Beckett in the Bardo

The Unnamable from Three Novels by Samuel Beckett. Grove Press. 407 pp. $15.95.

The mystery of Samuel Beckett continues, at least for me.  Some months back, when I had finally tackled his Three Novels—which had been sitting on my shelves for years—I finished the first two, but admitted publicly, in this space, that I gave up on the third, a matter of considerable chagrin for me, since I finish everything I start.  I felt intrigued by the idea of the book, since I assumed that, as the third volume in the trilogy—Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable—it must represent Beckett’s view of the state after dying, since his character (call him Molloy, Malone, whatever you want; in this third volume he sometimes uses the name Mahoud) dies in the second volume, and The Unnamable is the third.  I do, in fact, think that’s what Beckett intends.  This book presents his view of death.  It’s as hazy and strange and absurd as life.

It only makes sense that, if in life Beckett’s characters seem barely alive—poor Molloy, trying to get around with those crutches—in death they seem barely dead, or almost as alive as when they were living.  Talk about No Exit (which was actually written by Sartre, but let’s not quibble about our absurdist French authors.  Beckett was Irish, of course, but often wrote in French, and is studied in courses of French literature).  Be sure to tell your friends who are contemplating suicide.  Things don’t get any better.

I’m reminded of a Death Awareness workshop that I did with my first meditation teacher, Larry Rosenberg.  We had done various guided meditations in the morning, imagining ourselves on our death beds, saying good-bye to our families; it was extremely powerful.  In the afternoon we were having a discussion when it turned out that one of the people attending—a beautiful woman in her thirties who had a couple of small children—admitted she had come because she was thinking of killing herself.  Larry questioned her for a few minutes, trying to determine, I think, if she was in her right mind, which she seemed to be, and said, “Excuse me for saying this.”  He spoke with real sympathy, as if giving someone dreadful news.  “But according to Buddhism, according to what we do here, taking your life won’t do away with your problems.  It won’t change anything.  You’ll still have to deal with whatever is bothering you.”

It’s like what Chogyam Trungpa said at the beginning of one of his volumes, I remember reading this passage but have never been able to find it since, something to the effect of: from the standpoint of the absolute, nothing is happening.  Nothing has ever happened.  Nothing ever will happen.

A better summation of the work of Samuel Beckett I can’t imagine.

I believe that Beckett, with no ideology behind him—he was raised a Christian, but didn’t espouse any religion—is trying in all his work to express this fundamental truth.  We think we’re doing something.  We believe what we’re doing is extremely important, and will make a great difference in the world.  Actually, however, we’re not doing anything.  Our lives make no difference whatsoever.  We’re waiting for the God that will never arrive.

Seen in one way, of course, this is “depressing as all get out,” as my great professor Wallace Fowlie once said.[1]  In another way, it’s the most liberating thing imaginable.  You’re not really doing anything, so you can do anything.  It will have no effect at all.

Such a viewpoint can also be hilarious.  It’s possible to forget, when you read the gloomy words of Godot on the page, that its greatest interpreters played it for laughs.  They were saying the most depressing things in the world and everybody was howling[2].  There are passages like that in The Unnamable, one section, for instance, where the narrator imagines that his dreadfully slow spiral-like “progress” is taking him Home, where everyone is waiting for him, watching through slits in the wall, terribly hopeful.  He imagines the final result as follows.

“When I penetrate into that house, if I ever do, it will be to go on turning, faster and faster, more and more convulsive, like a constipated dog, or one suffering from worms, overturning the furniture, in the midst of my family all trying to embrace me at once, until by virtue of a supreme spasm I am catapulted in the opposite direction and gradually leave backwards, without having said good evening.”

I’ve had homecomings like that.

This deadly depressing work was written by a man who himself was full of energy, who knew literature, music, art, produced a huge amount of work and maintained a mammoth correspondence, and when he was directing one of his own plays was full of energy and intensity, insisted on getting it right.  He didn’t, in other words, live as a depressive.

I think that his ultimate answer to the puzzle of existence—and in The Unnamable he asks the most basic questions, what are we? What do we actually have?  What can we prove?  What can we do?—is to act as if everything does matter while knowing in some deep place that it doesn’t.  Throw yourself into life as if it were terribly important.  Molloy, for instance, never stopped trying to get somewhere with those crutches, even when he was flat on his back using them to do a modified backstroke (on land!).  And the narrator of this novel, though he doesn’t know where he comes from or where he’s going, doesn’t know why he’s talking or what he’s saying, doesn’t know if it’s actually him who’s talking, doesn’t know if he will end in silence or keep on talking forever, does seem to know that, whatever the hell is going on, whatever he’s doing, he’s got to continue.  That’s the single imperative.  The words that he repeats on more than one occasion in his long monologue, the words that Wallace Fowlie thought summed up Beckett’s entire work, are also the words that the book ends with.  “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

That’s the coda for Beckett’s life.

[1] He also said that he thought Beckett was the one writer from his generation who he was certain would survive.

[2] I read somewhere that, though Kafka didn’t publish his work in his lifetime, he sometimes read it aloud to his friends, and they laughed uproariously the whole time.