‘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.
A word about the physical quality of the two texts under review. Nohow On, consisting of Company (1980), Ill Seen Ill Said (1982) and Worstward Ho (1983), is inexplicably typeset in English Monotype Bodoni 357 instead of the much sturdier Times used for the Collected Shorter Prose and the Bembo in which the three works were set when printed separately. The result is a shoddy-looking production, spidery, under-inked and difficult to read. Stirrings Still is published in a limited edition of 226 copies signed by Beckett and Louis le Brocquy, the artist who illustrated it. Reviewers were asked to work from a reduced photocopy with muddy illustrations, though this is far preferable to the newspaper format in which alone Stirrings Still has so far reached a wider public. None of this is good news for the ordinary reader, though in view of his magnificent services to Beckett’s readers over the years one would not begrudge the publisher, John Calder (‘I finally arrived at Dover last Sunday with TV cameras waiting for me, the precious copies in my car,’ he confided in the Guardian when Stirrings Still was printed there), his moment of glory.
Stirrings Still, in three parts, uses the now classic Beckett medium of a ‘free prose’ which preserves the basic conventions of descriptive, narrative and meditative discourse while investing its words with more substance and resonance than is found in most poems. The language here is less difficult and disrupted than in such pieces as Ping and Worst-ward Ho, where normal syntax and logical sequence are more or less dispensed with. In the new work a solitary figure who has sat hunched at a table, head on hands, for a long time sees himself stirring, one night, and going out of the room. The ‘outer world’ in which he finds himself, or imagines finding himself, is a limitless, featureless expanse of ‘long hoar grass’, grass which is not green but appears, in the half-light, a sinister whitish grey. As he wanders in the field there comes from ‘deep within’ the mysterious intuition of a ‘word he could not catch’, but the missing word is not recalled, and the ‘hubbub in his mind’ subsides into stillness again.
The doubling of consciousness, in which the figure straying across the field may be no more than a figment of the figure hunched at the table – the mind observing itself, in the third person, in the act of imagining – is present in most of Beckett’s later prose texts. So is the contrast between inner and outer, between the confined and more or less knowable space of the room and the paralysing emptiness of life in the open – though many of Beckett’s protagonists are incapable of reaching the outside. The character in Stirrings Still emerges into a kind of deserted Elysian fields. The grass expanse is identified with the world after death by means of an unambiguous literary allusion: it has, we are told, ‘no limit of any kind ... such as a fence or other manner of bourne from which to return’. The movement outside thus combines an intense longing for the supposed peace of death (which is no novelty in Beckett’s writing) with an attempt to impersonate the voice of an appalled and chastened returning traveller. Since The Calmative (1954), which begins with the statement that ‘I don’t know when I died,’ Beckett’s work has often had this anguished, posthumous quality.
Stirrings Still is very much less clinical in its procedures than those texts of the Sixties which imprison the protagonists in a cylinder, cube or rotunda – a series of reports from the mortuary which, thanks to their obsessive measurement of the spaces into which the bodies are cramped, remind us that Beckett is a quantity surveyor’s son. Nor is the new work as bleak as the Nowhow On trilogy. It has neither the terminal language-games (described on the dust-jacket as a ‘reinvention of language’) of Worstward Ho nor the chilling voyeurism of Ill Seen Ill Said. Its protagonist’s solitude is not quite as oppressive as in Company. Set against these immediate predecessors, Stirrings Still is less claustrophobic and, within the austere confines of the late Beckett style, possibly a little less glum.
The prevailing critical notions about Beckett’s stylistic and thematic development are variously reflected by the contributors to ‘Make sense who may’, a helpful symposium concentrating mainly on the later dramatic works. The myth of ‘lateness’ in a writer’s oeuvre is, in any case, one that Beckett has turned to advantage more fully than almost any other writer since Milton. Andrew Kennedy’s paper expounds the view of Beckett’s corpus as an agonisingly prolonged endgame, the manifestation of an unremitting principle of ‘self-diminishment’ coupled with a ‘controlled inward regression’. Each successive product of the master’s pen moves a little ‘nearer the end’. There is something profoundly tautological in such a view, yet it was Beckett himself who wrote in Texts for Nothing that ‘it’s the end gives the meaning to words.’ The title of the Davis and Butler symposium comes from the ending of Beckett’s play What Where (1983) –
That is all.
Make sense who may.
I switch off.
– and Beckett continues to throw the switch on and off, in an ever-prolonged vigil or wake at which he is both mourner and corpse: as, given his addiction to solitude and the obsessive doubling of consciousness, he necessarily must be.
The last words of Stirrings Still are ‘Oh all to end.’ The new text provokes further reflections on the nature of Beckettian endgames. There is the ‘last man’ theme, which is implicit in the idea of a wake with only a single mourner. Also, there is the extent of Beckett’s inheritance from Joyce, which is by no means confined to his early work and is now perhaps due for reappraisal. For to end yet again (translated into English in 1976) ends with the following sentence: ‘Through it who knows yet another end beneath a cloudless sky same dark it earth and sky of a last end if ever there had to be another absolutely had to be.’ Here, fleeting but unmistakable, is a reminiscence of the ending of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ with its snow falling ‘as the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead’. Other endings in late Beckett echo the final sentence of another Dubliners story, ‘A Painful Case’, in which we are told of Mr Duffy that ‘He felt that he was alone.’ Both Mr Duffy and Gabriel Conroy in ‘The Dead’ are, in effect, last men contemplating the silence of universal darkness, though for Gabriel, as often in Beckett, it is a whitish darkness. The fact that Beckett’s protagonists have reached far greater extremes of deprivation does not detract from the interest of these parallels.
