illustrated portrait of Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett

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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. In Beckett's drama, the traditional literary concepts of time, place, dramatic language, and character are suspended, as the playwright explores the meaning of existence and its presentation. The viewer is presented with fragments of sentences in the place of dialogue, and characters whose identities and even names remain in question. The recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1969, Beckett continues to influence contemporary drama and to inspire critical exegesis as perhaps no one else has in contemporary literature. (See also CLC, Vols. 1,2,3,4,6,9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Alain Robbe-Grillet

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The human condition, Heidegger says, is to be there. Probably it is the theater, more than any other mode of representing reality, which reproduces this situation most naturally. The dramatic character is on stage, that is his primary quality: he is there.

Samuel Beckett's encounter with this requirement afforded a priori, an exceptional interest: at last we would see Beckett's man, we would see Man. For the novelist, by carrying his explorations ever farther, managed only to reduce more on every page our possibilities of apprehending him. (p. 111)

Thus all these creatures which have paraded past us served only to deceive us; they occupied the sentences of the novel in place of the ineffable being who still refuses to appear there, the man incapable of recuperating his own existence, the one who never manages to be present.

But now we are in the theater. And the curtain goes up….

The set represents nothing, or just about. (p. 112)

This is called Waiting for Godot. The performance lasts nearly three hours.

From this point of view alone, there is something surprising: during these three hours, the play holds together, without a hollow, though it consists of nothing but emptiness, without a break, though it would seem to have no reason to continue or to conclude. From beginning to end, the audience follows; it may lose countenance sometimes, but remains somehow compelled by these two beings, who do nothing, who say virtually nothing, who have no other quality than to be present.

From the very first performance, the virtually unanimous critics have emphasized the public character of the spectacle. As a matter of fact, the words "experimental theater" no longer apply here: what we have is simply theater, which everyone can see, from which everyone immediately derives his enjoyment.

Is this to say that no one misjudges it? Of course not. Godot is misjudged in every way, just as everyone misjudges his own misery. There is no lack of explanations, which are offered from every side, left and right, each more futile than the next.

Godot is God. Don't you see that the word is the diminutive of the root-word God which the author has borrowed from his mother tongue? After all, why not? Godot—why not, just as well?—is the earthly ideal of a better social order. Do we not aspire to a better life, better food, better clothes, as well as to the possibility of no longer being beaten? And this Pozzo, who is precisely not Godot—is he not the man who keeps thought enslaved? Or else Godot is death: tomorrow we will hang ourselves, if it does not come all by itself. Godot is silence; we must speak while waiting for it: in order to have the right, ultimately, to keep still. Godot is that inaccessible self Beckett pursues through his entire oeuvre , with this constant hope: "This...

(This entire section contains 2317 words.)

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time, perhaps, it will be me, at last."

But these images, even the most ridiculous ones, which thus try as best they can to limit the damages, do not obliterate from anyone's mind the reality of the drama itself, that part which is both the most profound and quite superficial, about which there is nothing else to say: Godot is that character for whom two tramps are waiting at the edge of a road, and who does not come.

As for Gogo and Didi, they refuse even more stubbornly any other signification than the most banal, the most immediate one: they are men. And their situation is summed up in this simple observation, beyond which it does not seem possible to advance: they are there, they are on the stage.

Attempts doubtless already existed, for some time, which rejected the stage movement of the bourgeois theater. Godot, however, marks in this realm a kind of finality. Nowhere had the risk been so great, for what is involved this time, without ambiguity, is what is essential; nowhere, moreover, have the means employed been so poor; yet never, ultimately, has the margin of misunderstanding been so negligible. (pp. 114-16)

What does Waiting for Godot offer us? It is hardly enough to say that nothing happens in it. That there should be neither complications nor plot of any kind has already been the case on other stages. Here, it is less than nothing, we should say: as if we were watching a kind of regression beyond nothing. As always in Samuel Beckett, what little had been given to us at the start—and which seemed to be nothing—is soon corrupted before our eyes, degraded further, like Pozzo who returns deprived of sight, dragged on by Lucky deprived of speech—and like, too, that carrot which in the second act is no longer anything but a radish….

"This is becoming really insignificant," one of the vagabonds says at this point. "Not enough," says the other. And a long silence punctuates his answer.

It will be evident, from these two lines, what distance we have come from the verbal delirium [found in theater before Beckett]. From start to finish, the dialogue of Godot is moribund, extenuated, constantly located at those frontiers of agony where all of Beckett's "heroes" move, concerning whom we often cannot even be certain that they are still on this side of their death. (pp. 116-17)

As for the argument, it is summarized in four words: "We're waiting for Godot"—which continually recur, like a refrain. But like a stupid and tiresome refrain, for such waiting interests no one; it does not possess, as waiting, the slightest stage value. It is neither a hope, nor an anguish, nor even a despair. It is barely an alibi.

In this general dilapidation, there is a kind of culminating point—that is to say, under the circumstances, the reverse of a culminating point: a nadir, an oubliette…. There is nothing left on stage but [a] wriggling, whining heap, in which we then observe Didi's face light up as he says, in a voice almost calm again, "We are men!" (pp. 117-18)

Thought, even subversive thought, always has something reassuring about it. Speech—beautiful language—is reassuring too. How many misunderstandings a noble and harmonious discourse has created, serving as a mask either for ideas or for their absence!

Here, no misunderstanding: in Godot there is no more thought than there is beautiful language; neither one nor the other figures in the text except in the form of parody, of inside out once again, or of corpse. (p. 118)

Over seventy centuries of analysis and metaphysics have a tendency, instead of making us modest, to conceal from us the weakness of our resources when it comes to essentials. As a matter of fact, everything happens as if the real importance of a question was measured, precisely, by our incapacity to apply honest thinking to it, unless to make it retrogress.

It is this movement—this dangerously contagious retrogression—which all of Beckett's work suggests. (p. 120)

[Despite the disintegration around them, the] two tramps remain intact, unchanged. Hence we are certain, this time, that they are not mere marionettes whose role is confined to concealing the absence of the protagonist. It is not this Godot they are supposed to be waiting for who has "to be," but they, Didi and Gogo.

We grasp at once, as we watch them, this major function of theatrical representation: to show of what the fact of being there consists. For it is this, precisely, which we had not yet seen on a stage, or in any case which we had not seen so clearly, with so few concessions. The dramatic character, in most cases, merely plays a role, like the people around us who evade their own existence. In Beckett's play, on the contrary, everything happens as if the two tramps were on stage without having a role.

They are there; they must explain themselves. But they do not seem to have a text prepared beforehand and scrupulously learned by heart, to support them. They must invent. They are free.

Of course, this freedom is without any use: just as they have nothing to recite, they have nothing to invent either; and their conversation, which no plot sustains, is reduced to ridiculous fragments…. The only thing they are not free to do is to leave, to cease being there: they must remain because they are waiting for Godot…. They will still be there the next day, the day after that, and so on … tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow … from day to day … alone on stage, standing there, futile, without past or future, irremediably present.

But then man himself, who is there before our eyes, ends by disintegrating in his turn. The curtain rises on a new play: Endgame, an "old endgame lost of old," specifies Hamm, the protagonist.

No more than his predecessors, Didi and Gogo, has Hamm the possibility of leaving to go elsewhere. But the reason for this has become tragically physical: he is paralyzed, sitting in an armchair in the middle of the stage, and he is blind. Around him nothing but high bare walls, without accessible windows. Clov, a kind of attendant, half-impotent himself, tends as well as he can to the moribund Hamm: he manages to take him for a "turn," dragging the latter's chair on its casters around the edge of the stage, along the walls.

In relation to the two tramps, Hamm has therefore lost that ridiculous freedom they still possessed: it is no longer he who chooses not to leave. When he asks Clov to build a raft and to put him on it, in order to abandon his body to the ocean currents, it can this time only be a joke; as if Hamm, by immediately abandoning this project, were trying to give himself the illusion of a choice. As a matter of fact, he appears to us somehow imprisoned in his retreat; if he has no desire to emerge from it, he now does not have the means to do so either. This is a notable difference: the question for man is no longer one of affirming a position, but of suffering a fate.

