Samuel Beckett and the Importance of Waiting

Although Sam Beckett has been around for a good many years, Roger Blin’s production of Waiting for GodotEn Attendant Godot — at the Théatre Babylone, several years ago in Paris, seems to have, as the fellow said, catapulted him into an international reputation overnight. Tennessee Williams is reported of the opinion that Godot is the greatest play since Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Right off let me say that I agree with him. Furthermore, I think Molloy is the most significant — laying aside the question of greatness — novel published in any language since World War II.

Beckett is so significant, or so great, because he has said the final word to date in the long indictment of industrial and commercial civilization which began with Blake, Sade, Hölderlin, Baudelaire, and has continued to our day with Lawrence, Céline, Miller, and whose most forthright recent voices have been Artaud and Genet.

Now this is not only the mainstream of what the squares call Western European culture — by which they mean the culture of the capitalist era — it is really all the stream there is. Anything else, however gaudy in its day, has proved to be beneath the contempt of history. This is a singular phenomenon. There has been no other civilization in history whose culture-bearers never had a good word to say for it. Sam Beckett — an Irishman who has lived in France and written in French (his books are translated for publication in English) most of his adult life — raises the issue of what is wrong with us with particular violence because his indictment is not only the most thoroughgoing but also the sanest. It is easy enough to write off Lautréamont, who seems to have literally believed that the vulva of the universe was going to gobble him up, or Artaud, who believed that bad little people inhabited his bowels. The cyclone fence around the madhouse is certainly a great comfort. The trouble is that Sam Beckett is on this side of the fence. He is not only an artist of consummate skill who has learned every lesson from everybody who had anything to teach at all — from Lord Dunsany to Marcel Proust and Gertrude Stein (compare the actual plot of Godot with that old little theater chestnut of Dunsany’s called something like The Pearly Gate) — he also has a mind of singular toughness and stability, a mind like an eighteenth-century Englishman, as sly as Gibbon, as compassionate as Johnson, as bold as Wilkes, as Olympian as Fielding. I don’t mean that he is “as good as” a mixture of all these people. I mean he is their moral contemporary. “Courage, sir,” said Johnson to Boswell.

Becket refuses to run off to Africa and die of gangrene, or write childish poems to prostitutes, or even see angels in a tree. If you can drive your prophets mad, you don’t have to bother to crucify them. When a prophet refuses to go crazy, he becomes quite a problem, crucifixion being as complicated as it is in humanitarian America. However, when Godot was put on in Miami, certain critics, no doubt instantly recognizing themselves as two of the leading characters in the play, turned on it with a savagery remarkable even for them. They’re smart, these fellows, smarter than you think. Of course, part of this — the illiterate and vindictive reception of the play and of Beckett’s novel by the majority of American critics, is just Gresham’s Law operating after its accustomed wont — bad money driving out good. It is obvious that if there were twenty Godot-like plays on Broadway and a hundred Molloy-like novels on the counters of the bookshops, a lot of other plays and novels wouldn’t be there.

One of the most remarkable things about the reception of Beckett in America is the large amount of favorable notice he has received — not just in the quarterlies and The Nation, The New Republic, and Commonweal, but in the small-town book columns scattered all over the country. I have just finished reading an envelope of clippings which Barney Rosset of Grove Press was kind enough to send me when I told him I was doing this article. I feel much better than I did after reading the critical welcome of Godot when it opened in Miami. Things are looking up. Voices are being raised. We may painfully crawl over the hump into semicivilization yet.*

[Rexroth footnote in 1959 reprint: *Since this was written, Godot has been put on as a “floor show” in the Crystal Palace in St. Louis, a civilized nightclub run by Jay and Fred Landesman, and has run for a whole season to packed houses in San Francisco. Godot’s popular success, musicians like Charles Mingus, jazz-poetry concerts, and commentators like Mort Sahl have produced a revolution in the entertainment business — “the freak gig, San Francisco style” nightclub. This is enormously profitable — and Variety and Billboard have changed their tune. Former Bowery barrooms now give quartet recitals of Boulez and William Byrd, and there aren’t enough Godots to meet the demand. Unfortunately this great popularity of very highbrow entertainment in small clubs and coffee rooms in the USA or on the BBC has led to a distinct odor of formula — presage of real commercialization. Riesman is only too right.]

