Lecture delivered in February 2000, at the Kunsthalle in Vienna on the occasion of a Beckett and Bruce Nauman exhibition
THE IMAGERY MUSEUM OF SAMUEL BECKETT
Edited for presentation on this website
I assume that all of you are here because you are interested in Samuel Beckett or his books. And I am sure that all of you have read [at one time or another] some of these books, or seen some of the plays written by Beckett [in English or French]. But I doubt that very many of you have read all the books written by Beckett [some sixty titles are on the list attached at the end of this text].
Well, I have read all these books — several times even. Read and re-read them [in English and in French]. I am not saying this to impress you but simply to indicate that one must be crazy to read the entire oeuvre of Beckett. Certainly only mad people — fanatics — would spend time reading and re-reading everything Beckett has written.
In Waiting for Godot, Beckett’s most celebrated play, Estragon "[aphoristic for once]" says: We are all born mad. Only a few remain so.
I believe I am one of those who remained mad, because for more than forty-five years I have not stopped reading and re-reading the books of Samuel Beckett, and I always imagine that others, too, are as mad as I am and that they, too, never stopped reading and re-reading Beckett.
In any case, it is with this idea in mind — with this assumption that everybody has read everything Beckett has written — that I prepared a lecture for this occasion, an extremely complicated lecture, probably boring and much too long, which explained everything Beckett wrote.
I left that complicated and boring academic lecture — in the form of an explication de texte — in the sun of California, and instead I wrote a few notes which I have before me, and with these notes I want to take you on a little journey, an impromptu journey through the landscapes — the somewhat devastated landscapes — of Samuel Beckett’s work. Or rather, I want to take you on a visit to the imagery museum of Samuel Beckett, for you may not know this but Beckett was a great artist, yes, a great painter. No, he did not paint with a brush, he painted tableaux (or tableaus) with words. And so I want to take you through some of Beckett’s books, not to explain what they "mean" but to show you what there is to see in these books, to have you look at them somewhat like tourists look at paintings on the walls of a museum or exhibit. What I want to try to show you are the great visual tableaux that Beckett has created for us... using words.
Normally, one explains [at least to those who are in need of explanation] — one explains a work of fiction [a novel, a story, a play] by discussing the characters. That is to say, by looking at the human condition as represented in the characters. By discussing the characters of a literary work one usually arrives at the meaning of that work.
But to discuss or analyze the beings [les êtres] of a novel or a play as if they were real, as if they were living in our world, is to deal with the work in terms of sociology and psychology. It has nothing to do with the aesthetic quality of the work. That kind of sociological and psychological explanation in the end has nothing to do with literature — literature as art, I mean.
Samuel Beckett was, above all, an artist. Perhaps the last of the great artists of the 20th century. The British critic, Colin Wilson, once referred to Beckett as The Last of the Mohicans.
To speak of the unhappy condition of Beckett’s creatures, the lonely, miserable condition of Gogo and Didi, Molloy, Malone and all the other human wrecks [les épaves humaines], one encounters dans l’oeuvre de Beckett. [Excuse the French intrusions, but when talking about Beckett one cannot avoid being bilingual since he was certainly one of the greatest bilingual writers of all time]. To see only the unhappy, depressing, morbid condition of the Beckettian milieu is not only indulging in sociological misérabilisme, but it is a way of ignoring the artistry and, especially, the beautiful geometry of his work.
By geometry I mean simply the form of the text, the structure of the narration, the shape of the sentences and, especially, the space, the landscape where Beckett’s fictions are inscribed and on which they are played out. In other words, what I am proposing here is that in order to seize the work of Beckett — I did not say "understand", but seize, in the sense of apprehending visually and mentally — one must not only look at the beings in that fiction, one must see where and how these beings are situated physically, geographically, geometrically.
And so I would like to take you today on a little journey through Beckettian space and show you some of the unforgettable tableaux he has meticulously created in his works. Along the way you will see how, progressively and chronologically and by mocking realism, Beckett’s landscapes de-construct themselves and turn to ruins, or rather, one should say, construct themselves anew on their own ruins to become, first in his early works, surrealistic tableaux, then later on into cubist scenes (abstract expressionism) and finally, in his last texts, minimalist and conceptual, all these reconstructions being perfect geometrical figures — circles, squares, cubes, cylinders.
It is by looking at these tableaux that I would like to seize — again, not understand, but seize the work of Samuel Beckett.
End of the preface. Let us set out on our journey — our visit.
First, though, just a short preface before entering the Beckett museum [which is not quite open yet. It will be in a few minutes], a few words about Beckett the man and the artist are necessary. After all, when we go to a museum to look at the work of an artist, we might first try to find out a bit about his life and his work.
Beckett. The French pronounce that name Béquet — in fact that’s exactly how one of the characters in the play Eleutheria  — who is a spectator watching the play itself — pronounces the name of the author of the play, a play which he believes is going nowhere. Disgusted with the non-action, the spectator jumps up on the stage and tries to resolve the situation.
Au fait, he says, qui a fait ce navet? [il regarde son programme]. Samuel Béquet. Béquet! Ça doit être un juif groenlandais mâtiné d’auvergnat.
In spite of what that irritated spectator in Eleutheria says, Beckett was certainly one of the most important and influential writers of our time — at least for my generation. [Beckett died on December 22, 1989.]
Certain people throughout history were privileged to have been contemporaries of accomplished achievers in the arts such as Homer, Shakespeare, Racine, Goethe, Dostoevsky, Proust, Joyce, Carravagio, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Mozart, Beethoven. I lived at the same time as Samuel Beckett. We — you and I — lived at the same time. We were his contemporaries. And he left with us an amazing oeuvre.
Samuel Beckett is no longer in Paris [where he lived and worked], no longer writing another book for us. There will be no more books by Samuel Beckett. But even though Beckett has now changed tense — as a friend wrote to me upon learning of his death — what remains is this immense oeuvre he has left behind. For this we are all deeply indebted to him.
