Dead Man Walking: The Centenary Year of Samuel Beckett
13 April 1906
, Samuel Beckett committed what he regarded as the gravest sin: he was born. As the centenary of that expulsion has come, and academic conferences from America in the west to Japan in the east, from his native Ireland and his adopted France all testify, much remains to say about that enigmatic artist who claimed in a 1969 interview, ‘Writing becomes not easier, but more difficult for me. Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness’.
For those uninitiated into the (anti-)system of stoic views colouring what is sometimes called ‘Samology’, the writer of perhaps 31 plays, 50 poems, 30 short stories, 15 pieces of journalism and 10 novels is wholly paradoxical – similar to his favourite Democritean phrase, ‘nothing is more real than nothing’. Adding to the confusion around his work – and in the above sentence’s use of the word ‘perhaps’ – many of his texts simply cannot be classified and exist in that place which, like the very date of birth of their creator, is shrouded in mystery. ‘Birth was the death of him’ we are informed in the 1979 A Piece of Monologue, ‘Again. Words are few. Dying too. Birth was the death of him.’ As the only authorised biography by James Knowlson relates on its first page, even Beckett’s own birth was hotly debated by scholars, most of whom (despite Beckett’s own words to the contrary) thought he was born a month later than he actually was on account of a mix-up in the registration of his birth.
Over his next 83 years, no dearth of confusion was to follow the man that claimed ‘writing has led me to silence’. Beckett’s life has indeed continued to give critics much food for thought: from the baffled reception of his art to the 1969 Nobel Prize that baffled its recipient, from the life-threatening stabbing in 1938 by a pimp whose motive was ‘I don’t know’ to the use of that very phrase 140 times in his most famous prose works, TheThree Novels of 1947-50 (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable), whose final (four-page long) sentence infamously culminates:
…you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
But considering Beckett’s celebrated injunction to ‘go on’ – to never give up (suicide) or to give in (despair) – following the formative human trauma of what his psychotherapist (between late 1933 and 1935), Wilfred Bion, later called the ‘impressive caesura of the act of birth’, it is less Beckett’s birth on that Good Friday a century ago creating his immense popularity this year. Instead, two events helped to condition his nearly-cultish following: one about forty days before
13 April 1906
, the other about forty years after.
As to the former, one finds across Beckett’s writings the resonances of ‘uterine reminiscences’ – as he told Knowlson, ‘memories of being in the womb’ – or what his earliest alter-ego, Belacqua (based on Dante’s minor character in antepurgatory), in the still-born novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, referred to as the ‘wombtomb’. Ejection from this unhappy refuge is repeatedly described over some sixty years of writing: in his 1930 essay Proust ‘the greatest sin of man is to have been born’ (Calderòn); in abortive short stories like the 1955 “From an Abandoned Work”, ‘all I regret is having been born’; and naturally, in Beckett’s most famous play, the 1949 Waiting for Godot: ‘They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.’ Yet lest the disappointment of being “Expelled” (as he titled a 1945 short story) from the caul into existence give the impression its author was all dourness, more often than not these lamentations are tinged with Beckett’s idiosyncratic humour of the gallows – for as he wrote in the 1956 play Endgame, ‘nothing is funnier than unhappiness’. The latter sentiment may be exemplified by his most conventional novel, the 1936 Murphy, where the eponymous hero’s alter-ego, Neary, lovesick and unable to drink in conservative, mid-afternoon Dublin, earlier approaches a statue of the Irish hero, Cuchulain, ‘seized the dying hero by the thighs and began to dash his head against his buttocks’, and then ‘cursed, first the day in which he was born, then – in a bold flash-back – the night in which he was conceived.’
And as to the second event helping Beckett’s own ‘conception’ as an artist, his 1945 epiphany that ‘ignorance and impotence’ could themselves become powerful tools in the creation of art – as against his friend and benefactor James Joyce’s erudition – led to one of the greatest outpourings of literary brilliance in the history of writing: 2 plays, 7 poems, 4 novels, 17 short stories, (13 of which are collectively titled “Texts for Nothing”) and various non-fiction; all in the amazingly short span of eight years. Following the lack of success characterising his first 40 years, including unpublished fiction, remaindered novels, uncelebrated journalism, and especially, an inability to find his distinctive voice, the Beckett emerging in the tremulousness of the postwar world was the thin, chiseled and wan writer whose next 44 years of struggle in many ways mirrored the divisions and anxieties of Cold War Europe. With the Damocleatian sword of nuclear death unseen but ever-present between 1945 and his death in 1989, Beckett’s mature poetics of intense feeling – of inevitable loss and feeble strength, of wounded integrity and forlorn beauty – doubtless gave to his readers the strange comfort that they were not alone in their aloneness and fear. More than anything else, it was this Beckett, born at 40 if having ever ‘been properly born’ (as he put it in the 1945 Watt), which shall continue to kick so long as human indecency reigns.
And by echoing across his dark century with a truthful murmur that the individual cannot find in most politicians, filmmakers, theologians or artists, Beckett’s popularity increasingly grows in a new, darkened century when, as he said, ‘You can’t even talk about truth. That is part of the general distress.’ Through both the sundry academic conferences he would have despised and the staging of his work he could very nearly stand, this honest man in a universe of deception continues to fascinate and convert readers, specialist and lay alike. For the two things that are not difficult with Beckett, compassion and his stark picture of existence, are twined together around that trope of “on-ness”, which is summarised in a beautiful letter to his American director, Alan Schneider, upon learning of the death of the latter’s father:
I know your sorrow and I know that for the likes of us there is no ease for the heart to be had from words or reason and that in the very assurance of sorrow’s fading there is more sorrow. So I offer you only my deeply affectionate and compassionate thoughts and wish for you only that the strange thing may never fail you, whatever it is, that gives us the strength to live on and on with our wounds.
Dr. Matthew Feldman currently lectures at the
. His Beckett’s Books: A Cultural History of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Interwar Notes’ is published this May by Continuum Publishing Group International.