Acquiring the Skeleton of Irishman Charles Burns

I.
He tears up my letters. He sends back no word.
But Burns has been staggering. His shinbones must pain him,
Decade on decade longshanking about –
Or so says my shadow, a greedy young gnome
Who follows my Burns for a generous sum –
With a whistle to signal the butcher and wagon.
What a sight they must be as they slouch
Down the High Street, the giant unnerved
By the unblinking dwarf.

II.
Men of Burns’ size are like pachyderms,
Like mastiffs or baluchitheria.
It takes so much effort, such muscular pumping,
For the heart to succor all those organs.
And bathe the brain with blood for long.
I predict the strain will take him.
The taller a man is, the shorter his life.
The gnome reports it will be soon.

III.
To my study
The news comes.
I set down my scone.
(The dwarf knows not
Hygiene. He ruins
My appetite.)
It seems Burns has hired a sailor to end it,
To take him to the river’s mouth
And drop him in the drink.
Lash your anchors
To my corpse, says Burns –
And so he will entomb himself
At the bottom of the sea.
But still, says the dwarf, he
Fears you will find him,
Run a hook through his sinews
Reel him up from the brine.
No, I think I shall
Harpoon his pelvis.
Dear Burns. He really is
Too much.

IV.
The vitrine cost a hundred quid,
I’d call that much an arm and leg –
And then there is the blacksmith’s bill
For all those iron mounts,
And a bundle for the boatman,
For the delivery of the bones.
Though Burns was not a wealthy man,
The sailor asked for twice his sum –
And that I procure the pistol
He would take out on the Thames.
He fastened the irons to Burns’ ankles,
And shot for the belly –
Just as I’d shown him –
And didn’t scratch a single rib.
So what was the use
Of your stubbornness,
Charles? Come now, say
What was the use.

— Annie Wyman

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Filed under Poetry, Vol 2 Issue 1

Scales of Balance

by Bill Loundy

Mom sits with Mark at a lacquered mahogany table in the parlor, scanning through frayed puzzle pieces, her eyebrows furrowing into an upside-down V. In front of them, the box is propped open and they take turns looking up and down, first at an image of a calico cat lounging among dahlias and marigolds and then down at the scrambled puzzle pieces, a mash of similar colors that sits on the table like a small undulating reflecting pool. Some of the pieces litter the carpet near Mom, but she seems not to notice or care. She doesn’t have a chance in hell of finding matches, but she keeps saying, “Mark, Look!” and he keeps responding, “Hey—I think that might be right.” Across the room, I don’t even need to look up from the paper to know that she just forced together two random pieces—some blue sky jammed against grey fur, or a center piece squeezed next a corner. Mark laughs, but he’s just happy she remembers his name. He moved with his family to Phoenix a few years back, and now he’s got a real sense of calmness about him. I went to New York and my blood pressure’s never been higher.

Mark tugs his chair out a bit, and I’m already uncrossing my legs and putting down the business section when he says, “Lunchtime, Dave. Whudda ya say?” So I help Mom into her wheelchair and Mark pushes the puzzle pieces back into the box. Lunch will probably be tuna sandwiches or macaroni and cheese, but I hope I can get my hands on some kind of soup and oyster crackers. “I promise we’ll finish that puzzle next time, Mom,” Mark says. She hunches over so far in her wheelchair. I’m afraid that if I stop short, she might fall forward.

We make our way toward the cafeteria, passing the kind of artwork you wouldn’t take for a nickel at a yard sale. It’s all kitschy shit, mostly westerns: Cowboys at the rodeo, on bucking broncos or out in the desert taking a water break, their horses tied to a wooden stake. Some of them stalk buffalos, traversing from left frame edge to right frame edge in front of a grey wash streaking across the background. It’s either a silvery mountain range or an oncoming storm—I wonder if the artist even knew. The cowboys are all typecast, pigeonholed to play a counterfeit hero, except for one miserable bastard who munches an apple while dark skinned Indians line up their bows behind his back. I like the Indians. Mom would too, but she’s missing all this static melodrama, her face aimed square at the floor. “Mom?” Mark repeats, putting his hand on her shoulder. “Next time, right?”

I can still see the cat among the flowers, and so can Mark, but Mom has no idea what puzzle he’s talking about. She has forgotten that quickly.

*****

You really should know my mother the way I know her—the way I try to remember her, at least. She packed me peanut butter and seitan sandwiches through grade school, and cold tofu patties and yogurt for Mark. She could name ninety-seven species of wildflowers growing in the back yard, and sometimes, she took Mark and me on nature walks through the woods, even on schooldays. Thanks to her I know how to make tie-dye shirts from pokeberries, and how to “smoke” a house with sage on full moons. She walked around our Gypsy home, draped in hemp, chunky beaded chains, and exotic pendants and pins that clanked like the rusty wind chimes she hung from the oak tree near my bedroom window. One of my girlfriends once asked if my mother was a witch. “I’m not sure,” I said.

In our front yard, twelve stepping-stones led the way from the curb to the front door, each painted for a different zodiac sign. Vishnu, Ganesha, and Shiva eyed visitors from various bushes and shrubs as they made their way up the path. Mom dug a particularly large hole in the ground one spring (“We really need a meditation pond,” she said) and later I found a letter taped to the side of our mailbox. On the front of the envelope, in loopy housewife handwriting, was written, “Just a reminder…” I showed Mark and we laughed about what was inside, before I tossed it into the trash:

Village of Little Mill Homeowners Association Policy Statement The Village of Little Mill supports a community of individuality and freedom of expression balanced with community-wide standards that maintain an overall architectural harmony and sustain property values.

If Mom wanted a pond, she would have a pond, and nothing was going to faze her, especially the women of Little Mill with their manicured topiaries and white chocolate mousses. “There’s too much beautiful atmosphere out there to breath in the filthy gas of cynics,” she said.

And if Little Mill wore Mom out, she never let us know, though I later suspected it might’ve. For one thing, the family left town almost every weekend, especially when we were really young. Usually we went to the beach, where I could tell mom felt at home. She would dive through waves with mermaid precision and sift sand through her knobby toes. She was mother Earth, creating tiny landslides and sinkholes and earthquakes at her feet. She tossed Mark and me into crashing waves that rag-dolled us to the shore. We coughed water, shook sand from our swimsuits, and jumped back in for another round. Dad was fond of photographs, and from behind us he would yell, “Smile!” and we turned around to strike our favorite poses—Mark and I karate chopped and kung fu kicked and Mom, twice our height back then, flashed a peace sign and a smile so broad it was like the moon turned on its side. As the tide rose, other moms took their children out of the water, but my mom demanded, “CHARGE!” and led us into battle, all of us laughing like a group of wild banshees.

*****

Twice I’ve heard my older brother cry. The first time was when I was seven and Mark was nine. Dad was allergic to fur, so we never really kept pets, but Mark and I won a pair of hermit crabs on the boardwalk one summer. They came with a piece of paper that read: Feed your crabs daily and bathe them weekly in warm water. For the first few days though, out of anxiousness and excitement, we fed them on the hour and bathed them every morning. Mark named his Hermie, mine was called Crabby, and we loved them with all our hearts.

But we had had the pets for only a few days when I woke up one morning to Mark screaming from the bunk below me. He had brought the glass terrarium onto his bed, and was sitting Indian-style next to it. “No. No, Hermie, no.” he said. His hands were open in front of him. In one he cupped an empty shell, and in the other the corpse of his beloved crustacean. There was steam coming off a bowl of water—Mark had cooked the lobster. Crabby was lounging poolside, still in the terrarium, unaware that his only friend had been boiled alive.

Dad buried Hermie in the back yard, and Mom led us all in some ritualistic prayer. It involved a dark potion-like tea poured on the grave, a string of bulbous black beads, and a lot of chanting in Sanskrit. We all stared at the small hump in the ground and I wondered what the neighbors would think if they saw my Mom sitting in the dirt while Mark stood next to her crying into his sleeve. To conclude the service, Dad tossed a shovel up against the shed, and left his family outside.

Mom stood up slowly and smiled in my direction, brushing soil off the back of her thighs. She cupped her hands under Mark’s ears, her thumbs gently drying the puffy skin under his eyes. She was wearing a black camisole with silver lunar stitching around the neckline, and a patterned midnight blue skirt that flowed to her ankles. Mark’s sobs turned into sniffles, which faded to long soft breaths and with regained composure he turned to me. I tried to keep a neutral face, one that meant, “I’m sorry about Hermie. It’s okay to cry. I don’t think less of you. You are still my older brother and I still look up to you.”

