NTRY 1.2: literary e-zine

Beckett Bethicketted

Dr. Stephen Dilks

Lawrence Harvey, who became good friends with Beckett during the sixties, was one of the first critics to take Beckett's poetry seriously. In Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic (1970), he published and analyzed many early poems. [1] But, perhaps out of generosity to Beckett, out of sensitivity to the aging writer's embarrassment at the derivative nature of his early poems, Harvey downplays Joyce's influence. He tells us that

Like Joyce, Beckett was a gifted "wordman." His meeting and acquaintance with the master in Paris during the years when he was a lecteur at the Ecole Normale heightened this natural predisposition. (273)

Harvey chooses to overlook the obvious fact that Beckett's "natural" wordmanship had developed during the twenties, when Joyce's Ulysses was the modern Irish novel (we know from Bair that Beckett had read the novel before he met Joyce). While emphasizing that Beckett was already "Like Joyce" when they met, Harvey also limits Beckett's debt to Joyce to the period before 1932, arguing that "Home Olga" (1932), which I analyze below, was "the young poet's farewell to Joycean virtuosity" (273). As early as 1932 Beckett knew that he would never be a successful independent writer if he did not "get over J.J." But he continued to produce ultra-Joycean texts like "Text" (1932) and "Home Olga" (1932). His struggle to swerve away from Joyce's influence produced much of the prose that was published in More Pricks Than Kicks (published by Chatto and Windus in 1934, republished in 1972 by Grove Press, with Beckett's reluctant permission). Murphy, written while Beckett was being psychoanalyzed by the Jungian Dr. Rupert Bion, dramatizes a failed struggle to gain independence.

Early in his career, Beckett consciously entangled himself in Joyce's method. Joyce, perhaps the most powerful figure in the avant-garde of writers in English when Beckett met him in 1929, encouraged the devotion of his fellow Dubliner. The parts of Finnegans Wake that allude to Beckett seem to lure him into Joyce's fold. In the following passage Joyce seems to adumbrate Beckett's early reaction to his text at the same time that he offers advice about how to read its complexities [2]:

...the farther back we manage to wiggle the more we need the loan of a lens to see as much as the hen saw. Tip. You is feeling like you was lost in the bush, boy? You says: It is a puling sample jungle of woods. You most shouts out: Bethicket me for a stump of a beech if I have the poultriest notions what the farest he all means. Gee up, girly! The quad gospellers may own the targum but any of the Zingari shoolerim may pick a peck of kindlings yet from the sack of auld hensyne. (112)

An extended analysis of this passage demonstrates what Beckett was trying to get over when he vowed to "get over J.J." in his note to George Putnam in 1932.

We all need "the loan of a lens" in our efforts to see where we are in Finnegans Wake; we can use this passage as a lens to see where Beckett's early texts stood in relation to Joyce's text. Even the most sophisticated readers have experienced the irritated confusion that comes from the book's resistance to interpretation. Derrida, for example, confesses that "'not having begun to read' is sometimes the most singular and active relationship I have with this work." For Derrida, "reading" Finnegans Wake is like taking an "endless plunge" that "throws you back onto the river-bank, on the brink of another possible immersion, ad infinitum" (Attridge and Ferrer, 148). This metaphor neatly encapsulates the frustrating but addictive difficulty in Joyce's text, but it emphasizes the "unjustifiable violence which the situation imposes on us" (152) over the pleasure of the text. The passage, however patronizingly ("boy"), offers a "lens to see as much as the hen saw," to see with all-round vision. It offers a "Tip" that might enable "You" to achieve peace in the midst of the war-like babble that the text records: despite the war in the text, the "Zingari shoolerim" might draw some good fellowship from the well of human kindness.

Beckett's suggestion that Joyce's "writing is not about something; it is that something itself" (Disjecta, 27) encourages us to read Finnegans Wake as a literal and figurative wilderness. The text, like the natural world that produced it, is a jumble of words clumped together into sections (a "jungle of woods"), populated by birds ("the poultriest notions"). Like dense undergrowth ("bush"), the text conceals its meaning, seducing, or pulling ("puling"), the reader to go astray by using words ("woods") and birds ("pullet") that whine ("pule"), goading us on ("You most," "Gee up") with examples ("sample[s]") that seem to make sense but that only entangle us further. The text mixes metaphors, puns, and neologisms so that we feel "lost in the bush."