And yet, within his prison, he still performs a parody of choice…. (pp. 120-22)

[Even in the] final image, we come back to the essential theme of presence: everything that is is here, off-stage there is only nothingness, nonbeing. It is not enough that Clov, up on a ladder to get to the tiny windows that open onto the outside pseudo-world, informs us with a phrase as to the landscape: an empty gray sea on one side and a desert on the other. In reality this sea, this desert—invisible, moreover, to the spectator—are uninhabitable in the strictest sense of the word: as much as a back cloth would be, on which might be painted the water or the sand. (p. 123)

[Everything] is present in time as it is in space. To this ineluctable here corresponds an eternal now: "Yesterday! What does that mean? Yesterday!" Hamm exclaims several times. And the conjunction of space and time merely affords, with regard to a possible third character, this certitude: "If he exists he'll die there or he'll come here."

Without past, without place elsewhere, without any future but death, the universe thus defined is necessarily deprived of sense in the two acceptations of the term in French: it excludes any ideas of direction as well as any signification.

Hamm is suddenly struck by a doubt: "We're not beginning to … to … mean something?" he asks with feeling. Clov immediately reassures him: "Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh.) Ah that's a good one!"

But this waiting for death, this physical misery which grows worse, these threats Hamm brandishes at Clov ("One day you'll be blind, like me. You'll be sitting there, a speck in the void, in the dark, for ever, like me. One day you'll say … I'm hungry, I'll get up and get something to eat. But you won't get up …"), all this gradual rot of the present constitutes, in spite of everything, a future.

Whence the fear of "meaning something" is perfectly justified: by this accepted consciousness of a tragic development, the world has thereby recovered its whole signification.

And in parallel, before such a threat (this future simultaneously terrible and fatal), one can say that the present is no longer anything, that it disappears, conjured away in its turn, lost in the general collapse. (pp. 123-24)

[Finally] Hamm is driven to the acknowledgment of his failure: "I was never there. Clov!… I was never there … Absent, always. It all happened without me…."

Once again the fatal trajectory has been made. Hamm and Clov, successors to Gogo and Didi, have again met with the common fate of all Beckett's characters: Pozzo, Lucky, Murphy, Molloy, Malone, Mahood, Worm, etc.

The stage, privileged site of presence, has not resisted the contagion for long. The progress of the disease has occurred at the same sure rate as in the narratives. After having believed for a moment that we had grasped the real man, we are then obliged to confess our mistake. Didi was only an illusion, that is doubtless what gave him that dancing gait, swaying from one leg to the other, that slightly clownlike costume…. He, too, was only the creature of a dream, temporary in any case, quickly falling back into the realm of dreams and fiction.

"I was never there," Hamm says, and in the face of this admission nothing else counts, for it is impossible to understand it other than in its most general form: No one was ever there. (pp. 124-25)

Alain Robbe-Grillet, "Samuel Beckett, or Presence on the Stage" (1953 and 1957), in his For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, translated by Richard Howard (reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.; copyright © 1965 by Grove Press, Inc.), Grove Press, 1965, pp. 111-25.

Germaine BréE

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Samuel Beckett's fictional world, especially Watt, contains a quasi-Rabelaisian parody of all the rhetorical and logical devices that have permitted Western man, like Beckett's Ubu-esque creation, the "man-pot" Mahood, to hold a "partially waterproof tarpaulin" over his skull. Describing, reasoning, discussing, examining—Beckett's characters never tire of these activities, though no two of them proceed in exactly the same way. They share our "deplorable mania" not only for "when something happens wanting to know what" but furthermore for wanting, like Watt, to know why. Beckett is thus something of a contemporary Faust who, through the agency of his characters, indiscriminately, and with ferocious humor, undermines all our past and present attempts to give reality an intelligible structure, to "think out" our human situation. (p. 74)

Like Joyce, perhaps still more than Joyce, Beckett seems marked by the scholasticism of his philosophy classes at Trinity College. We can find many traces of it in his imaginary world. Descartes and Geulincx are perhaps given an important role in his early novels because they broke with the great intellectual tradition which from Plato to Thomas Aquinas, via Aristotle, conceived creation as a moving hierarchy of creatures oriented toward a perfect and definitive form, a final cause, God. Descartes thus unintentionally prepared the way for Beckett's "great articulates"—creatures whose special articulation, in body, thought or speech, even though sadly defective, makes them forget that they are really "frightened vagabonds," willy-nilly dragging aimlessly along, dying by degrees, while words and images spin round and round inside their bony white skulls. Skulls, jars, rooms, or other habitations, and the monotonous surrounding "country" form the two inseparable and rhythmically alternating settings for the adventures of Beckett's great articulates: beings who travel, or rather wander, toward some illusory "home" or "refuge," telling each other their adventures, while their dual disarticulation proceeds insidiously, "by direct route."

Beckett's characters seem to parody the pre-Copernican theory that all incomplete and abortive forms move toward that which perfects them by completing them. They are strangely intent on travel if only in spirit, even when bedridden or "in jars," or on relating their travels; they seek one another and form unstable couples when, for a few brief moments, one seems to appear in order to complete the other…. Identified with each in turn, yet each time reemerging, modified by the contact, just as the different characters emerge from one another, there always finally remains he who is known only by his voice, a voice which, as a matter of fact, is not his own, the nameless one who is "alone here, the first and last" and nonetheless is never there, the animator of this verbal cosmos and source of its Logos, like the God of Genesis.

Murphy, tied to his rocking-chair by seven scarfs, attempting to attain perfect repose through an increasingly frenetic rocking can hardly fail to remind us, however vaguely, of certain Thomistic categories: that, for example, of celestial beings halfway between God and terrestrial beings who, since they are endowed with essential forms, know no other kind of movement than that of movement in repose. Murphy's ignominious fall, hindside foremost—which does not in the least discourage Murphy himself—is but the first of a whole series of falls precipitating Beckett's characters, one after the other, into any and every muddy ditch. Beckett thus brings out both the pathos and absurdity of our mental postures by grossly simplifying them and turning them into concrete situations which his characters act out physically: Pim (whose identity merges with that of the narrator of How It Is), his shoulders firmly encircled by an arm whose hand plunges into his bag, crawling in the mud with a can opener, his main educational toool, between his buttocks, is the latest, and strangest, of Beckett's fantastic inventions. (pp. 75-6)

A Beckett character's means of locomotion is a piece of factual evidence, a donnée such as might be discerned by an inhuman eye observing the successive variations each infinitesimal character brings to the continuous, irresistible movement carrying it along into the interior of an unchanging countryside.

Beckett's cosmos retains a few traces of the medieval sky, "a world up there" occasionally glimpsed "in the blue," far from the mud and excrements. Although the episodes in Murphy are located, with Joycean precision, in London and Beckett's early environment near Dublin, where Watt also begins and ends, the scenes of the succeeding novels become progressively vague…. [After] Watt, Beckett's characters evolve in a setting which is, on the whole, more in the tradition of Dante or of Milton; we sense a familiar metaphysical vision beyond the imaginary structure. (pp. 77-8)

All Beckett's characters, including Murphy, are victimized by words, and all, beginning with Watt, must contend with that voice, "qua-qua," presiding over the birth of characters and scenery which accompanies the reader as faithfully as Virgil accompanied Dante. Unlike Virgil, however, it has a wide range of tones, according to whether or not it asks, or answers, all the questions. (p. 79)

Speech is the animating principle of Beckett's comedy which, as such, is very far removed from that of Dante. Unlike Dante's tortured victims, Beckett's characters discuss their miserable and repugnant situation very calmly; they find it not only tolerable but, on the whole, fairly good and, primarily concerned over the possibility of eviction, accept its inevitable deterioration in good spirit. When it comes to describing this situation, enumerating its advantages, discussing its resources, effecting certain improvements hanging on, they could hardly be excelled. (p. 80)

If, however, these characters are commanded to tell a story or relate their own adventures, panic inevitably ensures. Molloy, Moran, Mahood, and others assume voices and forms as best they may, appear and disappear without ever being completely born; they die piecemeal, departing this life feet first as all must do, but without ever ceasing to disappear; meanwhile "the other," the nameless narrator who, after Watt, always begins the story in the first person, speaks on and on…. A sort of anguish hovers over the human comedy, the drama of a creation continually menaced by abortion, an unsuccessful enterprise, situated somewhere between darkness and light, which must always be re-begun.

