Academic journal article The Romanic Review

"Proust's Pessimism" as Beckett's Counter-Poison

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

"Proust's Pessimism" as Beckett's Counter-Poison

Article excerpt

An obsession with generation traverses Samuel Beckett's work. It is, to borrow Beckett's phrase from Proust (III.260), "a neuralgia rather than a theme" (Proust 22). (1) This obsession Beckett inherits from that Anglo-Irish tradition that W. B. Yeats invoked in his 1925 Senate Speech as "that small Protestant band" he, "a typical man of that minority," was "proud" to belong to: "We are one of the great stocks of Europe," "the people of Burke ... of Grattan, ... of Swift, ... of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country" (Castle 90).

Yeats's Anglo-Irish "band" are old men who survive when "All's Whiggery now," resisting that "levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind" ("The Seven Sages" 252) he saw as largely Catholic. "That is no country for old men," the 1927 "Sailing to Byzantium" begins (204). "The young/In one another's arms, birds in the trees,/--Those dying generations--at their song,/The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,/Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long/ Whatever is begotten, born and dies." "That country," with its salmon-falls, is recognizably Ireland, from which Yeats sailed to Ravenna in 1924, the year the Free State was founded. It is also recognizably Ireland by its perceived fertility, despite demographic decline from famine and emigration (Whelan 59). In Yeats's anxious vision, generation is first this fertile, cyclic tide of life, the Catholic majority, threatening to overwhelm the band of old men "massed against the world" ("Under Ben Bulben" 356): "We Irish, born into that ancient sect/But thrown upon this filthy modern tide/And by its formless, spawning, fury wrecked" ("The Statues" 362). Against this background, Yeats places Irish literary history. The old men are scarecrows, sterile, excluded from the democratic tide of life, a minority among the majority: "All hated Whiggery." "Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke..../ Swift," whose heart "had dragged him down into mankind," all "Cast but dead leaves to mathematical equality" ("Blood and the Moon" 243).

This line connects generation to population. The Irish population problem was what Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal pretended to solve, making that connection explicit: "It would greatly lessen the number of Papists, with whom we are yearly over-run, being the principal breeders of the nation," Swift's Protestant persona states, with the exclusive "we," like Yeats's "we old men." The lower classes were characteristically "the numerous classes." The Anglo-Irish horror pleni is the fear the first term--"anglo"--will be absorbed by the second, "dragged down" into mankind, paradigmatically Catholic Irishkind. Oscar Wilde put what was at stake several months after his release from prison, "I am now simply a pauper of a rather low order" and "also a pathological problem in the eyes of German scientists: ... I am tabulated, and come under the law of averages! Quantum mutatus!" (2) From the perspective of generations, the individual is merely a case history, a member of a class. Yeats's "mathematical equality" is expressed in statistics, which treats great numbers of individuals as alike. Its most characteristic classes are populations. Yeats's "renowned generations" ("Three Marching Songs" 360) from the census taker's viewpoint are no exception to any survey of the Irish.

Beckett, too, descends from the Anglo-Irish tradition. He like Wilde was a graduate of Portora Royal School and, like Swift, Wilde, and Synge, of Trinity, Dublin. Beckett's major protagonists, if Irish, are recognizably Protestant (3) and old men: "bah, j'ai toujours ete vieux," the Unnamable says (L'Innommable 187). Halfobegotten, they are neither born nor dead--a Beckettian theme--descendants of Swift's Struldbrugs. (4) But their sterility is not straightforwardly coupled with a Yeatsian pride in compensatory literary productivity. If Beckett inherits Yeats's anxiety, or Swift's Gulliver's, terrified he is a Yahoo, whatever his ironic distance, his stand-offishness, from things Irish-Catholic, his horror of the crowd was never the cultured Protestant's contempt for the Catholic masses nor even acknowledgement of kinship with reservations for "these Christs that die upon the barricades" of Wilde's "Sonnet to Liberty:" "God knows it I am with them, in some things. …

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