The imaginary museum of Samuel Beckett. (1).
Well, I have read all these books -- several times even. Read and reread them (in English and in French). I am not saying this to impress you, but simply to indicate that one must be crazy to read the entire oeuvre of Beckett. Certainly, only mad people, fanatics, would spend time reading and rereading everything Beckett has written. In Waiting for Godot -- Beckett's most celebrated play -- it is said: We are all born mad. Only a few remain so. I believe I am one of those who remained mad, because for more than forty-five years I have not stopped reading and re-reading the books of Samuel Beckett, and I always imagine that others too are as mad as me, and that they too never stopped reading and re-reading Beckett.
In any case, it is with this idea in mind -- with this assumption that everybody has read everything Beckett has written -- that I prepared a lecture for this occasion -- an extremely complicated lecture, probably boring and much too long, which explained everything Beckett wrote.
I left that complicated boring academic lecture in the form of an explication de texte in the sun of California, and instead I wrote a few notes which I have before me, and with these notes, I want to take you on a little journey, an impromptu journey through the landscapes -- the somewhat devastated landscapes of Samuel Beckett's work. Or rather, I want to take you on a visit in tire imaginary museum of Samuel Beckett. For you may not know this, but Beckett was a great artist, yes a great painter. No, he did not paint with paint, he painted tableaux with words. And so I want to take you through some of Beckett's books, not to explain what they mean, but to show you what there is to see in these books, to have you look at them somewhat like tourists look at paintings on the walls of a museum. What I want to try to show you are the great tableaux that Beckett has created for us -- with words.
Normally, one explains (at least to those who are in need of explanation) -- one explains a work of fiction (a novel, a story, a play) by discussing the characters. That is to say, by looking at the human condition as represented in the characters. By discussing the characters of a literary work, one usually arrives at the meaning of that work. But to discuss or analyze the beings (les etres) of a novel or a play as if they were real, as if they were living in our world, is to deal with the work in terms of sociology and psychology, it has nothing to do with the aesthetic quality of the work. That kind of sociological and psychological explanation finally has nothing to do with literature -- literature as art, I mean. Samuel Beckett was, above all, an artist. Perhaps the last of the great artists of the 20th century. The British critic, Colin Wilson, once referred to Beckett as "the last of the Mohicans."
To speak of the unhappy condition of Beckett's creatures, the lonely miserable condition of Gogo and Didi, Molloy, Malone, and all the other human wrecks (les epaves humaine) one encounters dans l'oeuvre de Beckett -- (excuse the French intrusions, but when talking about Beckett one cannot avoid being bilingual, since he was certainly one of the greatest bilingual writers of all time). To see only the unhappy, depressing, morbid condition of the Beckettian creatures is not only indulging in sociological miserabilisme, but it is a way of ignoring the artistry, and especially the beautiful geometry of his work.
By geometry I mean simply the form of the text, the structure of the narration, the shape of the sentences, and especially the space, the landscape where Beckett's fictions are inscribed and being played. In other words, what I am proposing here, is that in order to seize the work of Beckett -- I did not say understand, but seize, in the sense of apprehending visually and mentally -- one must not only look at the beings in that fiction, one must see where and how these beings are situated physically, geographically, geometrically.
And so I would like to take you, today, on a little journey through the Beckettian space and show you some of the unforgettable tableaux he has meticulously created in his works. Along the way you will see how progressively and chronologically, by mocking realism, Beckett's landscapes de-construct themselves, turn to ruins, or rather one should say, construct themselves on their own ruins, to become first, in the early works, surrealistic tableaux, then cubist scenes, abstract expressionism, and ultimately, in the later texts, minimalist and conceptual as they reconstruct themselves into perfect geometrical figures -- circles, squares, cubes, cylinders.
It is by looking at these tableaux that I would like to seize -- not understand -- but seize the work of Samuel Beckett.
End of the preface. Let us set out on our journey -- our visit.
But before entering the Beckett museum (which is not open yet. It will open in a few minutes) a few words about Beckett the man and the artist are necessary. After all, when we go to a museum to look at the work of an artist, we try to find out a bit about his life and his work.
Beckett. The French pronounce that name Bequet -- in fact that's exactly how one of the spectators in the play Eleutheria (1947) pronounces the name of the author of the play he is watching which is not going anywhere. Disgusted with the non-action of the play, the spectator jumps and stage and tries to resolve the situation.
Au fait, he says, qui a fait ce navet? (il regarde son programme). Samuel Bequet. Bequet! Ca doit etre un juif groenlandais matine d'auvergnat.
In spite of what that irritated spectator in Eleutheria says, Beckett (who died on December 22, 1989) was certainly one of the most important and most influential writers of our time -- at least for my generation. Certain people throughout history were privileged to have been contemporaries of Homer, Shakespeare, Racine, Goethe, Dostoevsky, Proust, Joyce, Carravagio, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Mozart, Beethoven. I lived at the same time as Samuel Beckett. We lived at the same time. We were his contemporaries. And he left with us an amazing oeuvre.
Samuel Beckett is no longer in Paris (where he lived and worked), no longer writing another book for us. There will be no more books by Samuel Beckett. But even though Beckett has now changed tense -- as a friend wrote to me upon learning of his death -- what remains is that immense oeuvre he has left behind. For this we are all deeply indebted to him. What he left with us are: novels, stories, texts for nothing, residua, plays for the stage, radio plays, television plays, mimes, videos, even a film, poetry, art criticism, literary criticism, translations and self-translations, and more. And all of these written in two languages by Beckett himself -- French and English. An amazing oeuvre indeed.