Our entanglement in the wilderness of Finnegans Wake is exemplified by the neologism "Bethicket." This word condenses a range of possible meanings and reinforces a diversity of possible syntactic interpretations. Joyce seems to allude to Beckett, creating a portmanteau word that melds "Beckett" with "thicket" (continuing the undergrowth metaphor), "thick" (adding mental density to floral density), "Beth" (introducing a religious note to the cry for help, anticipating "gospellers" and "targum"), and that suggests both "cricket" and "wicket" (linking Beckett to his favorite game, adding another twist to "stump"), as well as "bethink" and "bethank." As a single word "Bethicket" contains the confusion that its context suggests. On the one hand, "Bethicket me for a stump of a beech" has the sound of a proverbial expletive that might mean something like "I'll be damned" or "Well, I'll be a son of a gun." In this context "poultriest" puns on the word "paltriest," as in "insignificant" or "worthless." Accordingly we understand the sentence to mean that the task of deciphering "what he all means" is impossible. But the phrase also works as a plea for help, the speaker asking to be "bethicketted" in exchange for his development of "the poultriest notions." The reader is advised to seek knowledge as a way out of ignorance. In this sense "poultriest" is not a pun: it means "the most bird-like." The narrator advises the lost reader to announce ("You most shouts out") that s/he is in the bush as a bird is in the bush, in accord with its "puling" (a participle form of "pullet"--a young bird), at home in the "puling sample jungle of woods."

"Bethicket me" works both as a request for entrance to the text and as a "Tip" about how to gain access to it. The writer's advice to the reader "lost in the bush" is consistent with the "Negative Capability" ("no-tions") that Keats expressed in the metaphor of a sparrow picking at gravel: "if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince (sic) and pick about the Gravel." [3] Instead of seeking a way out of the "woods" (words), "You" are advised to accept your place among them, roosting in the thicket, getting beyond the kind of "admiring resentment" that, Derrida says, keeps "you on the edge of reading Joyce" (148). Instead of beating around the bush, as Derrida does so well, one should nest alongside the symbolic birds that inhabit the metaphoric bush, "being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." [4] As Joyce writes in the next paragraph: "Lead, kindly fowl! They always did: ask the ages. What bird has done yesterday man may do next year....For her socioscientific sense is sound as a bell" (112).

The importance of this passage in defining the way that Joyce pulled ("puled") Beckett into his jungle of words becomes clearer when we consider the significance of birds in Joyce's conception of the artist's mind. Stephen Dedalus's meditation on birds in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (202-204) is essential to the neo-Romantic side of Joyce's aesthetic enterprize .[5] Twenty pages before this meditation Stephen refuted an Irish Nationalist's position thus: "When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets" (184). This image of freedom, which recurs in the final lines of the book, is developed while Stephen stands on the steps of the library. His eyes are soothed by the flight of swallows "circling about a temple of air," while his ears are soothed by their cries, "shrill and clear and fine and falling like threads of silken light unwound from whirring spools." Lulled by these migrant birds, Stephen meditates on

Swedenborg on the correspondence of birds to things of the intellect and of how the creatures of the air have their knowledge and know their times and seasons because they, unlike man, are in the order of their life and have not perverted that order by reason.

From here his mind wanders to

A sense of fear of the unknown..., a fear of symbols and portents, of the hawklike man whose name he bore soaring out of his captivity on osierwoven wings, of Thoth, the god of writers, writing with a reed upon a tablet and bearing on his narrow ibis head the cusped moon.

And, realizing that he recalls Thoth because of an Irish oath, Dedalus asks whether this folly will exile him from "the house of prayer and prudence into which he had been born and the order of life out of which he had come." He then likens himself to the swallows, taking them as a symbol of his own future flight, overcoming his fear of symbolism and omens: "Then he was to go away for they were birds ever going and coming, building ever an unlasting home under the eaves of men's houses and ever leaving the homes they had built to wander." This brings him to the dying words of The Countess Cathleen in Yeats's first play, the play produced in 1892 that heralded the beginning of the Irish National Theatre and of the Irish Renaissance. Dedalus experiences "A soft liquid joy" because the birds tell him that he must, like The Countess Cathleen, sacrifice his own soul in order to save the soul of Ireland: in the passage under consideration from Finnegans Wake we might read this as a Joycean tip to Beckett, a fellow non-Nationalist Irishman and artist.