What he left with us are: novels, stories, Texts for Nothing, [Six] Residua, plays for the stage, radio plays, television plays, mimes, videos — even a film — poetry, art criticism, literary criticism, translations and self-translations, and more. And all of these written in two languages by Beckett himself — French and English. An amazing oeuvre indeed.
As we all know, Beckett was an Irishman who lived in exile in France beginning in the early 1930's and who eventually adopted the French language for most of his writing. He translated into English much of the work he wrote in French, and into English much of his originally French work. These translations from one language to the other are a real a tour de force, and how he undertook them would be worthy of a lecture in itself, but I cannot resist, since most readers of Beckett are bilingual if not multilingual, to give just one illustration here [while we are waiting for the imagery museum to open] of what happens when Beckett translates himself.
The novel Watt [written in English between 1943-1945 during World War II and first published in 1953] ends with this statement: No symbols where none intended, a sentence in which we hear the entire tradition of Anglo-Saxon literature and culture. Beckett's French translation of Watt did not appear until 1968, after which I often attempted, myself, to translate that very sentence back into English. Listen to what it became in Beckett’s English to French: Honni soit qui symboles y voit. And here we hear the entire French culture and literature.
Born in 1906, Beckett settled, for the first of two times, in Paris in 1932. That is to say, at the age of 26 he finds himself in exile. Displaced. Dépaysé, one might say, living in a foreign landscape — since we are talking about landscapes.
Beginning in 1929 [the year of his first publication] and ending exactly 60 years after that, Beckett did nothing else but write, nothing else but line up words on pieces of paper. Therefore, the story of his life was his writing, his life was nothing but words, or as the voice in Texts for Nothing says of his own life: Words. [My life] was never more than that, than that pell-mell babel of silence and words.
That then, briefly stated, is Beckett’s life, his biography. Words, in English and in French. For 60 years Beckett locked himself in a room and he wrote. Hugh Kenner refers to this activity as The Siege in the Room.
A few more minutes, now, and the museum will be open. Allow me to situate myself in relation to Beckett’s work before we go in.
I started reading Beckett in 1956 after I saw the Broadway production of Waiting for Godot, and like everyone else back then I wanted to know what this work of Beckett meant and I wanted to try and understand the universal truths of his books. And so for some 15 years, until about 1970, I set out in the pursuit of meaning in Beckett’s work. Like everyone else, I wanted to know what it all meant. Not only did I write a doctoral dissertation on the fiction of Samuel Beckett (which became my first book, Journey to Chaos), but I also published numerous articles, worked for several years with the British critic John Fletcher on a huge critical bibliography entitled Beckett: His Works and His Critics, edited three volumes of essays and documents on Beckett and, of course, taught the works of Beckett in my seminars at the university.
At the beginning of the 1960's a whole team of critics including myself set out to sort out, to explain, to classify, to interpret and to organize the work of Samuel Beckett in an attempt to extract meaning from it. In the process, some very strange, far-fetched, and preposterous interpretations were offered.
But as it is said in the novel Watt: What was the pursuit of meaning in this indifference to meaning? And to what did it tend? These are delicate questions. And in the same novel, as if warning us about the futility of seeking meaning, this: But to elicit something from nothing requires a certain skill, and Watt was not always successful, in his efforts to do so.
Nor was Federman successful.
Nonetheless, in spite of the warnings the critics stubbornly insisted on this pursuit of meaning.
First it was a matter of finding the literary sources of Beckett’s work. Gradually the critics revealed that his remarkable work was inspired by Joyce, Kafka, Proust, Flaubert, Balzac and, moving back in time, the 18th century novel (Diderot and Laurence Sterne) and before that, Racine, Shakespeare, Rabelais, Cervantes, Dante and Homer. So many possible sources were concocted that, finally, one was reduced to saying that the work of Samuel Beckett was, in fact, all of literature — the entire history [and story] of literature. And so, after all of these efforts to ascribe sources to his work, nothing had been said that explained the work of Samuel Beckett.
Then came the critics who felt absolutely compelled to try and discover the philosophical and theological sources. And so Beckett was read as an Existentialist and a Phenomenologist, influenced by Sartre, Heidegger, Bergson and certainly Nietzsche, and by the pessimism of Schopenhauer; by the dualism of Descartes; by the Occasionalism of Malebranche and Geulincx; and, still further back in time, by Luther and Calvin, St. Augustine, the Sophists, Plato and Aristotle and the Pre-Socratics; and of course by the Ancient and the New Testaments. That is to say, once again, that the entire history of philosophy and theology was allegedly contained in the work of Samuel Beckett.
What was curious about this stubborn pursuit of meaning, this search and research in finding literary, philosophical and theological sources for Beckett’s work, is that it always seemed to lead to nothing — to self-evidence and non-sense. I am using the term non-sense here in both of its dual meanings: Without direction, without signification.
But Beckett had been warning us all along about the meaninglessness — or the "Lessness" — of his work. Or as he put it himself in referring to the language of his novel How It Is, meaning is a "rumor transmissible ad infinitum in either direction". And elsewhere he emphasized that Language is what gets us where we want to go and prevents us from getting there.
And so, in spite of the enormous critical industry around Beckett’s work, that very work seemed to defy any sensible explanation, seemed to cancel all critical interpretations however convincing they might sound. It made a mockery of criticism. The more one tried to situate, to pigeon-hole Beckett’s work, the more it escaped historical and critical interpretation.
Of course there were also the symbolic explanations of the novels and plays. But even these clever explanations did not clarify anything, did not reveal any meaning [or hidden meaning, if there was one] of his oeuvre.
For ultimately, the meaning was neither secret nor hidden. It was right there on the surface of the texts, at the level of the words and the images these words created, perhaps being even too evident. The meaning of Beckett’s work was right before our eyes. It was simply a matter of looking rather than thinking.