In Stirrings Still the speaker dimly remembers a former companion, whose name is given as Darly. This may be compared with Mr Duffy’s lamentations over Mrs Sinico, and Gabriel’s over Michael Furey. Joyce’s intense use of social and natural symbolism – the reading of Mrs Sinico’s death in a newspaper report, the walk in a named Dublin park, Gabriel’s vision of snow over Ireland and of Michael Furey’s grave – is of course profoundly alien to late Beckett, none of whose protagonists is sufficiently alive to be moved to the ‘generous tears’ that Gabriel rather absurdly sheds. ‘Generous tears’ tantalises with its hint of pathetic fallacy, while the very title of the story, ‘The Dead’, is also a transparently rhetorical touch. Beckett might be thought to have the advantage here, though his writing also carries its burden of grief, even if it cancels (as soon as it has evoked) the mellifluous Joycean cadences.
One would not have expected the late Beckett to have much time for Joycean wordplay, though one of his juvenilia was called Whoroscope. John Pilling has argued that Beckett’s incessant verbal repetitions tend to encourage monovalence rather than Joycean polyvalence. Recently, however, we have had the unexpectedly punning title of Worstward Ho, and now the 1801 words of Stirrings Still include one item – ‘withersoever’ – which at first sight strikes the reader as a misprint. The figure of the protagonist escaping from confinement is ‘Seen always from behind withersoever he went.’ Worstward Ho has ‘whither’, ‘whosesoever’ and ‘whencesoever’, and Company has ‘withershins’, all of them bona fide dictionary words. With ‘withersoever’, Beckett seems to have grasped at a Joycean expedient to hint at the deteriorating human realities behind one of his endless endgames. The word could even be read as a sardonic rejoinder to a moment of poetic afflatus by another of Beckett’s mentors – Yeats’s ‘Now I must wither into the truth.’
Rather more tentatively, it can be argued that the Joycean epiphany is also evoked, as well as being undermined by, a text such as Stirrings Still. ‘Epiphany’ presupposes a world outside, the possibility of a movement beyond solipsism to some sort of revelation, however ironic. Epiphanic writing must therefore be more than mere ‘ontospeleology’, the exploration of the inner world of the skull. In Stirrings Still the protagonist hears a clock striking and the sound of distant cries while confined to his room. Once outside and wandering in the field he hears the same sounds, which are no louder even though they are presumably no longer muffled by the four walls. The clock and the unexplained cries, ‘now faint now clear as if carried by the wind’, grate on his nerves; but the missing word heard, or nearly heard, by the inner ear in the final section causes him anguish of a different sort. The missing word seems to be evoked by a particular place – it was not heard indoors – and his inability to recall it shatters the protagonist’s equanimity, so that the text rises to a crescendo of alarm. Once this has passed, there is a sense of catharsis absent from many of Beckett’s late prose pieces. He has had, or imagined he has had, the epiphanic experience (or some intimation of it) even if he has missed the meaning, and an undeniable stirring and spending of emotion have taken place.
What, finally, of the protagonist’s status as a last man, condemned to a solitary vigil because his companions have all disappeared and perhaps pre-deceased him? Beckett’s most blatant exploitation of the Romantic myth of the last man can be found at the end of The Lost Ones (1972), a weird Science Fictional allegory which observes the behaviour of a crowd of people trapped in a large cylinder and engaged in perpetually frustrated searching for the partners they believe they have lost. The final paragraph of the story (which we are told was an afterthought on Beckett’s part) describes a single survivor in the cylinder listlessly examining the bodies of his companions, all of whom are now dead. Of all his writings The Lost Ones most obviously invites the comment that this is the art of a gas-chamber world, of a civilisation facing the abyss of what has been called ‘exterminism’ – an irresistible and systematic drive towards self-destruction. Beckett profoundly identifies with the hapless victims of this world, yet there is enough in his works to remind us that the ‘last man’, as celebrated by Mary Shelley and later 19th-century writers, is a megalomaniac as well as a tragic figure. There is a kind of Faustian exhilaration attached to the last man. Knowing nothing, he is in a position to know everything, and though he can do nothing – or very little – he can also do anything.
There are various possible literary viewpoints for the writer intent on registering human extinction. The scientific-materialist attitude sketched out by I.A. Richards is in reality a device for viewing the likelihood of (eventual) extinction impersonally, from elsewhere, in accordance with the dispassionate scientific spirit: hence the fondness for putting us in the position of Martian astronomers, or other godlike extraterrestrials, in this sort of writing. Then there is the claustrophobic, vertiginous consciousness of the last man himself – a consciousness, so the Romantic myth would have it, touching unparalleled extremes of exhilaration and dismay (though the reality, in Mary Shelley’s and the other ‘last man’ novels, rarely lives up to its billing). Thirdly, the air of sublimity surrounding the ideas of human extinction and the last man is in many ways absurd, and the whole notion can properly be treated as farce. One thinks here of Thomas Hood’s leg-pulling piece of verse, ‘The Last Man’ – contemporary with Mary Shelley’s novel of the same title – where the last hangman hangs the last beggar and is then overcome by anguish and remorse since there is no one to release him in his turn from his ‘cup of sorrows’: the hangman is unable to hang himself. Not only has Beckett pursued his theme of exterminism with unparalleled dedication but he is far too sophisticated to confine himself to any one of the standpoints suggested here. By implication, nevertheless, and in a residual form, they are all present in his writing. His marvellous late prose holds in suspension its ghostly reminders of scientific scepticism, of Romantic self-absorption, and of a grotesque gallows humour.