Beckett's fiction, committed to failure, thus apparently stems from a very personal experience: this onerous obligation to speak—an activity of vital importance, inspired by a force that comes from "elsewhere," and frightens him because it threatens to plunge him down into the eighth circle of hell with the falsifiers in words—he who would have been so well satisfied with Belacqua's rock. In order to name "the unnamable," say "the unspeakable," he must resort to the "jokes," "fairy tales," and "lies" that will enable these specters to make their way toward light. At the same time Beckett is also faced with the cruel necessity of destroying his fable in order to protect himself, as best he can, against the possibility of being alienated (depredated, expropriated, dispossessed, dislodged, displaced) by "the other" that he has created. He is thus obliged to flout the forms emerging from his story by every possible means. He must annihilate everything susceptible of being annihilated; everything, in other words, that is part of himself. Beckett is not inclined to "upholster" the truth. He does not wish to add anything to reality, he does not wish to transform anything. This is why he has so little patience with those who attempt to reduce his "fables" to a system of clear ideas. As the narrator of The Unnamable remarks, with somewhat exaggerated eloquence: "Perhaps I shall be obliged, in order not to peter out, to invent another fairy-tale, yet another, with heads, trunks, arms, legs, and all that follows, let loose in the changeless round of imperfect shadow and dubious light."… The "others" who "pass by" the narrator are thus able, by dispossessing him, to "pass for" him, abandoning him, nameless, before an empty, "immeasurable" stretch of time which—sand, mud, water or whatever—insidiously suffocates him. These confrontations of narrator and character; the substitutions, during the course of the story, of one protagonist for another; the emergence, from nothingness, of one or several characters—sometimes an infinite series of new and sans imprévu "representatives," "agents," "surrogates," or "avatars" of "the unnamable"—these all give rise to considerable confusion, agitation, and also anguish. At such times Beckett's style begins to pant, take on incantatory overtones, produce a sense of uneasiness, while, both in contrast and in defiance, countering and neutralizing the incantation, irony, parody, and occasionally coarseness intervene, and the author begins to multiply his admonitions to himself: That's enough, no, not that; something went wrong here. During the whole course of the story the narrator comments on its developments: "Well, well, I wasn't expecting that"; "This will all have to be rewritten in the pluperfect"; "Now that we know where we're heading, let's go"; "What a bore"; "I'm fed up with all this make believe." He also occasionally addresses the reader: "I'm using the present tense, it's so easy to use the present tense when you're dealing with past events. It's the mythological present, don't pay any attention to it." It is up to us to decide which of the various "I"s is presently speaking, to keep up with the various verbal tricks and traps which often fit into existing patterns of rhetoric. Beckett here turns Joyce's devices to his own ends: puns, subtly dislocated quotations of prose or poetry, unexplained allusions, unfamiliar words taken from the technical language of philosophy, medicine, or natural history. In this respect he is nearer to Queneau than to any other contemporary writer. Since Beckett is extremely learned, no existing lexicon or encyclopedia would be adequate for those seeking a precise definition of every term or explanation of each allusion. These are all undoubtedly procedures characteristic of the epic form—negative, as it were anti-heroic, epics unfolding in an "immeasurable time"; "badly" told, taken up over and over again by the voice that animates the characters—characters vaguely aware that they are yet once again about to make gestures they have already made several times before. The evolving presence in Beckett's world is not so much the scenery and characters, "conveniences" that can easily be renewed, as the quality and behavior of this voice. Beckett sometimes indulges in surprisingly facile effects, lingers over puerile jokes; the voice idles along, fading into an interminable plashing sound; the same ironic dialogue monotonously recurs; the reader yawns. But the writer never abandons his hand-to-hand combat with language, his unceasing struggle to subject it to an "unnamable" truth resuscitated by this very combat and by-passed as soon as it is named, his own past-present.

Beckett's often brutal descriptive realism, which links him with the expressionists, should not obscure the specifically "fabulous" character of his novels. Murphy, despite the strangeness of its hero, is, from this point of view, still close to the familiar adventure story genre, solidly anchored in everyday reality. But beginning with Watt and the visit to Mr Knott, the strange and monstrous depths of Beckett's universe increasingly tend to absorb the characters who are part of himself. One is reminded of Odilon Redon's disturbing creatures; of the bizarre, although innocent, monsters Dubuffet seems to mold out of mud; or of Michaux's "properties." [As revealed in his article "Samuel Beckett and the Sheela-na-gig,"] Vivian Mercier, who is also Irish, considers Beckett's combination of the grotesque and the macabre a form of Irish humor that is also found in native legends and fairy tales. Beckett's characters remind him of "sheela-na-gig"—figurines with bald heads, emaciated bodies, crooked legs, and enormous mouths and genitals. According to Mercier they reflect primitive man's anguished reaction to the process of sexual reproduction, a form of death, and expulsion from the maternal womb, a prefiguration of his expulsion from life. It would indeed appear that Beckett's characters stand, as it were, between himself and the "murmur" of a voice situated in nothingness, forming a sort of barricade against dread.

The stories told are, moreover, strikingly similar, unfolding according to a cyclical epic pattern, frequently pointed out by Beckett, which becomes increasingly simplified: voyage, quest or encounter, combat, separation, return; sometimes, especially in the early novels, the patterns are complicated by secondary episodes, pauses in sheltered spots and love affairs in deceptive refuges, for example—that are "seen" retrospectively and seem to parody certain types of fiction. The characters, no less than the stories that they tell, have a certain air of family resemblance, and a whole network of reminiscences—encounters, objects, words—are carried over from one novel to the next. Everyone wears the clownlike Beckett uniform, or what remains thereof: for the hats, long, stiff coats, odd shoes, and ill-fitting, cast-off garments of the "human envelope" may vanish one after the other; there still remains the long white hair, dirty and matted, the accumulated filth of centuries. As a matter of fact we soon begin to realize that, from Murphy to How It Is, it is doubtless the same adventurer that goes his way and gives birth, from book to book, to the unpredictable and inevitable book that follows.

Beckett thus follows his own adventure on the trail of "that little creature in numerous disguises" who haunts him. Each stopping place along the way appears to be the last but always turns out to be "next to last" or the "penultimate." He too, like his own characters, must set out again, proceeding from west to east, against all natural forces and the underlying order of the cosmos. His own adventure thus rejoins that long, monotonous human enterprise that is based on written language, as old as man himself and never finished. And so the annihilation of Samuel Beckett proceeds along its course. (pp. 81-5)

With Texts for Nothing Beckett, undermining the existing structure of both plot and syntax, had already started moving toward the unfamiliar yet entirely intelligible form of How It Is. Beckett seems to be attempting, in every domain of his work, to reduce speech to an underlying pattern that is nonetheless easily grasped. From now on, with a systematic use of ellipses, he eliminates everything that the reader himself is able to supply. (p. 85)

With How It Is Beckett seems to have emptied his imaginary world of all that is not essential to a fundamental image of man's fate, arriving at a sort of diagram of his own intimate drama: a dumb mortal committed to physical disintegration, headed for death, but who is at the same time possessed by a voice, "not his own," which he is unable to annihilate. How It Is is hardly any longer a novel; it is rather a fable, channeled into a very carefully controlled form. Nothing, this time, has been "left to chance." The words stream along fluently and easily, evoking everything that is no more once it has been; everything that is imperfect and committed to nothingness from the outset—images, memories, feelings, thoughts. They extricate everything that gets stuck in the mud during the slow slipping down toward death which constitutes Beckett's time: hair, buttocks, can opener, incongruous as they may seem—just as Pim's education, situation and song may seem incongruous—here find their significance in a very natural way. This unity of incongruities is an exact image of the intimate contradiction which the novel illustrates without resolving. At the same time, however, nothing here throws any light on the nature of a future novel, if such there is to be, by Samuel Beckett, or the means he would use to impose once more a form and limits on "the Unnamable" that dwells within him. Amid the "qua-qua" of the rumor of words that splashes around and within him, what word (his-own-and-not-his-own) will he now extort from himself? (pp. 86-7)

Germaine Brée, "The Strange World of Beckett's 'grands articulés'," translated by Margaret Guiton, in Samuel Beckett Now, edited by Melvin J. Friedman (© 1970 by The University of Chicago), University of Chicago Press, 1970, pp. 73-87.

