Beckett, Samuel.  (1906 - 1989)

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 Domain: Literature.
 Novelist, Playwright, Poet
 Active 1931 - 1989 in Ireland, France, Continental Europe, England, Britain, Europe
 This essay written by Paul Davies, University of Ulster at Coleraine
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Samuel Beckett's work has extended the possibilities of drama and fiction in unprecedented ways, bringing to the theatre and the novel an acute awareness of the absurdity of human existence – our desperate search for meaning, our individual isolation, and the gulf between our desires and the language in which they find expression. Educated in Ireland, North and South, he settled afterwards in Paris and produced his fiction and drama in English and French, translating himself out of the language in which he first wrote each text. Having begun literary life as a modernist and promoter of the reputations of Proust and Joyce, in the years before and after the Second World War he found his own voice (“began to write what I feel”) and continued to develop this voice unstintingly and without compromise until the year of his death.

Born into a fairly prosperous Dublin Protestant household in 1906, he attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, excelling at sport and languages, and later studied French and Italian at Trinity College Dublin. He got on well with his father Bill Beckett, a quantity surveyor, and suffered badly at the time of Bill's death in 1933; this year Beckett's cousin Peggy Sinclair, with whom he had been intimate, also died. His tortured relationship with his mother, May, influenced him long before and long after her death in 1950, and his writing bears traces throughout of that unreconciled relationship of dependency, respect and antagonism. Perhaps overshadowed by this long-drawn-out crisis, Beckett's relations with women were complex and often abortive. Joyce's daughter Lucia became attached to Beckett and he was expected to respond but did not; and there is evidence that he was reluctantly involved with Peggy Guggenheim in the early Paris days. Many more such affairs followed in later years too. A recurrent pattern emerged by which his initially charming personality withdrew at the prospect of a serious or intimate involvement. During his postgraduate years he thought of becoming an academic, taught French literature for a short time at Trinity College Dublin, but abandoned several other opportunities. His postgraduate studies in Paris resulted in a brilliant dissertation on Proust, published soon afterwards, which, along with his growing interest in Schopenhauer, holds fascinating keys to understanding all the works as yet unwritten. Thereafter his decision to devote himself to writing, no matter how little immediate success his early work met with, was to be ultimately vindicated; amongst the honours later accorded him was the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.

During the 1930s Beckett also spent a good deal of time in London, and these periods form the backdrop to his novel Murphy (1936-38). Seeking an explanation for his depression and other psychosomatic problems he undertook a course of Jungian psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic under Wilfrid Bion, and while ultimately uncertain whether this therapy had succeeded, Beckett remembered for the rest of his life a lecture of Jung's which he attended on the subject of the “never properly born”. The lecture had direct repercussions in Beckett's subsequent work, especially Watt, Waiting for Godot, and All that Fall which reports the end of the lecture more or less word for word. During the Second World War Beckett, now settled in France and partnered with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, worked as a courier for the French Resistance, and retreating to a barn in Roussillon, concealed himself from detection. During this time he wrote Watt, “to stay sane”. The rest of Beckett's life, apart from intermittent trips in Europe and the USA to direct his plays (and regular Christmas breaks in Tangier) was spent in Paris, where he and Suzanne had a flat, and in a small house in Ussy-sur-Marne—built by Beckett himself—in which he secluded himself for writing. The extent of his devotion to the visual arts and music as well as to literature has only recently become evident from, for example, the diaries he wrote during a period of wandering in Germany in the 1930s, making the acquaintance of artists and art dealers. He was also a close friend of Alberto Giacometti, Bram Van Velde and Avigdor Arikha.

According to some sources, while he grew mellower in later life, and his personal relationships grew more stable, his alcohol intake did not. Notoriously reclusive in relation to the press and media, Beckett was nevertheless spoken of by personal associates as friendly, gracious, humorous and compassionate, and while his travels to Ireland abruptly ended following his mother's death, he was conspicuously hospitable to his Irish friends at all times when they came to Paris.

His work falls into two main periods, before and after Waiting for Godot (written around 1950). The latter period brought Beckett international and time-consuming eminence in theatre, radio and television, and he concentrated more and more on the search for dramatic minimalism, writing—in an ever shorter, more distilled style—plays (dramaticules) and prose (micronarratives), often only amounting to a few pages, or less, of text. The pre-Godot period, when Beckett was finding his way as a writer and virtually unknown, yields much more variety but less even quality of creative output. He began with a long, rambling novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, with homages and burlesques directed to Proust and Joyce, and thinly veiled autobiographical references which got him into trouble with friends and family. This experimental work was excerpted as More Pricks than Kicks (short stories) in 1934 and only published in full posthumously (1992), some say against Beckett's wishes. Along with some poetry and sporadic literary journalism, Beckett's main further achievements in the pre-Godot period were the comic novel Murphy (1938); the extraordinarily unclassifiable and baffling novel Watt (written 1941-5, published 1953); and just before Godot, the unsurpassed trilogy of novels Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable (written 1947-50, published 1951-55) which together stand as his greatest, certainly his most sustained, prose work, and comprehensively define his essential themes and preoccupations. At this point Beckett was catapulted into celebrity in 1952 by the first production of En attendant Godot (1952) / Waiting for Godot (1953), a play which stages two tramps in conversation about the awaited Godot who never arrives. This was followed shortly after by Fin de partie (1957) / Endgame (1958), dramatizing the master-servant relationship (or the married couple) in darkly existential and comic terms. In effect, when Beckett became a household name through these two plays, his art became suddenly iconic and, possibly, commodified. Certainly the later works embody a complex mix of self-quotation, self-reflection, even self-parody, while maintaining a rigorously disinterested and serious exploration of the problems (both in form and technique and as regards human psychological and spiritual makeup) which had preoccupied his early and middle life.

The fifties and early sixties saw Beckett writing innovative shorter plays, notably Krapp's Last Tape, half of which is spoken by Krapp, and the other half listened-to from a diary-tape of Krapp's younger days, with interpolations from the older Krapp as he spools forward and back. All That Fall, for radio, concentrates for the first time on a female character; and Beckett's staging of a suburban wife on holiday buried up to her neck in sand in Happy Days, his last full-length play, does the same, though he is probably better known for immortalising the figure of the solitary male vagrant, and this mainly through the trilogy of novels.

Major landmarks in the later Beckett begin with the one-hundred page “anti-novel” Comment C'est / How It Is (1961), written in unpunctuated, unparagraphed gobbets of prose, reading somewhat like particularly resonant, poetic, yet precise telegrams. This type of writing he was to develop into many experimental dramatic texts too, notably That Time and Not I. Prose and drama kept flowing concurrently, with a period in the 60s and early 70s in which Beckett obsessively explored the theme of human encavernment, consigning his human figures to known and also unfamiliar containers—urns, pots, holes in the ground, boxes, windowless cylindrical chambers. His final and shocking mutation of this theme, “Imagination Dead Imagine” (1966), brought him notoriety and praise once again; this time for having created a modern myth, the appalling proposition that the culmination of Western materialist philosophy can only mean the human consciousness confined to the skull and nowhere else. A later work takes this “infernal” perception further still: “One dim black hole mid-foreskull. Inletting all. Outletting all” (Worstward Ho, 1984). He also exposes the dangerously double meaning of “enclosure” for the human spirit: the box or room is at once the cherished home-place and the prison, to escape from which—lacking company or not—is the only human desire. His last works, both fictional and dramatic, seek not to confirm but to dissolve the boundaries of this Cartesian box.

The 1980s, Beckett's last years, brought something of a late flowering, with three extraordinary short novels, Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, and Worstward Ho, (1979-84) regarded by experts as the culmination of his efforts both to distil and to de-realize the prose medium, and a powerful micro-drama, Ohio Impromptu (1982), which, foundering in the attempt to depict a failed marriage, equates the “profounds of mind” with those of “mindlessness”. Beckett died after deteriorating health just before Christmas 1989.

Beckett was motivated to protest against the prescriptive and limiting nature of “realist” conventions both in art and in human behaviour, relationships and political life. He called the entirety of these factors “the hypnosis of positivism”, and his life-work could be said to have run its course in pursuit of dispelling this hypnosis. The major change wrought by Beckett in the tradition of prose fiction was to eviscerate the formerly sure and reliable notions of character, location, culture and narrative convention (in a manner comparable to composer Anton Webern's contraction of the classical orchestral symphony into a five-minute episode of music studded with silence). In theatre likewise, Beckett proved that compelling drama could be made from breaking, not following, the accepted laws of incident, characterisation and dramatic context. His plays, from Eleutheria (1947) through to the 1980s shorts, forbid a “realist” style of performance and interpretation. The human beings presented to the audience are recalcitrantly anonymous and impossible to scrutinize as “rounded” personalities; if anything, their only realist function is to depict the dereliction of conventional personality which follows (in small or large measure) the experience of disillusionment.

His work has been described by himself and others as an art of impoverishment, an art of failure. Far from meaning that his stories, novels and plays are nihilistic, pessimistic and depressing, this description rather refers to Beckett's lifelong suspicion of the tools of cultural competency which the twentieth century inherited from liberal humanist constructions of human self-identity. Like Jung's depth psychology, and like esoteric psychologies such as Buddhism (but without ever identifying itself with these or others), Beckett's work seeks a different location for the human psyche than that of the realist fiction and drama writer, and a different constitution of esteem from that of the capitalist, whether this be a capitalism of economics or of cultural appropriations. Once the accretions of class, nationality, education, gender and culture have been stripped away by the technical art of “indigence”, and the poetry of a physical and psychical vagrancy, the remaining consciousness recorded by Beckett's texts is left with the capacity of unconditioned witnessing. His life and art have this intention in common; he left Ireland, and the Ireland of his mother, and the language of his education, and the scaffolding of human worth assumed in the Western education system, in order not to be swallowed by their limitations; and he transmuted these abandonments into a devastating critique of a culture of dictatorship (hard and soft) and the tyranny of false values. In part owing to these qualities, his work appears to have survived and transcended all attempts to categorise it or assimilate it into traditions such as Existentialism, Modernism, or the Absurdist movements with which Beckett was provisionally associated in the sixties and seventies. His work has been intensely and internationally studied by critics, produced on stage and TV, and continues to be greeted with more or less equal proportions of fascination, devotion and horror.

From The Literary Encyclopedia: http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5161

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