Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

"OOFTTSH": Writing, Orality, and the Specter of Yiddish in an Early Poem by Samuel Beckett

Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

"OOFTTSH": Writing, Orality, and the Specter of Yiddish in an Early Poem by Samuel Beckett

Article excerpt

This article discusses the 1938 poem "Ooftish," Beckett's only work to use a Yiddish term. Its title derives from the expressions tokhes afii tish or takhles afn tish. The significance of these expressions, and the fact that Beckett only approximates their idiomatic usage, prompts a consideration of foreignlanguage titles in his early Anglophone poetry; this strategy signifies the deterritorialization of Beckett's English writing and figures the challenge of creating a poetic discourse between the abstractions of thought and the tangibility of experience. That dialectic finds resonance in the poem through a conflict between Jewish and Christian connotations of Scriptural allusion.

One of the more memorable anecdotes about Samuel Beckett in Richard Ellmann's biography of James Joyce describes Joyce's efforts to engage the younger writer to take dictation for the Work in Progress published as Finnegans Wake. As Ellmann writes:

Once or twice he [Joyce] dictated a bit of Finnegans Wake to Beckett, though dictation did not work very well for him; in the middle of one such session there was a knock at the door which Beckett didn't hear. Joyce said, "Come in," and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, "What's that 'Come In'?" "Yes, you said that," said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, "Let it stand." He was quite willing to accept coincidence as his collaborator. Beckett was fascinated and thwarted by Joyce's singular method.


Though never fully adopting Joyce's creative methodology, Beckett was nonetheless influenced by Joyce's attitude toward language, as well as the philosophical implications of a world governed by no principle more firmly than chance. For Beckett, mishearing -confusing, in this example, ordinary speech with literary dictation, orality with writing - signifies the intersection of dysfunction with silence. Mishearing thus radicalizes his poetic technique and becomes an avant-garde strategy that turns poetic aesthetics on its head by pointing it in the direction of materialist representation, foregrounding the body's limitations in the context of a depersonalized literary discourse. In analogous linguistic terms, the deterritorialized nature of Beckett's language, whether in the incipient 'multilingualism' of his early poetry or his subsequent development as a bilingual writer, offers a significant correlative for the larger series of dislocations and disabilities preoccupying the author.

The 1938 poem "Ooftish" offers an opportunity to consider the ways in which mishearing informs Beckett's own relationship to language at a crucial moment in his development, when English would cease to be his primary creative language, but before he had established himself as a Francophone author. The most noteworthy and idiosyncratic feature of this poem is its title "Ooftish"; as an accompanying note to the 1977 edition of Beckett's poetry suggests (Beckett 1977, 142), this word is derived from the Yiddish expression tokhes afn tish (literally, 'put your ass on the table') or, more euphemistically, takhles afn tish ('brass tacks on the table'). Either of these expressions might well be used in the gambling context of "put your money down on the table" - and in this regard one may note, of the more graphic tokhes afn tish, Sigmund Freud's belief in the connection of the "anal phase" in childhood development to an adult's later attitude toward money1 - but they are also used by Yiddish speakers more generally as an interjection to dispense with abstractions or hesitations in order to address in practical terms whatever matter is under consideration. This is the single Yiddish expression to appear anywhere in Beckett's writing, though it is otherwise consistent with many of his poems from the 1930s in that it uses a title from a foreign language to introduce verses written in English. Unlike his other foreign-language titles, however - such as "Da Tagte Es" or "Cascando" - "Ooftish" is his only poem to use a non-standard orthography in its foreign title: "Ooftish" is neither a standard rendering of Yiddish, which is written in Hebrew characters, into the Latin alphabet, nor even a complete transcription of the phrase it refers to. …

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