John Rees Moore

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Beckett's humor seems inseparable from dead seriousness. All his best jokes depend on a double-edged attitude toward the fact of human creation. In order to laugh, the joker partly identifies with a God's-eye point of view, detached and "scientifically" neutral; yet we know and the speaker knows how devastating the consequences of the joke are for the speaker. In Happy Days Winnie says, "How can one better magnify the Almighty than by sniggering with him at his little jokes, particularly the poorer ones …?" The "sniggering with him" has just the right touch of sneaky and obsequious appreciation of His point of view, but the jokes are criticized with an alarming audacity as though Winnie were an all-licensed Fool, presuming on her occupational immunity from reprisal. To be born a sentient, struggling creature merely to suffer a certain amount of frustration and pain and then be no more—what could be funnier than that? Such a life is a triple offense to even the rudimentary philosopher: against logic, against esthetics, against formal design, a denial of human value. Yet Beckett's humor is never merely a technique for deflation. It is, rather, integral to his structure of meaning. It is necessary to the action, and the suspense of his plays depends on it. (pp. 74-5)

[The] "problem" in Beckett's pieces for the theater is intellectual only in a special and limited sense. What is so impressive is the almost intolerable unity of his work. From eating a carrot to relieving oneself to crying out against the inscrutability of the cosmos, every action and thought proceeds from a common center: the necessity and impossibility of "going on". Once born, we are committed to existence and everything we do is charged to our account no matter how trivial it is. We are forced to wonder, Are even our deepest and noblest thoughts anything but trivial? Perhaps no other author has brought into such sharp focus the possible insignificance of mankind—and his adamant refusal to accept that insignificance. (p. 75)

[As] Beckett witnesses in his early story "Dante and the Lobster," the question of pain (a simpler version of the problem of evil) extends at least as far down the evolutionary scale as lobsters. In that story the narrator's aunt assures him that lobsters suffer no pain from being plunged in boiling water. But out of nowhere at the very end of the story the authorial voice contradicts the aunt and assures us (the readers) that they do. The ability to suffer or to inflict pain may not qualify a creature for the moral life, but the knowledge that you may increase or reduce the amount of pain in the world, once acquired, irreversibly places you in a moral posture…. Pain is our most reliable indicator that something is wrong, and morality is the weapon man has devised to fight back. The guilty must, or ought to be, brought to judgment. If guilt did not exist, man would have to invent it for dignity's sake.

So in Waiting for Godot we see how the process works. Starting from sensations that prick them into the interrogative mood, Gogo and Didi bat the conversational ball back and forth, orienting us and inevitably leading to the overwhelming question: Is there a Father who can answer all his children's questions? And if so, will he ever make himself available? The old question about justifying God's ways to man looms in the background, but Gogo and Didi are really not up to asking anything so grandiose. If only Gogo could stop having nightmares of being beaten, if only Didi could speak to whoever is watching him. The ennui is terrible, but the hardest thing of all is to figure out what to do with hope. Each moment of existence inexorably carries them toward the Void, and they can only twiddle their thumbs. If they could give up hope, that would at least be restful. If they could be strong in faith, their fretting would be over. They can do neither. (p. 76)

[No] one questions Mr. Godot's existence. In fact, [Godot's messenger] says just enough about his master to make him seem real and no more….

The characteristic condition in this play, as in other Beckett plays, is a state of suspended animation, and the scene collaborates in producing this effect. The tree too is waiting. It orders the space around it, providing a mysterious center, but it depends on the attitudes of Didi and Gogo for its meaning. It is a very humble tree in itself. Though it does have enough creative energy to put forth a few green leaves. When Gogo and Didi think of hanging themselves, the tree seems to provide the opportunity. But whether the tree is special or just another tree remains unsettled. Sometimes simply to exist in Beckett's world seems arduous enough without the added burden of meaning something. (p. 77)

In [Endgame and Godot] gamesmanship is important, but just as chess is a more demanding and aggressive game than poker (though in both the stakes may be all or nothing), so the "play" in Endgame is more abrasive and unyielding than in Godot. Though Hamm controls almost every move that Clov makes, directly or indirectly, Clov is "free" to do otherwise, in theory at least. The agony between them is a contest not only of wills but of roles. Hamm conceives himself as an archetypal father appointed (so to speak) to do penance for all fathers. Since to become a father is to compound the original sin of existence, Hamm's logical reparation is to put a lid on the existence of all life for which he is responsible. Yet every father (on the model of God) has an obligation to take care of his family. Hamm is torn between these opposite duties, and the tension has contributed to his present condition. Clov, in the role of dutiful son, ought to do everything possible to aid and comfort the father. Yet to do the father's bidding is to deny the meaning of his own being, for Hamm deliberately forces Clov to act as collaborator in Hamm's scheme for self-destruction. (p. 80)

Lack of pity assures the ultimate loneliness that is such a terror to Hamm. He prophesies that one day Clov will find himself "like a little bit of grit in the middle of the steppe" because he has pitied no one. And with no one left to pity. But Clov has that dependable Beckettian reply: "It's not certain." Unlike Lucky, Clov is a son and not a slave. Whether this is worse or better is not certain. The burden Clov has to carry is not so fatally predetermined as Lucky's, but Clov's spiritual freedom, such as it is, makes the anguish sharper. (p. 81)

The story that Hamm calls his "chronicle" epitomizes both the artist's struggle to master his materials and Hamm's supreme effort to come to terms with himself. (p. 83)

The relationship between the couple [in Happy Days] has the usual ambiguity of Beckett's pairs—an amalgam of shared memories, hostility, affection, and cross-purposes—but is complicated by the peculiar tensions and differences of marriages. This is the first time Beckett has given us a detailed dramatic portrait of a woman, though in the hell of Endgame we got premonitions of the special strengths and weaknesses of the woman's point of view, and in the Mrs. Rooney of All That Fall what we might call a womanly sense of the burden, perfectly combining physical and spiritual heaviness, of being among the fallen. (p. 85)

Beckett never backtracks: each play is a further advance into the restricted territory he has cut out for himself. All the plays present characters hampered in their freedom of movement, but Winnie [of Happy Days], so solidly fixed in place, is paradoxically freed from all those decisions that require some power of locomotion. (p. 86)

[Winnie's and Willie's] positions—back to back—until almost the end of the play tell louder than words the condition of their relationship. Though Winnie seems to dominate, her actual power is ambiguous. As in other Beckett twosomes, the question who is the stronger is an underlying, subtly moving, and finally unresolved riddle. (p. 87)

In a superficial sense we might infer that one thing cancels another out, that Beckett's irony is a device for showing disintegration. And it is true that the constant rebuffs meted out to hopeful expectation are funny and sad. What saves them from becoming mechanical is the larger irony that such a state of compensation may indeed be characteristic of the best of all possible worlds, with a gain for every loss as well as a loss for every gain. The reduction of possibilities as time passes gives a heightened value to whatever remains—as long as there is room for any freedom at all. Beckett has found a way to dramatize the old question of free will and determinism with unprecedented eloquence by reducing every movement of body or mind—from the most trivial to the most consequential—to a problem in moral weight-lifting. However helpless the victims of a cruel world may be, we are forced to reflect on the question, What can they do? because the characters themselves make such an effort to keep "crawling" on. They may say or think that they are stuck, but in spirit they cannot help resisting this conclusion any more than they can disencumber themselves of their bodies. There are no quietists in Beckett's drama. (pp. 87-8)

