Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Beckett's Readers: A Commentary and Symposium

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Beckett's Readers: A Commentary and Symposium

Article excerpt

Perhaps the most remarkable passage of recurring fascination to readers of Samuel Beckett's novel The Unnamable is the one in which the hero fully acknowledges the maniacal repetitiveness of his struggle. The courage to go on seeking his core self can only prolong agony-because speaking, thinking in words, the plying of language, disperses him.

[T]he words are everywhere, inside me, outside me . . . impossible to stop them, impossible to stop, I'm in words, made of words, others' words . . . everything yields, opens, ebbs, flows, like flakes, I'm all these flakes . . . I'm all these words, all these strangers, this dust of words.

He has only words with which to strive, he is nothing but words, and his utterance disperses him like ashes.

His torture seems to us both hideous and compelling. We root for him, enthralled by the representation of crazed frenzy-the hopelessness of having been "born of caged beasts born of caged beasts born of caged beasts born in a cage and dead in a cage, born and then dead, born in a cage and then dead in a cage"-because we believe the Unnamable will persevere using words as probes, though going on is like a windstorm scattering him even as he seeks himself.

He goes on searching with words, struggling against despair and keeping it at bay by attributing his torment to the agency of others and by elaborating a story of persecution in which he heroically holds out, all the while displaying so compelling a range of poetic utterance that we believe his story. "Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true," Salman Rushdie writes in The Satanic Verses. We believe the story he concocts in order to keep going because his voice has the power to convince, and because his predicament is true to the condition of our times-to a spiritual peril the novel will have us acknowledge.

Don DeLilo wrote a reply to a letter I sent working writers soliciting comments about Beckett:

Beckett is a master of language. He is all language. Out of the words come the people instead of the other way around. He is the last writer whose work extends into the world so that (as with Kafka before him) we can see or hear something and identify it as an expression of Beckett beyond the book or stage.

I think DeLillo has The Unnamable in mind, and that his intention is to bestow the highest possible praise on Beckett. Beckett is the exalted god-creator whose element of creation is the dust of words. Out of chaos come words, an explosion of words, which, says DeLillo, is a representation of Beckett authoring one of his worlds, and, I am sure DeLillo would add, of the Unnamable's authority.

The literary imagination is a choice, a left fork off the quotidian. If the splitting were only in the mind and not the world, deep imaginative reflection would be schizophrenic. But Kafka locates the commonplace in that deep realm of the imagination. In the work of Kafka and Beckett, the barrier between the imaginative and real worlds has dissolved. K. of The Castle strives in the imaginative world while acting out his desire in the quotidian. The same in essence is true for the Unnamable. We interpret and understand his struggle as though it took place in the mind of someone in our world desperate to keep the intimations of his uniqueness from being smothered. Wordsworth's Intimations Ode provides a useful analogy: "trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God"; "Shades of the prison-house begin to close"; "And custom lie upon thee . . . / Heavy as frost." In Beckett, life extinguishes any intimations of the sacred. The self-the soul-is extinguished, and would be for the Unnamable if he were not crafty-wise and indefatigable.

We pull for him, impelled by our recognition of different aspects of the hero, and the different planes on which his representation has a powerful significance. The Unnamable, as epic hero for our times, merges into the aspect of the condemned Jew, one of the vanquished, repelled by life yet clinging to it, as if his ghostly existence constituted an act of responsibility to those already murdered. …

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