“Crybaby,” I said instead.

*****

I’m losing my cool in a hotel room three perfectly squared blocks away from the nursing home. It’s the middle of the night and I can’t escape ninety degree angles all around me: a Camel light resting between my parallel fingers, the legs of my wooden chair anchored into the floor, a metal fork stuck into the top of a Styrofoam container of cold leftovers. I turn around and notice the sharpness of the corners of the linens the maid has smoothed to perfection. Even the smoke from my cigarette is rising too perfectly. I shake my hand and the smoke wafts around for a moment, but then it’s a straight line toward the ceiling all over again. The ash refuses to fall, even bend. There must be an inch of it now, and I want nothing more than to see it break from the cigarette and drop on to the bottom of the tray, but the Camel refuses to comply. The ember continues to steam tunnel towards the filter, leaving behind a trail of dead grey that still won’t crumble. I grab the cigarette and tear it apart at its middle. Raw tobacco shavings fall onto the table, a mini heap of kindling, a GI Joe campfire waiting to be blazed.

Looking at the cigarette halves before me, I’m reminded of Doctor Livingston, who spoke with a Southern drawl. “Let me tell you about Alzheimer’s,” he said. He cracked a wooden tongue depressor before my face to a perfect ninety-degree angle and told me that the splinters, like the connections in my mother’s brain, could hold together for only so long before the two sides would break apart. It bothered me that he snapped it so close to my eyes. “We’ll talk again soon,” he said as the door closed behind him. The sound of that snapped piece of wood was like a redwood struck by lightning.

A few months later, Doctor Rodriguez, who feigned a sort of empathy, told me that Mom’s memories would always be there, but as her illness progressed, she would struggle more and more to access them—”It’s like a bottle of wine but no corkscrew,” he said. “There’s really not too much you can do.”

In my hotel room, the table is a mess. I’ve eaten four meals here without cleaning, and now there’s a snapped cigarette on it and black ash rubbed into my palm. My eyes are closed and I can remember nothing but forgetting.

I’m coming home from school and mom’s sitting at the kitchen counter, unable to balance her checkbook.

I’m sitting at the airport waiting for her to pick me up. Three hours late because she can’t find her keys.

The piano bench in the living room is turned on its side, books sprawled across the hardwood floor, and Mom can’t offer an explanation.

I’ve got the flu and she’s recommending Benadryl and Immodium. I don’t have the heart to tell her it’s not what I need.

It’s Christmas. Mom gives me books and the inscriptions are written to Mark. 
She’s stealing bingo chips in the nursing home, dropping them into her purse one at a time. “Mom, you’ve got B10, right here,” I say, pointing to the square.

She turns to me and says, “Do I know you?”

“Mom. It’s me, your son, David.”

She breathes a quick laugh. “Don’t be silly, I don’t have any children.”

*****

The second time I saw Mark cry he was thirteen and I was eleven. I saw him through a crack in the shed door, sitting up against a rack of nearly empty paint cans. Three days earlier Dad left for good, and the family photographs went with him. I’ll never understand why he wanted those pictures. To remember the family he deserted? Mark was lunatic, punching the plywood walls inside the shed and screaming into patio furniture cushions. I had the sense to run away before he caught me peering in, and he emerged as though nothing was wrong—as though he hadn’t just bawled his eyes into tiny rivers. If Dad is still alive, I wonder what he thinks when his sons’ birthdays pass: if he remembers dizzying me around to pin a paper tail on the donkey, or pressing Mark’s face into a slice of birthday cake and then letting Mark do the same to him. Mom definitely deserves to remember.

*****

I am in the driver’s seat of a beat up truck that’s not my own. A plastic wrapped American flag with yellow tassels is bobbing in my periphery. Mom may or may not have known who I was when I stole her out of the home, but she didn’t put up a fight either way. She was half asleep, only marginally mobile, and mumbling about Mrs. Templeton, who gave me four detentions in one marking period. She asked, “Where are we going?” and I said, “For a ride.”

Mom’s lying down in the flatbed, laughing and screaming and howling at a crescent moon, and smiling with her gummy mouth wide open. I tossed all the scrap lumber to the curb and put a quilt back there so she could be comfortable. We’re doing seventy-five on the highway, and I know she’s enjoying this more than bingo and medicine and James Stewart and puzzles she can’t even solve. My foot is pressing harder on the accelerator, and I’m blasting the radio. I’ll tell Mark about this, but he won’t believe me—that I set up a ramp against the tailgate to get her into the back of the truck.

