED definition, as well as the one from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:“A blunder, or inadvertent contradiction of terms, for which the Irish are proverbial.”

Although the definitions quoted are from impeccable sources, Ricks begs to differ—or rather to quibble—with these standard interpretations. First, he examines the Irish Bull in terms of literary and linguistic history of usage, including such modern variations as malapropisms by former vice president of the United States Dan Quayle. Older examples of the Bull include those by Thomas Carlyle, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, Dr. Johnson, and others. With scholarly delight Ricks examines the classic “Essay on Irish Bulls” (1802) by Maria Edgeworth and Richard Lovell Edgeworth. After this extensive survey, Ricks argues his own point of view. To him a definition of the Irish Bull must allow for some perception that the speaker (or the reader) is aware of the presumed blunder—indeed, that the blunder may not at all events be so.

For Ricks, the matter is more than a scholarly quibble over definitions, because he believes that Beckett’s use of the Bull is a necessary part of the artist’s vision. Embedded within the logical inconsistencies of the Bull may be a different kind of logic, a different reality. Ricks shows how Beckett’s presumed inconsistencies and presumed blunders parody logic, yet—often with comic effect—revitalize “dead” forms of logic. To make his point clear, he cites a “bouquet” of fifteen Bulls from Beckett, both in English and French. So carefully has Ricks prepared his readers for this lesson, that he does not have to analyze the content of the Bulls. The reader understands.

Perhaps the major contribution of Ricks’s study to the already vast accumulation of Beckett criticism is the writer’s ability to get into the Irishman’s mind. Ricks plays with the same tricks of language. As a consummate teacher, he shows his readers (or his audience at the Clarendon Lectures) not simply how to understand particular passages in Beckett, but how to learn Beckett’s habits of thought. An example of Ricks’s pedagogy is his brief but cogent exposition of the playwright’s Gaelic borrowings. In order fully to appreciate the wit of an Irishman, Ricks holds that one should think like an Irishman. Because Beckett’s Irish is at once modern and retrospective to the older traditions, Ricks explains how Beckett uses “dead languages, … mother tongues, and… stepmother tongues.” Once Ricks completes his lesson, his readers are able to puzzle out Beckett without help, even from the critic’s sensitive guidance. Consider, for example, the title Ricks has chosen: “Beckett’s Dying Words.” With the addition of a single word, the phrase becomes an Irish Bull—a seeming contradiction which is nevertheless true. That word turns a supposed blunder into a paradoxical reality: Beckett’s dying words live.

Sources for Further Study

Bostonia. Winter, 1993-1994, p.78.

The New Criterion. XXII, January, 1994, p. 65.

New Statesman and Society. VI, July 16, 1993, p. 39.

The New York Review of Books. XL, December 16, 1993, p.42.

The Spectator. CCLXXI, August 28, 1993, p.31.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 1, 1993, p.7.

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