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A Beckett Canon
By Ruby Cohn
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © University of Michigan 2001
All right reserved.
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Rather Too Self-Conscious
Having read nothing by Beckett, I fell in love with his En attendant Godot in 1953, when it was performed at the short-lived Théâtre de Babylone in Paris. That passion spurred me to read Beckett's few publications, and I continued to read as he wrote through the decades-magnetized by his unique depth and originality. I published an article on Beckett in 1959, after a prior rejection: "We like your criticism, but we don't feel your author merits publishing space." Emphatically disagreeing, I continued to appreciate "your author" until there was a book (my doctoral dissertation). Then another book. Then still another. I have not, however, written on the whole Beckett canon-now complete, although still not completely published-and that is my present point of embarkation. In undertaking this journey, I hope to share my renewed sense of the immediacy of Beckett's individual works, while I try to elucidate some of their difficulties.
Of the hundred-odd books I have read about Beckett's oeuvre, none moves in quite the way I now intend. Venturing into meaning, skirting the biography so scrupulously investigated by James Knowlson, I will not impose coherence upon the many threads of Beckett's tapestry-autobiographical, dramatic, eschatological, essentialist, existential, inter- and intratextual, metaliterary, mythic, performative, philosophic, psychological, rhythmic, stylistic, thematic. Writing on Beckett's work once again, I flaunt the label that has sometimes been scornfully affixed to me-humanist.
During these years of work on A Beckett Canon I have tried to envision my reader, and I imagine her/him as one who has been drawn to Beckett in print or performance, and who is curious about other facets of his oeuvre. I therefore summarize contents more fully than is usual in Beckett criticism, but I also comment on that content, as is quite usual in Beckett criticism. Lucky enough to be among the early Beckett critics, I am also lucky to enjoy learning from other critics. Without a thesis to uphold, I will wend my way chronologically through Beckett's works, gliding as he did from one genre to another, from one theme to another, from one wordscape to another. Whatever the limitations of a chronological survey, it does bear testimony to Beckett's writerly energy over a period of sixty years, even though he was paradoxically attracted to Dante's slothful Belacqua. In my chronology, I limit myself to Beckett's works in their originary language, for the most part ignoring his extraordinary translations. I aim to be inclusive, but I realize that other readers will construct a different Beckett canon, and I therefore use the indefinite article in the title of my book (and I willfully ignore the fashionable suspicion about the very word canon).
My task is daunting, for Beckett is prolific, difficult, and self-critical. It is daunting above all because Beckett's work is so personal a possession for his readers, and my words will inevitably be an encroachment on such possession. I plead that my reading is also personal, after long immersion.
However readers may react to my approach, I should forewarn them about the problems of chronology. Beckett is sometimes meticulous about dating his manuscripts, but at other times he neglects to do this, and at still other times he misremembers dates. Occasionally, Beckett began one work while another was still incomplete, and he sometimes revised his plays when he directed them. I nevertheless try to choose the date of emergent conception in the originary language. When I am guessing at a date, I marshal my evidence or confess the guess. John Pilling has painstakingly dated Beckett's works to 1940, and I am indebted to his Beckett before Godot, to his Beckett's Dream Notebook, and to his generous advice.
My chronological approach compels me to begin anticlimactically. Beckett is not Rimbaud, or even Chatteron. As Lawrence Harvey pointed out in a most informative book of 1970, creation did not well up ineluctably in the young Beckett. We who love to read Beckett can scarcely imagine that his writerly destiny was not early apparent. Although the mature Beckett told me that there must have been "execrable juvenilia" in his schooldays, they have not come to light, and I therefore begin with a twenty-three-year-old Irishman, on a two-year fellowship at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, where his compatriot Thomas MacGreevy introduced him to the expatriate Irish writer James Joyce.
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Dante ... Bruno . Vico .. Joyce
Given Beckett's skepticism about critics, and the abusive term "Crrritic!" in Waiting for Godot, it is ironic that his first extant publication should be a piece of criticism. Beckett has credited James Joyce with choosing the subject, outlining the themes, and arranging for the publication of his disquisition: "The subject was suggested to me by Joyce. He had no part in the writing. The texts were available in the library of the Ecole Normale. He found me short on Bruno." Composed during the second year of Beckett's fellowship, the essay was the last to be commandeered by Joyce for a volume of self-homage, Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress. Beckett chose the title not of the whole book, but of his essay, which embraces four writers, who are separated by several centuries. Accordingly, each dot in Beckett's title approximates a century, so that Joyce emerges at the apex of a distinguished Italian lineage, which is not examined chronologically in the essay itself.