Her hair is everywhere in the wind, and her arms are reaching towards the stars. She found a long piece of red yarn, and she’s holding it high up to watch it dance. In the rearview I can see kicked up fallen leaves and dust and I wipe sweat off my palms. The whole world is dancing—not only alive, but living. Scientific white lines appear in the sky above us, tracing the outline of Mom’s maiden carrying the scales of balance. She’s tiptoeing across the big dipper, and my centaur is lining up an arrow on his bow. The truck is rumbling along and I’m hooting and hollering with Mom and blaring the horn. The neon sun will soon bruise the perfect blackness of the East, and the glowing fireflies will tuck themselves into tall cold grasses, but for now the leafy trees are swaying with us and flowers are blossoming marvelously as we pass.

Download “Scales of Balance” as a PDF.

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Filed under Fiction, Vol 2 Issue 1

Photo (14)

lamp

— Mike Fleming

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Draw (16)

puzzle

— George Xander Morris

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Filed under Artwork, Vol 2 Issue 1

My Smoke Alarm is Going Off.

I say, Thank you.
You say, No, I think I might have
carbon monoxide poisoning,
and the way the looped wire casts
shadows dissecting your face
into slivers I count, re-count,
you may be right.
You say, I want to make love
out of cardboard boxes,
corrugated for your pleasure.
Where water and road
bend together, bracelets of protein
denatured, cardboard boxes
won’t work, I say, and begin to trace
iron letters on your galvanized steel
mouth: acidulous quartz and orthoclase,
marble veined with other,
second layer phloem, redwood,
if possible. Did we start building
bell-curved breath upon bell-curved
breathlessness? Spring migrates
while you force me phonemes.
I try to write it with wet-erase
transparency. Of comfort I know
nothing, so when you say
splintering wood of slammed
doors and speed of darkness
on mausoleum floors, I stutter,
recalling the last kiss
akin to the first—
you’re aware of the teeth.

— Jessamyn Edra

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Woman Clapping

— Sara Sisun

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About Beckett

by Bob Borek

Samuel Beckett sympathized with lobsters. A female liaison told one of his biographers, James Knowlson, that when they would dine together at the Iles Marquis in Paris, they would always sit as far as possible from the trout and lobster tanks because of how much they upset “Sam.”

The detail appears in an early short of Beckett’s, “Dante and the Lobster,” the first in his collection More Pricks than Kicks (1934). The protagonist is a university student named Belacqua. He is obsessed by Dante, and named, rather curiously, after a character that appears in the Purgatory section of The Divine Comedy – a young Florentine lute maker who is condemned to sit crouched under a rock for idleness. After taking an Italian lesson, Belacqua picks up a lobster for dinner with his aunt. He assumes that the lobster he carries back with him is dead. When he realizes that it’s not, he’s horrified, but his aunt assures him that “lobsters are always boiled alive.”

Belacqua imagines the lobster’s journey: “In the depths of the sea it had crept into the cruel pot. For hours, in the midst of its enemies, it had breathed secretly. It had survived the Frenchwoman’s cat and his witless clutch. Now it was going alive into scalding water. It had to. Take into the air my quiet breath.”

Nicely stated, but the sentiment is a bit odd. It appears more so in light of the fact that earlier in the story Belacqua read with disinterest an article about a man who was going to be executed, or that in the collection Belacqua constantly disparages the women around him and mocks their love for him. The crustacean catches him off guard: why? Perhaps it’s the immediacy, or the fact that it’s unexpected, but quite transparently, it becomes an occasion for Belacqua’s own musing on the pain of dying and the inevitability of death. After all, it’s Belacqua, not the lobster, who has an affinity for Keats’ “quiet breath.”

To console himself, Belacqua thinks: “it’s a quick death, God help us all.”

The narrator’s reply: “It is not.”

The humor entwined with pessimism points straight to Beckett, but the author of More Pricks than Kicks is not the same author that would later write the trilogy of Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953) – novels which set Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille to scratching their heads, and sent Harold Pinter into paroxysms of praise. Nor is it the author that would captivate Western theater audiences with his two-act play, Waiting for Godot (1952), and it’s most especially not the same author that would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 for writing that, in the words of the Swedish Academy, “in the destitution of man acquires its elevation.”