Unlike Beckett's earlier endings where the final impasse seems a logical coming to "rest" when the possibilities of diversionary action have been exhausted, the ending of Happy Days, where the potential for action seems nearer the zero point than ever, introduces a new complication with (for Beckett) melodramatic suddenness. True, the final tableau has the customary fixity, but its meaning tingles with awakened life, like a numb limb that has been asleep. Both Willie and Winnie are allowed to reach a climax of fulfillment that, for all its painful ambiguity, suggests astonishing resources of animation latent in their relationship. For Beckett it is surely an "upbeat" ending. (pp. 92-3)

Beckett's even-handedness is extraordinary. He makes us feel the pity and terror of life—the literal sense in which to die is to lose one's life—with uncanny precision. His victims have every right to scream. At the same time, no intruder from outside appears to bedevil them, or judge them, or execute them. They carry their own woes with them…. Each member of the pair needs the other to reveal fears and aggressions, loves and concerns. The pressure of human dependence is "terrific" because the loneliness outside is absolute. As Hamm puts it, "Nature has forgotten us." Even nature! In the plays, especially in Endgame, nature is either a horror because it is the source of life (though we find piercing evocations of a more romantic time in the past when the beauties of nature could console, even lead to a kind of ecstasy), or nature is a kind of machine whose effects are best registered by instruments. At any rate, it is no friend of man. We are always reminded of the dividing line between the "old days" when nature, whether smiling or frowning, at least allowed mankind to feel at home in it, and the present of the play in which humanity is at odds with the physical environment. And if Mother Nature is dead, how much more inaccessible is what lies beyond nature. (pp. 93-4)

[There] is no getting away from psychology in Beckett, though the psychology is made somewhat bizarre by the removal of large areas of ordinary experience. Getting and spending, whether of power, pleasure, success, or money belong to a past outside the plays, recalled in story perhaps but irrelevant to the task that faces the characters. Technically, Beckett's "point of attack" is very late. Lives are set. What chance do his people have of significantly altering the shape of things to come? Nevertheless, having "mislaid" the answers to the metaphysics exam, they show us in every speech what it feels like to be babes lost in the intellectual woods. One of their great charms, in fact, is their infantilism. They react with transparent egoism to the pains, frustrations, and satisfactions of the moment. But they are children forced to be adults, which means they are unceasingly trying to reason everything out. Beckett's famous pauses suggest the effort involved as well as the doubtfulness of the answers. (p. 94)

But no matter what is lost, "a part remains," as Winnie says of her classics. To lose one's mind is to lose something so wonderful it ought to be immortal. The last indignity is never to have been. So, through Happy Days at any rate, the soul struggles to keep glowing like a coal in the dark. Nothing in the inexorable movement of the world indicates any consciousness, much less any sorrow, that creatures of such intelligence, such sensitivity, such endurance are buried forever in the sands of time. Yet the creatures themselves cannot get rid of the intuition that they are objects of attention, that they are being watched, by some kind of intelligent consciousness. The effort to make contact, however, is somewhat like trying to establish communications with beings in outer space. One strong link with the religious past that remains is guilt, and these descendants of the Western tradition "accept" their fall into individual consciousness. Guilty of having identified themselves with the cult of reason, at however distant a remove, they insist on understanding, and when that is denied them they are left with paradox (or perhaps we should say the audience is). They can go neither forward nor backward. (pp. 94-5)

Beckett has said, "What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane?" Yet that is what his characters seem to be doing. Though the action that encloses them is unstoppable, it is never final; for finality would falsify a process that never stops. In place of an Aristotelian action with beginning, middle and end, Beckett gives us an action of starts and stops, a kind of stuttering ramble around the "old questions, old answers." In the space occupied by the gods in Greek tragedy Beckett puts a "nature" heavy with implication but apparently barren of specific meaning. It is at once inescapable and inscrutable. The characters venture to its edges, peer at it, feel its pressure and temperature, speculate about it. They are subject to its majestic rhythm. But they are continually turned back on themselves in their struggle to carve a personal destiny out of stony Fate…. Boxed in by a set of "laws" that severely limit their freedom, Beckett's people succeed in demonstrating all the more persuasively the uncertainty, the indeterminacy, of the human mind. Unlike the Naturalist who maintains a considerable intellectual distance between himself and his characters, implying that they are unconscious agents of a force the author understands far better than they do (owing to his scientific knowledge), Beckett assumes no such superiority. As he once said, if he knew who Godot was he would have told us. (pp. 95-6)

So no final release of tension, no catharsis, occurs. On the contrary, the action is suddenly frozen as the curtain descends. The play reaches its climax as the silence descends, and we are left with the peculiar sensation of witnessing the end of something that nevertheless still goes on. The thrust of the ending is to "throw out" at the audience the unresolved ambiguities at the heart of the play. Beckett has gone on to explore even further subtleties of his theme, but on the evidence of these three plays we can say that his haunting power comes from the way he brings extremes together. Moral honesty and esthetic playfulness appeal at once to what is most naive and most sophisticated in his audience. (p. 96)

John Rees Moore, "The Exhilarating Mr. Beckett," in Shenandoah (copyright 1977 by Washington and Lee University; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Spring, 1977, pp. 74-96.


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The title How It Is suggests that an answer is being given to the question, "How is it in the world, in this human life of ours?" That interpretation seems the more certain because of the nature of the narrative. The nameless narrator tells how he moves painfully through a world of warm mud. We hear that he meets another like himself, tortures him, and then finds that his victim has moved away in the mud. The narrator proceeds to speculate at large upon life in the muddy world. He draws up theories about his own experience being only part of a series of similar encounters in the mud, where pairs of beings are continually meeting; where each one plays in turn the part of the torturer and the tortured; and where the transition is made by the victim of the encounter crawling away to find some one else to torture, while his torturer lies supine awaiting the arrival of some new ex-victim to torture him. Perhaps (so he speculates) the population of mud-dwellers may be in millions. Yet, finally, the narrator confesses that what he has said is all a lie. He never met anyone in the mud. All that he knows for certain is the mud and himself lying in it.

For the most part, How It Is has been taken to be an imaginative presentation of Beckett's view of human existence. As several critics have pointed out, the work indeed contains most of the "basic ingredients" of Beckett's previous fiction. And it is undeniable that portraying the pain and meaninglessness of human life has been a central concern in all Beckett's writings. (p. 2)

[The] supposition that How It Is delineates the world of the artistic imagination rather than the world of human existence in general is one that opens up much in the text that otherwise seems obscure. Moreover, there are some pointers to such a hypothesis being at least a possible one.

To begin with, there is the title of the work. The pun evident in the original Comment c'est is necessarily lost in the English translation. Commencez! This command relates to every artistic performance, where the artist must embark upon his chosen theme and continue until his creation is brought to an end satisfying to the imagination. Commentators upon How It Is have noted with some surprise that Beckett's narrator promises a narrative in three parts and actually completes what he promises. Beckett's heroes so often mention some subject which they intend to write about—and then forget to do so. Beckett has said that the task of the artist today is "to find a form that accommodates the mess." If How It Is is concerned with the imaginative form created by the artist confronted with "the mess" of raw experience, then the prominence given to the structure of the work is not so surprising. (pp. 2-3)

It is well known that Beckett found himself in an impasse after completing the third novel of his trilogy. With The Unnamable he had reduced his fiction to a voice crying in a void, and there seemed to be no further reduction possible and nowhere else to go. How It Is was an artistic breakthrough. The nature of Beckett's achievement can be understood when we turn to look at Beckett's beliefs about the dynamics of the artistic vision. (p. 3)

For Beckett there are two levels of vision. On the first or surface level the sensory eye sees a multitude of familiar objects. On the second or deeper level the eye of the imagination sees only unvarying mud or muck—cosmic excrement. The poet strips off the "fleshly" surface vision. Thus Estragon, who rejects with vehemence the idea that he sees scenery, asserts equally vehemently that he is a poet. (pp. 3-4)

Moreover, the world of How It Is is a world of darkness…. While the sensory eye demands light in order to see and while it shuns the dark, the imaginative eye must (in Beckett's thinking) cultivate darkness in order to find its proper vision. In Krapp's Last Tape Beckett has explored this theme, for his play shows Krapp to be a man who has betrayed his artistic calling through his refusal to leave the world of light. Because the narrator of How It Is has descended into the darkness we may conclude that he, unlike Krapp, has not turned away from the artist's obligation to express under the conditions of powerlessness and negativity. Knowing only an environment of featureless mud, he has reached that state which Beckett says that art should prefer, namely, the expression that there is nothing to express. It is true that into his consciousness come "rags of life in the light" …; yet these memories of the world "above" are so fragmentary that they succeed most of all in accentuating the surrounding darkness. (p. 4)

Beckett believes that the descent into the darkness is obligatory for the artist, because the artist must understand that his empirical self cannot be his real self. A self more basic than the individual called Samuel Beckett exists in the 'virtual beneath' and can be caught momentarily by listening to its murmers. The narrator of How It Is says that his task, has been to communicate the murmurs that reverberate in the dark, even though the act of communicating what he hears is impossibly hard. He begins by confessing, "I say it as I hear it." (pp. 4-5)

The text of How It Is reflects on the page the manner in which the narrator hears the murmuring both as scraps and also as a flow of words: "unbroken no paragraphs no commas not a second for reflection."… In the book there is no punctuation, and the telescoped syntax of the phrases making up the narrative suggests the hurrying pace of the voice….

