Leases of Lifelessness

Denis Donoghue

  • Beckett’s Dying Words by Christopher Ricks
    Oxford, 218 pp, £17.50, July 1993, ISBN 0 19 812358 2

Near to death in Malone Dies, Malone says: ‘I wonder what my last words will be, written, the others do not endure, but vanish, into thin air.’ Beckett’s Dying Words is not a study of Beckett’s dying words if he said any, or of Malone’s. It is about words spoken or written in the vicinity of death, responsive to a conviction of their own death – a death which does not abort the possibility of a little further life before the body is coffined. It is a study of the death-in-life-and-life-in-death of language. Many of the words are quoted from Beckett’s fiction, but in several passages Ricks nearly forgets Beckett, and fixes his attention on Philip Larkin, Hardy, Swift, Coleridge, Sydney Smith, Christina Rossetti or another. I can’t believe that he chose to deliver these Clarendon Lectures as a hodge-podge. It is more probable that he observed the impressionism that Beckett ascribed to Proust: ‘By his impressionism I mean his non-logical statement of phenomena in the order and exactitude of their perception, before they have been distorted into intelligibility in order to be forced into a chain of cause and effect.’ Ricks’s book is not enchained to cause and effect or to any other discursive process: he says things as he thinks of them and makes flourishes in the air, whirling daisy-chains of perception.

The first chapter is the one in which the florist says what his business is and attends to it:

Most people most of the time want to live for ever. This truth is acknowledged in literature, including Beckett’s. But like many a truth, it is a half-truth, not half-true but half of the truth, as is the truth of a proverb. For, after all, most people some of the time, and some people most of the time, do not want to live forever.

  This counter-truth – that, on occasion and more than moodily, we want oblivion, extinction, irreversible loss of consciousness – is insufficiently, or is mostly prophylactically, rendered by literature.

The first sentence is wrong, but it could be made right by deleting ‘for ever’. As for ‘more than moodily’: I doubt Ricks’s general notion here and wonder how it survived his transcription of Samuel Johnson’s reply to Miss Seward: ‘The lady confounds annihilation, which is nothing, with the apprehension of it, which is dreadful. It is in the apprehension of it that the horror of annihilation consists.’ Or Swift’s ‘Thoughts on Various Subjects’: ‘Every Man desires to live long; but no Man would be old’. ‘Long’: not ‘forever’.

In this first chapter Ricks takes as his motto the assertion of the chorus in Oedipus at Colonus: ‘It is better to be dead than alive, best of all never to have been born.’ Better and best, compared with what good? Ricks puts beside this passage a line from Larkin’s ‘Wants’: ‘Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.’ Death as desired ease is worded by quotations from Dante Spenser, Milton, Shakespeare, Swift, Hardy, Housman and Edward Thomas. But none of the quotations is evidence that their authors maintained a conviction in favour of oblivion; above it all, no such desire runs. The passages Ricks quotes are imaginings, voicings of a mood, not the last will and testament of any of these writers. If Hardy, Edward Thomas, Beckett, and Larkin wanted to cease upon the midnight with no pain, it is strange that they let so many midnights pass without reaching for that surcease. They were in one sense happy men who had the power to die, a power they did not exercise.

More convincing than Ricks’s quotations is this passage from Kenneth Burke’s Towards a Better Life: ‘But whereas, through fear of death one may desire to die, and may find all his interests converging upon this single purpose, such notions are loath to permeate the tissues, and the wish never to have been born is unknown to our organs and our senses.’ Presumably the wish never to have been born is known, at least moodily, to our minds, or some of them, and these may rehearse the wish to the point of making it habitual; then, the temptation to suicide is felt. Up to that point, the wish is entertained as a delight of the mind, morbid if indulged beyond the range of the mood.

Then there is Freud’s theory of the death impulse. Ricks aptly quotes this passage from Beyond the Pleasure Principle:

What we are left with is the fact that the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion. Thus these guardians of life, too, were originally the myrmidons of death. Hence arises the paradoxical situation that the living organism struggles most energetically against events (dangers, in fact) which might help it to attain its life’s goal rapidly – by a kind of short-circuit.

What ‘its own fashion’ would be in a particular organism, of course I can’t say. Presumably my not committing suicide means that my organism hasn’t yet found the fashion in which it wishes to die, and meanwhile won’t be caught dead with artificial substitutes.

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