Let me sum up, in the form of a question, what I believe the meaning of Beckett’s work is: What am I doing here... doing what I am doing? That’s all. Or to put it even more simply and succinctly and echo the words of the old dying woman in the marvelous play Rockaby who, while rocking herself to sleep or to death in an old rocking chair, suddenly shouts: "Fuck life!"
Yes, all along Beckett warned us that it was useless to try and find meaning in his work, especially symbolic meaning. Remember: No symbols where none intended.
The pursuit of meaning in Beckett’s work often leads to an impasse, to non-sense, to platitudes, ready-made ideas. As a comparison, the work of Beckett presents itself to us very much like Baudelaire’s forest of symbols. But the symbols in the forest of Beckett’s words are undecipherable. Therefore it is useless to ascribe a meaning to these symbols for they merely confound us and lead us into ignorance.
In one of the rare but often quoted interviews Beckett gave, he stated: I am working with impotence and ignorance. I don’t think ignorance has ever been exploited in the past.
Self-evidence and ignorance: the keys to Beckett’s work. A perfect example is the thirty second play written for television entitled Breath — yes, a thirty second "dramaticule", as Beckett called it: Light comes up on a pile of garbage; one hears the cry of a baby; the light goes out. It’s as simple as that. Darkness-light-darkness, which, of course, can be read as birth/life/death. It is so evident that even to say this becomes ridiculous.
The meaning of this dramaticule is too obvious even to bother pointing it out. It baffles us by its "evidence". But as an image, as a tableau, as a picture, it is striking, and once it has been seen on the screen it remains engraved in one’s mind. A pile of garbage, light, darkness, and the cry of a baby. What a striking tableau that represents .... well, no need to be any more explicit.
The same can be said of the name "Godot", the word that entered our culture in 1951 and has intrigued so many people ever since. To say that Godot means God becomes absurd. It is so evident, so obvious, that to say it is to say nothing. And in fact, as it is said in Waiting for Godot, Nothing is more real than nothing.
You must be wondering why I have spent so much time rejecting, refusing, avoiding, canceling the meaning of Beckett’s work. Why this long detour, when I promised you a tour of Beckett’s imagery museum. I am coming to that very shortly.
But first allow me to explain why, personally, I abandoned the pursuit of meaning in Beckett. [By now you must have understood that what I am doing here with all these digressions within digressions is to avoid saying anything that may become meaningful about Beckett’s work — to say something meaningful would be mere competence, as Beckett would say].
In 1972, I was in Paris and Beckett invited me to go, with him and a few other people, to see the dress rehearsal [not the first performance but only the dress rehearsal] of the revival of En Attendant Godot — exactly twenty years after its première.
What was interesting about this revival is that the director, Roger Blin, who had also directed the original production, used the same actors for this performance who had played in the original. But this time Blin decided to stage the play literally in slow motion. It lasted two and a half hours. As a result, the tableaux of this version [in which nothing happens twice, as it was once famously said] became fixed, frozen in place, like stills in a film or like paintings, so that the symbolism exploded and became quite quite obvious, especially those symbols that could be interpreted as religious. But the meaninglessness of the play also became more evident. As, in fact, in this exchange between Gogo and Didi:
Didi: This is becoming really insignificant.
Gogo: Not enough yet.
[Are you still with me? – The museum is about to open].
After the performance the actors, Blin, Beckett and I went for dinner in a rather swanky restaurant. I was sitting next to Beckett and at one point I asked him what he thought of this performance, this slow motion staging. He quietly told me:
C’est pas mal, c’est pas mal, he said (we always spoke French together). But then after a moment of silence — the kind of silence only Beckett could make comfortable — he added:
Si seulement ils pouvaient arrêter de me faire dire plus que j’ai dit?
"When will they stop making me say more than I said." It was as if Beckett was warning his readers and critics not to fall into the trap of symbolism and hermeneutics.
Later that evening — or perhaps the next day — in his apartment, we were talking literature and I asked him why he was so fond of a certain sentence which appears several times in his works, and what it meant to him.
This is the sentence:
Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved,
Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.
[From St. Augustine of course]
And Beckett said to me: It is not the meaning of this sentence that interests me, it is its shape, its movement. It has perfect symmetry, the way it cancels itself.
And suddenly I realized that it was not the meaning of words that really concerned Beckett, but the shape of language. Therefore, one should not seek meaning in his work but look at the form of his narrative, the shape of his sentences, the movement of his language. One should simply look at the images he has created in his novels and in his plays and not try to ascribe a meaning to these images.
And certainly Beckett, who loved painting so much, who wrote such profound essays on painting, who could explain painting so well to us, whose best friends were painters [Jack Yeats, Avigdor Arikha, Bram van Velde, Jasper Johns, and many others with whom he collaborated] and who could have, himself, been a great painter, became that painter in his written work. He painted beautiful tableaux for us with words rather than with paint.
And so, in early 1970 I went back to the work of Samuel Beckett, no longer as a critic, no longer as an interpreter, but as a writer [in early 1970, I was myself in the process of becoming a novelist], and I started to look at those strange books in a totally different fashion. I looked at them with my senses rather than with my mind, somewhat like a tourist in a museum. I was looking at these works with a kind of bewilderment, a renewed attention, and suddenly I saw before me an entire gallery of marvelous, striking, unforgettable tableaux — the kind of tableaux that remain engraved in your head and haunt you for the rest of your life. Tableaux made of words in the novels and visual tableaux in the plays which, by their construction, their composition, their design, their topology and their geometry gave me more pleasure than the symbolic meaning I and others had previously read into them.
Let us look then — mentally, of course — at some of the tableaux that one can see and admire in Beckett’s novels and plays. Mentally since these tableaux are made of words and as such can be called conceptual, though in the plays the tableaux become visible.
Please follow me [you are allowed to take photographs].