Form, beginning with the form of words on the page, is clearly of the utmost importance in this book. But that is not to say that here Beckett is interested in form rather than in content, that he has cut away the picture and is concerned only about the frame. What Beckett praised most in Proust and Joyce has always been his own ideal: the unity of form and content. While How It Is in form stands closer to the prose poem than to the novel, it tells a quite definite story. The story is about one who has descended into the dark and about his efforts to record truthfully "how it is" there. (p. 5)

Mud, darkness and the recording of voices heard in the dark; these are all ingredients found elsewhere in Beckett. But only in How It Is are all three ingredients central. It is this fact that indicates how the book is about the artist and the genesis of his art.

The starting point of the story (not surprisingly, where Beckett is concerned) seems to have been found in Dante. In the seventh canto of the Inferno Dante describes the Marsh of Styx. There the Wrathful continually assault one another; while the Sullen, lying deep in the black mud, cry out incoherently—being unable to form whole words. Thus Dante has given Beckett the world of "primeval mud impenetrable dark."… He has given him as well the inhabitants of the Marsh, naked figures either actively tormenting others or passively accepting their fate. Most important of all, the Inferno has suggested the painfulness of speech. In Dante the broken words of the Sullen simply reflect their situation in the mud. But Beckett makes his active character attack a passive one, giving his victim a carefully calculated training through the method of stimulus-and-response. In How It Is violence is no longer aimless, and suffering is inflicted for no other purpose than to elicit speech. This is the wholly new element introduced by Beckett, and it is one which transforms totally the original source upon which he has drawn.

In How It Is words seem to flow abundantly. Yet the narrator is continually concerned with the difficulty of forming words and also of the extreme importance of maintaining speech. In Part I he says:

… it's here words have their utility the mud is mute

… I strain with open mouth so as not to lose a second a fart fraught with meaning issuing through the mouth no sound in the mud

                                        (pp. 5-6)

These statements about words convey much of Beckett's understanding of the significance of the writer's art. The "fart fraught with meaning issuing through the mouth" may be no more than a rudimentary attempt to form a word, yet it is enough to restore dignity to the one who originates it. For Beckett, the socially unacceptable fart is a fitting image for the creation of the writer. Farting and word-forming alike mock at artificial conventions and assert the basic conditions of existence. The writer does not write to please society but because of an inward compulsion. Words are at one and the same time his glory and his torment. Also, the more he explores their use, the more he finds them eluding his control. He alone is responsible for selecting them, nevertheless they seem not to issue from his conscious choice but to be dictated to him…. The result of this conviction is that he distrusts fluency, so that (as has been often noted) his writings have become increasingly spare and have steadily moved in the direction of silence. (p. 7)

Honesty and singlemindedness in expression, the painfulness and the compulsive nature of speaking, and "the infinite futility—for the artist—of all that is not art" …: these are matters of immense concern to Beckett. And they are matters that have shaped the narrative of How It Is.

The seventh canto of Dante's Inferno describes Dante's arrival at the boundary between Upper and Nether Hell at midnight on Good Friday…. A constant theme in [Beckett's] writings is that of all men being suffering Christs condemned to walk the via dolorosa of life without respite. Yet, although there is no escape from the long crucifixion that is existence, the coming of night at least makes the phenomenal world less all-encompassing. Particularly in the early poetry Beckett speaks of the night as an interval when the harmonies of art dispel for a moment the discords of the day.

Thus, on two counts, the source in Dante fits Beckett's personal mythology. It points to the suffering of Good Friday and to the night-hour at which imaginative perception is most intense. Both themes are omnipresent in How It Is.

The narrator certainly moves painfully through the chaotic world of the living which is the world of muck…. Like Estragon in Waiting for Godot he knows, "it's the same kingdom as before a moment before the same it always was I have never left it it is boundless."… But he knows also the achievement of being able to say something to himself. Of course, nothing he can say will alter his condition…. (pp. 7-8)

In Part 3 the narrator confesses that his encounter with Pim and all the rest of his story (except himself lying in the mud) is a complete lie. Yet already in Part 1 he admits that Pim is no more than a fiction created in order to explain the possibility of imaginative expression…. Pim is the creature of his fancy, a figment given shape for the purpose of accounting for the "murmur in the mud" which the writer is able to capture in his art. The narrator, then, speaks of capturing Pim and of forcing him to express meanings through words; and this process becomes the substance of the "events" recorded in Part 2. Behind the fantastical account there lies a factual basis, namely, that the imaginative work of the artist is carried on in the darkness below the sensory world and that it is made possible through suffering.

When the narrator begins to "quicken" Pim he torments him by digging his nails into Pim's flesh so that he cries out. Soon Pim learns that his tormentor is not satisfied with cries, and he begins to sing. In the songs are heard "a word or two eyes skies the or thee" …, encouraging the narrator to teach Pim to articulate spoken words. After further painful lessons Pim responds to questions carved upon his back in roman capitals. Most troublesome of all is the lesson to teach Pim his name. (p. 8)

The name may have been chosen at random, yet there is a real possibility that it may stand for the name Christ. The likelihood of the latter explanation being the correct one is indicated by the narrator's insistence that his own name, too, is Pim. When Pim is utterly confused by this information, the narrator allows himself to be called Bom, explaining, "Bom he can call me Bom for more commodity that would appeal to me at the end and one syllable the rest indifferent."… Since all men are thought by Beckett to be Christs on the Good Friday road to crucifixion, the name Pim (or Christ) is the proper name for all dwellers in the mud of existence. If, however, the multiplication of the same name is misleading, at least all names can be monosyllabic (as in Christ) and carry as a constant the thirteenth letter of the alphabet. For Beckett, who is known to his friends as Sam, thirteen means especially the day of his birth, Good Friday. So long as this central link with the crucified Christ is kept in the names of his characters, what the other letters in the names happen to be matters not at all…. The essential knowledge is the knowledge that life is always a slow crucifixion.

Pim's first attempt at artistic expression is song. When he puts words to music they are words about the sensory world (eyes, skies) and the individual objects (the or thee) found in it. Pim is following the easy path of popular artists with their routine of familiar subjects and hackneyed rhymes. Bom will have none of it. He make Pim stop by thumping him on the back of the head. This action, as he observes, drives Pim's face right into the mud…. A true artist, as distinct from a crowd-pleaser, must first of all learn that the phenomenal world is nothing but muck. Bom's torture of Pim is so severe that at one point he thinks his victim may have died. Yet Bom insists, "I am not a monster," and he justifies his severity by saying, "but words could be involved in the case of Pim a few words."… No suffering can be too great if the result is a few words manifesting imaginative truth and spoken out of the darkness in which alone genuine art can find its material. (p. 9)

Because How It Is has its focus in the artistic experience, it is a narrative of suffering and boredom has almost no place in it. Yet How It Is is not only a work about the suffering through which the artist comes to experience his creative powers. The book also describes the special suffering of the artist that is caused by his artistic vocation, namely, loneliness.

