The Built-in Reader

Colm Tóibín

There is a moment in Samuel Beckett’s story ‘The Expelled’ in which the hero watches a funeral pass:

Personally if I were reduced to making the sign of the cross I would set my heart on doing it right, nose, navel, left nipple, right nipple. But the way they did it, slovenly and wild, he seemed crucified all of a heap, no dignity, his knees under his chin and his hands anyhow ... As for the policeman he stiffened to attention, closed his eyes and saluted ... The horses were farting and shitting as though they were going to the fair.

This is one of Beckett’s common modes, the comic spirit which the actor Jack McGowran, for example, could seize upon and exploit with such brilliance. Our rueful narrator muses to himself, intrigued and obsessed by the rigours of things, loving lists, locked into the mind’s peculiar capacity to gather information, analyse it, store some of it and then forget most of it, lacking all respect for what Yeats called ‘custom and ceremony’, having it in for tradition and authority, and delighted by the body’s ability to undo whatever grandeur society or the mind had constructed.

Beckett’s work is at its best when he seems to forget himself, to forget his great mission to undo the power of words, an objective which he explained in a letter, written in German, to Axel Kaun in 1937:

It is indeed becoming more and more difficult, even senseless, for me to write an official English. And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it. Grammar and Style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman. A mask. Let us hope the time will come, thank God that in certain circles it has already come, when language is most efficiently used when it is most efficiently misused. As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today.

And yet, we look back to that last sentence quoted from ‘The Expelled’: ‘The horses were farting and shitting as though they were going to the fair’; or the celebrated first sentence of Murphy, published in 1938, a year after the letter was written: ‘The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new’; or sentences chosen at random from Beckett’s trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable – and we find that he is half in love with Grammar and Style, and that he is somehow prevented from putting his own agenda into operation, that the ‘higher goal’ constantly eludes him. It is this tension – Beckett with his agenda and Beckett becoming too distracted by the world to put his agenda into operation – that fills his work between Murphy and the later prose pieces.

There were, of course, other tensions too, not least a philosophical tension between the notion of cogito and the idea of sum. Beckett’s characters take a dim view of the ergo part of the equation. Cogitating is the nightmare from which they are trying to awaken, and Being is a sour trick played on them by some force with whom they are desperately trying not to reckon. Beckett produces infinite comedy about the business of thinking being boring, invalid, quite unnecessary. His characters know they exist because of the discomforts and odd habits of their bodies. In some cases they are left in no doubt.

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