Waiting for Godot: As the lights come up in Act 1 we see, in front of a grey backdrop, a deserted cross-road and a dead tree — nothing more. A new day is beginning. Two derelict figures enter. Unforgettable tableau: the entrance of Gogo and Didi and an attempted embrace by Didi. The entire human drama will be played out here in this space, in this no-man’s land. The futility and absurdity of life, the impossibility and the necessity of waiting.
Of course, we now know the origin of that tableau. Yes, the landscape of Godot was inspired by two paintings of Caspar David Friedrich which can be seen in the museum of the Charlottenburg Castle in Berlin. One of these represents two figures seen from the back standing in some deserted landscape next to a tree looking at the moon. The other also represents two vague figures in the distance at the seashore.
But there are other tableaux in Godot:
- The stunning entrance of Pozzo and Lucky — the master pulling the slave tied at the neck by the end of a long rope.
- Gogo and Didi doing their exercises next to the dead tree.
- Gogo/Didi/Pozzo/Lucky fallen on the ground, incapable of getting up.
- Didi with his pants down trying to use the piece of rope that held his pants up to hang himself.
Imagine these tableaux fixed, frozen in time, as in the performance I saw in 1972. Or imagine them as paintings on the wall of a museum, and you suddenly realize what a great painter, what a great metteur-en-scène Beckett was. For certainly, on the stage of a theater the author and director function very much like painters in the way the scenes of a play are staged. The tableaux in Godot have the quality, the texture of German expressionism.
Even more striking and memorable is the tableau we see as the light comes up on Endgame. [I should point out that Beckett’s plays are never performed with a curtain. The lights initially going down and then gradually returning to light up the stage mark the beginning of a Beckett play. And the light, very much as in a painting, is an integral part of the tableau that we are watching]. In Endgame, as the light comes on we see a room, a totally enclosed space, a chamber. Perhaps the anti-chamber of Purgatory. In the center, Hamm’s chair [his throne]. Before him, two garbage cans containing Hamm’s father and mother. Looked at carefully, this setting suddenly reveals itself to be the interior of a skull — a human skull. [I should mention that the decor for the original French première was designed by Alberto Giacometti, the sculptor of "existential reality".] The two windows on the backdrop represent the empty eyes. And within the chamber other tableaux take shape, when the heads of Nell and Nagg appear out of the trash cans or when Clov is pictured standing on a ladder looking out of the windows with his telescope at the ruins of the world outside, if a world still exists outside this space. The tableaux of Endgame are surrealistic.
The experience of seeing these tableaux for the first time is unforgettable, just as seeing a great painting by Rembrandt or Van Gogh is unforgettable.
[As I speak I assume that all of you are seeing these tableaux mentally, and perhaps remembering the initial reaction or shock you felt when you first saw them].
Here we have Krapp’s Last Tape: The image of the old Krapp, disheveled, half drunk, leaning over his tape recorder, eating a banana, surrounded by the spools of recorded tapes that contain his life and his memories. Another striking picture. A concrete visual rendering of what memories must look like inside the human skull. Beckett’s tableaux are often the exteriorization of what we see inside our heads.
And Happy Days: The disturbing, grotesque and yet almost funny tableau of Winnie buried up to her waist in a mound of earth and, in the second act, to her neck. If you have never seen this play, imagine the shock you will feel when the light reveals this middle-aged woman already half into her tomb holding a parasol over her head and saying casually: Another heavenly day. Allow me to read you the stage directions Beckett gives for this play in order to demonstrate how he carefully draws his tableaux:
Expanse of scorched grass rising center to low mound. Gentle slopes down to front and either side of stage. Back with abrupter fall to stage level. Maximum of simplicity and symmetry. Blazing light. Very pompier trompe-l’oeil backcloth to represent unbroken plain and sky receding to meet in far distance. Imbedded up to above her waist in exact center of mound, Winnie.... [then the text goes on to describe Winnie, the central figure].
Beckett’s tableaux become even more fascinating, more disturbing, but also more funny, in some ways, as they proceed from one work to the next.
In the play entitled Play [Comédie, in French], three human heads appear out of giant urns when the lights come up. In this play, in fact, it is the light, as it moves from one urn to the next, that creates the movement and the drama of this Magritte-like tableau.
The mouth of Not I: Yes, just a mouth in this play that becomes a monstrous creature as the lips and the tongue articulate words. Here one thinks of some of Francis Bacon's paintings.
Then there is the old woman with the crooked hat on her head rocking herself literally to death in Rockaby while she listens to her own voice on tape rattling off the same old story.
And what about the frozen actor perched on a pedestal being manipulated by the metteur-en-scène in Catastrophe. One can feel the pain that actors must endure in the hands of a director who manipulates their well being in order for them to become the characters in a Beckett play.
What is fascinating about all these tableaux is that they also reflect the medium they are representing, in these cases the theater, the art of the theater.
These tableaux and so many others from the plays are haunting, and remain inscribed in our minds after we have seen them, after we have left them, not because they are frightening but rather because they are so real, so true. And therefore it becomes irrelevant to ask, What do they mean, What are they saying to us, just as one does not ask of a great painting, what does it mean — especially not great abstract paintings by Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Motherwell or Rothco, for instance, in which there is "nothing to see but paint".
But it is not only in the plays of Beckett that one sees these magnificent tableaux. They are also in the novels, and are sometimes even more striking here with their originality and their complexity.
In the opening scene of the novel Murphy, we see the protagonist sitting naked and tied with seven scarves to a rocking chair. Here is how Beckett introduces — now famously — this tableau: The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new ... [First, as always in a Beckett tableau, the light.] Murphy sat naked in his rocking-chair of undressed teak, guaranteed not to crack, warp, shrink, corrode, or creak at night ... Seven scarves held him in position. Two fastened his shins to the rockers, one, his thighs to the seat, two held his breast and belly to the back, one tied his wrists to the strut behind ...
Can you see that picture, that absurd canvas? One wonders how or if Murphy managed to tie himself in this fashion. Again a very surrealistic painting.