The European reception of Beckett in the last couple of years, as you know if you keep up with things over there, has been, to put it mildly, dizzying. He has become an international public figure like Lollobrigida or Khrushchev. Sam Beckett’s first published work was a six-page pamphlet, Whoroscope (Nancy Cunard, the Hours Press, Paris, 1930). This is a poem, like the poems we were all writing then — at least I was, and Louis Zukofsky, and Walter Lowenfels, and a few other people — very disassociated and recombined, with two pages of notes. Its point is that although René Descartes kept his own birthdate to himself so that no astrologer could cast his nativity and believed that an omelet made of eggs more or less than eight days under the hen was disgusting, although he separated spirit and matter and considered man an angel riding a bicycle, mortality caught up with him and the spirit betrayed him — the angel wore out the bicycle and the bicycle abraded the angel. This has remained one of Beckett’s main themes — what is mortality for? And the point of view has never changed. That is, he has carefully pared away from what they call his universe of discourse everything except those questions which cannot be answered. He gives plenty of answers: Pozzo and Lucky in Godot — the sempiternal master and man — are, of course, an answer. And, of course, an irrelevant answer. They owe their existence, as does all the “matter” — in Aristotle’s sense — of Beckett’s art, to their irrelevance.

In 1931, he did a little job of work for Chatto and Windus, a 72-page guide to Proust, a masterpiece of irascible insight worthy to rank with Jonson on Savage. It is one of the very best pieces of modern criticism and it is difficult to resist quoting it extensively. In fact, the best thing to do would be just to throw away everything I’ve written and substitute selected sentences from Beckett on Proust. In the concluding pages, he says, “The quality of language is more important than any system of ethics or aesthetics . . . form is the concretion of content, the revelation of a world. . . . He assimilates the human to the vegetal. . . . His men and women are victims of their volition — active with a grotesque, predetermined activity within the narrow limits of an impure world . . . but shameless. . . . The stasis is contemplative, a pure act of understanding, will-less, the ‘amabilis insania.’ . . . From this point of view, opera is less complete than vaudeville, which at least inaugurates the comedy of an exhaustive enumeration. . . . In one passage, he describes the recurrent mystical experience as a purely musical impression, non-extensive, entirely original, irreducible to any order of impression — sine materia . . . the invisible reality that damns the life of the body on earth as a pensum and reveals the meaning of the word defunctus.” The most cursory reading of five pages of Molloy or Godot will reveal the present significance of these words in the practice of Beckett himself.

Murphy (London, 1938; Paris, 1947; New York, 1957) went unnoticed in the blizzard of “social” literature. It is the story of the quest for the person in terms of the quest for a valid asceticism. At the end Murphy has not found himself because he has not found what he can validly do without or safely do with. He may be on the brink of such a discovery, but mortality overtakes him. It is as though Arjuna had been poleaxed in his chariot while Krishna rambled sententiously.

Watt was written in 1945 but published in Paris in 1953 and in New York in 1959. “Watt” is the Irish pronunciation of “What.” It is a step forward in the best possible medium for Beckett’s vision — the grim humor of Iphigenia in Tauris, Lear, Machiavelli’s Mandragola, and Jonson’s Volpone. Its concern is the problem: Who is who, and its corollary: What is what. To quote: “Looking at a pot, for example, or thinking of a pot, at one of Mr. Knott’s pots, of one of Mr. Knott’s pots, it was in vain that Watt said, Pot, pot. Well, perhaps not quite in vain, but very nearly. For it was not a pot, the more he looked, the more he reflected, the more he felt sure of that, that it was not a pot of which one could say, Pot, pot, and be comforted.” If you don’t understand, you can substitute Watt for Pot and vice versa. And I hope you notice the sentence, “Well, perhaps not quite in vain, but very nearly.” Because that is the gist of the matter and the plot of the novel — the point, so to speak. And it is the point of a good deal of Beckett.

Molloy, published in New York and Paris in 1955, is the story of two journalists, two keepers of personal, disorganized journals in the dark, light years beyond the end of night. One, Molloy, a cripple, is left eventually on his belly in the gloom, clawing his way forward with his crutches. Possibly he is seeking his mother — at least at times that is the impression. Eventually he crawls to a room somewhere where “they” — the “they” of Edward Lear’s limericks — bring him food and writing material and take away for their own purposes his narrative as he writes it week by week. It is a grim reverie of empty progress through time and space, punctuated with dog-like sex and paretic battle.

Moran, the subject of the second half of the novel, is a more recognizable literary figure — the hunter with all the characteristics of the hunted. Inspector Maigret with the personality of Gregor. The detective in Crime and Punishment replaced by Smerdyakov from Karamazov. At the orders of a hidden boss whom Beckett, with a minimum of effort (his name — Youdi — and his otherwise dense anonymity), invests with the terrors of Fu Manchu. At this impersonal force’s behest, Moran hunts Molloy. In the process he loses his son and all the appurtenances of his personality, and becomes indistinguishable from his quarry. At the end he possibly encounters and kills Molloy without knowing it. On crutches himself, in the night, in the rain, he discovers a voice, and writes in turn his narrative.

Molloy is the drama, totally devoid of event, of relevant event, of the seekers and the finders, of whom it has been said, “Finders keepers, losers weepers.”