As we all know, Beckett was an Irishman who lived in exile in France as of the early 1930s, and who eventually adopted the French language for his writing though he himself translated most of the works he wrote in French into English, and most of the works he wrote in English into French. The transaction of his work from one language to the other is already a tour de force. That's a subject in itself, but I cannot resist, since most readers of Beckett are bilingual if not multilingual, to give just one illustration (while we are waiting for the museum to open) of what happens when Beckett translates himself.
The novel Watt (written between 1943-1945 -- first published in 1953) ends with this statement: No symbols where none intended. A sentence in which we hear the entire tradition of Anglo-Saxon literature and culture. The French translation of Watt, by Beckett, did not appear until 1968. I often attempted to translate that sentence into English. Listen to what it became in Beckett's French: Honni soit qui symboles y voit. And here we hear the entire French culture and literature.
Born in 1906, Beckett settles in Paris in 1932. That is to say that at the age of 26, he finds himself in exile. Displaced. Depayse, one might say -- living in a foreign landscape -- since we are talking about landscapes.
Since 1929 (date of his first publication), for exactly 60 years, Beckett did nothing else but write, nothing else but line up words on pieces of papers. Therefore, the story of his life was his writing, his life was nothing but words -- or as the voice of Texts for Nothing says of his own life: Words, mine was never more than that, than that pell-mell babel of silence and words.
That sums up Beckett's life -- his biography. Words, in English and in French. For 60 years Beckett locked himself in a room and wrote. Hugh Kenner refers to this as "the siege in the room."
A few more minutes, and the museum will be open. Allow me to situate myself in relation to Beckett's work before we go in.
I started reading Beckett in 1956, when I saw the Broadway production of Waiting for Godot, and like everyone else then, I wanted to know what the work of Beckett meant. I wanted to understand the meaning of his books. And so for some 15 years, until about 1970, I set out in the pursuit of meaning in Beckett's work. Like everyone else I wanted to know what it all meant. Not only did I write a doctoral dissertation on the fiction of Samuel Beckett, which became my first book -- Journey to Chaos -- but I published numerous articles, worked for several years with the British Critic John Fletcher on a huge critical bibliography entitled Beckett: His Works and His Critics, edited three volumes of essays and documents on Beckett, and of course taught the works of Beckett in my seminars at the university.
At the beginning of the 1960s, a whole team of critics, including myself, set out to sort out, to explain, to classify, to interpret, to organize the work of Samuel Beckett, in order to extract meaning from it. In the process some very strange, far-fetched, and preposterous interpretations were offered. But as it is said in the novel Watt: What was this pursuit of meaning, in this indifference to meaning? And to what did it tend? These are delicate questions. And in the same novel, as if warning us about the futility of seeking meaning: But to elicit something from nothing requires a certain skill, and Watt was not always successful, in his efforts to do so.
Nor was Federman.
Nonetheless, in spite of the warnings, the critics stubbornly insisted on this pursuit of meaning.
First, it was a matter of finding the literary sources of Beckett's work. Gradually the critics revealed that his remarkable work was issued from Joyce, Kafka, Proust, Flaubert, Balzac, and moving back into time, the 18th century novel, Diderot, Laurence Sterne, then Racine, Shakespeare, Rabelais, Cervantes, Dante, Homer. So many possible sources, that finally one were reduced to saying that the work of Samuel Beckett was, in fact, all of literature -- the entire history (and story) of literature. And so, after all these efforts to ascribe sources to his work, nothing had been said that explained the work of Samuel Beckett.
Then came the critics who absolutely wanted to discover the philosophical and theological sources of Beckett's work. And so Beckett was read as an Existentialist, a Phenomenologist, influenced by Sartre, Heidegger, Bergson, certainly Nietzsche, the pessimism of Schopenhauer, the dualism of Descartes, and the Occasionalism of Malebranche, and still further back in time, Luther and Calvin, St. Augustine, the Sophists, Plato and Aristotle, and of course, the Pre-Socratics, and the Ancient and the New Testament. That is to say, once again, the entire history of philosophy and theology was contained in the work of Samuel Beckett.
What was curious about this stubborn pursuit of meaning, this search and research in finding literary, philosophical, theological sources for Beckett's work is that it always seemed to lead to nothing -- to self-evidence and non-sense. I am using the term nonsense here in its double sense. Without direction, without signification.
But Beckett had been warning us all along about the meaninglessness -- or the Lessness of his work. Or as he put it himself referring to the language of his novel How It Is: A rumor transmissible ad infinitum in either direction. And elsewhere he emphasizes that: Language is what gets us where we want to go and prevents us from getting there.
And so, in spite of the enormous critical industry around Beckett's work, that work seemed to defy any sensible explanation, seemed to cancel all critical interpretations, however convincing they may be. It made a mockery of criticism. The more one tried to situate, to pigeonhole Beckett's work, the more it escaped historical and critical interpretation. Of course, there were also the symbolic explanations of the novels and plays. But even these clever explanations did not clarify anything. Did not reveal the meaning (the hidden meaning, if there was one) of this oeuvre. For finally, the meaning was neither secret nor hidden. It was there, on the surface of the texts, at the level of the words and the images these words created. Perhaps even too evident. The meaning of Beckett's work was there, before our eyes, it was simply a matter of looking rather than thinking.
Let me sum up in the form of a question what I believe the meaning of Beckett's work is: What am I doing here -- doing what I am doing? That's all. Or to put it even more simply and succinctly, and echo the words of the old dying woman in the marvelous play Rockaby -- who while rocking herself to sleep or to death in an old rocking chair suddenly shouts: Fuck life!