No, the author of More Pricks than Kicks was an unknown and largely unemployed 28-year-old who had earlier cast aside a promising academic career at Trinity College in Dublin, and who had little reason to believe that anything he wrote would be either widely or narrowly read. It’s the work of a young man with a stubborn determination to create, but without a very clear idea why, how, or for whom.

It’s a shame that a story like “Dante and the Lobster” is almost always read in the shadow of Beckett’s later work because, taken separately, there’s something extremely refreshing about it. The simple short illuminates aspects of Beckett that can get lost in the fray as a reader struggles with the difficulty of his mature work. Namely, there is real yearning in Belacqua’s sentimentality. The strong narrative voice that comes in to strangle it leaves the reader rather unseated, even if he’s chuckling in his discomfort. The narrator seems to be making a bold and merciless push for the truth, refusing to accept any consolation. Still – why so uncompromising? The curt response hints that there’s something the narrator’s hiding: vulnerability. It’s a human weakness that he’s shunted entirely to the character, but Belacqua’s yearning is also the narrator’s. The fiction reveals something about the morose storyteller that he can’t quite admit to himself, and by doing so it eludes the narrator’s grasp. It’s a story that the older Beckett simply could not have written.

Most of those who are familiar with Beckett know him through his play Waiting for Godot, and further reading or theater-going probably took them to plays like Endgame (1957) and Krapp’s Last Tape (1959). He’s an author who stands very close to the heart of the 20th century Western canon, but most of his work, and especially his prose, tends to go unread. The work has its own inherent difficulty and obscurity, but it doesn’t help that it now exists amidst a glut of postmodern criticism – both good and bad, or that a reader often encounters the work mediated through the unrestrained praise of the cult. Consider Pinter’s “I’ll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty.” The accuracy of the statement is not what’s in question, but the fact that it’s delivered from a vantage point that it would take the uninitiated reader quite some time to reach. The average reader approaching Beckett can hardly be blamed if his or her expectations have been set artificially high or if in the first fifty or sixty pages of reading he or she sees little to no sign of this acquiring-of-elevation-in-the-destitution-of-man.

Beckett’s work is full of paradox, and a keen reader will quickly realize that his popularity is not without contradictions. It’s paradoxical that his work is so focused on insignificance, and yet is surrounded by those who are determined to proclaim its importance. Beckett was always puzzled by his success, and believed it was based on a misunderstanding. In many ways, his work resists canonization and it resists popularity. A writer who presents the human condition as grounded fundamentally in pain, suffering and uncertainty cannot be heralded with trumpets. Praise can quickly reach such a pitch that it seems the only point is to drown out and ignore the voice of the praised work. Where the gushing acclaim about Beckett begins, the man and his work end.

Of course, not everyone is lining up to prostrate themselves at the Beckett shrine. Beckett is an author capable of inducing genuine hostility in his readers, and those who develop an aversion to his work often read him just as closely and thoughtfully as those who profess enormous admiration. The most pronounced complaint brought against him is that he’s nothing but a dark and depressed man determined to hoist his misanthropic vision onto the world at large. The impression creeps in at the end of “Dante and the Lobster” through the voice of the narrator. It’s a voice that becomes much more developed, albeit refined, in his later work.

The fact that Beckett read Schopenhauer would seem to support the complaint. Schopenhauer was a philosopher writing in the 19th century who believed that the driving force in the world is the will. In his major work, The World as Will and Representation (1819), he suggests that we are all products of one vast will, and that our separateness is only an illusion. The rather enormous catch is that Schopenhauer’s will is wicked and is the source of endless suffering. Though our lives are destined to be full of pain and though death will win in the end, he suggests that most of us will still pursue our futile ends “as we blow out a soap-bubble as long and as large as possible, although we know perfectly well that it will burst.”

The only way out of the situation is to break down one’s will in any way possible, to practice poverty, chastity, fasting and self-torture. The view is not very different from that of ascetic monks, but whereas they are seeking some sort of communion with God, in Schopenhauer the end is wholly negative. He says, “We freely acknowledge that what remains after the entire abolition of will is for all those who are still full of will certainly nothing; but, conversely, to those in which the will has turned and denied itself, this our world, which is so real – with all its suns and milky ways – is nothing.” It’s worth noting that Schopenhauer himself never saw a need to put his world-view into practice, and lived a rather comfortable life. In his philosophy, a compelling reason not to commit suicide also falls by the wayside.