Returning to the passage from the Wake, we find a metaphor that complements and complicates the bird metaphor. Joyce seems to defend his text by suggesting that it puts all readers on a level with "any of the Zingari shoolerim." In an image that recalls to mind Beckett's own "wanderjahre," the restless, unsatisfying wanderings through France and Germany alluded to in "Gnome" (1934), Joyce suggests that the reader in general and Beckett in particular might get something out of the text by becoming like a wandering vagrant ("Zingari" are gypsies; "shooler," associated with the Irish "siubhlach"--walkers--are vagrants), searching around (the suffix "rim" implies the circular pattern described in "Dante...Bruno.Vico.. Joyce") in the undergrowth with the birds ("peck") for material ("kindlings") that might help the world go round ("kindlings" refers both to the wood that begins a fire or that might be used for a nest and to children, uniting destruction and creation a la Vico). [6]

Both "the Zingari shoolerim" and the "birds of interpretation," as Beckett called them in his letter to Axel Kaun in 1937, [7] are equally at home in their instinctive understanding of the "puling sample jungle of woods" that is Finnegans Wake. The "quad gospellers" (who Joyce refers to elsewhere as "Mattheehew, Markeehew, Lukeehew, Johnheehewheehew"--399--, thus suggesting the bird-like "puling" or crying of their texts) may have established the meaning and authority of the biblical text, shaping "the targum" out of a confused set of oral narratives, but theirs is not the only valid method for constructing meaning out of "the sack of auld hensyne": indeed, their interpretive authority stifles one's interpretive freedom. [8] Joyce reinforces this narrative point by harmonizing the end of the passage with the second half of the chorus of "Auld Lang Syne": "We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,/ For [the sake of] [9] auld lang syne." Joyce's "auld hensyne," his historic ensign, his ancient bird-sign, his personalized language, liberates "auld lang syne." By a process of association that assumes the correspondence between the flight of birds and "things of the intellect" (Portrait, 203), Joyce misreads a popular song into a distinctly personal realm of understanding. By doing so, he transforms a generic expression of friendship into an intimate embrace.

Published in 1786 in Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect and sung across the western world to welcome in each new year, "Auld Lang Syne" celebrates "auld acquaintance" and old times in language that is "a puling sample jungle of woods" to the majority of those who sing it. While the New Year's revellers sing "And we'll tak a right gude-willie waught," most do not realize that that is exactly what they have been doing all night. By bouncing off of a song that remains popular despite the fact that it is written in a peripheral dialect, Joyce both justifies and complicates his "peck of kindlings," his splinterful collection of syllables.

Beckett, bethicketted in the attempt to translate the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of "Work in Progress" into French, [10] was besotted by Joyce. As his sycophantic assessment of "Work in Progress" clearly indicates, the young writer elevated Joyce to the realm of the gods. Of course, the expected fruit of Beckett's devotion was that he would, in time, take over from Joyce. Later in Finnegans Wake, in a passage that was probably written after Beckett published More Pricks Than Kicks in 1934 [11] (suggested by"pricksly"), Joyce seemed to say that the young apprentice, "boy," might soon be ready to take over the wheel:

Sam knows miles bettern me how to work the miracle. And I see by his diarrhio he's dropping the stammer out of his silenced bladder since I bonded him off more as a friend and as a brother....And he can cantab as chipper as any oxon ever I mood with, a tiptoe singer! He'll prisckly soon hand tune your Erin's ear for you" (467).

But before he could take the literary helm from Joyce, Beckett had to work his way through Joyce's bethicketted text. There is no doubt that Beckett's first pieces of prose and poetry follow in the wake of Joyce's revolution.


Originally at http://www.und.nodak.edu/org/ntry/sd.html

Dr. Stephen Dilks is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Missouri Kansas City. If you are interested in how his work with Joyce and Beckett intersects with pedagogical concerns, you might take a look at the following essay originally published on-line in Praxis: You can also e-mail him: dilkss@umkc.edu

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