In Malone Dies (Paris, 1951; New York, 1955). Malone is another lonely writer, locked in a room and fed like a beast. He is trying to find his own existence by, as it were, describing his anti-self, by describing a hero who will be progressively differentiated from Malone, but he cannot do it. He cannot even keep track of the other’s name, and he finally comes to write a story that sounds like an exhausted Sade, and which is, of course, the story of Malone.

The Unnameable (Paris, 1953; New York, 1958) is exactly what its title says — the narrative of someone without a name who cannot find a name, who never does.

Waiting for Godot, produced in New York in 1956, is that rare play, the distillation of dramatic essence which we have been talking about for the whole twentieth century, and about which we have done, alas, so little. Its peers are the Japanese Noh drama and the American burlesque comedy team. It is not just a play of situation — a situation which, in the Japanese Noh drama, reveals its own essence like a crystal. It just is a situation. The crystal isn’t there. Two tramps, two utterly dispossessed, alienated, and disaffiliated beings, are waiting for somebody who is never going to come and who might be God. Not because they have any faith in his coming, although one does, a little, but because waiting requires less effort than anything else. They are not seeking meaning. The meaning is in the waiting. They are interrupted by the eruption into their contemplative lives of “The World” — “Western Civilization” — or anything else like that which might be put in capital letters — in the persons of Pozzo and Lucky, Master and Man — two cacophonous marionettes of stunning horror. In their second appearance Pozzo and Lucky grow even more horrible and considerably less stunning. Otherwise, time does not pass. Today cannot recall yesterday, and tomorrow is not coming. The meaning is in the waiting. And in the tree, which overnight, between the acts, manages a few flimsy leaves. In the void, Beckett’s tramps idle, analogues of Kanzan and Jitoku, the clown saints of Zen. Vladimir says, “Well, shall we go?” Estragon says, “Yes, let’s go.” Beckett says, “They do not move. Curtain.”

Theatrically speaking, in terms of an evening’s entertainment, I have given a falsely bleak picture. The play is actually hilariously funny. All the traditional business that has come down from the Romans through Italian comedy to burlesque, to the red-nosed, derby-hatted, baggy-pantsed burlesque clown, is exploited. But it is not exploited in its own terms. Each passage of business worthy of Chaplin or Buster Keaton at his best, is transmuted with a terrible light — the fire of some final judgment — like the deadly ray of unimaginable colors from some other spectrum that shines in science fiction.

I think this summary of his achievement to date and its meaning has been fair to Beckett. Now there is nothing left, since I have already implied that he is an artist of consummate attainment, but an attempt to answer the question, since he is a moral artist, is it true? Do these books represent a valid judgment of the human situation? I do not want to sound like an editorial in Pravda, but I doubt it, partly. It is not absolutely true at its most superficial level. The world ill, le mal mondial, is not only limited in time to the last two hundred years, but it is limited in space to that very little peninsula, Europe, and to the new lands Europe has overrun. I realize that it is imbecilic to say, “Why doesn’t Sam Beckett (or Artaud or Céline or Miller) sing the glories of our Stakhanovite workers and collectivist farmers and tractor drivers, or of our jet pilots and cobalt atom splitters? Where is the New Man, the Hero of the Twentieth Century?” And all critics who object to Beckett reduce themselves eventually to this level, the level of Zhdanov, Variety, and the quarterly reappearing lead editorial in Time’s book section. Nonetheless, the light is never spent. Heroism is only smoldering and will flame up after these dark ages are over. The society in which we live is destroying the person and the communion of persons. First we must define and find the person, the self and the other — you and me — (not Kierkegaard’s Godot — the “utterly other”) — that is the current problem, the superficial “message” of Beckett’s books, and it is, historically, superficial and temporary.

As for the permanent one, not superficially: this is Beckett’s main subject, and here his judgment is not invalid, because it is the judgment of Homer, of the literature of heroes. The world is blind, and random. If we persist in judging it in human terms it is malignant and frivolous. Only man is loyal and kind and brave. Only man loves. Aphrodite ruts like her pigeons. Zeus thunders like the empty sky. If we refuse to accept the world on secular terms, Godot isn’t coming. If we accept it for ourselves, the comradeship of men, whether verminous tramps with unmanageable pants or Jim and Huck Finn drifting through all the universe on their raft — the comradeship of men in work, in art, or simply in waiting, in the utterly unacquisitive act of waiting, is an ultimate value — so ultimate that it gives life sufficient dignity and satisfaction. So say Homer and Sam Beckett and anybody else, too, who has ever been worth his salt.



This essay originally appeared in The Nation (7 December 1957) and was reprinted in Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays (New Directions, 1959). Copyright 1957. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays