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Samuel Beckett's revised aphorisms.

One might think there could be few connections between Samuel Beckett and such writers as Swift, Pope, Johnson, Voltaire, La Rochefoucauld, and Chamfort. On the one hand, a reclusive author whose down-and-out characters ponder the miseries of existence; on the other, famous wits whose mots were celebrated in elegant society. But Beckett in fact admired these authors, referred to their works, and used some of their aphorisms as the basis of his own.

John Fletcher and Frederik N. Smith have pointed out allusions to Swift in "Fingal" (a story in Beckett's More Pricks Than Kicks), Watt, and other works. The phrase "Wren's giant bully," in Beckett's poem "Serena I" (Collected Poems 22) is taken from a description of "London's column . . . like a tall bully," in Pope's Moral Essays (Epistle 3, lines 339-40). Two passages in Murphy, "Walk before you run" and "sit down before you lie down" (79, 191), and still another in Molloy, "First learn to walk, then you can take swimming lessons" (92), are based on "And men must walk at least before they dance," in Pope's "The First Epistle of the First Book of Horace" (Epistle 1, line 54). In the 1930s Beckett worked on a play - eventually abandoned - dealing with the life of Samuel Johnson; its title, Human Wishes, is based on Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" (Bair 253-57).

The title of Beckett's short satirical dialogue "Che Sciagura" (1929) is taken from a phrase in Voltaire's Candide (Federman and Fletcher 5). Beckett later used the English version of "Che Sciagura" - "What a Misfortune" - as the title of a story in More Pricks Than Kicks; in addition, he mentioned La Rochefoucauld (118) and Swift in this story (145, 150). In Murphy, Beckett describes his hero laboring "at his own little dungeon in Spain" (180), a phrase based on Chamfort's aphorism, "A pessimist is one who builds dungeons in Spain." Some thirty-four years after Murphy was published, Beckett set to verse English versions of epigrams from Chamfort's Maximes; these eventually were published (Collected Poems 122-37).

There are examples in Beckett's works of references to the writings of a number of other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century wits. Pascal, in a famous conceit, described nature as an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. This image underlies a description of beauty "with a centre everywhere and a circumference nowhere" in Beckett's first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women (35). There are references to Pascal's Pensees and to Racine's Phedre in Beckett's critical study Proust (20, 5); and Racine is mentioned a number of times in Dream of Fair to Middling Women (48, 85, 144, 197). The dramatic fragment Le Kid (1931), which Beckett wrote in collaboration with George Pelorson, is a parody of Corneille's Le Cid. "Whoroscope," Beckett's first published poem, deals with events in the life of Descartes; Lawrence Harvey gives an excellent discussion of this poem and lists references to Descartes in Beckett's other poems. Allusions to Descartes and his ideas also appear in such works as Proust (25, 51); Dream of Fair to Middling Women (47, 134); and Murphy (140).

What Beckett admired in these seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers was a fresh way of viewing familiar situations, an ability to probe the deficiencies in commonplace truisms, and a talent for conveying such ideas in taut, compressed sentences. But he was not content merely to quote his favorite aphorisms: he often revised them. It must have occurred to Beckett that with sufficient repetition one generation's witticisms become another's cliches; and so he added polish to those that had lost their luster.

Ruby Cohn calls these transformations "comic twistings of cliche and quotation," an apt description of Beckett's technique (133). In many instances the comic twistings involve a display of learning, as in Dream of Fair to Middling Women where Beckett refers to "John of the Crossroads" instead of "St. John of the Cross" (186), and to "Fallopian pipettes" instead of "Fallopian tubes" (216).

The display of learning in Beckett's revised aphorisms often involves literary allusions. Thus the title Dream of Fair to Middling Women is based on the title of Tennyson's poem "A Dream of Fair Women," together with an echo of Chaucer's "The Legende of Good Women." Many of the revised aphorisms in Beckett's works of the 1930s, like the following examples, are based on literary allusions:

* "grass Dido" (a blend of "grass widow" together with an allusion to Dido in the Aeneid; Murphy 195)

* "night's young thoughts" (an allusion to Edward Young's Night Thoughts; Murphy 73-74). Beckett later used the phrase "night's young thoughts" in "Texts for Nothing 8" (115).

* "Since heaven lay about you as a bedwetter" (from "Heaven lies about us in our infancy" in Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality"; Murphy 217)

* "The Wanderjahre were a sleep and a forgetting" (from "our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting," again in Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality"; Dream 200, More Pricks 48)

* "not one was idle" (from "Tears, idle tears," in Tennyson's poem "Song"; Murphy 223)

* Women "never quite kill the thing they think they love" (from "Yet each man kills the thing he loves," in Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"; Murphy 202-3)

* "The bang is better than the whimper" (from "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper," in T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men"; Dream 177)

* "here was a chance to end with a fairly beautiful bang" (again from Eliot's "The Hollow Men"; More Pricks 90)

* "fell in terram nobody knows where" (from "It fell to earth, I know not where," in Longfellow's "The Arrow and the Song"; More Pricks 99)

In some instances, as in the last passage I quoted, Beckett introduces expressions that readers with a knowledge of foreign languages might be expected to recognize. The following examples are again all from the 1930s:

* "viva sputa" ("by sputum," versus viva voce, "orally"; More Pricks 115)

* "Beltschmerz" ("belt pain," versus Weltschmerz, "melancholy"; More Pricks 118)

* "Lex stallionis" ("law of the stallion," versus lex tallionis, "law of retaliation"; Dream 101)

* "nulla linea sine die" (versus Apelles' "nulla dies sine linea," "not a day without a line"; Murphy 85)

* "Quod erat extorquendum" ("which was to be wrenched out," versus quod erat demonstrandum, "which was to be demonstrated," that is, Q.E.D.; Murphy 184)

* "We had no idea ars longa was such a Malebolge" (versus Seneca's "Vita brevis est, ars longa," "life is short, art is long," and Malebolge, a place in Dante's Hell, Inferno 18.1; Dream 168)

At times the passages Beckett revises are based not on quotations from well-known authors but on cliches. For example, Belacqua, the hero of the story "Echo's Bones," tells Lord Gall, "keep your hair on" instead of "keep your hat on" (12); the hero of Dream says "take your hurry" instead of "take your time" (63); and the narrator of Murphy speaks about bringing "turf" - versus coals - "to Newcastle" (197). As H. Porter Abbott points out, Beckett's method represents an "attack on the idiom and the conventional metaphor" (39).

In his early works Beckett often alters cliches in this way, injecting an unexpected element that can add sparkle to a timeworn phrase:

* "porridge days" (versus "salad days"; Dream 183)

* "Dear old indelible Dublin" (versus "Dear old dirty Dublin"; Murphy 267)

* "the odd maid out" (versus "odd man out"; More Pricks 139)

* "throw up the sponge" (versus "throw in the sponge"; Dream 114)

* "time to manure the ground" (versus "to prepare the ground"; Murphy 93)

* "better too soon than never" (versus "better late than never"; "Cascando" 29)

* "a person of his own steak and kidney" (versus "of his own kidney"; Murphy 192)

Beckett's method when emending cliches is similar to the one he uses with quotations: he surprises readers with an unexpected modification. Some of these revisions add a telling detail to the cliched original even as they call attention to its dullness, as when Murphy's narrator refers to the diminutive Mr. Endon as "an impeccable and brilliant figurine" (241).

Along with a desire to avoid trite formulations, Beckett has another reason for revising cliches and aphorisms: as a way of avoiding the misleading effects of descriptive language. This approach, in part based on Schopenhauer's philosophical ideas, is one Beckett elaborates on in his study of Proust and then develops in his creative works.

In Proust, first published in 1931, Beckett discusses how the essential reality of an event - its noumenon, Idea, or thing-in-itself - is hidden behind a distracting facade of physical interactions. Conventional descriptive language, in particular that of the realistic and naturalistic writers, focuses on the facade, on the aggregate of interactions in the time-space world that Kant and Schopenhauer refer to as phenomena. The facade of phenomena is pervasive and distracting enough to veil the barely perceived reality of noumena. Conventional descriptive language, attuned to depicting outer reality, helps to promulgate the illusion that the world of phenomena represents the entirety of reality.

Beckett argues that descriptive language sets up superficial models of human events that are ultimately reductive and unsound. In realistic and naturalistic writing, human motivations and interactions are presented as if they were logical, predictable, and comprehensible. Beckett, however, is persuaded that motives are ultimately obscure, even ineffable; that human behavior is governed by a hidden entity that resists intellective analysis, an "impenetrable self" ("Neither" 108).

Because descriptive language involves causal reasoning - the analysis of events as interlocked chains of causes and effects - it distorts the human reality it is attempting to depict. If causal reasoning works reasonably well for descriptions of the outer world, its utility in this sphere has fostered unwarranted assumptions about its ability to depict the inner world, the world of thought and emotion. This has led to modes of explanation in which motives and behaviors are understood as if they were causes and effects - as if the psyche were a machine.

In Dream, Beckett singled out Balzac as an exemplar of such an approach, an author whose characters are so predictable they seem mechanical:

To read Balzac is to receive the impression of a chloroformed world. He is absolute master of his material, he can do what he likes with it, he can foresee and calculate its least vicissitude, he can write the end of his book before he has finished the first paragraph, because he has turned all his creatures into clockwork cabbages and can rely on their staying put wherever needed or staying going at whatever speed in whatever direction he chooses. The whole thing, from beginning to end, takes place in a spellbound backwash. We all love and lick up Balzac, we lap it up and say it is wonderful, but why call a distillation of Euclid and Perrault Scenes from Life? Why human comedy?


