Named Tomorrow


“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

“But with face upturned for good labour in vain at your fable.”

My escape-reading of late has been a few Beckett related books I’ve come across: Anne Atik’s How It Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett, a brief book describing the friendship between the author, her husband, and Beckett, interspersed with some letters, pictures, and brief notes made after their evenings together, and The Critical Heritage, a collection of reviews and interviews, organized relative to the work under review. Both are rather light, the prior being simply intriguing accounts of Beckett the man and the latter mostly reviews written for newspapers and the like. As the introduction to the review collection makes clear, Beckett’s work— especially in the early years though no less even now, I would imagine— is often misinterpreted. Or, it seems possible to say, simply interpreted, the mis- being implicit regarding Beckett’s work; in one interview contained in the volume, asked what, if not a philosophical one, is his reason for writing, he responds “I haven’t the slightest idea. I’m no intellectual. All I am is feeling.”

This sense of ‘feeling’ and not ‘intellecting’ is what always brings me back to Beckett’s prose so strongly and deeply, at least regarding work from the Trilogy onward. One of the reviews in The Critical Heritage, by David Lodge, is a close-reading of ‘Ping‘ which seems to me to make the most basic and easily made mistakes in its way of imposing a ‘meaning’ onto Beckett’s writing— of ‘intellecting’ instead of ‘feeling’ it. That is not to say that intellect has no place in reading Beckett; there is a place for it, but it isn’t in locating determinate aspects of the text which, once located, may be explained. Lodge ‘suggest[s] that “Ping” is the rendering of the consciousness of a person confined in a small, bare, white room…” [even seeming to take seriously, if admitting it is flawed, the idea that the ‘character’ is Christ in the tomb— after “If by Godot I had meant God I would [have] said God, and not Godot”!], and a little later on, that it ‘seems to record the struggles of an expiring consciousness to find some meaning in a situation which offers no purchase to the mind or sensation.’ It is indeed difficult to discuss Beckett without relying on such terms as ‘narrator’ or ‘character, ‘ which are built into the history of fiction, that is, are the determinate factors in designating something as fiction for the majority of its history, but the dissolution of those concepts and of the relationship of the text and author is the very thing towards which Beckett’s work worked.

The progression from narrator and character to a-narration and non-character is decidedly linear. The first sentence of Mercier and Camier is, ‘The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time.’ And with that, the ‘narrator’ disappears from the story. It would not be hard to imagine the ‘I’ of the that first sentence as Beckett himself, though it need not be so, it is just as easily imagined to be any ‘author,’ who is with them indeed for the entire journey. Beckett then approaches from a different tack with the trilogy, which begins the degradation, literally, and carries on until we are left with— and here’s a big hint— The Unnameable. Molloy dissolves any solid sense of character while allowing some semblance of a plot to remain— cue the endless debates over whether or not Moran and Molloy end up being one and the same person (another example of the pointless ‘interpretation’ of the work); then Malone Dies, where plot is done away with, by the very last remnants of a man who has plotted to tell himself some stories and die and cannot even manage that, cannot even manage to do what the title tells us he will do; and finally, the nameless, plotless third novel, where so many names and events are introduced and abandoned that any semblance of progression is lost to the pure sense of change, of steady and unceasing change.

With that, the concept of positing a ‘character’ or ‘narrator’ who is ‘recording’ his or his subject’s ‘consciousness’ is utterly moot. After this point, Beckett’s writing is neither record nor transcription, and to try to wedge a speaker behind the text as a point of delivery is to distort it to an unbearable degree. In the same way that, as discussed in my last post, Proust intentionally blurs the line between what is ‘produced’ and what is ‘drawn from,’ Beckett’s writing is such that who is speaking is largely irrelevant, whether it be Beckett, Beckett through a character, a character positing another character, or a narrator recording the situation and thoughts of another character. It is the speaking that is of concern. Lodge gets one thing correct. There is ‘an expiring consciousness [trying] to find some meaning in a situation which offers no purchase to the mind or sensation.’ But that consciousness is the reader, the receiver of the speech. It took even Beckett a long time to realize this aspect of his own work— ‘Texts for Nothing’ was an attempt to work his way out of the corner into which he knew he had painted himself with The Unnameable— that after breaking down the ‘given’ constructs of fiction one must still have the possibility of literature. Attempting to psychologize a speaker however hazy and dissolute, he realized, was explicitly not the issue any longer. It is no matter who speaks in Company, nor from where an image is sourced— even if many of the images, even words, are drawn directly from Beckett’s life or from works of art (Winnie gets her quotes wrong in Happy Days, and just above the “If I had meant God…” quote is “[The actor] wanted the lowdown on Pozzo, his home address and curriculum vitae… I [Beckett] told him that all I knew about Pozzo was in the text, that if I’d known more I would have put it in the text.”). But the fact of speech, the unbelievable and marvelous, improbable and deeply flawed act of language is the concern, and what it brutally tells us about we who use it.

It is of no concern to tell us a story that depicts how we act in extreme isolation or how we go about attempting to construct our identity or any of the things that ‘fiction’ is supposed to do— a documentary, a memoir, a walk down the street, these are places where we can ‘get’ that just as easily. What Beckett is doing, though, after the trilogy, is creating little word-machines, pieces that force us to do all those things in the act of reading them, instead of doing them himself, ascribing them to a character, and placing them for us to see. Character, plot, situation, description— these are all incidental, coincidental. It is words turned in on (not against) themselves, and they become not things which we use to refer to other things, but things, and things that allow us to see how—in what manner and by what means— it is that we use things— identity, characters, words, space, objects, people.

In a short lecture I attended earlier this evening by one of the editors of the recently published Volume 1 of Beckett’s letters, a quote was read from one letter, written in the early 1930s before much of anything of his had been published, in which Beckett says that he has already written ‘too much. Little, and too much.’ To write is an impossible act; there is no justification just enough. To write is to use disrespectfully and irresponsibly. Yet, perhaps… The end of Company:

“But with face upturned for good labour in vain at your fable. Till finally you hear how words are coming to an end. … And how the fable too. The fable of one with you in the dark. The fable of one fabling with you in the dark. And how better in the end labour lost and silence. And you as you always were.



Filed under: Beckett, Reviews

3 Responses

  1. Derek Catermole says:

    Hey, super-intellect, or rather super-feelings, when you insist on following Beckett’s prescription for reading his work, “wedg[ing] a speaker behind the text as a point of delivery [and] distort[ing] it to an unbearable degree” is just what you’re doing. You can’t have it all your way all the time. Do you imagine that Beckett might read this posting of yours and agree vigorously with your argument? That he’d maybe invite you to come by for a whisky? He’d call you another example of “this academic madness.”

  2. bob says:

    I might agree with Derek here.

    I keep wanting you in your explanations in “but with face” to explain how all that you are

    saying relate to what Beckett says about Feeling and not intellection.

    How does his claim “all I am is feeling” eventuate in his creating language machines

    which can seem wholly devoid of feeling??

  3. bob says:

    or—(to be dumb/simple-minded??) in terms of Jung & Meyers-Briggs

    is Beckett and INFP for sure? or is is not rather an INTP??

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