The final disposal of Murphy’s ashes [after his body, mind and soul have been reduced to chaos by a gas explosion] is an even more absurd surrealistic picture. Without going into the details of how Murphy's ashes ended up in a paper bag, here is what happened:
Some hours later, Cooper took the packet of ash from his pocket where earlier in the evening he had put it for greater security, and threw it angrily at a man who had given him great offence. It bounced and burst off the wall and onto the floor, where at once it became the object of much dribbling, passing, trapping, shooting, punching, heading and even some recognition from the gentleman’s code. By closing time the body, mind and soul of Murphy were freely distributed over the floor of the saloon, and before another dayspring greyened the earth, had been swept away with the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit.
This scene, this comic tableau is so visual, so concrete in its absurdity that I don't think it needs to be further explicated. It's almost cartoon-like.
The house of Mr. Knott in Watt, inside of which objects are not what they appear to be and where words no longer coincide with objects, is full of striking tableaux. Watt himself, the protagonist, when he first appears looks like a roll of tarpaulin wrapped in dark paper and tied about the middle with a cord. Later there is Watt in an insane asylum, wearing his jacket backward and speaking backward. Then Watt lying in a ditch listening to frogs croak. The novel is full of such absurd surrealistic pictures.
Bicycles are standard props in Beckett tableaux. The pseudo-couple Mercier and Camier, as they are referred to in the novel by that name, make a rather curious picture as they walk along with their bicycle, one holding on to the handle-bar, the other to the seat.
Or in the story entitled The Calmative, the cyclist who crosses the landscape of the city from East to West, riding his bicycle while reading a newspaper. Here is how the unnamed protagonist of this story describes the scene: I only saw one cyclist! He was going the same way as I was. He was pedaling slowly in the middle of the street, reading a newspaper which he held with both hands spread open before his eyes. Every now and then he rang his bell without interrupting his reading. I watched him recede till he was no more than a dot on the horizon.
This type of scene may not add much meaning to the story, but it is the accumulation of such tableaux that creates the Beckettian landscape. Perhaps the greatest Beckettian tableau is the portrait of Molloy: In his greatcoat with his bowler hat tied to the button hole of his coat with a shoelace. Of Molloy dragging himself along on his crutches. Molloy trying to slash his wrists with his pocket knife that does not cut. Molloy, that grandiose Beckettian figure, crawling on the ground pulling himself forward with his crutches.
And of Molloy in his mother’s bed. Beckett does not tell us if he is wearing a night bonnet but in the tableau that I have in my own head of him in his mother’s bed — Molloy "becoming" his own mother — I see him with such a night bonnet and a long white nightgown.
And there is also the marvelous tableau of the pathetic Malone in his bed pulling his possessions towards him with a hook at the end of a long stick.
And The Unnamable — ah, the incredible tableau of The Unnamable — fixed in space like a sun, tears running down his face and with all of Beckett’s previous creatures orbiting like planets around him. They are all there: Murphy, Molloy, Malone and the pseudo-couple Mercier & Camier. What a sublime surrealistic painting. There is also in the same novel, Worm, planted in a pot in front of a restaurant with the menu stuck on top of his head.
And Pim & Pam & Pem crawling naked in the mud of How It Is with a sack full of sardine and tuna fish cans tied around their necks. Salvador Dali could not have done better. These are indeed striking images. And there are so many others.
Certain paintings — I mean now, real paintings by the great masters, those hanging in museums — once we have seen them can never be forgotten: The two young boys of Carravagio eating grapes. The self-portrait of Rembrandt wearing a turban. Velasquez’s La Meninas. El Greco’s elongated figures. Courbet’s The Origin of the World. Cézanne’s The Luberon Mountain. Van Gogh’s sunflower or his green Christ or the three pairs of shoes. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Clyfford Still’s Black Canvas and so many other such great paintings that stay with us even though others may be our favorites. Standing in front of these paintings it is the form, the composition, the colors that move us and stay with us rather than the represented subject and the meaning of that subject, if there is a subject.
This is even more so when looking at an abstract painting. It is the geometry, the colors or lack of colors that touches us since there is no real subject, no story, no melodrama in the painting and therefore no reference to the real world.
All of Beckett’s novels and plays are made of such tableaux — strange, somber, sad, often absurd, disturbing and yes, funny, but always beautifully constructed tableaux. The work of Samuel Beckett is extremely visual. That is why even some of his fiction has been adapted to the stage, for example, The Lost Ones.
As one follows the evolution of these tableaux in Beckett’s work, one discovers that it parallels the evolution of painting in the 20th century. From neo-impressionism, to expressionism, to cubism, to surrealism, to abstract expressionism, to the optic and geometric experiments in the plastic arts of the last few decades — all these modes and styles of painting are present in Beckett’s own tableaux. From the concrete to the abstract. From realism and surrealism to unrealism and abstract geometry.
This visual deconstruction and reconstruction of the world is performed in three movements, three precise Beckettian periods, as one says of the various styles of an artist.
The first period consists of the works written [but not necessarily published] between 1929 and 1945, the early works written in English: The surrealist period.
The second and central period — and the most important and richest — embraces the works written between 1945 and 1965 and includes the shift to the French language and the experiments in theater: The abstract expressionist period.
The third period – 1965 to 1989 – consists of the later shorter works in both fiction and for the theater: The minimalist and conceptualist period.
I call the first period "the lies of reality." More Pricks than Kicks, Murphy and Watt — all of which undermine the conventions of realism — are the major works of that period.
The second period represents "the truths of fiction." Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable and Texts for Nothing, but also Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape, are the major works here — works that gradually become more and more self-reflexive and non-referential.
The works of the third period point to "the impossibility of fiction" — these are all the later texts and short plays. For fiction Enough, Imagination Dead Imagine, Ping, The Lost Ones, Ill Seen Ill Said, Company, Worstward Ho, Lessness, Stirrings Still, and in the theater Not I, Ghost Trio, Ohio Impromptu, What Where, Catastrophe and the magnificent Quads, 1 and 2.
In these later works, literature becomes more and more conceptual as it empties itself of its own subject — no more fable, no more story, no more anecdote.
Whether working in fiction or in the theater, the evolution of Beckett’s tableaux in words undergoes the same changes, the same transformation, the same form of deconstruction as takes place in some paintings, moving from the concrete to the abstract to become, finally, pure geometry, pure visual poetry, as in Quad 1 & 2.
It is interesting to note the relationship of Beckett’s theater to his fiction. It seems that every time he found himself cornered into a fictional impasse, every time he pushed the work of fiction further into abstraction by removing from it the traditional elements of fiction such as plot, character and setting as well as story, he needed to step back somewhat to be able go forward again, and that’s when he would write a play. After he finished Malone Dies in 1947, he wrote Waiting for Godot. [I’m giving here the English titles but these were written first in French]. After he wrote the thirteen Texts For Nothing in 1950, which are the ultimate deconstruction of fiction, Beckett stepped back again and wrote Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape. After he finished How It Is he wrote Play.
Basically, what all this accounts for is that Beckett’s fiction pushed the monologue further and further into aloneness and lessnessness, and in order to be able to go on he needed to return to the dialogue, essential to theater even if there is only one character on stage as in Krapp’s Last Tape [the tape recorder being the interlocutor] or the voice on tape in Eh Joe and in Rockaby, whereby the character dialogues with himself or herself.
There are two key works in the evolution of Beckett’s oeuvre which serve as transition between the three periods that I have indicated:
Mercier & Camier [the first novel Beckett wrote in French in 1945-46], and
Comment C’est [published in 1961] English translation, How It Is .
Mercier & Camier marks not only the passage from English into French but also the passage from a third person narrative to the first person; the passage from the city landscape to the countryside landscape; and the passage from surrealistic to expressionistic tableaux — from the concrete to the abstract.
Let us look more closely at some of these tableaux.
The novels and stories of the first period are situated in still recognizable settings: a city landscape, Dublin, London. Streets are named, houses are pictured, even nature is described — albeit ironically. But rather than realistic depictions, the "staging", one might say, these scenes are surreal. Of course Beckett was writing this fiction during the 1930's when Surrealism was the dominant mode in art.
In More Pricks Than Kicks, for instance, the scene where we see the drunken protagonist, Belacqua Shuah, lying in the middle of the street, curled up in the fetal position in his own vomit, is a true surrealistic tableau. Or when Belacqua and his girl friend, Ruby, attempt a double suicide on top of a mountain while getting drunk on Irish whiskey and eventually make love rather than killing themselves is again a very surrealistic tableau.
And I have already mentioned Murphy tied naked with seven scarves to his rocking chair, and the remnants of Murphy being sweep away with the dirt on the floor of a pub at the end of the novel.
I hope you have noticed that I am not trying to make comparisons between Beckett’s tableaux and existing paintings, though as James Knowlson has pointed out in his biography of Beckett, Damned to Fame, one could certainly find sources in museums for some of Beckett’s visual inventions.
The tableaux in the novel Watt bring us to the brink of disintegration of reality and meaning. There is, in fact, a painting in that novel — an actual painting — that puzzles Watt to the point of bringing tears of incomprehension to his eyes.
The painting that is described in the novel may be Beckett's best explanation of his own work, and Watt’s puzzlement in front of that painting corresponds to the confusion a reader may feel confronting Beckett’s work. It is worth quoting the entire passage in order to give a better sense of how Beckett reveals, not without some verbal playfulness and humor, the aesthetics of his own work as an artiste-peintre, while at the same time warning us not to wonder too much about its meaning nor to try and see more than there is before our eyes:
The only other object in Erskine’s room was a picture, hanging on the wall, from a nail. A circle, obviously described by a compass, and broken at its lowest point, occupied the middle foreground, of this picture. Was it receding? Watt had that impression. In the eastern background appeared a point, or dot. The circumference was black. The point was blue, but blue! The rest was white. How the effect of perspective was obtained Watt did not know. But it was obtained. By what means the illusion of movement in space and, it almost seemed, in time was given, Watt could not say. But it was given. Watt wondered how long it would be before the point and the circle entered together upon the same plane.
Or had they not done so already, or almost? And was it not rather the circle that was in the background, and the point that was in the foreground? Watt wondered if they had sighted each other, or were blindly flying thus, harried by some force of merely mechanical mutual attraction, or the playthings of chance. He wondered if they would eventually pause and converse, and perhaps even mingle, or keep steadfast on their ways, like ships in the night, prior to the invention of wireless telegraphy. Who knows, they might even collide.
And he wondered what the artist had intended to represent (Watt knew nothing about painting), perhaps a circle and its centre in search of each other*,in boundless space, in endless time (Watt knew nothing about physics), and at the thought that it was perhaps this, a circle and a centre not its centre in search of a center and its circle respectively, in boundless space, in endless time, then Watt’s eyes filled with tears that he could not stem, and they flowed down his fluted cheeks unchecked, in a steady flow, refreshing him greatly.
or a circle and its centre in search of a centre and a circle respectively, or a circle and its centre in search of its centre and a circle respectively, or a circle and its centre in search of a centre and its circle respectively, or a circle and a centre not its centre in search of its centre and its circle respectively, or a circle and a centre not its centre in search of a centre and a circle respectively, or a circle and a centre not its centre in search of its centre and a circle respectively, or a circle and a centre not its centre in search of a centre and its circle respectively,
Watt wondered how this picture would look upside down, with the point west and the breach north, or on its right side, with the point north and the breach east, or on its left side, with the point south and the breach west.
This displacement of the center of the circle from the circumference already suggests what will happen in Beckett’s fiction and theater of the second and third periods. When the Beckettian creatures leave the city to wander in a kind of no-man’s land, one could say that they find themselves de-centered or displaced in a nature morte, to use a term of the plastic arts. A dead deserted nature.
This is confirmed by the text entitled Imagination Dead Imagine, which opens with these words:
No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead, good, imagination dead imagine. Islands, waters, azure, verdure, one glimpse and vanished, endlessly, omit.
No trace of life, no more nature. Beckett’s fiction, very much like abstract painting, eliminates the subjects from his work, the traditional subjects of painting: Man and Nature. The little that is left of Man and Nature is perhaps best seen in the striking tableau of the novel How It Is where naked bodies crawl like reptiles in a landscape of mud.
Little by little then, Beckett’s fiction moves towards total reduction and abstraction but not to end in a vacuum or descend into total silence, as so many critics have suggested, but rather to become pure geometry, pure visual poetry.
All the later texts of Beckett situate themselves in geometric spaces. The two bodies of Imagination Dead Imagine each occupy half of the same circle. The body in Ping is situated inside a cupola. The naked bodies of The Lost Ones are within a giant cylinder. The old lady of Company is contained in a cube [a house] surrounded by a circle [the garden]. One finds a similar geometry in the later short plays, Come & Go, Happy Days, Not I, Catastrophe, Quad I & Quad II.
I hope I have succeeded in showing you how the evolution of Beckett’s work, from 1929 to 1989, follows that of the plastic arts of the same period.
The first tableaux correspond, to a great extent, to the paintings of the 1930's — neo-impressionism, cubism, surrealism — and certainly there is a resemblance between the tableaux Beckett created with words in his early novels and the paintings of Magritte, Delvaux, de Chirico, Dali and other surrealist artists.
Following World War Two, humanity was confronted with both a crisis of conscience and, especially, a crisis of communication — the difficulty inherent in trying to explain and reconcile such barbaric acts taking place in a supposedly civilized society. The result was that the arts moved towards abstraction, briefly emptying themselves of their traditional subjects: Man and Nature in painting and sculpture, the melody in music, and the anecdote in literature.
It was as if the arts wanted to get rid of the illusions that had sustained them and, in so doing, to re-examine their own medium — in the case of literature its own language, that "rumor transmissible ad infinitum in either direction".
Shortly thereafter, though, by the end of the 1960's and into the 1970's, without rejecting abstraction completely, the arts reconstituted themselves into geometrical and optical forms, into conceptualism and minimalism. The short texts that Beckett wrote towards the end of his life, as well as the short plays, are in fact minimalistic and conceptual, but especially geometrical.
The best example of this is the mouth of Not I, especially as it was viewed on television. The bodiless mouth that becomes a monstrous organism is perhaps the most striking of Samuel Beckett's tableaux. I don’t know how many of you have seen this play but I can assure you that once you do, you will never forget this tableau.
I don’t think I am mistaken when I say that the literary work of Beckett parallels the evolution of painting of the last 70 years or so, and his own interest in painting is evinced by his profound essays on abstract expressionism and the work of Bram van Velde, Masson, Kandanski, Tal Coat, Jack Yeats, Avigdor Arikha and others, in which essays he insists on what he calls the dual confrontations of l’objet-obstacle and l’oeil-obstacle.
What he means is that the object itself prevents us from seeing it clearly, and that the eye itself is an obstacle to clear perception of the object. Beckett calls this "the agony of perceived-ness", which he exemplified so well in the film he made appropriately called Film, starring Buster Keaton. This agony of perceived-ness brings us back to the definition Beckett gave of language: Language is what gets us where we want to go and prevents us from getting there. Language as a vehicle of communication and as an obstacle to communication.
If it is true, as I hope I have shown, that Beckett’s work parallels that of painting, one could also better appreciate the entire oeuvre of Beckett by following the evolution of music over the past 70 years, and of course the same applies to the evolution of philosophical thought and criticism during this same period. The work of Beckett can be understood in the light of Bergson’s Evolutionism, Heiddeger’s Phenomenology, Sartre’s Existentialism, Foucault/Levi-Strauss/Deleuze’s Structuralism and Derrida’s Deconstruction.
It seems that Beckett was present at each moment during this evolution and always sensed what was happening and, in addition, anticipated what was going to happen. This, of course, is true of all great artists. They are always in advance of their time.
I hope that in presenting Beckett to you in this fashion, I did not give you the impression that his work is sad and depressing. Even though, like a magician, he makes the world and the beings who inhabit it disappear gradually from his work over time and — near the end — only the ruins of the world remain along with fragments of the human body [a woman buried to her neck in a mound of dirt; a disembodied mouth; an eye in a circle; a bodiless voice; a body without a voice], nevertheless his work seems to affirm that as long as there is a remnant of life, of breath, of movement, the human creature will continue to seek its place in the world but not necessarily understand the meaning of being in the world.
And so, if one avoids trying to seek the much too evident meaning of Beckett’s work and instead concentrates on the form, the shape, the structure, the geometry of that work, one escapes despair. Personally, I do not see despair, anguish or suffering in Beckett’s work as some critics do. On the contrary, for me his work is always an affirmation of being and of becoming, even if everything in the Beckettian world seems to disintegrate into nothingness and meaninglessness.
If Beckett did not keep the promise he made at the end of one of the Texts for Nothing...
And yet I have high hopes, I give you my word, high hopes. That one day I may tell a story, hear a story, yet another, with men, kinds of men as in the days when I play all regardless or nearly, worked and played.
...if Beckett never told us that story before he changed tense and entered the "long apres", then it is perhaps up to us to now tell it ourselves, to reconstruct the world from the devastated landscapes he has left with us and tell, in the real sense of that word, the story of our passage on this planet. Not to explain that passage but only to make it visible. Beckett certainly gave us a head start in this project, for if one learns anything from reading his work it is not to better understand but to better see, better listen and, especially, to say better and write better. To read the works of Beckett — to look at the magnificent tableaux he has created for us — is to learn to be oneself. It is in this sense that Beckett was a great artist and not the great thinker everyone wanted him to be.