Yes, all along, Beckett warned us that it was useless to try and find meaning in his work, especially symbolic meaning. Remember: No symbols where none intended. The pursuit of meaning in Beckett's work often leads to an impasse, to non-sense, to platitudes, ready-made ideas. In other words, the work of Beckett presents itself to us very much like Baudelaire's forest of symbols. But the symbols in the forest of Beckett's words are undecipherable. Therefore, it is useless to ascribe a meaning to these symbols, they merely confound us and lead us into ignorance.
In one of the rare interviews Beckett gave, often quoted, he stated: I am working with impotence and ignorance. I don't think ignorance has ever been exploited in the past. Self-evidence and ignorance, the keys to Beckett's work. A perfect example is the thirty second play written for television entitled Breath -- yes, a thirty second dramaticule, Beckett called it: Light comes on on a pile of garbage, one hears the cry of a baby, the light goes out. It's as simple as that. Darkness-light-darkness, which of course, can be read as birth/life/death. It is so evident that even to say this becomes ridiculous.
The meaning of this dramaticule is too obvious even to bother pointing it out It baffles us by its evidence. But as an image, as a tableau, as a picture, it is striking, and once it has been seen on the screen it remains engraved in one's mind. A pile of garbage, light, darkness, and the cry of a baby. What a striking tableau that represents ... well no need to be explicit.
The same can be said of the name Godot. That word that entered our culture in 1951, and has intrigued so many people. To say that Godot means God, becomes absurd. It is so evident, so obvious, that to say it is to say nothing. And in fact, as it is said in Waiting for Godot, Nothing is more real than nothing.
You must be wondering why I have spent so much time rejecting, refusing, avoiding, canceling the meaning of Beckett's work. Why this long detour, when I promised you a visit in Beckett's imaginary museum. I am coming to that.
But first, allow me to explain why, personally, I abandoned the pursuit of meaning in Beckett. (By now you must have understood that what I am doing here with all these digressions within digressions is to avoid saying anything that may become meaningful about Beckett's work -- to say something meaningful would be mere competence, Beckett would say).
In 1972, I was in Paris, and Beckett invited me to go see with him, and a few other people, the dress rehearsal (not the first performance only the dress rehearsal) of the revival of En Attendant Godot -- exactly twenty years after its premiere. What was interesting about this revival of the play is that Roger Bin, the original director, used the same actors for this performance who played the original production. But this time, Roger Blin decided to stage the play literally in slow motion. It lasted two and a half hours. As a result, the tableaux of this play (in which nothing happens twice, as it was once said) became fixed, frozen in place, like stills in a film, or like paintings, so that the symbolism exploded and became even more obvious. Especially those symbols that could be interpreted as religious. But the meaninglessness of the play also became more evident. As, in fact, it is said in the play in this exchange between Gogo and Didi:
Didi: This is becoming really insignificant.
Gogo: Not enough yet
(Are you still with me? -- the museum is about to open.)
After the performance, the actors, the director, Beckett, and myself went for dinner in a rather swanky restaurant, I was sitting next to Beckett, and at one point I asked him what he thought of this performance, this slow motion staging.
C'est pas mal, c'est pas mal, he said. We always spoke French together, but then after a moment of silence -- the kind of silence only Beckett could make comfortable -- he added: Si seulement ils pouvaient arreter de me faire dire plus que j'ai dit. When will they stop making me say more than I said. It was as if Beckett was warning his readers and critics not to fall into the trap of symbolism and hermeneutics.
Later that evening, or perhaps the next day, in his apartment, we were talking literature, and I asked Beckett why' he was so fond of a certain sentence which appears several times in his work, and what it meant to him. This is the sentence:
Do not despair one of the thieves was saved,
Do not presume one of the thieves was damned.
(From St. Augustine, of course.)
And Beckett said to me: It is not the meaning of this sentence that interests me, it is its shape, its movement. It's perfect symmetry. The way it cancels itself.
And suddenly I realized that it was not the meaning of words that really concerned Beckett, but the shape of language. Therefore, one should not seek meaning in his work but look at the form of his narrative, the shape of his sentences, the movement of his language, one should look at the images he has created in his novels and in his plays rather than try to ascribe a meaning to these images.
And certainly, Beckett, who loved painting so much, who wrote such profound essays on painting, who could explain painting so well to us, whose best friends were painters (Jack Yeats, Avigdor Arikha, Brain van Velde, Jasper Johns, and many others with whom he collaborated), Beckett who could have been himself a great painter, became that painter in his written work. He painted beautiful tableaux for us with words rather than with paint.
And so, in the early 1970s, I went back to the work of Samuel Beckett, but no longer as a critic, no longer as an interpreter, but as a writer (in the early 1970s, I was myself in the process of becoming a novelist), and I started to look at those strange books in a totally different fashion. I looked at them with my senses rather than with my mind, somewhat like a tourist in a museum. I was looking at these works with a kind of bewilderment, renewed attention, and suddenly I saw before me an entire gallery of marvelous, striking, unforgettable tableaux -- the kind of tableaux that remain engraved in your head and haunt you for the rest of your life.
Tableaux made of words in the novels, and visual tableaux in the plays, which, by their construction, their composition, their design, their topology, their geometry, gave me more pleasure than the symbolic meaning I and others had read in them. Let us look then -- mentally of course -- at some of the tableaux that one can see and admire in Beckett's novels and plays. Mentally, since those tableaux are made of words, and as such can be called conceptual. Though in the plays, the tableaux become visible.
Please follow me (you are allowed to take photographs).
Waiting for Godot: As the light comes on a grey backdrop, a deserted cross-road, and a dead tree appear -- nothing more. A new day is beginning. Two figures, two derelicts enter. Unforgettable tableau the entrance of Gogo and Didi when they embrace. The entire human drama will be played here in this space, in this no-man's land. The futility and absurdity of life, the impossibility and the necessity of waiting.
Of course, we now know the origin of that tableau. Yes, the landscape of Godot was inspired by two paintings of Caspar David Freidrich which can be seen in the museum of the Charlottenburg Castle in Berlin. One of these represents two figures seen from the back standing in some deserted landscape next to a tree looking at the moon. The other also represents two vague figures in the distance at the seashore.
But there are other tableaux in Godot: The stunning entrance of Pozzo and Lucky -- the master pulling the slave tied at the neck by the end of a long rope. Gogo and Didi doing their exercises next to the dead tree. Gogo, Didi, Pozzo, Lucky fallen on the ground, incapable of getting up. Didi with his pants down trying to use the piece of rope that held his pants to hang himself.
Imagine these tableaux fixed, frozen in time, as in the performance I saw in 1972. Or imagine them as paintings on the wall of a museum. And you realize suddenly what a great painter, what a great metteuren-scene Beckett was. For certainly, on the stage of a theater, the author and director function very much like painters in the way the scenes of a play are staged.
The tableaux in Godot have the quality, the texture of German expressionism.
Even more striking and memorable is the tableau we see as the light comes up on Endgame. (I should point out that Beckett's plays are never performed with a curtain. It is the light that gradually lights the stage that marks the beginning of a Beckett play. And the light, very much as in a painting is an integral part of the tableau that we are watching.) In Endgame, as the light comes on we see a room, a totally enclosed space, a chamber, perhaps the anti-chamber of Purgatorio. In the center, Hamm's Chair (his throne) -- before him two garbage cans containing Hamm's father and mother. Looked at carefully, this setting suddenly reveals itself to be the interior of a skull -- a human skull (I should mention that the decor for the original French premiere was designed by Giacometti). The two windows on the backdrop representing the empty eyes. And within that space other tableaux take shape, when the heads of Nell and Nagg appear out of the trashcans. Or the picture of Clov standing on a ladder looking out of t he windows with his telescope at the ruins of the world outside, if a world still exists outside this space. The tableaux of Endgame are surrealistic.
The experience of seeing these tableaux for the first time is unforgettable, just as seeing a great painting by Rembrandt or Van Gogh is unforgettable.
(As I speak I assume that all of your are seeing these tableaux mentally, and perhaps remembering the initial reaction or shock you felt when you first saw them.)
Krapp's Last Tape: The image of the old Krapp, disheveled, half drunk, leaning over his tape recorder, eating a banana, surrounded by the spools of recorded tapes that contain his life and his memories. Another striking picture. A concrete visual rendering of what memories must look like inside the human skull. Beckett's tableaux are often the exteriorization of what we see inside our heads.
Happy Days: The disturbing grotesque and yet almost funny tableau of Winnie buried to her waist in a mound of earth, and in the second act to her neck. If you have never seen this play, imagine the shock you will feel when the light reveals this middle-aged woman already half into her tomb holding a parasol over her head, and saying casually: Another heavenly day.
Allow me to read you the stage directions Beckett gives for this play, to demonstrate how he carefully draws his tableaux:
Expanse of scorched grass rising center to low mound. Gentle slopes down to front and either side of stage. Back and abrupter fall to stage level. Maximum of simplicity and symmetry. Blazing light. Very pompier trompe-l'oeil backcloth to represent unbroken plain and sky receding to meet in far distance. Imbedded up to above her waist in exact center of mound, Winnie ... [then the text goes on describing Winnie, the central figure].
Beckett's tableaux become even more fascinating, more disturbing, but also more funny in some ways from one work to the next.
In the play entitled Play (Comedie, in French) three human heads appear out of giant urns when the lights come on. In this play, in fact, it is the light, as it moves from one urn to the next, that creates the movement and the drama, of this Magritte-like tableau.
The mouth of Not I. Yes, just a mouth in that play that becomes a monstrous creature as the lips and the tongue articulate words. Here one thinks of some of Francis Bacon paintings.
Then there is the old woman with the crooked hat on her head rocking herself to death in Rockaby while she listens to her own voice on tape rattling the same old story.
And what about the frozen actor perched on a pedestal being manipulated by the metteur-en-scene in Catastrophe. One can feel the pain that actors must endure in the hands of a director who manipulates their being in order to become the character in the play.
What is fascinating about all these tableaux, is that they also reflect the medium they are representing. In this case, the theater, the art of the theater. These tableaux, and so many others from the plays, are haunting, and remain inscribed in our minds after we have seen them, after we have left them. But not because they are frightening, but rather because they are so real, so true, that it becomes irrelevant to ask, what do they mean, what are they saying to us. Just as one does not ask of a great painting what does it mean, especially not a great abstract painting by Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Motherwell, Rothco, for instance, in which there is nothing to see but paint.
But it is not only in the plays of Beckett that one sees these magnificent tableaux, they are there also in the novels. Sometimes even more striking by their originality and their complexity. In the opening scene of the novel Murphy, we see the protagonist naked tied with seven scarves in a rocking chair. Here is how Beckett introduces this tableau:
The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new ... [first, as always, the light, in a Beckett tableau] ... Murphy sat naked in his rocking-chair of undressed teak, guaranteed not to crack, warp, shrink, corrode, or creak at night ... Seven scarves held him in position. Two fastened his shins to the rockers, one his thighs to the seat, two his breast and belly to the back, one his wrists to the strut behind ....
Can you see that picture, that absurd canvas? One wonders how Murphy managed to tied himself in this fashion. Again a very surrealistic painting.
The final disposal of Murphy's ashes (after his body mind and soul have been reduced to chaos by a gas explosion) is an even more absurd surrealistic picture. Without going into the details of how Murphy's ashes ended up in a paper bag, here is what happened:
Some hours later Cooper took the packet of ash from his pocket, where earlier in the evening he had put them for greater security, and threw it angrily at a man who had given him great offence. It bounced, burst, off the wall on to the floor, where at once it became the object of much dribbling, passing, trapping, shooting, punching, heading and even some recognition from the gentleman's code. By closing time the body, mind and soul of Murphy were freely distributed over the floor of the saloon, and before another dayspring greyened the earth had been swept away with the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit.
I don't think this scene, this comic tableau needs to be explicated. It is so visual. So concrete in its absurdity. Almost cartoon-like.
The house of Mr. Knott in Watt, where objects are not what they appear to be and where words no longer coincide with objects, is full of striking tableaux. Watt, the protagonist, when he first appears looks like "a roll of tarpaulin wrapped in dark paper and tied about the middle with a cord." Then there is Watt in the insane asylum, wearing his jacket backward, and speaking backward. Watt lying in a ditch listening to frogs croak. The novel Watt is full of such absurd surrealistic pictures.
Bicycles are standard props in Beckett Tableaux. The pseudo-couple Mercier and Camier, as they are referred to in the novel by that name, make a rather curious picture as they walk along with their bicycle, one holding on to the handle-bar the other to the seat. Or in the story entitled The Calmative, the cyclist who crosses the landscape of the city from East to West, riding his bicycle while reading a newspaper. This is how the unnamed protagonist of this story describes the scene:
I only saw one cyclist! He was going the same way as I was. He was pedaling slowly in the middle of the street, reading a newspaper which he held with both hands spread open before his eyes. Every now and then he rang his bell without interrupting his reading. I watched him recede till he was no more than a dot on the horizon.
This type of scene may not add much meaning to the story, but it is the accumulation of such tableaux that creates the Beckettian landscape.
But perhaps the greatest Beckettian tableau is the portrait of Molloy in his greatcoat with his bowler hat tied to the buttonhole of his coat with a shoelace. Molloy dragging himself along on his crutches. Molloy trying to slash his wrist with his pocket knife that does not cut. Molloy that grandiose Beckettian figure crawling on the ground pulling himself forward with his crutches. Molloy in his mother's bed. Beckett does not tell us if Molloy is wearing a night bonnet, but in the tableau that I have in my head of Molloy in his mother's bed, Molloy becoming his own mother, I see him with such a night bonnet and a long white nightgown.
But there is also the marvelous tableau of the pathetic Malone in his bed pulling his possessions towards him with the hook at the end of a long stick. And the Unnamable -- ah, the incredible tableau of The Unnamable -- fixed in space like a sun, tears running down his face, and all of Beckett's previous creatures orbiting like planets around him. They are all there, Murphy, Molloy, Malone, and the pseudo-couple Mercier and Camier. What a sublime surrealistic painting. There is also, Worm, in the same novel, planted in a pot in front of a restaurant with the menu stuck on top of his head. And Pim and Pam and Pem crawling naked in the mud of How It Is with a sack full of sardines and tuna fish cans tied around their necks. Salvador Dali could not have done better. These are indeed striking images. And there are so many others.
Certain paintings--I mean now real paintings by the great masters, those hanging in museums--once we have seen them, they can never be forgotten. The two young boys of Carravagio eating grapes. The self-portrait of Rembrandt wearing a turban. Velasquez's Las Meninas. El Greco's elongated figures. Courbet's The Origin of the World. Cezanne's The Luberon Mountain. Van Gogh's sun flower, or his green Christ, or the three pairs of shoes. Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Clyfford Still's Black Canvas. And so many other such great paintings that stay with us--whatever our favorites may be. In front of these paintings, it is the form, the composition, the colors that move us and stay with us rather than the represented subject and the meaning of that subject, if there is a subject.
This is even more so when looking at an abstract painting. It is the geometry, the colors or lack of colors that touches us since there is no real subject, no story, no melodrama in the painting, and therefore no reference to the real world. All of Beckett's novels and plays are made of such tableaux -- strange, somber, sad, often absurd, disturbing, also funny, but always beautifully constructed tableaux. The work of Samuel Beckett is extremely visual. That is why even some of his fiction has been adapted to the stage. For instance, The Lost Ones.
As one follows the evolution of these tableaux in Beckett's work, one discovers that it parallels the evolution of painting in the 20th Century. From neo-impressionism, to expressionism, to cubism, to surrealism, to abstract expressionism, to the optic and geometric experiments in the plastic arts of the last few decades, all these modes and styles of painting can be found in Beckett's own tableaux. From the concrete to the abstract. From realism and surrealism to unrealism and abstract geometry. This visual deconstruction and reconstruction of the world is performed in three moments, three precise periods in the work of Beckett, as one says of the various styles of an artist.
The first period consists of the works written (but not necessarily published) between 1929 and 1945. The early works written in English. The surrealist period. I call the first period -- the lie of reality. More Pricks Than Kicks, Murphy, Watt are the major works of that period that undermine the conventions of realism.
The second period -- the most important and the richest -- consists of the works written between 1945 and 1965 -- the central period -- the shift to the French language and the experiments in theater. The abstract expressionist period. The second period represents -- the truth of fiction. Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, Texts for Nothing, but also Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp's Last Tape are the major works here -- works that become gradually more and more self-reflexive and non-referential.
