Here he is on the set of the Buster Keaton film Film, the only screenplay Beckett ever wrote. He also wrote novels and plays, but as Heather McHugh argues in the essay below, "All of his works are poems."

1.

"Words were my only love and not many."

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(Beckett)


2.

je voudrais que mon amour meure

qu'il pleuve sur le cimetière

et les ruelles où je vais

pleurant celle qui crut m'aimer

(Beckett)

I would like my love to die

and the rain to be falling on the graveyard

and on me walking the streets

mourning the first and last to love me

(Beckett trans. by Beckett)


3.

The Greeks say the great soul is dry. Certainly Beckett's is—except for the odd ha-ha here and there, by way of oasis. (A ha-ha is a little stream or brook.)

T.S. Eliot is quoted in Christopher Ricks's Beckett's Dying Words as having put it this way: "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things."

You can ghost-read man into the last (and negated) word of Beckett's very cool confession "Words were my only love and not many."

You can also read "I would like my love to die" in a personless way. Why? Because although "my love" and "the first and last to love me" can seem to refer to a single other human being, and although in a related but secondary reading "the first and last" can seem to refer to two different people, even differently gendered people, nevertheless linguistic precision strictly permits a third (perhaps profounder) reading: a reading in which "my love" in the first line refers to the very capacity to love—and "the first and last" to beliefs or concepts (teleologies, ontologies), themselves to be killed off and mourned, so that one might better love without attachment, or enchantment.


4.

Americans generally crave enchantment; the history of Hollywood is glittered with it. Such devotion can make us as endearing as children—but also as gullible. The etymology of enchantment has to do with the lure of the song of a dreamworld. The artist aware of the power of his medium must suspect the very instrument he most adores.

In the French version of Beckett's poem, words call to one another in ways for which, strictly speaking, there is no "faithful" translation. Beckett loves to arrange a play of "crypt elements" in the grammatical (especially the conjugative) fields of a piece.

To begin to understand what I mean by "crypt," you could take a look at John Shoptaw's discussion of John Ashbery's poems and their "crypt words." Shoptaw gives us a handy critical term for those words not present on the page but called to mind via associative, paronomastic, or other collateral mechanisms, operating across or behind or under words that are present.

No security of voice, or page, but the mind's own moving neurolinguistic field is the true staging ground of all of Beckett's pieces.


5.

When Samuel Beckett fled east from the island of sensibility that was Ireland, he fled not to England but to France—then fled south when the Nazis took over Paris, finding himself a semi-covert resistance position in a little town in the Vaucluse region. There, between fighting the good fight and bringing in the good harvests, he wrote the endlessly hilarious and irreducibly indescribable novel WATT.

During his years in France, he was asked (as a Beckett abroad must all-too-often be asked), "Are you English?"

Beckett's reliably ambiguous reply: "Au contraire."

The answer adds (to the question's merely double-minded equation) a subliminal, if not sublime, tertium quid, or third thing. Given the history of relations between England and France, and those between England and Ireland, it would be devilishly hard to decide which of the two contraries to discard, in Beckett's regard. (How disentangle the man from the Emerald Isle?)

But we must not forget: Beckett answered the Frenchman in French, and wrote most of his books thereafter in it.


6.

There have been those scoundrels in the world who thought Beckett's writing in either language boils down to too little. I was never of that camp. (As Zeuxis said in 400 BC: Criticism comes easier than craftsmanship.)

It is famously claimed that, during a performance of one of those Beckett plays in which the set contains little more than three walls, a chair, and a door, the stage manager got word the playwright himself would be in attendance. On so hearing, he began nervously fussing with every detail, as faithfully adhering to the stage directions as he could. He re-prepared the chair, re-tilted the lights, re-adjusted the apertures. The door that for example was to be "imperceptibly ajar" he adjusted again and again—one inch, one half inch, one quarter inch, his head cocked appraisingly.

All at once, a foreboding shadow fell across his shoulder. "The door," said Beckett, "should be shut."