Beckett begins peremptorily: "The danger is in the neatness of identifications." His second sentence, rarely quoted, is embarrassing: "The conception of Philosophy and Philology as a pair of nigger minstrels out of the Teatro dei Piccoli is soothing, like the contemplation of a carefully folded ham-sandwich." The young man means his images to startle, but he seems unaware of the offensiveness of his vocabulary. Airily, he proceeds to pontificate: "Literary criticism is not book-keeping" (Disjecta, 19). "Here form is content, content is form.... [Joyce's] writing is not about something; it is that something itself" (27). "No language is so abstracted as English. It is abstracted to death" (28). At times Beckett verbally pummels his readers: "You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read-or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to" (27). These dicta have been quoted and requoted as keys to Beckett's own work, and indeed they are. At the time he composed this essay, however, Beckett's creative work was barely a gleam in his scholarly eye. His fellowship at the Ecole Normale was expected to encompass academic research on the subject of his choice in French literature-unanimism in general, and in particular the poet Pierre-Jean Jouve (1887-1976).
Instead, Beckett submerged himself in the eighteenth-century Italian philosopher Giovanni Battista Vico. Occasionally, Beckett's prose reads like notes upon the lecture of a mentor: "a mountain, the coincidence of contraries, the inevitability of cyclic evolution, a system of Poetics, and the prospect of self-extension in the world of Mr Joyce's Work in Progress" (19). The mountain is both landscape and character in its dominance of what will become Finnegans Wake, but the other subjects are Viconian, however idiosyncratically interpreted by Beckett. The young scholar outlines Vico's cyclical theory of history, his view of the identity of contraries (which, Beckett notes, he borrows without acknowledgment from Bruno), and especially his poetics, wherein myth and language are seen to develop along parallel lines. Although Beckett summarizes Vico with verve, he rarely quotes him. Joyce himself acknowledged that Vico was a structural convenience for Work in Progress, and this is duly noted by other contributors to the Exagmination volume, but Beckett is also sensitive to the texture of Vico's poetics, especially the concreteness of his imagery. For all Beckett's haughty stance, he is wryly self-deflating about his own criticism: "Such is a painful exposition of Vico's dynamic treatment of Language, Poetry and Myth" (26).
Halfway through his essay, Beckett virtually abandons Vico for gratuitous reflection on how the sounds of words in different languages can enhance their sense, and on how Joyce creates an idiom where words "elbow their way on to the page, and glow and blaze and fade and disappear" (28). Almost as an afterthought, Beckett credits Vico for Joyce's "reduction of various expressive media to their primitive economic directness" (29). Having reported creditably on Joyce's forbears, Beckett moves on to the Italian author he most admires: "Basta! Vico and Bruno [barely mentioned] are here, and more substantially than would appear from this swift survey of the question.... To justify our title, we must move North" (29-30)-to Dante, whose Divina Commedia Beckett had studied with the help of a private teacher, Bianca Esposito.
Dante was to remain Beckett's most durable literary allegiance. Undated notecards (RUL ms. 4123) testify to his fascination with the smiles, prayers, violence, and chronology of the Commedia. As late as 1986 Beckett declared: "Dante created a new language that was not used before. Dante was a Joycean writer" (Rabinovitz 1992, 107). In this early essay Beckett paired the great Florentine poet with the new Irish acquaintance, whom he was always to address as "Mr. Joyce." Beckett rationalizes this juxtaposition: "It is reasonable to admit that an international phenomenon might be capable of speaking [Joyce's English], just as in 1300 none but an inter-regional phenomenon could have spoken the language of the Divine Comedy" (31). More incidentally, Beckett also couples Dante and Joyce in their preoccupation with the significance of numbers. He finds them similar, too, in their anticlericalism. Indeed, Beckett's own agnosticism-"On this earth that is Purgatory"-causes him to dilute the diverse religious leanings of Vico, Dante, and Joyce.
For all the erudition and arrogance of Beckett's essay, it does illuminate Joyce's Work in Progress. It also offers information about what Beckett was reading during his Paris fellowship, but it does not reveal that the twenty-three-year-old scholar yearned to be an imaginative writer. In later years Beckett would often remark that Joyce was an ethical ideal for him. Dante ... Bruno . Vico .. Joyce pays aesthetic homage to the Irish self-exile, but the reference to ethics is puzzling. My totally unconfirmed guess is that the ethics were aesthetic. That is to say, Joyce by example convinced Beckett that writing could be a kind of mission, to which all other activities or alliances are ancillary. Beckett told James Knowlson: "That's what it was, epic, heroic, what [Joyce] achieved." He added: "But I realised that I couldn't go down that same road" (Knowlson, 111). The realization may have been delayed, however, for only in 1938 did Beckett admit in a January 5 letter to his friend Tom MacGreevy that he no longer felt the danger of the association with Joyce: "He is just a very lovable human being."
Beckett would later deride himself at this period as a young man with nothing to say and the itch to write (Harvey, 305). The itch nevertheless brought quick scratches within a year-a short story Assumption, a schoolboy joke Che Sciagura, and a handful of poems that share the mannered intellectualism of Beckett's homage to Joyce. (The order of composition is uncertain, but I follow Pilling, who has brooded harder than I over the scant evidence.)