This kind of deterministic approach ignores the complexities of what Beckett has called the "Unfathomable mind" (Molloy 145). As an alternative, he suggests the kind of alogical envisioning and impressionistic expression one finds in Proust. Just as impressionistic painting goes beyond the strictures of pictorial realism, so Proust's writing transcends the causal reasoning of literary realism. Such an impressionistic approach frees the writer from an aesthetic that insists on rigid correspondences between objects depicted and their counterparts in the physical world.

Proust's approach centers on the object as it is immediately perceived and excludes any preconceptions that might suggest how we should perceive it. Beckett writes:

By [Proust's] impressionism I mean his non-logical statement of phenomena in the order and exactitude of their perception, before they have been distorted into intelligibility in order to be forced into a chain of cause and effect. The painter Elstir [one of Proust's characters] is the type of the impressionist, stating what he sees and not what he knows he ought to see: for example, applying urban terms to the sea and marine terms to the town, so as to transmit his intuition of their homogeneity. And we are reminded of Schopenhauer's definition of the artistic procedure as "the contemplation of the world independently of the principle of reason."

(Proust 66)

Beckett is here referring to an argument Schopenhauer puts forward in The World as Will and Idea: that the imaginative, alogical mode of contemplation typical of artists can pierce the facade of time-space phenomena by providing a "way of viewing things independent of the principle of sufficient reason" (1: 239).

Beckett follows Schopenhauer in asserting that artistic contemplation can lead to a state in which one overcomes causal reasoning, pierces the veil of time-space phenomena, and glimpses the noumenal reality that lies beyond it. Or as Beckett puts it, when the object that is contemplated becomes "exempt from causality (Time and Space taken together)," the observer is "purified in the transcendental aperception that can capture the Model, the Idea, the Thing in itself" (Proust 69).

The one-to-one correspondences common in descriptive language focus on the facade of phenomena and undermine this transcendental apperception. Beckett applauds Proust's critiques of descriptive language, in particular of the type utilized by the realistic and naturalistic writers:

Allusion has been made to [Proust's] contempt for the literature that "describes," for the realists and naturalists worshipping the offal of experience, prostrate before the epidermis and the swift epilepsy, and content to transcribe the surface, the facade, behind which the Idea is prisoner.

(Proust 59)

Hypnotized by the glitter of the outer world, the realists and naturalists remain oblivious to the underlying Idea that epitomizes the deepest reality. Proust, on the other hand, succeeds in moving beyond the facade because he "does not deal in concepts, he pursues the Idea" (Proust 60).

Given these views, Beckett employed a number of strategies to liberate his own writing from the superficial reality of "the literature that 'describes.'" Often, he made use of simile, metaphor, hyperbole, oxymoron, understatement - of devices that rely on indirect modes of expression and present multiple levels of meaning. Common to these devices are the ironic tension and ambiguity that grow out of the disjunctions between a phrase's literal and figurative meanings. This is a reason why the narrator of "One Evening" introduces his story with the phrase "To put it vaguely": Beckett prefers a shadowy indistinctness to the focused descriptive details of literary realism (97).

For Beckett, the fact that a figurative statement can be interpreted in different ways becomes a means of avoiding the chains of causal reasoning and one-to-one correspondences that subvert descriptive language. Important in this process is the Proustian impressionism I mentioned earlier, the liberation from norms of realism that permits an artist to apply "urban terms to the sea and marine terms to the town." Conventional descriptive language insists on appropriate terminology - marine terms in descriptions of the sea. This not only leads to cliches and predictable formulations; it obstructs the apperception of the noumenal reality.

Beckett's revised aphorisms therefore make use of an ostensible inappropriateness that is in fact quite suitable for overcoming the limitations of descriptive language. If such inappropriateness seems corrosive or destructive, its ultimate purpose is a positive one: to shift away from formulaic linkings of words and objects in order to remove the obstructions veiling the mysterious reality that lies beyond.

As his career progressed, Beckett felt freer about pursuing this goal, and consequently about introducing more conspicuous changes in the aphorisms he revised. In the later works imprecise statements were rectified; sentimental notions were deflated; and often, a sense of pessimism and disillusionment replaced a sense of playfulness.

An example of this more pronounced kind of shift can be seen when the protagonist of Molloy makes a comment based on Goethe's "Two souls reside, alas, within my breast" (Faust 1.1112). Molloy transforms Faust's remark into the self-deprecating "in me there have always been two fools" (Molloy 64). Together with euphony, the modification brings a dour sense of the inevitability of human folly.

Many of the revised aphorisms in Beckett's later works are marked by a similarly saturnine tone. The enthusiasm of the pioneers' cry of "Westward ho!" is countered by Worstward Ho, the title of a work Beckett published in 1983. In Ill Seen Ill Said (another work with a pessimistic title), the narrator's complaint goes beyond a mere lack of food: "Not another crumb of carrion left," he says (59). And the narrator of Company is content to let others describe what they see by the light of day; he will speak about "visions in the dark of light" (59).