The Beckettian gift of pure precision is a sort of magic: the staging of the invisible. Written stage directions themselves are, after all, a secret gift from one behind-the-scenes visionary to another. If the latter is lucky, the former is Beckett. If the former is lucky, the latter is blessed with an eye for the imperceptible. The stage directions, and specifically that single adverb in them, becomes an insider wink, a companionable joke, a billet-doux to a very particular "reader"—one who "gets" the gift. With all but invisible ink, Beckett writes a sort of literary love-note to a dream reader (the one who knows the difference between the legible and the alleged, the visible and the seen).


7.

Wittgenstein: Our lives are endless, in just the way our visual fields are endless.

Allen Grossman: Art is about something the way a cat is about the house.


8.

Richard N. Coe: "Beckett, in the final analysis, is trying to say what cannot be said; he must be constantly on his guard, therefore, never to yield to the temptation of saying what the words would make him say."

John Barth: "Beckett has become virtually mute, musewise, having progressed from marvelously constructed English sentences through terser and terser French ones to the unsyntactical, unpunctuated prose of Comment c'est and 'ultimately' to wordless mimes. One might extrapolate a theoretical course for Beckett: language, after all, consists of silence as well as sound, and the mime is still communication... but by the language of action... [which] consists of rest as well as movement, and so in the context of Beckett's progress immobile, silent figures still aren't altogether ultimate... For Beckett [in the 1960s, toward the end of his writing career], to cease to create altogether would be fairly meaningful: his crowning work, his 'last word.' What a convenient corner to paint yourself into!"

Robert Wernick writes: "So striking is the personality that emerges from [his] gloomy plays and so striking [was] the occasionally glimpsed, gaunt pterodactylous face of the real-life Samuel Beckett that many people assume[d] the two [were] identical. A whole folklore of anecdote has grown up around Beckett, in which he appears as a fanatic solitary, brooding eternally... on the black mystery of the human race... It is true that he ...built a wall around his country house, but he denie[d] that he built it, as people contend, to shut out the view. It is true he avoid[ed] all the trappings of the celebrity life, [gave] no interviews, attend[ed] no cultural congresses. But then, why should he [have]?"

Beckett came to New York during the 1964 making of Film, which was based on his only screenplay and starred Buster Keaton as a character referred to only as "O." (The other major protagonist is "E"—the camera, not seen per se but represented as a perspective—a literally unblurred vision of events, unlike O's vision of them, always covered in gauze.) During the film, the character O beats a clumsy retreat from the world to the confines of his room, where the camera slips in behind him. Inside the room are a dog and cat, sharing a basket, a caged parrot and a bowled goldfish, sharing a tiny table, and a mirror and an unframed picture of "the face of God the Father"—sharing a wall. (The astute viewer might observe that, of such shared grounds, wars have been known to arise. She might also observe that the screenplay's instruction to display "the face of God the Father" cannot provoke obedience, only amusement. Of all such desperate traps as Beckett was driven to record, he also made light.)

Alec Reid described the Beckett he met during filming as "a close-knit person, all of a piece... Once the initial reserve... evaporated, Beckett reveal[ed] a genius for companionship, a remarkable ability to make those around him feel the better for his presence."

John Calder, Beckett's publisher for more than 30 years, recalled one evening in 1961 when they met: "The newspapers were full of Hemingway's suicide and we never got off the topic. We agreed that suicide was the best way to die, but Sam's problem was how not to leave a mess for others to clean up, while mine was how to do it quickly and painlessly."

Edna O'Brien on Beckett in the Guardian (March 11, 2006): "It is true that he drank quite a lot and is almost certainly truer that he needed to drink, both to vivify a spirit that had 'little talent for happiness' and to lessen the barrage of fellow imbibers. All his works are littered with non-stop talkers, the quaquaquas. It seems somewhat precipitate to broach drink concerning such an exigent man, but that triptych of Irish geniuses, Joyce, Beckett and Flann O'Brien, were well-known habitués of the taverns, putting their sojourns to sedulous good use... Ireland, 'the ruinstrewn land between road and ditch,' was always both matrix and medium for Beckett's work. His lamentations, his rhythms, his vituperations and his curses all seem to me to be thoroughly Irish. What he found inimical about his native land was the bigotry and the stranglehold of the Catholic hierarchy and in turn he was deemed by them 'a blasphemer'... When Beckett, after a brief contretemps with a pimp, was stabbed in the early hours of January 1938, the knife just missing his heart, Joyce promptly visited him in hospital. The encounter has been described by Nino Frank, who had escorted the almost-blind Joyce, as that of two Irishmen marinating in their respective silences. The pimp had the gratifying name of Monsieur Prudent..."

Perhaps most telling of all, in connection with the stabbing: At a hearing, Beckett asked the pimp what had made him stab him, and the pimp replied, "I don't know, sir. I am sorry." In the end, then, Beckett didn't press charges, not least because he found the man, in court, to be courteous.

O'Brien reported that Beckett had said Joyce wrote from "'omniscience,' 'omnipotence,' in short godliness, whereas he [Beckett] wrote from ignorance and impotence. Working as he did from the realm of 'uncertainties,' he claimed to have 'nothing to express with or from or towards, except the obligation to express,' but if it was nothing at all, there would not be the vast trove of work. It is the near-nothing, just like the near-madness, that is the dynamic and impetus for great art. Fragment. Expletives. Minutiae..."


9.

To wit, from WATT (Beckett's novel published in 1953):

Watt, reflecting on this, heard a little voice say, Mr. Knott, having once known a man who was bitten by a dog, in the leg, and having once known another man who was scratched by a cat, in the nose, and having once known a fine healthy woman who was butted by a goat, in the loins, and having once known another man who was disembowelled by a bull, in the bowels, and having once frequented a canon who was kicked by a horse, in the crotch, is shy of dogs, and other four-footed friends, about the place, and of his inarticulate bipedal brothers and sisters in God hardly less so, for he once knew a missionary who was trampled to death by an ostrich, in the stomach, and he once knew a priest who, on leaving with a sigh of relief the chapel where he had served mass, with his own hands, to more than a hundred persons, was shat on, from above, by a dove, in the eye.

Ah, those "inarticulate bipedal brothers and sisters in God"!—in whose name ostrich and priest get confounded—birds of a feather, heads in the sand. To get caught in a seizure of Beckettian rhetoric is inquisite desolation, exquisite consolation: One laughs one's heart right out. "Tears," said Beckett, "are liquefied brain." Ha-ha.

Leo Bersani: "I know of no writer who has come closer than Beckett in his novels to translating the rhythms of defecation into sentence structure."


10.

Asked by cable, by a newspaper, what his hopes and resolutions were on the occasion of the New Year, Beckett cabled back:

RESOLUTIONS COLON ZERO STOP PERIOD HOPES COLON ZERO STOP

Essentially the reply vacates all "resolutions" and "hopes," and invests its senses into words that refer to non-words—colon, stop, period, and zero—or relationships that are syntactical as surely as semantic.

For example, given the fact that "stop" is the telegrammatic token of a pause, to add the word period can only tautologize the sign of the interruption, right? That's odd enough—to overdo the sign for an undoing!

But no sooner do we digest that reading than we have to recognize that "period" has a peculiar dynamic force of its own. It proliferates readings, since it can suggest emphasis (an excess of incision!—an extra "materialization" of the telegrammatic code-word "stop"—as in "Stop. Period.") or else can suggest hyper-specification within a grammatical unit ("period hopes") where it might function as an adjective referring to eras of time, so that "stop period hopes" is a sort of rebuke to New Year's resolutions in general.

In fact, a flexibility with grammatical bracketing reveals lots of readings: "colon zero" and "stop period" arouse variously visceral readings, since both "periods" and "colons" can be taken for features of bodily life. A late period or a punctuated colon start to smack of carnal damages.

The chamber musics of the chamber pot would not be any more alien to Beckett than they were to Joyce. After all, in Beckett's own early and most accessible novel Molloy, a character calculates his flatulence rate with exquisite anal orchestration:

One day I counted them. Three hundred and fifteen farts in nineteen hours, or an average of over sixteen farts an hour. After all it's not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes. It's nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes. It's unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all, I should never have mentioned it. Extraordinary how mathematics help you to know yourself.

"I should never have mentioned it" is the (tongue-in-cheek) destination of this rhapsody—and with "know yourself" (the ancient Greek advice itself) the writer's architecture of expansions on contractions builds magnificent structures of hot air ("airy nothings and a name"). It is his very stock and trade.

Of all the spelled-out signs in the New Year's telegram, "period" seems the most replete with readings, since it can shift identities among at least three different worlds of sign-making—that of words serving semantic functions in sentences, that of the names for punctuation marks in sentences, and that of the signs for telegrammatical substitutions for punctuation marks in sentences... I've almost lost myself here, since the brain has only two sides to work on.

Maybe that's why the period stands steady midway through the sentence—to serve as the very face of the mirror, the corpus callosum of reflective engagement. Even as I parse those readings out, I feel half-caught in a haunted house, which is also a fun house of sorts, house of ghost-smoke doubling up, or error-mirrors doubling down...


11.

Take, of Beckett, just one little three-word sentence, where it's the comma that speaks loudest.

I, say I.

Without the comma, the sentence would deliver only one of the readings it now delivers—the pronouncing of the first-person pronoun by a first person. "Say I" can be understood to be synonymous with "I say"—thus (paradoxically) can turn the first "I" to a grammatical object (with quote marks understood, or the pronoun re-understood as a proper noun or name), and the second "I" to a grammatical subject. The status of I as a name changes the game, and insulates the pronoun against any obligation, even as a grammatical object, to change to "me" (the accusative form).

But the comma adds another, and interesting, pressure, toward the imperative, as well.

In this other and imperative reading, the speaker addresses himself as I, and orders himself to pronounce his own name. One can't help noticing that, insofar as this little conversation takes place between a man and the thought of himself, a very curious sort of imperative obtains there: Because saying ANYthing to oneself brings with it the oddity of the reflection that It could have gone without saying.

The comma can be said to give rise to a third reading, one that becomes clear chiefly when one nests this three-word sentence into a sequence of three-word sentences—say, "He, say you. I, say I." Here the sense of a contested claim arises—so that "say I" is a sort of vote. (Between us pirates, for example: "Nay, says you; aye, says I.") The context of competing views or votes ("Says you!") raises the specter of the dubitability of claims that might otherwise seem mere inarguable tautology. The arguability arises partly because whenever "say" says itself in Beckett, there will be trouble. Such reflections (on the linguistic instrument itself) are forever glancing off Beckett's bassoon.

Suppose "I, say I" were a sentence preceded by another sentence: "I, say you." Then the competing claims are made more hilarious by the linguistic necessity that each self-referring speaker use the same pronoun. Or suppose "I, say I" were preceded by the sentence "Me, say you." Not only would each speaker be insisting on himself—different people under the umbrella of only a first-person pronoun—but in this case, one would be calling himself an object ("me") and the other a subject ("I"), so the reader's focus would shift toward questions raised by the object/subject argument. Vis-à-vis ourselves, which are we? Our subjects, or our objects?

In short, it's not just "say" that puts the devil into what seems a simple act of reference. It's also the "I." We can't help noticing the sliding, or deictic, function of the first-person pronoun—a sliding applicability that isn't there when both speakers indicate a third person (whether he, or him).

And all this world of possibilities swims up from one small pollywog: the comma.


12.

"Whenever said said said missaid." Here the power-source is a missing comma, the comma movable in the mind, removable from the mind, from positions after the first or second "said." One could derive distinctly (if peculiarly) meaningful readings from the insertion of a comma after ANY word in the line but the last one. But any actual insertion of comma or colon would annihilate all other possible readings; it's a case where omission greatens the referential field.


13.

And in all the readings there you can bracket up, you get facets of the basic misgiving of a meta-linguistic thought: Whenever it speaks of speaking, it misspeaks. To refer TO what you are referring WITH?—a fatal referential problem! Yet that is the perennial dilemma of poetry. It can't keep its objects from consorting with its subjects.

In this sense, all poems are ars poeticas. And all of Beckett's works are poems.

Beckett (like Dickinson) is a master engineer not of exclusive or reductive readings but of resonances, radiances, radioactivities.

And so he takes his place among the rarest literary company: that of writers whose most brilliant maneuvers trigger insights from beyond the usual range of senses.

Their work means to get out of the way of language's own capacity to illuminate more than we look for, and to mean more than we know. recommended


Heather McHugh has published eight collections of poetry, four works of translation, and a book of essays. She won a Stranger Genius Award in 2007.