CHRONOLOGY OF SAMUEL BECKETT'S MAJOR WORKS
IN ENGLISH & FRENCH
1929 "Dante...Bruno. Vico..Joyce" (essay) in OUR EXAGMINATION ROUND HIS FACTIFICATION FOR INCAMINATION OF WORK IN PROGRESS
1930 WHOROSCOPE (poem about Descartes)
1931 PROUST (Critical essay)
1932 DREAM OF FAIR TO MIDDLING WOMEN (novel -- unpublished until 1992)
1934 MORE PRICKS THAN KICKS (collection of ten short stories -- reprinted 1970)
1935 ECHO'S BONES AND OTHER PRECIPITATES (cycle of 13 poems)
1938 MURPHY (novel -- French translation 1947)
1947 ELEUTHERIA (three-act play, never performed, published posthumously in 1995 in French and in English)
1951 MOLLOY (novel in French -- English translation 1955)
1951 MALONE MEURT (novel -- English translation, MALONE DIES, 1956)
1952 EN ATTENDANT GODOT (play in two acts -- English translation, WAITING FOR GODOT, 1954)
1953 L'INNOMMABLE (novel -- English translation, THE UNNAMABLE, 1958).
1953 WATT (novel in English -- written 1942-45; French translation 1968)
1955 NOUVELLES ET TEXTES POUR RIEN (3 stories: "L'explusé/ le Calmant/La Fin" written 1946; 13 "Textes pour rien" written 1950 -- English translation, STORIES AND TEXTS FOR NOTHING, 1967)
1956 FROM AN ABANDONED WORK (fragment of an unfinished novel, written 1955 -- French translation, D'UN OUVRAGE ABANDONNÉ, 1967)
1957 FIN DE PARTIE (one-act play -- English translation, ENDGAME, 1958)
1957 ACTE SANS PAROLE I (mime -- English translation, ACT WITHOUT WORDS I, 1958)
1957 ALL THAT FALL (radio play -- French translation, TOUS CEUX QUI TOMBENT, 1957)
1958 KRAPP'S LAST TAPE (play for one character and tape recorder -- French translation, LA DERNIÈRE BANDE,1959)
1959 EMBERS (radio play -- English translation [with Robert Pinget], CENDRES, 1959)
1961 COMMENT C'EST (novel -- English translation, HOW IT IS, 1964)
1961 HAPPY DAYS (play in two acts -- French translation, OH LES BEAUX JOURS, 1964)
1961 POEMS IN ENGLISH (collection of poems)
1962 WORDS AND MUSIC (radio play for two voices with music by John Beckett -- French translation, PAROLES ET MUSIC, 1966)
1963 ACTE SANS PAROLE II (mime, written 1957 -- English translation, ACT WITHOUT WORDS II, 1959)
1963 CASCANDO (radio play for voice and music -- English translation, 1963)
1964 PLAY (one-act play -- French translation, COMÉDIE, 1964. Film adaptation, 1966)
1965 FILM (silent film with Buster Keaton)
1965 COME AND GO (one-act play -- French translation, VA-ET-VIENT, 1966)
1965 IMAGINATION MORTE IMAGINEZ (fiction -- English translation, IMAGINATION DEAD IMAGINE, 1965)
1966 ASSEZ (fiction -- English translation, ENOUGH, 1966)
1966 BING (fiction -- English translation, PING, 1966)
1967 EH JOE (a play for television -- French translation, DIS JOE, 1967)
1968 POÈMES (collected poems in French)
1969 SANS (fiction -- English translation, LESSNESS, 1970)
1969 BECKETT IS AWARDED THE NOBEL PRIZE
1970 MERCIER ET CAMIER (novel, written 1945-46 -- English translation, MERCIER AND CAMIER, 1974)
1970 PREMIER AMOUR (short-story, written 1946 -- English translation, FIRST LOVE, 1973)
1971 LE DÉPEUPLEUR (fiction, written 1966-70 -- English translation, THE LOST ONES, 1972)
1973 NOT I (one-act play for a mouth -- French translation, PAS MOI, 1975)
1973 BREATH (dramaticule, 30 seconds -- French translation, SOUFFLE, 1973)
1976 POUR FINIR ENCORE ET AUTRES FOIRADES (fiction -- English translation, FOR TO END YET AGAIN & FIZZLES, 1976)
1976 THAT TIME/ FOOTFALLS (short plays)
1977 GHOST TRIO (short play)
1977 BUT THE CLOUDS (short play)
1980 COMPANY (fiction -- French translation, COMPAGNIE,1980)
1981 ILL-SEEN, ILL-SAID (fiction -- French translation, MAL-VU, MAL-DIT, 1981)
1981 ROCKABY (one-act play -- French translation, BERCEUSE, 1981)
1981 OHIO IMPROMPTU (short play)
1981 ALL STRANGE AWAY (fiction)
1981 A PIECE OF MONOLOGUE (fiction)
1982 WHAT WHERE (short play)
1982 CATASTROPHE (one-act play -- French translation, 1983)
1983 WORSTWARD HO (fiction -- French translation after Beckett's death, by Edith Fournier, CAP AU PIRE, 1991)
1984 QUAD I & II (videos)
1989 STIRRINGS STILL (fiction -- French translation, SOUBRESAUTS, 1989)
1989 Beckett dies December 22.
[This list does not contain Beckett's essays on paintings, his translations of French poetry into English, and the reviews of books he wrote in the 1930's].
*An alternative way of grasping what Watt wondered:
Perhaps a circle in search of its center and its center in search of its circle or a circle in search of a center and its center in search of a circle or a circle in search of its center and its center in search of a circle or a circle in search of a center and its center in search of its circle or a circle in search of its center and a center not its center in search of its circle or a circle in search of a center and a center not its center in search of a circle or a circle in search of its center and a center not its center in search of a circle or a circle in search of a center and a center not its center in search of its circle.
Adapted from the original lecture, named The Imaginary Museum of Samuel Beckett, posted at: