Beginning to End - Ending to Begin -
or, Some Brilliance and Bullshit on Samuel Beckett
by Brad Chequer
To get ourselves oriented:
The first line of Beckett’s essay on Finnegans Wake [Dante .... Bruno.Vico..Joyce] is this: "The danger is in the neatness of the identifications." To show how easily even a genius can drive an open metaphor into a closed allegory by a too neat identification, Joseph Campbell reports on seeing Godot that Pozzo represented the Catholic church as oppressor and Lucky the Irish peasantry as oppressed. The last line of Beckett’s last play, What Where, is this: "Make sense who may. I switch off."
Beckett, in a letter to Alan Schneider: "I feel that the only line is to refuse to be involved in exegesis of any kind. And to insist on the extreme simplicity of dramatic situation and issue. If that’s not enough for them, and it obviously isn’t, it’s plenty for us, and we have no elucidations to offer of mysteries that are all of their own making. My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them, and provide their own aspirin."
"Bad faith begins when the artist tries to give meaning, a sort of immanent finality, to his troubles and persuades himself that they are there so that he can talk about them." Jean Paul Sartre - We Write for Our Own Time
Beckett in Watt: "No symbols where none intended."
Here is Harold Pinter on Beckett:
"The farther [Beckett] goes the more good it does me. I don’t want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, creeds, ways out, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement. He is the most courageous, remorseless writer going and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him. He’s not fucking me about, he’s not leading me up any garden path, he’s not slipping me a wink, he’s not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs, he’s not selling me anything I don’t want to buy - he doesn’t give a bollock whether I buy or not - he hasn’t got his hand over his heart. Well, I’ll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty. His work is beautiful."
And that, ladies and germs, is what love looks like.
Here is Richard Ellman (biographer of Joyce, Yeats, and Wilde) on Beckett:
"Samuel Beckett is sui generis...He has given a voice to the decrepit and maimed and inarticulate, men and women at the end of their tether, past pose or pretense, past claim of meaningful existence. He seems to say that only there and then, as metabolism lowers, amid God’s paucity, not his plenty, can the core of the human condition be approached... Yet his musical cadences, his wrought and precise sentences, cannot help but stave off the void... Like salamanders we survive in his fire." (From Ellman’s Four Dubliners.)
So much for the brilliance; the bullshit follows:
Hamm in his second line addresses the handkerchief that covers his face as "old stancher." The cloth and trash can lids in the play are stanchers, stoppers of the flow of blood, or of words. Hamm repeats that in his second to last line - to follow it with the last line of the play: "You remain." The actors have made the mistake of asking me what this means; I have made the worse mistake of trying to answer them.
Following Yeats, Beckett opens Endgame with Clov’s pulling away the cloths that cover Hamm, Nagg, and Nell. W.B. Yeats opens and closes his plays At the Hawk’s Well, The Dreaming of the Bones, and Calvary with the folding and unfolding of cloths. Worth noting maybe that the English words "text" and "textile" come from the Latin root "textilis," from "textus," meaning "woven thing;" woven from words or from fiber, one opens and closes the other. As cloth opens the mouth opens, breathing begins, the senses become sensitive, words begin, talk begins, the play begins. Beckett reworks this pattern constantly, and in different forms in Play, Breath, and Not I, and, obviously, in Endgame and Godot. Uncovered, Hamm can talk - and play - covered he is silenced. Covered in their trash bins, "bottled," to use Hamm’s word, Nagg and Nell are silenced. Hamm himself wants to be covered, to be silenced ("Cover me with the sheet"), but Clov ignores the command, and Hamm seems satisfied to have his command ignored. "No? Good." Uncovered his words, and his breath, continue. The cycle begins again.
When Hamm folds his cloth, his stancher, at the end, he closes it, closes his mouth, he wants to shut down his words and his play. When Hamm folds his stancher he is completing the circle he began when he first started talking, dying to be reborn. This is hardly original. In his play The Herne’s Egg, W.B. Yeats draws a parallel between the egg and the urn. In Finnegans Wake Joyce puns on "womb" and "tomb" to similar effect. (Joyce dictated parts of the Wake to Beckett; Beckett translated the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter of the Wake into French.)
As with Joyce, so with Beckett; every word carries multilayered meanings. (Check out Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis on this.) To stanch as everyone knows is to stop the flow of blood from a wound, and so the stancher is the handkerchief Hamm uses to stanch his wound. Think of a stancher as a bung hole stopper; then remember Hamm on his throne. As Hamm’s wound is internal he bleeds out of his mouth; as Beckett’s words bleed out the end of his pen, Hamm endlessly talks, he has his pee, so Beckett called his work "wordshit;" what Hamm’s mouth and Beckett’s pen bleed is the words of the play. This too is hardly original. Draco, as Beckett knew, is reputed to have written his laws in blood. Nor this: In our time, in this place, words tend bleed out of an internal wound. A reading of what three sentences you like of Kafka or of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain should prove the point.
Here’s the set Yeats’s play Purgatory: "A ruined house and a bare tree in the background." Take away the house and you’re in Godot. The persons in the play: A boy and an old man - precursors of Hamm and Clov, Pozzo and Lucky. And the story: The old man kills the boy because "he would have struck a woman’s fancy, begot, and passed the pollution on[;]" only to find that the souls of the dead return to life anyway, as frightened probably of our world as we are of theirs. Hamm will not let Clov forget that he "pollute[s] the air," and would if he had the power destroy anyone or anything, except his words, to prevent procreation and its double, pollution.
Hamm wants to end the world, to end all possibility of life, to kill the flea in Clov’s pants (speaking of multilayered meaning, and of Beckett’s sardonic comedy, how’s that for a double entendre?) and to be assured that the boy outside is dead, or will soon die, to stop them from reproducing, but he can’t stop the flow of words, nor the flow of blood, though he’s slowing down, and bleeding "less," as Clov is having his visions "less"; and since Hamm can’t end the flow of words, or the flow of blood, he can’t end the world. No accident this; St. John tells us: "In the beginning was the word." The words that bleed out the end of pen betray a wound, but they impregnate the page; and more words are given us to follow the words on the page. You’re reading some of them. Before long you will speak more of them. And we will find, maybe, that the wound, which is after all our own wound in our own time, gives us a little less pain.
If Hamm manages to stop the flow of words, he himself will become the "stancher." While Hamm wants to end words to end the world, to end suffering ("I put him before his responsibilities" - "and speak no more about it"), and maybe bring on a kind of nirvana, he becomes a stancher. To be a stancher is on one hand his way of healing the world by taking humanity out of it, but on the other, to send Clov out into it, whether to live or die no one knows; that Clov may not go only deepens the irony. The words which Hamm would use to destroy (his refusal to give mother Peg oil for her lamp or the father corn for his son, his command that Clov bottle Nell and toss the trash bins containing Nagg and Nell into the sea) take on in spite of himself a creative power. No accident that the Hindus made Shiva the god of both destruction and creation - that which dies is reborn - no matter how many times Hamm kills them off, the dead return anyway. As Yeats reminds us, women and men attract each other, and pass the pollution on; as neither Yeats nor Beckett should need to remind us, out of that pollution beauty may come. There is in Cantonese an old saying: "Chut wu lai yi but yim;" out of the foulest muck grows the purest lotus.
The last line: "You remain." Simply the fact that Hamm is left, alone if Clov departs, and if, as it seems, Nagg as well as Nell has died. Less obviously, if Bishop Berkeley’s esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived) is correct, Hamm’s existence, hence his ability to remain, or to do anything else, depends on his being perceived, whether by Clov or someone else, i.e., his audience, meaning us. Less obvious still, Hamm represents the secret violence Lucretius spoke of. To quote Lucretius (I’ll spare you the Latin because I forgot it): "Nothing appears as it should in a world where nothing is certain. The only thing certain is the existence in the world of a secret violence that makes everything uncertain." Hamm’s violence drives Clov’s action, and dominates the action of the play. But I think that what interested Beckett was the invisible violence about which nothing can be said that drives Hamm, and makes him bleed words out his mouth as Beckett bleeds words out his pen - in both senses - the words of the play and the words which in spite of Hamm’s best efforts, revitalize the world he’d like to erase.
The creative/destructive force Hamm embodies remains and does its work whether he likes it or not, whether he participates in it or not. He remains because the "secret violence" Lucretius spoke of remains, whether in form of a creative eros that I hope drove the first word into the world or in the secret police in their burrows. (For a view of their technique, see Beckett’s Catastrophe and What Where, or for less subtle versions, Pinter’s One for the Road and Press Conference.)
One fine night while Joyce was in Zurich (to avoid the Nazis, like everyone else), he was standing on a balcony looking at the night stars; a priest came up to him (knowing that before he lost faith Joyce himself had got within about 3 millimeters of becoming a Jesuit priest) and pointed out to him the order and beauty of the stars - "all that order - all that beauty" - and offered it as proof of god’s existence, god’s love, god’s wisdom, and the order and beauty (not to mention ashes and ash bins) that god had created. To which Joyce responded: "A pity that it’s all based on mutual inter-destruction." That which destroys is that which creates; Hamm, like Beckett, is constantly trying to end, only to find himself beginning again, remaining in spite of his desire not to remain, going on in spite of his desire no longer to go on. Beckett famously ends his novel The Unnameable with the line: "I can’t go on. I’ll go on."
The creative force that drives the world can't be stopped; not even Hamm can stop it, not even in his own play. It’s true of course that none of us on earth can guarantee that we will be alive in the next 3/10ths of a second - and that nothing is certain - ("There’s no cure for that") which is as we all agree frightening; but this also allows for the possibility of change and that with some work and, what’s infinitely more difficult, insight (more insight than work if you want my opinion), we could make the world slightly less horrible over time than it is now. A rhetorical question from R.D. Laing: "Who are we to say that it is hopeless?"
Hamm will go on making words, creating, in spite of the impossibility of creating or making words, in spite of his desire to end - and in spite of the impossible pile of individual grains that make a heap, the impossible heap of words that make a play - or a world. And this is why far better readers of Beckett than I call him one of the most optimistic writers we have.
Brad Chequer, 2-22-08.
© 2009 The Cutting Ball Theater