In Endgame Hamm cries out, "My kingdom for a nightman!" (23), echoing Shakespeare's "my kingdom for a horse!" (Richard III 5.4.7). As its title indicates, chess is an important theme in Endgame, and the horse-nightman substitution brings a punning reference to the horse as a knight, a chess piece. But there is also an earthier idea here: Hamm needs a nightman, "a man employed during the night to empty cesspools," according to the OED's definition. Beckett's change makes Shakespeare's passage bleaker by stripping it of heroic associations and in this way rendering it more suitable for its new context.

Beckett often refers to the Bible, and in his earlier works such allusions usually involve only minor emendations. Thus Neary claims that his academy "is wiped as a man wipeth a plate, wiping it and turning it upside down" (Murphy 47). This comment does little to alter the main idea in the original, a verse in 2 Kings: "I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipeth a dish, wiping it, and turning it upside down" (21:13). Or again, the opening sentence of Murphy - "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new" - introduces only a small change in the original, "There is no new thing under the sun," in Ecclesiastes (1:9).

The minor changes in these examples can be contrasted with one in a passage in Malone Dies, published thirteen years after Murphy. Here the central idea in the biblical original is reversed when Malone describes himself as being "so hard and contracted" that he would be "lost in the eye of a needle" (51). This comment is based on Matthew 19:24, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."

In some instances, the main thrust of a revised passage is not so much the improvement of a stereotyped phrase as the contribution of an idea to its Beckettian context. For example, at the opening of Malone Dies the protagonist says, "I will not weigh upon the balance any more . . ." (1). This remark, based on "Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting" (Daniel 5:27), indicates that Malone is rejecting not only religious notions of sin and redemption, but conventional moralistic ideas generally.

In some places Beckett uses a revised quotation to provide a clue about some subtle issue in a work. Murphy's comment "What shall a man give in exchange for Celia?" (Murphy 22) is based on Matthew 16:26 and Mark 8:37, "what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" The revision indicates that Celia, whom the egocentric Murphy treats badly, is one of the few humane characters in the novel and one of the few who cares for him.

In a number of places Beckett's revised aphorisms signal a movement away from the celebration of wit: the value of intellect, which witticisms indirectly assert, cannot be taken for granted. The logical thinking and causal reasoning Beckett deplored in Proust is more and more often ridiculed in the early fiction until it becomes a central target for satire in Watt.

Thus if his protagonists are intellectually sophisticated, Beckett often uses revised aphorisms to mock them for this very quality:

* "Belacqua put on his considering cap" (versus "his thinking cap"; "Echo's Bones" [story] 11)

* "There aren't many I haven't forgotten" (versus "there aren't many [jokes] I haven't heard"; "Echo's Bones" [story] 8)

* "Four heads are better than two" (versus "two heads are better than one"; More Pricks 150)

* "You can't keep a dead mind down" (versus "you can't keep a good man down"; More Pricks 140)

* "of his own free imbecility" (versus "of his own free will"; Murphy 125)

As Arsene explains in Watt, there is a certain futility in intellectual endeavor because "what we know partakes in no small measure of . . . the unutterable or ineffable, so that any attempt to utter or eff it is doomed to fail, doomed, doomed to fail" (62).

Beckett extends his uncertainty about the value of intellectual endeavor to institutions of learning and academic disciplines, an idea that emerges in a number of revised aphorisms:

* "The groves of Blarney" (versus "The groves of Academe"; Murphy 226)

* "the Acacacacademy of . . . Essy-in-Possy" (blend of Academy and caca together with puns on esse and posse, "to be" and "to be able"; Waiting for Godot 28b)

* "confined in school doing impositions" (versus "doing compositions"; Malone Dies 13)

* "Indifferential calculus" (versus "differential calculus," in the abandoned poem "Text"; qtd. in Harvey 288)

* "men, women and children of science" (versus "men of science"; Murphy 177)

Beckett is no less skeptical about the value of religious thinking in providing answers to essential issues, and many of his revised aphorisms convey some aspect of his questioning of religion:

* "each man counts his rats" (a blend of "count your blessings" and "rats leave a sinking ship"; Molloy 90)

* "The last breakfast" (versus "The Last Supper"; Dream 71)

* "the so-called Apostles' Creed" (versus "the Apostles' Creed"; How It Is 16). As Beckett suggests, the "Apostles' Creed," which was incorrectly attributed to the apostles, is a misnomer.

Mocking Irish religious conflicts as well as Protestant pretensions to ethical superiority over Catholics, Beckett has a character in All That Fall proclaim that a charitable act would be not "the Christian thing to do" but "the Protestant thing to do" (23).

In his later works Beckett's antireligious views become more acerbic, and this is often reflected in his revised aphorisms. In More Pricks Than Kicks, published in 1934, Beckett transforms the biblical "turn the other cheek" into "cock up the other cheek" (188; Matthew 5:39). Nineteen years later, in The Unnamable, there is a more cynical play on the same biblical phrase: "turn the black eye" (83).

