Edmund Spenser, Famine Memory and the Discontents of Humanism in Endgame

By Kennedy, Seán | Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Edmund Spenser, Famine Memory and the Discontents of Humanism in Endgame


Kennedy, Seán, Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui


Theodor Adomo' s post-humanist account of Endgame has established the aftermath of World War Two as a preeminent context for interpreting the play, but the violent origins of Ireland's Protestant Ascendancy, as foreshadowed in Spenser's View of the Present State of Ireland (1596), provide equally compelling evidence of the intimate relationship between civilizing pretension and barbaric practice. By way of a betrayal of W. B. Yeats's suppression of the darker aspects of the Ascendancy's Irish history, in particular the Irish Famine of 1845-1852, Endgame can be seen to interrogate the discontents of humanism in both Ireland and on the Continent.

Most often remembered for his epic poem The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) spent twenty years of his life in Ireland as an official of the Elizabethan administration and later as a 'planter' in Munster (Canny and Carpenter, 171). In that capacity, he was amongst the earliest advocates of a systematic plantation of Ireland as a solution to England's continuing problems there, and his View of the Present State of Ireland (1596) was amongst the most influential tracts on the subject. By way of an examination of the law, customs and religion of Ireland, Spenser diagnosed the barbarism of Irish culture in order to demonstrate the need for a more aggressive approach to "the reducing of that savadge nation to better government and civilitye" (609). The View is notorious for advocating a policy of induced famine to create the necessary conditions for a viable English settlement in Ireland and, in advocating such a policy, Spenser had described his recent experience of famine in Munster:

Out of every corner of the woodes and glinnes they came creeping foorthe upon theyr hands, for theyr legges could not bear them; they looked like ghosts crying out of their graves; they did eate of the dead carrions, heppy were they yf they could finde them, yea, and one another soone after, insoemuch as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of theyr graves; and yf they founde a plotte of water-cresses or sham-rokes, there they flocked as to a feast for the time, yet not able long to continue therewithal; that in the shorte space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentifull country suddaynly made voyde of man or beast.

(654)

Spenser's mouthpiece, Irenius, is shocked that this should occur in such a "riche and plentifull country" (654), though not sufficiently so to prevent him advocating famine as an available tactic for subduing Irish rebels, and it was images such as these - starvation in a land of plenty; skeletal specters eating grass, or each other; decimated and depopulated landscapes - that came to form the stock-in-trade of Irish famine memory as part of a larger narrative of continuing English atrocity in Ireland.1 Here, I want to explore the relevance of this history to Samuel Beckett's Endgame, which, I will argue, evokes Irish famine memory in order to vandalize the self-image of Ireland's Protestant Ascendancy, especially as that image was being promulgated in the 1920s and 30s by W. B. Yeats.2 Recent critics have interpreted Watt, for example, as a Big House novel incorporating a grimly comic critique of the performance of Ireland's landlords during the Irish Famine (Bixby, 119-57), and something similar will be argued here for Endgame which can be read as Beckett's post-Auschwitz take on the Irish Big House drama. In arguing for this reading, I am not interested in 'reclaiming' Endgame as an Irish play.3 However, I do want to suggest that the great works of Beckett's middle period betray a sustained interested in the politics of the Protestant Ascendancy and that an understanding of these issues can provide important insights into the post-humanism of Endgame.

That Endgame is bound up with a critique of humanism has been well established, and found its classic formulation in the work of Theodor Adorno. In 1961, Adorno suggested the Holocaust was the "nebulous" catastrophe that had occasioned the play, and he explained (and admired) Beckett's "timidity to mention" it on the basis that one could only "speak euphemistically about what is incommensurate with all experience" (1961, 123). …

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