The third period -- 1965 to 1989 -- consists of the later shorter works in fiction and for the theater. The minimalist and conceptualist period. The works of the third period points to the impossibility of fiction -- these are all the later texts and short plays -- Enough, Imagination Dead Imagine, Ping, The Lost Ones, Ill-Seen Ill-Said, Company, Worstward Ho, Lessness, Stirrings Still for fiction -- and in the theater--Not I, Ghost Trio, Ohio Impromptu, What Where, Catastrophe, and the magnificent Quad 1 and Quad 2. In these later works, literature becomes more and more conceptual as it empties itself of its own subject -- no more fable, no more story, no more anecdote.
Whether working in fiction or in the theater, the evolution of Beckett's tableaux undergoes the same evolution, the same transformation, the same form of deconstruction as painting, from the concrete to the abstract, to become finally pure geometry -- pure visual poetry as m Quad 1 and Quad 2. It is interesting to note the relation of Beckett's theater to his fiction. It seems that every time Beckett found himself cornered into a fictional impasse, every time he pushed the work of fiction further into abstraction by removing from it the traditional elements of fiction, such as plot, character, setting, as well as story, he needed to step back somewhat to be able go forward again, and that's when he would write a play. After he finished Malone Die in 1947, Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot. (I'm giving here the English titles, but these were written first in French.) After he wrote Texts for Nothing, in 1950, which are the ultimate deconstruction of fiction, Beckett stepped back again and wrote Endgame and Krapp 's Last Tape. After he finished How It Is he wrote Play. Basically what this accounts for, is that Beckett's fiction pushed the monologue further and further into aloneness and lessnessness, and in order to be able to go on, Beckett needed to return to the dialogue, essential to theater, even if there is only one character on stage, as in Krapp's Last Tape (the tape recorder being the interlocutor) or the voice on tape in Eh Joe and in Rockaby whereby the character dialogues with himself or herself.
There are two key works in the evolution of Beckett's oeuvre which serve as transition between the three periods that I have indicated. Mercier and Camier (the first novel Beckett wrote in French in 1945-46) and Comment C'est (published in 1961) English translation, How It Is (1963). Mercier and Camier marks the passage from English into French, but also the passage from a third person narrative to the first person, the passage from the city landscape to the countryside landscape, therefore the passage from surrealistic tableaux to expressionistic tableaux -- from the concrete to the abstract.
Let us look more closely at some of these tableaux.
The novels and stories of the first period are situated in a still recognizable setting -- a city landscape: Dublin, London. Streets are named, houses are described, even nature is described, though ironically. But rather than realistic descriptions -- this staging, one might say -- these scenes are surreal. Of course, Beckett was writing this fiction during the 1930s when Surrealism was the dominant mode in art. In More Pricks Than Kicks for instance -- the scene where we see the drunk protagonist Belacqua Shuah lying in the middle of the street, curled in the fetal position in his own vomit, is a true surrealistic tableau, or Belacqua and his girl friend Ruby attempting a double suicide on top of a mountain while getting drunk on Irish whiskey, and eventually making love rather than killing themselves is again a very surrealistic tableau. I have already mentioned Murphy tied naked with seven scarves in his rocking chair. Or the remnants of Murphy being swept away with the dirt on the floor of a pub at the e nd of the novel.
I hope you have noticed that I am not trying to make comparison between Beckett's tableaux and existing paintings, though one could find sources in museums for some of Beckett's visual inventions, as James Knowlson pointed out in his biography of Beckett, Damned to Fame.
The tableaux in the novel Watt bring us to the brink of disintegration of reality and meaning. There is in fact, in that novel, a painting, a real painting, that puzzles Watt to the point of bringing tears of incomprehension to his eyes. As described in the novel, that painting may be the best explanation of Beckett's work, and Watt's puzzlement in front of that painting corresponds to the puzzlement a reader may feel before Beckett's work. It is worth quoting the entire passage to give a better sense of how Beckett reveals, not without some verbal playfulness and humor, the aesthetics of his own work as an artiste-peintre, while warning us not to wonder too much about it's meaning, and not try to see more than there is before our eyes.
The only other object in Erskine's room was a picture, hanging on the wall, from a nail. A circle, obviously described by a compass, and broken at its lowest point, occupied the middle foreground, of this picture. Was it receding? Watt had that impression. In the eastern background appeared a point, or dot. The circumference was black. The point was blue, but blue! The rest was white. How the effect of perspective was obtained Watt did not know. But it was obtained. By what means the illusion of movement in space, and it almost seemed in time, was given, Watt could not say. But it was given. Watt wondered how long it would be before the point and the circle entered together upon the same plane.
Or had they not done so already, or almost? And was it not rather the circle that was in the background, and the point that was in the foreground? Watt wondered if they had sighted each other, or were blindly flying thus, harried by some force of merely mechanical mutual attraction, or the playthings of chance. He wondered if they would eventually pause and converse, and perhaps even mingle, or keep steadfast on their ways, like ships in the night, prior to the invention of wireless telegraphy. Who knows, they might even collide. And he wondered what the artist had intended to represent (Watt knew nothing about painting), a circle and its centre in search of each other, or a circle and its centre in search of its centre and a circle respectively, or a circle and its centre ... or a circle and a centre not its centre in search of a centre and circle respectively, or a circle and a centre not its centre in search of its centre and a circle respectively ... in boundless space, in endless time (Watt knew nothing about physics), and at the thought that it was perhaps this, a circle and a centre not its centre in search of a center and its circle respectively, in boundless space, in endless time, then Watt's eyes filled with tears that he could not stem, and they flowed down his fluted cheeks unchecked, in a steady flow, refreshing him greatly. Watt wondered how this picture would look upside down, with the point west and the breach north, or on its right side, with the point north and the breach east, or on its left side, with the point south and the breach west.
