“There were not many steps. I had counted them a thousand times, both going up and coming down, but the figure has gone from my mind. I had never known whether you should say one with your foot on the sidewalk, two with the following foot on the first step, and so on, or whether the side-walk shouldn’t count. At the top of the steps I fell foul of the same dilemma….” No one who has read any of Beckett’s works will be surprised to find that the first story in the latest term of the series begins with such desperate mathematics, presumably an emblem of the incommensurability of experience, as the permutations of Murphy’s biscuits and Molloy’s stones are emblems of the limit of human possibilities.
To enumerate Beckett’s texts and to locate them in time and space is almost as difficult as counting the steps of the workhouse from which his hero is being expelled. This rather small book contains three short stories, “The Expelled,” “The Calmative,” and “The End,” and thirteen monologues or “Texts for Nothing.” They were first written in French, the stories in 1945, the monologues in 1950; the stories look like preliminary sketches for Molloy and Malone Dies, and the monologues like continuations of The Unnamable. Together they were first published as Nouvelles et textes pour rien, Paris 1955; this Grove Press edition is wrong about that date and also in stating that “The End” originally appeared in Evergreen Review. Before that it had appeared in Merlin (Vol. II, No. 3, 1954), an American little magazine printed in Paris. It was translated into English by Richard Seaver “in collaboration with the author”; a comparison shows that the underlying French text was heavily revised before publication, and that the English text has also been heavily revised for this edition. The changes are of course of obscure significance: for example, “on peut se branler jusqu’à la cinquantaine, et même bien au-delà, mais cela finit par être une simple habitude,” muses the old man in “The End” who prefers scratching: this becomes in Merlin “up to the age of forty” and in this edition “up to the age of seventy”; one is not to see a note of optimism in the latest version.
This is the first American edition; the first English one to include this material was published by Calder and Boyars this year under the title of No’s Knife, Collected Shorter Prose 1947-1966 (another error in dating). This I suppose means the cutting edge of negativity, but it could also stand for Beckett’s pruning-knife, which has recently left very little for the press. The English edition also includes “From An Abandoned Work” (written in 1957 for the BBC) and three fragments or “Residua,” called “Enough,” “Imagination Dead Imagine,” and “Ping” (written 1965-66). The American edition might as well have put all these pieces in, as they total only twenty-five pages.
What pedantry. But why not, since all Beckett’s leading characters are pedants? Pedantry seems to be the only possible defense against the formlessness of the Beckett universe, which is “a cat’s flux.” His people were once learned in classical literature, medieval scholasticism, and the Ethics of Geulincx, the seventeenth-century Belgian Occasionalist philosopher; but they have forgotten most of their learning, are utterly bored with the bits they can remember, “and anyway no one understands a tenth of what you say,” as the workhouse keeper says to the tramp in “The End” (in the earlier version “half,” but that was clearly an exaggeration). But if pedantry, masturbation, dirty old tramps, and boredom made up all there was to Beckett, one would not read on for many pages. Looking for qualities that might explain his strange appeal, I can find one on the negative side—his total lack of vulgarity. It is difficult to write about this, since book-reviewing is a vulgar occupation; and so is all journalism, all traffic with the idols of the marketplace, and nearly all attempts to engage the world in dialogue. The awful necessities of ordinary life, to make polite conversation, or political rhetoric, to earn money, beget children, etc., drag everyone back into vulgarity, or at least into that aspect of it which involves trying to pass oneself off as a likable human being. Hence a priest is less vulgar than a married clergyman, a monk less so than a priest, a saint less so than a monk, and at the end of the series come the Stylites, who remained for years on the tops of pillars. St. Daniel of Constantinople, we are told, lived thirty-three years on his “and was not infrequently nearly blown from it by the storms from Thrace.” He was outdone by St. Simeon, who kept graduating to higher and narrower pillars, the last being sixty-six feet high; he sat there equipped only with a hoist for his lunch-pail (“dish and pot” as Malone says), engaged in ceaseless meditation while the birds whitened his tonsure. These are the archetypes not only of his characters but also of Beckett himself, who is the supremely well-balanced pillar-hanging saint of literature (the great tightrope walker, Kenner calls him), and from what one learns from the tributes in a recent festschrift, Beckett at Sixty, a kind of saint in life. In this volume the Stories are the Lives of the Saints or Golden Legend, the Texts are the meditations on nothingness which may be the thoughts of the author or of characters or both; a solitary voice addresses the Great Nothingness in hopeless prayer: “Give up, but it’s all given up, it’s nothing new, I’m nothing new.”
That this extreme avoidance of vulgarity by means of ascetic holiness is also ridiculous does not escape the author, any more than it escaped St. Franz Kafka. Austerity, self-mortification, and the hopeless quest for perfection in an impossible art are parodied in Kafka’s most pathetic and absurd self-portrait as Der Hungerkunstler (fasting showman or hunger-artiste). The man in the circus who breaks fasting records sets himself ultimate standards in his difficult profession, always dreaming of the perfect fast. In the end he dies because fasting has gone out of fashion and the attendants have forgotten that he is still in his cage under a pile of straw. In his last words he tells them that he wants to be admired for his fasting, and then that he doesn’t want to be admired; and why not? Because he had never found any food that he liked; if he had, he would have stuffed himself like everyone else; he loses consciousness “with the firm though no longer proud conviction that he was still continuing to fast.” Beckett too belongs to this holy circus, as the leading clown.
BECKETT, however, avoids vulgarity in other ways besides saintliness and clowning. His style is infinitely more refined, better-mannered in the highest sense, than perhaps any other living writer; and it had reached this point of perfection in the Stories. In a passage from “The End” about the old man in his land-bound boat, which was later reworked in Malone Dies, the rhythm is beyond praise, the repetitions and cadences exactly right:
I heard faintly the cries of the gulls ravening about the mouth of the sewer near by. In a spew of yellow foam, if my memory serves me right, the filth gushed into the river and the slush of birds above screaming with hunger and fury. I heard the lapping of water against the slip and against the bank and the other sound, so different, of open wave, I heard it too.
No matter how disgusting the content, and in these stories it usually is disgusting, the syntax continues to create its ghostly music. In Malone Dies the corresponding passage is more rhetorical, and more of a parody of fine writing:
His back is turned to the river, but perhaps it appears to him in the dreadful cries of the gulls that evening assembles, in paroxysms of hunger, round the outflow of the sewers, opposite the Bellevue Hotel. Yes, they too, in a last frenzy before night and its high crags, swoop ravening about the offal.
But it is hard to say which is the better, or whether the whole Macmann episode is more moving than “The End”; together they form the peaks of Beckett’s prose.
In the way that Beckett repeats himself obsessively, producing one variation after another on the same theme and slowly refining his technique, there is an obvious analogy with twentieth-century painting. An anguished and attenuated head by Giacometti on the cover of Imagination Dead Imagine (English edition, Calder and Boyars, 1966) is wholly appropriate: all Beckett’s works could be illustrated by Giacometti’s bronze figures with tiny heads, long thin legs, and huge desolate feet, or by his spectral ash-colored portrait paintings of lost souls. Beckett, like Giacometti, began as a surrealist, and has continued to be faithful to the tradition of the irrational vision and the dream; he listens to the inner voice no matter what it says or how often it repeats itself. “I’m the clerk, I’m the scribe, at the hearings of what cause I know not. Why want it to be mine, I don’t want it.” Rather like Giacometti and other surrealist painters he moves backwards and forwards between abstract figuring (in parts of Watt and more recently in “Imagination Dead Imagine”: “Two diameters at right angles AB CD divide the white ground into two semicircles ACB BDA”) and, at the other extreme, various kinds of parodies of representational art, as in these Stories. It is possible that Beckett has been excessively influenced by his devotion to modern painting, which has driven his art too far in the direction of obsessive repetition and technical experimenting. In his dialogues on painting with Georges Duthuit he speaks of an ideal art that would prefer “the expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” This credo, which is expanded in praise of the painter Van Velde, is not easy to understand, but it seems an attempt to justify the ultimate boredom of most modern abstract and abstract-expressionist art.
THE CONVERSATIONS with Duthuit are not dialogues in the usual sense: the master is simply overheard at his meditations. Nor is much of Beckett’s work itself a dialogue with the universe, such as all art has traditionally been conceived to be. Art is a dialogue in that it attempts by questioning to make the universe reveal what was not known before; it is an enquiry into the nature of things and of men. The artist must break off the dialogue at some point and present his conclusions, when there’s nothing more to be said for the moment. But painting can and perhaps must break off at an earlier point than literature, to make a statement about the stage that the dialogue with the world has reached. Literature, a more impure art, has always carried on the dialogue to a later point, and has gone on asking questions about the way people behave, the appearances of the natural world, the shapes and sounds of the countryside and the city. Beckett, despite his extraordinary intelligence, learning, and sensitivity, gives an impression of having given up asking questions, as if he no longer found anything of interest except the inner voice and pure form. The footnote to the “addenda” in Watt seems to imply such an attitude: “The following precious and illuminating material should be carefully studied. Only fatigue and disgust prevented its incorporation.” Scholarship is a dialogue with the past; when it is broken off it turns into pedantry, which is one of the marks of Beckett’s characters. Science is another kind of dialogue with the world, and to many writers a highly interesting one. Beckett appears to know a lot about some sciences: as, for example, the dance of the bees which Moran describes at the end of Molloy: “These evolutions I finally interpreted as a system of signals by means of which the incoming bees, satisfied or dissatisfied with their plunder, informed the outgoing bees in what direction to go, and in what not to go.” Though this looks like yet another rigmarole, it is in fact based on the classic investigation of the bees’ dances by von Frisch. Yet it is presented in the same bored, throwaway terms as Molloy’s permutations with the stones, as if to say that science is just as futile an activity as any other.
Fortunately, not all of Beckett’s work is like this. In his great creative years and especially in his drama he did allow a genuine interest in the world to intrude into his writing. Waiting for Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape, and that marvelous radio play, All That Fall, show, as well as a mastery of circular and chinese-box construction, a striking grasp of the “vulgar” world: they are full of solid and significant objects, Krapp’s boat on the river, the train and the road past the racecourse, even the carrots and turnips of Didi and Gogo. These are also the most simply funny and touching things he has done, but their success has caused. I think, a serious overestimation of the humane quality of Beckett’s art. This art often casts a cold eye of contempt over that which is the supreme mark of humanity: curiosity about the world and about the undiscovered possibilities of human life. Saint Beckett records with incomparable skill the solipsist visions of the pillar and the desert, instead of preaching to the birds.
December 7, 1967