In Proust Beckett wrote about the necessity laid upon the artist "who does not deal in surfaces" to reject friendship:

Because the only possible spiritual development is in the sense of depth. The artistic tendency is not expansive, but a contraction. And art is the apotheosis of solitude. There is no communication because there are no vehicles of communication.

                                         (p. 10)

Although it is only in the last few pages of Part 3 [of How It Is] that the narrator explicitly repudiates the truth of the story he has been telling, his narrative provides plenty of indications throughout that the story is an invented one and not a transcript of actual experiences He constantly says that there is only one voice, a voice which is his alone yet not his. The questions that he scores with his nails upon Pim's back, too, bring answers affirming that nothing can be either affirmed or denied, except consciousness of lying flat in the mud …—in short, his own final confession.

The invention of Pim, therefore, is simply a device on the part of the narrator (and, through him, of Beckett) to find a form that accommodates the mess, to communicate the impossibility of communication, to expose the contradictions resulting from the attempt to describe (in terms of "the light above") the consciousness that has its being in the darkness. Part of the same formal device is the threefold division of "how it was" before Pim, with Pim, and after Pim: "divide into three a single eternity for the sake of clarity."… Beckett has always scorned the traditional division of artistic composition into a beginning, a middle and an end, since this form assumes the reality of an ordered universe. The narrator of How It Is explains … how his narrative gives only three parts of what he has been describing as a four-part play. His story states that, when a crawler through the mud meets and tortures his victim, the victim then crawls away to find his victim to torture, leaving his torturer lying to await the arrival of one who shall now torture him. This sequence—seeker, torturer, abandoned, tortured—assumes an eternal vicious circle, a four-sectioned wheel that can never cease turning. Yet, while the four-fold form expresses eternity, it does not express eternity's singleness. Hence the narrator explicitly disowns all the elements in his story so that the imaginative constructions he has made shall not be taken for a literal transcript of reality. (p. 11)

[In How It Is no] answers are given to questions rendered unnecessary by the darkness surrounding the artist who "damns the life of the body on earth as a pensum."… No explanations are looked for by the one whose concern is with the murmur in the mud, neither natural nor super-natural explanations—and especially not supernatural explanations or supernatural comforts. (p. 12)

Alice and Kenneth Hamilton, "The Process of Imaginative Creation in Samuel Beckett's 'How It Is'," in MOSAIC: A Journal for the Study of Literature and Ideas (copyright © 1977 by the University of Manitoba Press; acknowledgment of previous publication is herewith made), Summer, 1977, pp. 1-12.

Laura Barge

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Stylistically and thematically, [First Love, The Expelled, The Calmative, and The End] mark what is probably the most distinct transition in the entire [Beckett] canon. Shifting from the English third person (of More Pricks Than Kicks, Murphy, and Watt) to the French first person, Beckett creates a fictional hero and environment so uniquely and consistently characteristic that they are recognizable (although often changed in certain particulars) throughout the remainder of his published prose. The hero is no longer undecided, as the earlier heroes Belacqua, Murphy, and Watt are, between life in the macrocosm of the outer world or in the microcosm of the mind—his choice is the microcosm, a descent inward toward the core of the self…. This descent becomes a quest which, fully defined in the trilogy and developed ever more intensively in the subsequent fiction, undergirds all of Beckett's work as a dominant theme, the quest for whatever constitutes metaphysical reality, for the essence of human experience. That this reality can finally be described only as nothing, as a Plenum-Void that never yields any substance but continually recedes into infinity, does not negate the centrality of this quest in Beckett's oeuvre. The failure of the quest does, however, negate anything that might be called development of character. Neither in these stories nor in the fiction that follows does a protagonist show real gain or make progress beyond his initial state. Thus the hero is frozen into a definite shape that is little changed beyond this point. He is in exile but longs for a home … and is abused by nearly all the elements that make up his world. Consequently, his repsonses become those of abuse or loathing, although he is haunted by a yearning for companionship. Like Watt, he is hindered by a failure to understand or to communicate, but unlike Watt, he feels no real compulsion to do either. Instead he is content to relate countless fictional episodes, to use words only because words are all that he has been given to fill space and time. He regards these fictional episodes with the contempt he feels they deserve. As for his body, it is rotting away and loathsome with sores and disease (also with disability in the later fiction). Detached from this body, his mind is likewise deteriorating—even to a state of uncertainty as to whether it exists in a condition of life or death.

Although a sequence of events takes place in each story (and a general sequence, with much repetition, in the four stories as a whole), these happenings can hardly be labeled as plot because they are parts of a futile circle, a rigmarole, ending where it begins. Thus Beckett has abandoned even the sardonic plots of his earlier novels (Watt may not have accomplished anything, but he does learn something—even if the something he learns is that he can learn nothing) and is anticipating the circular endlessness of the trilogy. (pp. 333-34)

It is also in these stories that the ill-defined "they" make their appearance. Resembling some malignant god or Kafkan high official who delights in tormenting his creatures without known reason, these obscure and mysterious personages (or personage), although never explicitly said to exist, are sensed by Beckett's heroes as being those ultimately in charge of the miserable and absurd affair known as life on the planet Earth. (p. 334)

If the first-person narrator of the stories can be said to retain his personhood (after Belacqua, Murphy, and Watt, Beckett almost ceases to create persons; each hero becomes Everyman), he is nevertheless in the process of becoming only a voice still bodied at the beginning of the trilogy but disembodied by its end, who is an indistinct blend of protagonist, narrator, and author. This blending of roles results in another change in the stories—a subtle difference in Beckett's use of irony. Through Watt Beckett remains reasonably close to the conventional use of literary irony. In such use, two levels of ironic awareness are in operation—the narrator's description of the ironic scene or object and the reader's awareness that this description is ironic, that is, that the material that the narrator is presenting is deliberately falsified from what he actually intends the reader to perceive. But a third level of ironic awareness appears in the stories and reappears throughout the remaining fiction. Because there is a blending of the consciousness of the narrator and the protagonist (who is playing the role of narrator by relating the tale), the protagonist often becomes aware, in a subtle, undercover way, of the ironic implications of what he is relating about himself with a straight face. He becomes cognizant of the falsity of his own statements or actions. (pp. 334-35)

Of all the specifics indicating these stories as a point of transition, none is more significant than the permeation of the tales with the concept of mortality. Not that Beckett has not been obsessed with mortality before, both Belacqua and Murphy are fascinated by death as a possible state of "embryonal repose" in which they can possibly escape the frustrations of life in the macrocosm. But oddly enough, the fact that they do die (a release Beckett never again gives any hero) and find death to be nothing other than annihilation robs these early works of the existential anguish, the Angst, associated with mortality in the subsequent fiction. Watt does not die, but following the failure of his epistemological quest, his existence becomes a continuing crucifixion. It is not some character's death, then, but the fact of death that begins overtly to overshadow Beckett's fiction in the conclusion of Watt and in the stories…. Beckett conceives of mortality as the abnegation of all value in life and begins to define life itself as an event of death. (pp. 335-36)

Breaking his usual pattern of reticence in offering comment on his work, Beckett has said that the experiences of the protagonists of these stories can be taken as three phases of one existence—"prime, death, and limbo." We cannot, however, be certain which phase designates which story. (p. 336)

The difficulty of trying to separate the stories into states of life or death is a small part of the larger dilemma encountered in attempting to define the word symbols life and death as used by Beckett, not only in the stories, but also in all the fiction that follows: Because Beckett conceives of physical life as an experience of dying and because he suspects that human consciousness or being does not end with physical death, the meanings of the words merge—life becomes death, and death is a continuation of life…. The equating by Beckett of life with light and salvation, and of death with darkness and damnation is strongly reminiscent of the defining of life by the Apostle John, although presumably Beckett's equations have no theological implications. Beckett explains that it is because man is faced with the dual existence of both light (life) and darkness (death) that the human "situation becomes inexplicable." That is, innately aware of the desirability of qualities such as truth, love, justice, beauty, and happiness, man confronts a universe in which the realization of such qualities is simply not possible. (pp. 336-37)

[The] symbolizing of death by darkness rests on the association of death with something that is inexplicable (or absurd) or that causes distress. It is dying without ever having lived that is associated with the idea of death here. (pp. 337-38)

Although Beckett's comments in Proust are primarily about Proust and should not be uncritically applied to Beckett's own work, certain observations in this criticism are relevant at this point. The anguish associated with death is not directly related to a fear or dread of death per se. Because of the numbing effect of what Proust calls Habit, unless death is made concrete by being forecast at some particular point in the future, it has no meaning in the present because its "possibility" remains "indistinct and abstract."… Instead, the anguish derives from the impermanence of any given moment before the onslaught of time…. The real villain of Proust and of Beckett is not death … but time—"that double-headed monster of damnation and salvation" that makes each passing day a "calamitous day" by continually destroying and recreating for further destruction its "victims and prisoners."… Having reached such a conclusion, we can make the further statement that, beginning with the stories, physical death becomes for Beckett a metaphor for the existential anguish of sensing infinity in a finite world, of longing for selfhood in a universe of continual change that denies the possibility of being.

