At the very end of Endgame, Hamm grates out his gratitude to his bloodstained handkerchief: “Old stancher! You…remain.” It is what you want to say by way of gratitude to Beckett himself: “Old stancher.” How right that after a conscientious pause Hamm should come up with the bleak minimum of “remain”—not “You…are faithful,” just “You…remain.” In the old days, in his first book of fiction, More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), which he has now at last allowed to be reissued, Beckett watched his act of stanching: “They were really too numerous, she could not go through the entire list. She stanched her mouth.”
As the years have gone by, Beckett has more and more stanched his mouth. Terseness has tautened. The preoccupations are still what they were. The first story in More Pricks is “Dante and the Lobster,” and it is a story about how the death of a murderer, the death of a lobster, the long day’s dying of Cain, and the immortality so cruelly conferred—indeed, insisted upon—by the Christian God and itself then so finely immortalized (as we falsely say of art) by Dante, all cuttingly underscore “the poisonous ingenuity of Time in the science of affliction.”
These words, from Beckett’s essay on Proust (1931), are apt to The Lost Ones, Beckett’s translation from his French text, Le Dépeupleur (Editions de Minuit, 1970). With a truer sense of loss (because a less willed, less diagrammatic one) than in Imagination Dead Imagine (1965), The Lost Ones imagines the death of imagination, the end of life on the planet. People live within a cylinder. Those who searched, who climbed the ladders to the alcoves and niches, or who moved at any rate their eyes, are one by one frozen into lifelessness. The light and the temperature continue to obey their pulsing rule; the human beings still do their meticulous best (from metus, fear) to abide by the deranged, civilized, intricate code which governs the use of the ladders and the permitted movements. Only one name is mentioned in the fifty-five pages of The Lost Ones, so it is a name honored indeed: “Fourthly those who do not search or non-searchers sitting for the most part against the wall in the attitude which wrung from Dante one of his rare wan smiles.” “Rare” there has to mean “of especial value” as well as “infrequent”—and so it had been long ago in “Dante and the Lobster”:
“It occurred to me” she said “apropos of I don’t know what, that you might do worse than make up Dante’s rare movements of compassion in Hell. That used to be” her past tenses were always sorrowful “a favourite question.”
He assumed an expression of profundity.
“In that connexion” he said “I recall one superb pun anyway:
‘qui vive la pietà quando è ben morta…’ ”
She said nothing.
“Is it not a great phrase?” he gushed.
“Why not piety and pity both, even down below?” Belacqua later wondered. Yet Beckett has increasingly come to believe that to let someone gush—even when Belacqua’s own irony is compounded by his creator’s—is to gush oneself. The sharp comedy of More Pricks was rich to flatulence, too spiced and relished and cooked up even at its ripest moments. “A plug of moustache cowered at his nostrils like a frightened animal before its lair, at the least sign of danger it would scurry up into an antrum.” Or: “He coughed up a plump cud of mucus, spun it round the avid bowl of his palate and stowed it away for future degustation.”
Beckett’s future degustation was itself to be a less plump cud. Like T. S. Eliot, he has been the severe friend of human feeling by being above all the styptic enemy of “human illusions of feeling.” Of the two ways of acknowledging Belacqua’s existence, he prefers this:
Stumbling along by devious ways towards the lowly public where he was expected, in the sense that the entry of his grotesque person would provoke no comment or laughter, Belacqua gradually got the upper hand of his choler.
Prefers it, that is, to this (the previous paragraph):
The grocer, without closing his eyes or taking them off the receding figure, blew his nose in the skirt of his apron. Being a warm-hearted man he felt sympathy and pity for this queer customer who always looked ill and dejected. But at the same time he was a small tradesman, don’t forget that, with a small tradesman’s sense of personal dignity and what was what. Thruppence, he cast it up, thruppence worth of cheese per day, one and a tanner per week. No, he would fawn on no man for that, no, not on the best in the land. He had his pride.
Beckett has his pride. He intimates that cold comfort is the best we can hope for (and it rots less fast than the warmer kind). He has become increasingly ascetic. About allusions, for instance. Milton—he who with Dante knew so much of hell—is important to More Pricks, but More Pricks (and this is a higher test) is not important to Milton. That is, you don’t see Milton afresh, understand him anew, because of anything in More Pricks; whereas Beckett’s creative gratitude to Shakespeare in Endgame not only shows you things about Endgame but also, famously, about King Lear and about The Tempest.
The Miltonic allusions used to be sly asides: “For the rest, the bottle, some natural tears and in what hair he had left her high-frequency fingers.” Or: “So that when Belacqua that uneasy creature came out of Casa Alba in the small hours of the morning it was a case of darkness visible and no mistake.” Sly, and yet sometimes suspect, as in the involuted erudition bent upon the changing neon sign: “A sly ooze of gules, carmine of solicitation, lifting the skirts of green that the prophecy might be fulfilled, shocking Gabriel into cherry, flooded the sign.” Gabriel gets suffused with the other angel’s blush, Raphael’s in Book VIII of Paradise Lost.
Milton’s presence in The Lost Ones is less richly insistent but more richly indirect, ample and active. Instead of the joke about hell’s “darkness visible,” this:
Once the first shocks of surprise are finally past this light is further unusual in that far from evincing one or more visible or hidden sources it appears to emanate from all sides and to permeate the entire space as though this were uniformly luminous down to its least particle of ambient air. To the point that the ladders themselves seem rather to shed than to receive light with this slight reserve that light is not the word.
(“Ambient air” is from Milton’s description not of hell but of the heavens, Book VII of Paradise Lost.) The bitter changes of temperature in the cylinder, so like Beckett’s prose itself, so chilled a torror, are true to Milton: “the parching air / Burns frore, and cold performs the effect of fire.” There is the cold gulf that opens up beneath the perfunctory deprecation within the word “pandemonium”: “But what is at stake is the fundamental principle forbidding ascent more than one at a time the repeated violation of which would soon transform the abode into a pandemonium.” With the “faint stridulence as of insects,” we see—and hear anew—Milton’s Pandaemonium and its beelike immortalities, damned and doomed, swarming and straitened.
Beckett’s vigilance is unremitting, and patently so in his self-translating and his eagle-eyed revisions. I think of a sentence on the penultimate page of Le Dépeupleur: “Dans les feux sombres du plafond le zénith garde encore sa légende.” In The Lost Ones there is no such sentence, no such momentary slackening into a romanticism too expensive and an irony too cheap. I think too of the perfect somber congruity with which literary allusions now figure within the English text; so that Le Dépeupleur’s “un petit nombre du privilégiés” has become the lugubrious mock-Agincourt of “a happy few”: “The missing rungs are in the hands of a happy few who use them mainly for attack and self-defence.”
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother….
Or the rendering of “cette vue de l’esprit” as “this wild surmise,” where the Keatsian echo—
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
—is itself a wild surmise, appallingly comic in its evocation of eagle eyes and unprecedented space when what it then captures is the straitened claustrophobia of a “blind” tunnel: “But most have no other way out than the way in. It is as though at a certain stage discouragement had prevailed. To be noted in support of this wild surmise the existence of a long tunnel abandoned blind.” Or there is the vanished heroic tragedy to be pined for when “ceux qui s’agitent encore” is rendered as “those still fitfully fevering.”
Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.
If we find ourselves wanting to express our gratitude to Beckett’s deep narrow genius in terms rather like those which his work itself urges upon us as the right true sense of life—gratitude as inevitably no more than being grateful for small mercies—it is the more worth pondering Beckett’s intimations of immortality. We should be grateful for small mercies because the large ones are usually either fictitious, factitious, or merciless. “Thanks I suppose, as the urchin said when I picked up his marble.” There is one large mercy, though: death. Very little literature indeed does justice to this mercy. Yet most people are as intermittently aware that it would be appalling to live forever as they are intermittently aware that it would be appalling not to. “Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs”: a poem by Philip Larkin knows that this is at any rate one of life’s pulsing refrains.
For Beckett, Dante is above all the supreme incarnator of the high-minded vengeance that pursues even beyond the grave and that will not permit of oblivion. Dante—and Swift. One of the characters in More Pricks is explicitly called a Struldbrug, and in his own aging since 1934 Beckett has created not just “a ponderous chronicle of moribunds in their courses” but a terrifying and exhilarating gallery of Struldbrugs fearful of death and yet even more fearful of an eternal moribundity. Malone Dies: or does he? It is terrifying and exhilarating because—as in Swift—so much is gruesomely what is the case and yet so much is blessedly not the case. We are (thank God?) not going to live forever like Swift’s Struldbrugs. Gulliver remarks that “the reader will easily believe, that from what I had heard and seen, my keen appetite for perpetuity of life was much abated.”
Beckett is the great writer of an age which has dilated longevity till it is as much a nightmare as a blessing; an age of intense geriatric tending, at one with indiscriminate contempt for the uselessness of age (from the parent King Lear’s “Age is unnecessary” to the parents in the ash cans); an age which now finds one of its most urgent anxieties—for doctors, theologians, philosophers, relatives—to be the definition of death. All of these things, the most mundane and unignorable of metaphysics, are the living tissue of Beckett’s writing. Beckett knows what Adam feared in his God: that the promise that they would die if they ate the apple did not mean a quick death; it meant “a long day’s dying to augment our pain.” Cain’s countenance, we are reminded in “Dante and the Lobster,” was “seared with the first stigma of God’s pity, that an outcast might not die quickly.”
The end of that first story by Beckett moved him to his first true tonelessness and one of his greatest icy lucidities. At the very end there is the concluding and conclusive simplicity of three of the simplest words in the English language, totally suffused with concern and yet totally uncolored by any mitigating tone:
“Have sense” she said sharply, “lobsters are always boiled alive. They must be.” She caught up the lobster and laid it on its back. It trembled. “They feel nothing” she said.
In the depths of the sea it had crept into the cruel pot. For hours, in the midst of its enemies, it had breathed secretly. It had survived the Frenchwoman’s cat and his witless clutch. Now it was going alive into scalding water. It had to. Take into the air my quiet breath.
Belacqua looked at the old parchment of her face, grey in the dim kitchen.
“You make a fuss” she said angrily, “and upset me and then lash into it for your dinner.”
She lifted the lobster clear of the table. It had about thirty seconds to live.
Well, thought Belacqua, it’s a quick death, God help us all.
It is not.
Those last three words are the tragic epitome of bitter neutrality, a tonelessness which elsewhere in More Pricks splendidly inanimates Belacqua’s speech of thanks at his wedding: “He made it from where he stood, in the white voice of which he was a master.”
The Lost Ones has an even whiter shade of voice. It speaks of “so gradual and to put it plainly so fluctuant a death as to escape the notice even of a visitor.” Hopefulness is the bane. “From time immemorial rumor has it or better still the notion is abroad that there exists a way out.” And yet there does: that which Milton (who thus provided the title, surely, of the last story in More Pricks, “Draff”) spoke of in Samson Agonistes:
till length of years
And sedentary numbness craze my limbs
To a contemptible old age ob- scure.
Here rather let me drudge and earn my bread,
Till vermin or the draff of servile food
Consume me, and oft-invocated death
Hasten the welcome end of all my pains.
Decidedly it will never have been given to me to finish anything, except perhaps breathing. One must not be greedy. But is this how one chokes? Presumably. And the rattle, what about the rattle? Perhaps it is not de rigueur after all. To have vagitated and not be bloody well able to rattle.
Who but Beckett would have brought the demented and charming punctilio of “de rigueur” up against the tacit rigor mortis? And who but Beckett saw so early and with such imaginative importunity that there are a great many senses in which our age doesn’t know what it is to die?
I really don’t know what to say about David Hesla’s The Shape of Chaos: An Interpretation of the Art of Samuel Beckett, because for me it exists in so completely different a medium from the art of Samuel Beckett. Mr. Hesla scores some successes (not, in either direction, of the howling kind); he is a skilled and patient exegete of the very early clotted writing (the poem “Sanies I” and the story “Fingal” from More Pricks), and he has in a way been strikingly vindicated in the matter of going on so much about ladders (Augustine, and John Climacus) by the subsequent indispensable futile ladders of The Lost Ones. But, but. Though there are ways in which I don’t doubt Beckett’s indebtedness to “the Western intellectual tradition,” half a dozen epigraphs per chapter (Augustine, Pascal, Diogenes Laertius, John Climacus, Schopenhauer) have too consolidated and consolidating an air.
Yet Mr. Hesla has the candor to quote Beckett: “When Heidegger and Sartre speak of a contrast between being and existence, they may be right, I don’t know, but their language is too philosophical for me. I am not a philosopher.” And Mr. Hesla is scrupulous, both in his theory and in his practice. What it comes to is that if you have just been experiencing Beckett himself, any chapter called “The Defeat of the Proto-Zetetic: Watt” is something you can’t have much stomach for yet awhile. But “Thanks I suppose.”
December 14, 1972