Assumption is constructed in three page-long paragraphs, followed by a short climactic fourth paragraph, and concluding with a one-sentence fifth paragraph. The opening sentence is arresting in its seeming contradiction: "He could have shouted and could not" (CSP, 3). It leads to longer sentences of description or of editorial comment about the unnamed "he." The narrator begins at some distance from the anonymous protagonist, but the second paragraph focuses on his feelings, in a covert plea for reader sympathy: "Still he was silent, in silence listening for the first murmur of the torrent that must destroy him" (5). Midstory an anonymous Woman is introduced, and she is seen (with distaste) only through the eyes of the protagonist. His metaphysical propensity is contrasted with her physicality, but we are not offered a single word of their respective idioms.
Beckett's first published story is slenderly plotted, focusing on the protagonist's conflict between silence and the voice within him: "he dreaded lest his prisoner should escape, he longed that it might escape" (5). This might be a prophecy of Beckett's later ambivalence about his own writing-at once compulsive and unsatisfactory. Listening for his voice, the central character is so disturbed by the Woman's visits "that he hungers to be irretrievably engulfed in the light of eternity, one with the birdless cloudless colourless skies, in infinite fulfilment" (7). When his voice does burst forth, it "shak[es] the very house with its prolonged, triumphant vehemence, climbing in a dizzy, bubbling scale, until, dispersed, it fused into the breath of the forest and the throbbing cry of the sea." The concluding sentence is briefer but also cliché-drenched: "They found her caressing his wild dead hair." The narrator's romantic extravagance is reminiscent of such Shelleyan excesses as "I pant, I sink, I tremble, I expire!" ("Epipsychidion") or "I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!" ("Ode to the West Wind").
Assumption has aroused little enthusiasm among Beckett critics. However, Lawrence Harvey confusingly pays tribute to its clarity: "In 'Assumption' the relationship between love, mysticism and artistic creation becomes clear.... It seems fairly certain that the tale told is of the making of an artist" (287). Although Mary Bryden does not use the adjective clear about the story, she sees it as a clear paradigm of Beckett's early fiction: "Male artist pursues quest in seclusion; Woman intrudes, male colludes 'in spite of himself'; disaster and fragmentation result" (1993, 42). There is no necessary disparity between these readings. Nor does Pilling demur: "Assumption had enabled Beckett to dramatize and melodramatize, at least some of his deeper feelings, confused and turbulent as they obviously were" (1997, 32). In fiction, however, feelings are only as deep as the words that convey them, and Beckett's words are shallow through staleness, however they may echo Joyce (Murphy, 1999).
Although the title-word assumption is not found in the story itself, it may be a guide to Beckett's intentions. The voice of the anonymous protagonist parallels the glorious ascent of the Virgin Mary, even though he yearns for obliteration in a colorless cosmos bordering on a void. Also relevant is the meaning of assumption as usurpation, for the Woman has usurped the man's quest, and she does so with an assumption of her own importance. Physical and trivial, she is oblivious of the man's power to "whisper ... the turmoil down." Beckett's artless artist husbands his voice while reluctantly receiving the visitations of the Woman. After thinly veiled nightly orgasms-"a timeless parenthesis"-the protagonist falls prey to his own voice that becomes the agent of his immolation. The final sentence, as Pilling notes, shows "the couple unwittingly composing a bizarre Beckettian equivalent of a Pietà" (1997, 32). Beckett's protagonist cannot serve woman and art. Or even self and art. Expression becomes a form of suicide in this very short story, whose title announces Beckett's taste for encapsulation.
This early Beckett story often digresses from its thin plot-with learned nods to chess, aesthetics, Robert Browning, unanimism, George Meredith, the physical appearance of the woman, and the mystical yearning of the protagonist. The point of view shifts without warning from the aloof narrator to the suffering hero. Beckett's convoluted syntax, erudite reference, and snobabery toward his readers are (unintentionally) amusing. After accusing English of being "abstracted" (in the Joyce essay), Beckett himself indulges in such abstractions as Beauty, pain, Power, infinite fulfillment, and he wallows in a stale romanticism embedded in such words as wild, violent, dreaming, throbbing, twilight, hopeless, and the many repetitions of silence. As Robert Cochran appreciates: "It is in every way a young man's story, a young artist's story, a young intellectual's story, brimming with suffering and apotheosis and determinedly transcendent sexuality" (5). Assumption is a laborious composition, and yet it reveals that twenty-three-year-old Beckett was indulging in composition-when he was supposed to be engaged in academic research. Not that the two are mutually exclusive.
Excerpted from A Beckett Canon by Ruby Cohn Copyright © University of Michigan by 2001. Excerpted by permission.
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