This displacement of the center of the circle from the circumference already suggests what will happen in Beckett's fiction and theater of the second and third periods. When the Beckettian creatures leave the city to wander in a kind of no-man's land, one could say that they find themselves de-centered or displaced in a nature morte, to use a term of the plastic arts. A dead deserted nature.
This is confirmed by the text entitled Imagination Dead Imagine, which opens with these words:
No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead, good, imagination dead imagine. Islands, waters, azure, verdure, one glimpse and vanished, endlessly, omit.
No trace of life, no more nature -- Beckett's fiction, very much like abstract painting eliminates the subjects from his work -- the traditional subject of painting: Man and Nature. What is left of Man and Nature is perhaps best seen in the striking tableau of the novel How It Is where naked bodies crawl like reptiles in a landscape of mud.
Little by little then, Beckett's fiction moves towards total reduction and abstraction -- but not to end into a vacuum or into total silence, as so many critics have suggested -- but to become pure geometry, pure visual poetry. All the later texts of Beckett situate themselves in geometric spaces -- The two bodies of Imagination Dead Imagine each occupy half of the same circle. The body in Ping is situated inside a cupola. The naked bodies of The Lost Ones are inside a giant cylinder. The old lady of Company is inside a cube (a house) surrounded by a circle (the garden). One finds a similar geometry in the later short plays. Come and Go -- Happy Days -- Not I -- Catastrophe -- Quad I and Quad II.
I hope I have succeeded in showing how the evolution of Beckett's work, from 1929 to 1989, follows that of the plastic arts of the same period.
The first tableaux correspond to a great extent to the paintings of the 1930s -- neo-impressionism, cubism, surrealism, and certainly there is a resemblance between the tableaux Beckett created with words in his early novels with the paintings of Magritte, Delvaux, de Chirico, Dali, and other surrealist artists.
Following World War Two, which brought the crisis of conscience, and especially the crisis of communication that confront our civilization, the arts (painting, sculpture, music, literature) emptied themselves of their traditional subjects: Man and Nature in painting and sculpture -- the melody in music -- the anecdote in literature. Painting, sculpture, music, literature moved towards abstraction, as if the arts wanted to get rid of the illusions that sustained them, and in so doing re-examined their own medium -- in the case of literature, its own language, "that rumor transmissible ad infinitum in either direction."
By the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, without rejecting abstraction completely, the arts reconstituted themselves into geometrical and optical forms, into conceptualism and minimalism. The short texts that Beckett wrote towards the end of his life, as well as the short plays, are in fact minimalistic and conceptual, but especially geometrical. The best example is the mouth of Not I--especially as produced on television. That bodiless mouth that becomes a monstrous organism is perhaps the most striking tableau of Samuel Beckett. I don't know how many of you have seen that play, but I can assure you that once you have seen it you will never forget this tableau.
I don't think I am mistaken when I say that the literary work of Beckett parallels the evolution of painting of the last 70 years or so. Beckett's own interest in painting confirms this, and especially his profound essays on abstract expressionism, and the work of Bram van Velve, Masson, Kandanski, Tal Coat, Jack Yeats, Avigdor Arikha and others, in which he insists on what he calls the confrontation of l'objet-obstacle and l'oeil-obstacle. What he means is that the object itself prevents us from seeing it clearly, and the eye itself is an obstacle to clear perception of the object. Beckett calls this: the agony of perceivedness, which he exemplified so well in the film he made with Buster Keaton appropriately called Film. This agony of perceived-ness brings us back to the definition Beckett gave of language -- Language what gets us where we want to go and prevents us from getting there. Language as a vehicle of communication, and as an obstacle to communication.
If it is true, as I hope I have shown, that Beckett's work parallels that of painting, one could also read the entire oeuvre of Beckett by following the evolution of music of the past 70 years, and of course, the same for the evolution of philosophical thought and criticism. The work of Beckett can be understood in the light of Bergson's Evolutionism, Heiddeger's Phenomenology, Sartre's Existentialism, Foucault/Levi-Strauss/Deleuze's Structuralism, and Derrida's Deconstruction. It seems that Beckett was present at each moment of this evolution, and always anticipating what was going to happen. This, of course, is true of all great artists. They are always in advance of their time.
I hope that in presenting Beckett to you in this fashion, I did not give you the impression that his work is sad and depressing. Even though Beckett, like a magician, makes the world and the being who inhabits the world disappear gradually from his work, and in the end only ruins of the world remain, and fragments of the human body (a woman buried to her neck in a mound of dirt, a disembodied mouth, an oeil in a circle, a bodiless voice, or a body without a voice), nevertheless his work seems to affirm that as long as there is a remnant of life, of breath, of movement, the human creature will continue to seek its place in the world, but not necessarily understand the meaning of being in the world.
And so, if one avoids to seek the much too evident meaning of Beckett's work, and instead concentrates on the form, the shape, the structure, the geometry of that work, one escapes despair. Personally, I do not see despair, anguish, or suffering in Beckett's work as some critics do. On the contrary, for me his work is always an affirmation of being and of becoming, even if everything in the Beckettian world seems to disintegrate into nothingness and meaninglessness. If Beckett did not keep the promise he made at the end of one of the Texts for Nothing:
And yet I have high hopes, I give you my word, high hopes. That one day I may tell a story, hear a story, yet another, with men, kinds of men as in the days when I play all regardless or nearly, worked and played.
If Beckett never told us that story before he changed tense, then it is perhaps up to us to tell that story, to reconstruct the world from the devastated landscapes he has left with us, and tell, in the real sense of that word, our passage on this planet. Not to explain that passage, but to make it visible. Beckett certainly helped us in this project, for if one learns anything from reading his work, it is not to better understand, but to better see, better listen, and especially to say better and write better. To read the works of Beckett, to look at the magnificent tableaux he has created for us, is to learn to be oneself. It is in this sense that Beckett was a great artist, and not the great thinker everyone wanted him to be.
(1.) Lecture delivered in February 2000, at the Kunsthalle in Vienna on the occasion of a Beckett and Bruce Neuman exhibition.
Chronology Of Samuel Beckett's Major Works in English and French
1929 -- "Dante ... Bruno. Vico ... Joyce" (essay) in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress
1930 -- Whoroscope (poem about Descartes)
1931 -- Proust (critical essay)
1932 -- Dream of Fair to Middling Women (novel--unpublished until 1992)
1934 -- More Pricks Than Kicks (collection of ten short stories -- reprinted 1970)
1935 -- Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates (cycle of 13 poems)
1938 -- Murphy (novel--French translation 1947)
1947 -- Eleutheria (three-act play, never performed -- published posthumously in 1995 in French and in English)
1951 -- Molloy (novel in French -- English translation 1955)
1951 -- Malone Meurt (novel -- English translation, Malone Dies, 1956)
1952 -- En Attendant Godot (play in two acts -- English translation, Waiting for Godot, 1954)
1953 -- L'innommable (novel -- English translation, The Unnamable, 1958)
1953 -- Watt (novel in English -- written 1942-45; French translation 1968)
1955 -- Nouvelles Et Textes Pour Rien (3 stories: "L'expluse/Le Calmant/La Fin" written 1946; 13 "Textes Pour Rien" written 1950 -- English translation, Stories and Texts for Nothing, 1967)
1956 -- From an Abandoned Work (fragment of an unfinished novel, written 1955 --French translation, D'un Ouvrage Abandonne, 1967)
1957 -- Fin De Partie (one-act play -- English translation, Endgame, 1958)
1957 -- Acte Sans Parole I (mime -- English translation, Act Without Words I, 1958)
1957 -- All That Fall (radio play -- French translation, Tous Ceux Qui Tombent, 1957)
1958 -- Krapp's Last Tape (one-act play for one character and tape recorder -- French translation, La Derniere Bande, 1959)
1959 -- Embers (radio play -- English translation [with Robert Pinget], Cendres, 1959)
1961 -- Comment C'est (novel -- English translation, How It Is, 1964)
1961 -- Happy Days (play in two acts -- French translation, Oh Les Beaux Jours, 1964)
1961 -- Poems in English (collection of poems)
1962 -- Words and Music (radio play for two voices with music by John Beckett -- French translation, Paroles et Music, 1966)
1963 -- Acte Sans Parole II (mime, written 1957 -- English translation, Act Without Words II, 1959)
1963 -- Cascando (radio play for voice and music -- English translation 1963)
1964 -- Play (one-act play -- French translation, Comedie, 1964. Film adaptation, 1966)
1965 -- Film (silent film with Buster Keaton)
1965 -- Come and Go (one-act play -- French translation, Va-et-Vient, 1966)
1965 -- Imagination Morte Imaginez (fiction -- English translation, Imagination Dead Imagine, 1965)
1966 -- Assez (fiction -- English translation, Enough, 1966)
1966 -- Bing (fiction -- English translation, Ping, 1966)
1967 -- Eh Joe (a play for television -- French translation, Dis Joe, 1967)
1968 -- Poemes (collected poems in French)
1969 -- Sans (fiction -- English translation, Lessness, 1970)
1969 -- Beckett is awarded the Nobel Prize.
1970 -- Mercier et Camier (novel, written 1945-46 -- English translation, Mercier and Camier, 1974)
1970 -- Premier Amour (short-story, written 1946 -- English translation, First Love, 1973)
1971 -- Le Depeupleur (fiction, written 1966-70 -- English translation, The Lost Ones, 1972)
1973 -- Not I (one-act play for a mouth -- French translation, Pas Moi, 1975)
1973 -- Breath (dramaticule, 30 seconds -- French translation, Souffle, 1973)
1976 -- Pour Finir Encore et Autres Foirades (fiction -- English translation, For to End Yet Again and Fizzles, 1976)
1976 -- That Time/Footfalls (short plays)
1977 -- Ghost Trio (short play)
1977 -- But the Cloud (short play)
1980 -- Company (fiction -- French translation, Compagnie, 1980)
1981 -- Ill-Seen, Ill-Said (fiction -- French translation, Mal-Vu, Mal-Dit, 1981)
1981 -- Rockaby (one-act play -- French translation, Berceuse, 1981)
1981 -- Ohio Impromptu (short play)
1981 -- All Strange Away (fiction)
1981 -- A Piece Of Monologue (fiction)
1982 -- What Where (short play)
1982 -- Catastrophe (one-act play -- French translation 1983)
1983 -- Worstward Ho (fiction -- French translation after Beckett's death by Edith Fournier, Cap au pire, 1991)
1984 -- Quads I and II (videos)
1989 -- Stirrings Still (fiction -- French translation, Soubresauts, 1989)
1989 -- Beckett dies December 22.
(This list does not contain Beckett's essays on paintings, his translations of French poetry into English, and the reviews of books he wrote in the 1930s.)
Raymond Federman, renown Beckett scholar, is also an avant-garde novelist. His most recent novel, Aunt Rachel's Fur, was published by The Fiction Collective 2. This year, The Journal of Experimental Fiction published an issue entitled Writing from and about Federman.
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|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2002|
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