The Quotidian Sublime: From Language to Imagination in Beckett's 'Three Novels' and 'Happy Days.' (Samuel Beckett)

By Gilbert, Inger | The Romanic Review, November 1993 | Go to article overview

The Quotidian Sublime: From Language to Imagination in Beckett's 'Three Novels' and 'Happy Days.' (Samuel Beckett)


Gilbert, Inger, The Romanic Review


But there is a hole

in the bottom of the bag.

It is the imagination

which cannot be fathomed.

It is through this bole

we escape.

William Carlos Williams,

Paterson, Book V

Although one cannot outright accuse Beckett's narrators of living in the anthropomorphic world described in Robbe-Grillet's essay from 1958 "Nature, Humanism, Tragedy" it seems nevertheless that they have not been able to free themselves from the need to anthropomorphize their surroundings. However, since the only "other" in their world is language, they anthropomorphize it to such an extent that they expect language to be able to meet all their needs. Language becomes desire and must establish their identity and relationship with the world. To the extent that language becomes psychology, the Three Novels narrators do commit the same pathetic fallacy that anthropomorphic writers do. Robbe-Grillet argues that these writers saw in the natural world surrounding their hero/protagonist a vast reflection chamber in which nothing could happen that were not immediately appropriated and made to mirror and answer the hero's human needs. If for whatever reason the surroundings were adverse to the hero's desires a sense of universal meaninglessness ensued. In other words, the text became tragic.

The narrators of the Three Novels move from rage (Moran wanted to rage up through the rock with his bare bones) and violence (both Molloy and Moran commit murders) to the Unnamable's unceasing tears. In between those emotions they display frustration, cynicism, indifference, hopelessness--all with a great deal of tenacity. Robbe-Grillet in the above mentioned essay defines tragedy as "an attempt to recover the distance which exists between man and things as a new value.(1) Even though hardship (the ongoing losing of limbs) and alienation are taken for granted by the narrators one comes to read Three Novels as being dependent on the in Robbe-Grillet's view--false assumption of a romantic, Hegelian world which in design and purposefulness exactly matches the human mind, caught in its romantic aspirations of meaning and human centricity. It is true that the narrators of the Three Novels do not outright blame either God or circumstance for their plight nor do they complain about their solitude and alienation from the rest of the world. In other words, the narrators are not behaving as tragic figures who capriciously have been cut off from meaning and understanding by some cruel fate. Yet it is also true that precisely because of their reactions of scorn, violence, cynicism and impotence they remain caught within the model of a romantic universe governed by reason and justice. Their presupposition is of a world ruled by causal connections and of the expectation of an ultimate justice. Language occupies the exalted position that Man had held since the Renaissance secularized the world and the narrators have organized reality according to linguistic relationships and verbal propositions of logic.

The narrators of the Three Novels assume the existence of a metaphysical pact with language which stipulates that the syntactic and semantic components of language must both circumscribe and give structure and meaning to human life. In this assumption they are informed by a humanistic tradition which expects that life shall have a purpose, even though that purpose may be tragic. It is the very question with which the Unnamable starts out his quest that give away his teleological expectations: "Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I, unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that."(2)

Although the narrators of the Three Novels do not blame anyone for their difficulties they do make constant reference to their circumstances and to their ever growing physical disabilities. The protagonists of the Three Novels "seem to be falling to bits" as Beckett himself remarked in an interview with Israel Shenker:

At the end of my work there is nothing but dust--the nameable. …

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