Nohow, Worstward, Withersoever

Patrick Parrinder

  • Stirrings Still by Samuel Beckett
    Calder, 25 pp, £1,000.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 7145 4142 7
  • Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett
    Calder, 128 pp, £10.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 7145 4111 7
  • ‘Make sense who may’: Essays on Samuel Beckett’s Later Works edited by Robin Davis and Lance Butler
    Smythe, 175 pp, £16.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 86140 286 3

‘Stirrings’ are, among many other things, what poetry can cause in us, as I.A. Richards once noted. In a notorious passage in Practical Criticism, Richards suggested that a good test of a poem’s sincerity would be to meditate for a while on the following topics: 1. Man’s loneliness (the isolation of the human situation). 2. The facts of birth, and of death, in their inexplicable oddity. 3. The inconceivable immensity of the universe. 4. Man’s place in the perspective of time. 5. The enormity of his ignorance. The poem should then be recited, slowly and silently, and, Richards thought, ‘whether what it can stir in us is important or not to us will, perhaps, show itself then.’

This attempt to propose a set of updated spiritual exercises for the purpose of criticism was ridiculed by T.S. Eliot, who detected in the five points ‘a modern emotional attitude which I cannot share’. Samuel Beckett could surely have shared it, however; indeed, with some modifications, it is possible that he still could. Cosmic loneliness, a numbing scepticism and a sense of alienation from the animal facts of life, are all evident aspects of Beckett’s writing. As for ‘the enormity of his ignorance’ (Richards stressed that he meant enormity, not enormousness), this could be classed as a Beckettian perception, both in its sublime and its ludicrous aspects. Beckett’s uncertainties go far beyond the humanistic stopping-point which lends a certain complacency to Richards’s account. The unknowable in his texts is not only the non-human but whatever it is that is trying and failing at knowing. The personal pronouns governing verbs such as ‘to know’ become questionable and sometimes even disappear from his writing. As Steven Connor points out in his admirable if uncompromising study,[*] Beckett is concerned to contest our very definitions of the human. His writings are thus well calculated, in these times, to stir something, felt to be important, in us; at the same time, they remind us of the fragility of such incorrigible, and possibly irrational, stirrings.

We need not suppose Beckett to have read either Richards’s five points or Eliot’s response to them, though I suspect that his choice of words is inspired by other contemporary writers more often than is commonly acknowledged. (Should we not, for example, read the opening of Murphy – ‘The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new’ – as a sardonic riposte to Auden’s cheerful sonnet inviting the heavenly body to ‘look shining on/New styles of architecture, a change of heart’?) One effect of the publication of Stirrings Still is to highlight ‘still’ and ‘stir’ as Beckettian keywords, which can now be retraced throughout the canon: this alone is enough to suggest the significance of his very brief new work, and the integrity of the artistry that has gone into it. Most of the texts in the Collected Shorter Prose†, as well as the more recent prose works now brought together as a trilogy under the title Nohow On, can be read in terms of a dialectic between stirrings and stillness.

We could begin with the speaker in the third of the Texts for Nothing, written almost forty years ago, who declares that he will ‘Start by stirring ... I’ll call that living, I’ll say it’s me, I’ll get standing ... a week will be ample, a week in spring, that puts the jizz in you.’ But the jizz is quickly exhausted: ‘I’ll never stir again, dribble on here till time is done, murmuring every ten centuries, It’s not me, it’s not true, it’s not me,’ he paradoxically mutters a few lines later. And so it is in text after text: every stirring is stilled and every self-assertion leads to a self-cancelling. In 1974 Beckett published a piece called Still with which Stirrings Still has many affinities, though the more bracing and even defiant ring of the title of his new work is certainly noteworthy.

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[*] Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory and Text (Blackwell, 222 pp., £27.50 and £8.95, June 1988, 0 631 16017 5).

[†] Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1980 by Samuel Beckett. Calder, 218 pp., £5.95, 1986, 0 7145 4033 1.