In spite of his sick humor (which nevertheless succeeds in being funny) and detached irrationality (he has either five or six feet, none of which function properly), the protagonist of the stories suffers acutely from a dislocation with his universe defined in terms of exile. When the hero of The Expelled is thrown out of his childhood home, he is expelled—either from some undefined state before birth or from some Paradise that exists only as an intuitive consciousness of a world that should be. However the haven is defined, the hero is evicted, and all subsequent events become what the earlier protagonist Murphy has called "a wandering to find home" …—a search for an ending of exile, for a place of belonging, a sanctuary for the human spirit. (pp. 338-39)

Beckett's hero is Heidegger's man being "thrown" and left in a world not of his own making. He is man without a resting place for his heart in Nietzsche's nihilistic universe, and Sartre's man, forlorn and orphaned in an alien environment where he can never be at home. Or, in a more limited sense, Beckett's tramp is Camus' Meursault, a stranger so imprisoned within himself that whether he is actually behind prison walls is of little significance in determining his alienation. More definitively, the tramp's exile can be likened to the estrangement of the prodigal son of Luke's gospel, who is separated both from his father and from his father's house. Although, unlike man as described by Nietzsche and Sartre, Beckett's hero is not consciously aware of any need for a missing God, and although, unlike the prodigal son, he has made no choice that has caused his homelessness, the hero is nonetheless existentially estranged….

It is … this suffering of dislocation that is expressed as a metaphorical undercurrent in the stories by images or events of death. In the first three stories, death appears either as an inconsequential mentioning of some object, as a chance remark or thought of the narrator, as the meaning of some symbol, or as an integral part of the episode that is being related. Making up a disjunctive collection, the death references in these stories are parallel in form to the loosely structured narratives of the stories themselves. The references to death in the fourth story, First Love, exhibit a pattern corresponding to the tighter structure of this story—the references occur at specific points in what might ironically be calléd the cycle of life or of love. (p. 340)

Death appears symbolically in references throughout the first three stories to the sea. Leaving the cabman's stable (he has had enough of the horse's company), the tramp of The Expelled comments on his habit of following the rising sun and states that in the evenings he continues to pursue the sun's path below the horizon of the sea until he is "down among the dead."… Irresistibly drawn toward the sea, the protagonist of The Calmative nevertheless fears it as a "dead haven…. the black swell was most perilous, and all about me storm and wreck. I'll never come back here."… (pp. 341-42)

Repeating the theme of exile, First Love defines love as a banishment ("What goes by the name of love is banishment" …) and the cycle of human life as a cycle of death. Thus, as in the first three stories, death becomes a metaphor for the suffering of existence, which is by definition an exile. As such a metaphor, death presents itself in some form at each significant point in the life cycle of the hero. His comments concerning the place of his birth center upon his father's death and the cemetery where his father is buried. The hero enjoys this spot of earth because he does "not find unpleasant"—in fact he finds "infinitely preferable to what the living emit"—the "smell of corpses, distinctly perceptible under those of grass and humus."… A more obvious image of death is the hyacinth … that Lulu places in the room of the hero after they come to live together. The hyacinth looks as if it might live but instead dies and begins to smell "foul." He refuses to allow it to be removed from the room, and the day Lulu announces the impending birth of their child (possibly the child is theirs; Lulu is a practicing prostitute while married to the hero) one of her eyes (she is cross-eyed) seems riveted on the remains of the hyacinth….

When the birth cries of the child banish the protagonist from the house of his marriage ("they pursued me down the stairs and out into the street"), the "leaves were falling already," and he remarks that he dreads the winter…. Thus nature, which traditionally joins love with life in spring, joins it instead with death in winter, and Beckett's tale becomes not a life cycle but a cycle of death. The cries of the new-born infant pursue the hero relentlessly to the grave, apparently never to cease, and thereby are defined as the cries of death…. (pp. 342-43)

If life becomes an event of death, then it is possible to conceive of death as simply a continuation of this death-in-life. What Beckett is doing is to distort John Donne's triumphant assertion that death shall die into the terrifying possibility that life shall live—a mystery that in Beckett's world is reason enough for despair. For Beckett, the play or story can never be finished, and a significant aspect of the hell that his protagonists endure is that existence goes on and on. The reason his heroes cannot experience the release of death is because they have never achieved being in life…. This inability of matters to end finally, of everything to come to a close, is introduced into the Beckettian canon in the stories. Life and death become so merged in a cycle of continual flux that neither can be defined as a beginning or as an end. (p. 343)

That the stories parallel events and images associated with physical death with existential anguish defined in terms of exile is obvious, but the question remains whether this significance assigned to death begins in the stories and whether it continues as a strong emphasis in the fiction that follows. To answer this question we must examine Watt, which directly precedes the stories, and the trilogy, which directly follows. In Watt nothing other than foreshadowings of Beckett's obsession with mortality occurs. No major character dies or is anxiously concerned with death, nor does the idea of death exist as a metaphorical substratum beneath the flow of surface narration. The only dominant treatment of death is the portrayal of Watt in the asylum garden as a crucified Christ figure….

Other than this scene, only minor references to death occur, two in the closing episode of the novel. As Watt waits to make his final journey to the asylum, where he continues life as a crucified existence, he smells a peculiar odor in the waiting room of the train station. He identifies this smell, "exceptionally foul, and yet at the same time in some way familiar," as the odor of death—that of a "decaying carcass of some small animal," perhaps hidden under the stone floor. (p. 345)

Once we have crossed over the bridge of the stories and reached the trilogy,… we are dealing no longer with suggestions but with a full development of Beckett's concept of mortality. Death, with all of its Beckettian ramifications, is a dominant theme throughout the trilogy…. Animals and insects die (Lousse's dog and Moran's hens and bees), secondary characters die (Moll and the unfortunate family of Mahood), and persons are murdered (Moran's unidentified victim in the forest and the two sailors hacked to death by Lemuel). Furthermore, an obsession with death figures prominently in each book of the trilogy. Molloy considers suicide, Malone is undergoing the ordeal of dying, and the Unnamable longs for but is unable to attain the release of death (unless, ambiguously enough, he is already dead).

This presence in the trilogy of the motif of mortality can be traced to its beginnings with unmistakable echoes of the stories. In a futile effort to finish his tale, Malone refers to what is obviously the death scene at the close of The End: "absurd lights, the stars, the beacons, the buoys, the lights of earth and in the hills the faint fires of the blazing gorse."… (p. 346)

Because life is a quest for a haven that can never be found, it becomes a death, and because death is a continuing consciousness of exile, it does not end the suffering of life. We are reminded of Beckett's drama Breath, which consists solely of a stage scattered with rubbish, certain lighting effects, an instant's sound of a baby's cry, a breathing in and out of a single human breath, and then a final cry, identical to the first. It is in the stories that these cries of birth and of death are first defined as one and the same. (p. 347)

Laura Barge, "Life and Death in Beckett's Four Stories," in South Atlantic Quarterly (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1977 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Summer, 1977, pp. 332-47.


Beckett, Samuel (Vol. 1)


Beckett, Samuel (Vol. 11)