Some of the sharpness in Beckett's later works is directed not only against religious moralizing but against a belief in God. In Waiting for Godot, Lucky speaks about the "year of their Lord" (versus "our Lord"; 29B). In a similar way a character in Eh Joe, uncertain about a date, asks, "What year of your Lord?" (206). In Molloy (229), Moran slyly asks, "What was God doing with himself before the creation?" (versus Saint Augustine's question, "What was God doing before He made heaven and earth?" (Confessions bk. 11, sec. 10). The narrator of The Unnamable describes Mahood as "cold as a fish, incapable even of cursing his creator" (versus "praising his creator"; 120). This passage can be contrasted with one in Endgame where Hamm does in fact curse his creator: "The bastard!" he says of God; "He doesn't exist!" (55).

Beckett's growing hostility to religion emerges when two of his passages based on the Lord's Prayer are compared. In "Serena I," a poem published in 1935, one finds the line "ah father father that art in heaven" (versus "Our father which art in heaven," Matthew 6:9-13; Collected Poems 21). In Molloy, published in 1951, the Lord's Prayer is transformed into "the pretty quietist Pater"; it begins, "Our Father who art no more in heaven than on earth or in hell" (229).

A recurring element in Beckett's attacks on religion is an objection to the way it encourages one to hope for better things - an expectation, he is persuaded, that inevitably leads to disappointment. In the trilogy, Beckett's narrators echo this idea when they speak about "hellish hope," "little attacks of hope," and "hope . . . to make him suffer" (Molloy 182; The Unnamable 155, 111); and Vladimir, in Waiting for Godot, says he feels appalled when he experiences the onset of hope (8a).

Hope, for Beckett, leads into a vicious cycle: after disappointment, we seek relief in revived hope that ends in renewed disappointment. Hope, in Beckett's pessimistic view, is like an addictive drug that intensities suffering instead of alleviating it. Moreover, while thwarted hope leads to disappointment, satisfied desire leads to a state of satiated boredom that is no less painful. In Watt, Arsene explains that the boredom of fulfilled desire is even worse than the frustration of unsatisfied yearning:

it is useless not to seek, not to want, for when you cease to seek you start to find, and when you cease to want, then life begins to ram her fish and chips down your gullet until you puke. . . . To hunger, thirst, lust, every day afresh and every day in vain, after the old prog, the old booze, the old whores, that's the nearest we'll ever get to felicity.


Malone, instead of being "bored to tears," describes "being bored to howls" (Malone Dies 51).

Underlying the misery of human existence is an oscillation between the boredom of satiation and the longing of unfulfilled desire. Central in Beckett's attacks on religious dogma is that it prevents us from viewing this dilemma realistically. Vivid demonstrations of how religion raises false hopes are presented in Waiting for Godot and in Happy Days. Both plays also reveal how we use cliches to insulate ourselves from the harshness of existence.

Beckett satirizes other institutions that naively or hypocritically promise remediation for human suffering. Even charitable acts are examined with a jaundiced eye: in Murphy, Beckett's narrator speaks of the "patient impotence of charity or prayer" (259). For Beckett, charity is often more humiliating than redemptive - a view reflected in a number of revised aphorisms:

* "Shall I bite the hand that starves me?" (versus "hand that feeds me"; Murphy 19)

* "Miss Carridge, whose charity stopped at nothing short of alms" (versus "whose charity stopped at nothing"; Murphy 143)

* "I was on my way to my mother, whose charity kept me dying" (versus "kept me alive"; Molloy 28)

* "he had eluded charity all his days" (based on "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life," Psalm 23:6; Malone Dies 84)

* "Faith, Hope, and - what was it?" (versus "Faith, hope, and charity," based on 1 Corinthians 13:13; More Pricks 39)

Those who are victims of insincere offers of help are themselves often encouraged to become hypocrites - to smile and feign gratitude. "To him who has nothing" says Molloy, "it is forbidden not to relish tilth" (Molloy 30).

Such lessons are inculcated often enough that the romanticization of suffering becomes habitual. For Beckett, life on earth is a dismal experience; seeing it otherwise raises a mirage of false hopes. The optimistic sentimentality that distracts us from life's pain finally adds to our burden of suffering. Beckett therefore resolutely undercuts every tendency to romanticize the human situation.

A related idea emerges in the revised aphorisms involving descriptions of nature. Beckett begins with the kind of overblown phrase that might occur in a Romantic description of natural beauty and then reworks it to reflect a more saturnine outlook:

* "The sky was that horrible color which heralds dawn" (versus "wonderful color"; Molloy 191)

* The town "where I first saw the murk of day" (versus "light of day"; Molloy 40)

* "the stillborn evening" (versus "still of the evening"; "Enueg I" 11)

* "the resources of their planet" (versus "our planet"; Molloy 123)

* "tending whatever flowers die at that time of year" (versus "grow at that time of year"; More Pricks 21)

In the last passage, Beckett's turn of phrase hinges on the substitution of the word "die" for "grow." He uses a similar approach in a number of other revised aphorisms, substituting the idea of dying for that of living or growing:

* "dying all his life" (More Pricks 176)

* "tired of dying" ("Enueg II" 13)

* "say my good-byes, finish dying" (Molloy 7)

* "never have to die any more" (Malone Dies 93)

* "I'll live his death" ("Fizzle 3" 26)

* "the art and code of dying" (The Unnamable 36)

* "a dying being" (Malone Dies 94)

* "towards an even vainer death" ("Texts for Nothing 8" 115)

The point is clear: existence is painful enough that we would do better to speak of dying than of living.

This sense of the misery of existence is reflected in many of Beckett's revised aphorisms:

* "in describing this day I am once more he who suffered it" (versus "he who lived it"; Molloy 167)

* "That first, fatal, foetal . . . error" (versus "fatal error"; "Echo's Bones" [story] 24)

* "life without tears, as it is wept" (a blend of "crying without tears" and "life as it is lived"; Molloy 41)

* "a face, with holes for the eyes and mouth and other wounds" (versus "eyes and mouth and other sensory organs"; Molloy 204)

* "in the course of my rout" (versus "in the course of my life"; "The Calmative" 27-28)

* "Birth was the death of him" (A Piece of Monologue 265)

* "You shouldn't be sitting on the cold stones, they're bad for your growths" (versus "bad for your growth"; Embers 97)

"It's never the same pus from one second to the next," says Estragon (Waiting for Godot 39a). Estragon's comment has to do with the passage of time: as John Fletcher has suggested, it is based on Heraclitus's saying "It is not possible to step twice into the same river" (Samuel Beckett's Art 123).

Beckett's revised aphorisms about youth and aging convey a similar sense of disillusionment:

* "Nip some young doom in the bud" (a blend of "nip it in the bud" and "young bloom"; All That Fall 31)

* "while still in the first cyanosis of youth" (versus "first flush of youth," based on the opening of Christina Rossetti's "Song": "Oh roses for the flush of youth"; Murphy 161-62)

* "What an abominable thing is youth" (versus "what a wonderful thing is youth," and possibly "Youth is a Wonderful thing; what a crime to waste it on children," attrib. George Bernard Shaw; Molloy 159)

* "Bloom of adulthood" (versus "of youth"; "Heard in the Dark 2" 90)

For Beckett, human endeavor is "like looking for a needle in a haystack full of vipers" (Murphy 116). His heroes therefore seek not "a new lease on life" but "a new lease of apathy" (More Pricks 162). The narrator of The Unnamable says he hopes to "Slough off this mortal inertia" (63); as Ruby Cohn has noted (136), this comment is based on a line in Hamlet, "when we have shuffled off this mortal coil" (3.1.67). But even Beckett's early protagonists, like Belacqua and Murphy, are trapped in indifference and apathy.

Our lives are dolorous, arduous, tedious; it takes untold effort to achieve even miniscule degrees of progress. Hence descriptions of the futility of human endeavor and of the illusory nature of progress recur in Beckett's revised aphorisms:

* "Regress in these togs was slow" (versus "progress . . ."; Murphy 73)

* "Then I resumed my spirals" (versus "resumed my travels"; Molloy 92)

* "the better to savor my exhaustion" (versus "savor my pleasure"; Molloy 223)

* "finality without end" (versus "world without end," from "Morning Prayer, Gloria Patri," Book of Common Prayer; Molloy 152)

Beckett demonstrates how our attempts to block out the pain of living introduce a type of habitual behavior that insulates us from the harshness of reality. In Proust he describes the role that unthinking repetitious behavior plays in this buffering process:

Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment, or between the individual and his own organic eccentricities, the guarantee of a dull inviolability, the lightning-conductor of his existence. Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit.


Habit generates the mind-numbing ennui we use to anesthetize whatever is painful or threatening; by invoking it we live at a remove from whatever is authentic in our existence. Habit, Beckett says, obscures "the perilous zones in the life of the individual, dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being" (Proust 8).

For Beckett, the suffering of being represents an acute mode of apprehending reality that involves "the free play of every faculty" (Proust 9). Beckett mentions Schopenhauer in connection with this idea, and his views owe something to Schopenhauer's argument that because willing and striving are at the core of our nature we become trapped in a static zone between the pain of unsatisfied desires and the ennui of fulfilled desire (Schopenhauer 1: 401-3).

For Beckett, habit creates a screen that frustrates our ability to apprehend the authentic core of existence (Proust 7-9). Later on he refers again to the dulling effect of habit in Molloy (227) and in The Unnamable (111).

Cliche is language dulled by habit, and it similarly creates the barrier that insulates us from the suffering of being. Stereotyped ideas and formulaic language obscure whatever might be glimpsed of the harsh but elusive reality that should be the goal of serious artists and thinkers. Beckett touches on this idea when he speaks of Watt's "need of semantic succour": Watt, confronted by the enigmatic negativity of Mr. Knott, temporizes by making "a pillow of old words" (Watt 83, 117).

Stereotyped language, then, represents a subtle but insidious barrier to the apperception of reality. Its repetition creates grooves in consciousness that make its falsehoods seem more credible - the "big lie" principle. Many of Beckett's revised aphorisms are therefore attacks on stereotyped language: he delights in revealing the subtle mendacity that can slip by unnoticed in cliched phrases. Thus, for example, if we speak often enough about stainless steel, we may start believing that it truly is. Molloy, however, describes "a very fine vegetable knife, so-called stainless," wryly adding, "it didn't take me long to stain it" (Molloy 60).

Beckett often uses the phrase "so-called," a well-placed qualifier he uses to challenge commonplace ideas:

* "so-called genuine Irish horn" (Molloy 60)

* "the alleged joys of so-called self-abuse" (Molloy 79)

* "the so-called exact sciences" (Molloy 178)

* "my so-called virile member" (Molloy 76)

* "his mind so-called" ("Stirrings Still" 128)

If the British term for a raincoat is a "waterproof," Beckett describes a "shower-proof" (Dream 82). If the Bible urges us to love our neighbors as ourselves, Hamm's advice is "Lick your neighbor as yourself" (68). And if Hamlet asserts, "To be, or not to be: that is the question," Vladimir begs to differ: "What are we doing here," he says; "that is the question" (Hamlet 3.1.56; Waiting for Godot 51b).

Running through these examples is a demonstration of how often and how easily we are deceived by shopworn phrases - by the propaganda of the familiar. So much of what we say is inaccurate or misleading that Beckett is finally skeptical about the degree to which language itself can be trusted. One's choice is not, as the cliche puts it, whether to speak or remain silent, but rather whether to "lie or hold your peace" (Molloy 119).

Many of Beckett's revised aphorisms convey similar observations about the untrustworthiness of language:

* "no sense in bickering about pronouns and other parts of blather" (versus "parts of speech"; The Unnamable 102)

* "I . . . ventured one or two noises" (versus "one or two comments"; Molloy 26)

* "In at one ear and incontinent out through the mouth" (versus "in one ear and out the other"; The Unnamable 94)

* "in the jargon of the schools" (versus "in the language of the schools"; Molloy 69)

Such revised aphorisms to some degree overcome the limitations that Beckett sees in ordinary discourse: the most justifiable linguistic expressions are perhaps those that reveal the deficiencies of language.

Beckett's narrators therefore often use revised aphorisms to convey a sense of uncertainty about what they communicate:

* "I shall also draw attention, in my knowledge of Molloy, to the most striking lacunae" (versus "most striking details"; Molloy 154)

* "I'll describe the place, that's unimportant" (versus "that's important"; "Texts for Nothing 1" 75)

* "perhaps I'm remembering things" (versus "forgetting things"; Molloy 9) "no symbols where none intended" (versus "no offense where none intended"; Watt 254)

* "On which so much unhinges" (versus "so much hinges"; Murphy 114)

* "That's a fairly good caricature of my state of mind" (versus "a fairly good picture"; Molloy 84)

A corresponding distrust of language extends to Beckett's own writing, as emerges in a comment about Endgame in one of his letters to Alan Schneider: "I am so glad you have been able to preserve the text in all its impurity" (Letter 109).

Even while calling attention to inadequacies in his own writing, Beckett continually worked at reformulating the language he used so as to make it more precise. Thus even when his revised aphorisms convey a sense of skepticism about the possibility of accurate linguistic communication, they themselves are couched in the most precise terms Beckett can muster.

Victor Sage has commented on this aspect of Beckett's writing:

Implied in Beckett's prose style and his whole manner of writing is a diatribe against certain expectations of language: notably the organic. Time and time again his destructive twisting of proverbs and catch-phrases, his constant habit of transposing subject and object and his absurd scrutiny of suffixes and prefixes expose the fallacy of a natural connection between words and meanings. He is fascinated by the mechanical and the systematic; his cadences have the precision of a jewelled watch-movement. The ultimate incapacity of language to be logical and consistent is a major source of frustration and despair.


What Sage calls "the fallacy of a natural connection between words and meanings" becomes an integral element in Beckett's revised aphorisms. Ordinary language is treacherous in its tendency to present one-to-one correspondences with events in the world because the insufficient linguistic models we create are easily confused with what they depict. Even so, a sense of despair about the communicative potential of language cannot negate a writer's obligation to communicate as well as possible.

Representational language misrepresents reality. Reality - human reality in particular - is indistinct, obscure, cryptic, and ultimately unknowable. Denotative language, by its very attributes of logical form and grammatical precision, suggests the opposite. The obligation for a writer is therefore to try to surmount this barrier. Beckett therefore goes beyond deploring the deficiencies of language. If language is a poor tool for communicating thought, it is nonetheless the best tool we have and an obligation to use language as proficiently as possible persists, whether it is in pointing out the pitfalls of linguistic communication or in finding ways to overcome them.

Beckett's revised aphorisms make use of corrective elements that, together with highlighting the imperfections of trite formulations, go beyond them in achieving accuracy. Some of Beckett's characters are extraordinarily punctilious about achieving this goal. An example is the way Molloy deals with the cliche "believe it or not." We might imagine, when we preface a dubious statement with such a cautionary phrase, that we are doing little more than warning auditors about its potential unreliability. But the phrase is deceptive in another way: we also use it to exonerate ourselves from blame for any possible mendacity. Molloy is therefore careful to preface a dubious statement with "believe me or not" (Molloy 91).

Ordinary language is full of traps. If I ask what time it is, I haven't taken into account the interval needed for someone to consult a watch and communicate the information. The scrupulous Watt uses a more rigorous formula: "Could you tell me," he asks Mr. Case, "what time it was?" (Watt 228).

Many of Beckett's revised aphorisms are marked by a meticulous devotion to reformulating cliches so they become more accurate:

* "the better-to-do of the city" (versus "the well-to-do"; Dream 156)

* "Losers seekers" (versus "finders keepers, losers weepers"; More Pricks 184)

* "putting my best foot foremost" (versus "putting my best foot forward"; Molloy 26)

* "gentle skimmer" (versus "gentle reader"; Murphy 84)

* "companions of so many bearable hours" (versus "companions of so many happy hours"; "The End" 49)

Beckett's attacks on language have at times been seen as expressions of a nihilistic urge, as outpourings of a frustration that finally leads him to attack the foundation of his art: its medium of expression. But in fact these attacks are coupled with a continual effort to present alternatives to the stereotyped formulations of ordinary language. Beckett's effort has been to create a language of precise imprecision: a form of communication that, while itself as accurate as possible, acknowledges the limitations of language and introduces ambiguities where an excess of precision might be misleading. If this kind of communication is imperfect, it surpasses denotative modes of discourse by avoiding the fixity of direct correspondences between events in the world and their linguistic models.

Even Beckett's puns provide examples of how this language of precise imprecision achieves its effect. For Beckett, an avid reader of Joyce, the pun is more than frivolous wordplay - an idea hinted at when Murphy's punning narrator, echoing the biblical "In the beginning was the Word," asserts "In the beginning was the pun" (John 1:1; Murphy 65).

Josephine Jacobsen and William R. Mueller have noted Beckett's "fondness for punning" and in this connection cite Henri Bergson's discussion of how puns transpose "the natural expression of an idea into another key" (81). What is no less important is the act of transformation itself, the process of emendation that challenges the self-sufficiency of the natural expression. A pun by definition conveys at least two sets of meaning; and it is by means of this duality that the illusory precision of denotative formulations begins to break down.

An example of how Beckett achieves this occurs in a witty macaronic in Watt: "die Merde hat mich weider" ("the shit has me again"; 250). This phrase is based on one in Faust, "Die Erde hat mich weider!" ("the earth has me again!"; 1.784). Faust, ready to commit suicide, changes his mind and exuberantly announces his decision to continue living. For Beckett's characters, such enthusiasm is hardly warranted; a decision not to kill oneself only means a return to the muck of daily existence.

The Erde-merde pun introduces an oxymoron: with the change of a single letter a comment about the value of life is transformed into its antithesis. Even so, the memory of the original statement persists and sharpens the irony introduced by the emended version.

Beckett's pun thus introduces divergent ideas that accurately depict the kind of equivocation that accompanies suicidal thinking. Even Goethe's protagonist - disillusioned enough to want to kill himself and moments later joyously ready to rejoin the living - presumably experiences something like this emotional polarity. A denotative statement about such an event ("Faust decides to commit suicide but changes his mind") is reductive, subverting the very idea it hopes to depict. Beckett's pun, on the other hand, provides a corrective element: a suggestion of the ambivalence that must accompany such a complicated emotional event as an attempted suicide.

Beckett's revised aphorisms are in a sense like metaphors - devices for amplifying statements by undercutting their literal significance by endowing them with new shades of meaning. Beckett uses this multiplicity of meaning, with its inherent ambiguity and potential for irony, in his attempts to overcome the adverse effects of ordinary descriptive language.

Inexperienced writers rely on cliches; mature writers avoid them; but Beckett - faithful to his times - recycles them, and in the process restores their lost freshness. Concise, thoughtful, precise - these are the attributes of Beckett's revised aphorisms. His terse reconfigurations of commonplace statements reveal a deep awareness of the deficiencies of language as well as an inspired brilliance in countering them. A student of Swift and Johnson, of Racine and Chamfort, Beckett is also one of their most notable successors.

University of Colorado


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RUBIN RABINOVITZ is professor of English at the University of Colorado. His books include The Reaction against Experiment in the English Novel, 1950-1960 (Columbia, 1967), The Development of Samuel Beckett's Fiction (Illinois, 1984), and Innovation in Samuel Beckett's Fiction (Illinois, 1992).
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Date:Jun 22, 1995
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