Schopenhauer’s ideas surface in Beckett in myriad ways. In his trilogy, the move from traditional narration to the troubled voice of The Unnamable calls into question just how individual the narrator is. The stripping down of form is analogous to Schopenhauer’s call to break down one’s will. In Beckett’s first novel, Murphy (1938), the title character attempts to induce a sort of nirvana-like state by tying himself into his rocking chair. Throughout Beckett’s texts, there is also frequent reference to birth as little more than a death-sentence. Thus Hamm yells “Accursed progenitor” at his father, Nagg, in Endgame and Molloy, in a fit of frustration, refers to his mother as a “uniparous whore.” What is most illuminating in a comparison of Beckett and Schopenhauer, however, is where their ideas diverge.

The most obvious distinction between Beckett and Schopenhauer is that the latter was a philosopher and the former was not. Though Beckett was a contemporary of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, he never aligned himself with the existentialist camp or wrote philosophy of any kind. The closest he came was in his early essay on Proust, titled simply Proust (1931). Ostensibly, its subject is the author’s A Remembrance of Things Past (1927), but the influence of Schopenhauer runs pretty much all through the essay, noticeably when Beckett suggests that original sin is “the sin of having been born.” The essay was one of the first to pick out the strain of Schopenhauer running through Proust, but Beckett is also using Proust as a template to work out his own artistic concerns. Like “Dante and the Lobster,” it’s the work of a young man attempting to veil his weaknesses and his doubts, a young man who feels compelled to make a positive assertion.

What the younger Beckett tried to hide, the older Beckett embraced. It’s the admission of his own vulnerability that would later make a story like “Dante and the Lobster” impossible. The character who is a patsy for the narrator’s weakness would get absorbed to an ever greater extent by the narrator himself. The move is cathartic in some ways, but if the reader thinks that increased self-awareness will bring the narrator peace, he’s gravely mistaken. In Beckett’s prose, nothing will ever be quite so simple as “Dante and the Lobster” again.

Bertrand Russell, commenting on Schopenhauer, wisely notes that “belief in either pessimism or optimism is a matter of temperament, not of reason.” One suspects that Beckett’s temperament was close to that of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, but any world view to be extrapolated from his works is, if anything, a constant struggle against pessimism. What he staked himself on as a writer was complete uncertainty. He was known to enjoy quoting St. Augustine’s shapely lines, “Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.” Perhaps the most difficult and shocking thing about reading Beckett is realizing just how much we tend to presume.

Beckett’s insistence upon uncertainty is apparent in the most popular question about his work: what does Godot symbolize? The usual hypothesis is that Godot is God, and that the play is about how God has abandoned man. In Anthony Cronin’s biography, The Last Modernist (1997), he catalogues a few other possibilities. One is that the name comes from a French racing cyclist in the fifties known as ‘Godeau.’ Another is that it comes from the French slang for boot, ‘godillot.’ Another is that it came from an encounter Beckett had with a prostitute on the corner of rue Godot le Mauroy in Paris. When he turned her down, she asked him sarcastically if was Waiting for Godot. Others have noted that it echoes Nietzsche’s German lines, “Gott ist tod” (God is dead). The fact that in French the emphasis is on the second syllable rather than the first has even played a factor in the argument. The reason that Godot doesn’t symbolize God is that it could just as easily symbolize the absence of God. It’s the state of not knowing, the “waiting,” that is the heart of the play.

Waiting for Godot is, in its way, a brilliant and simple demonstration of man’s state of uncertainty. In Beckett’s prose, “not knowing” was to take on a much different and more complicated character. Beckett’s reputation as a novelist rests chiefly on the basis of his trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. All three were composed in the space of only about four years, from 1946 to 1950 – far and away Beckett’s greatest burst of productivity. It was while working on The Unnamable that he wrote Waiting for Godot as a break from the monotonous task of writing and rewriting the novels. Each text was written first in French, the author’s second language. A few years later when Beckett saw what a difficult time the translator of Molloy was having re-creating the text in English, he took up the task of translating himself – something he would do for almost all his later work. He had to ensure that the text came into English very much alive rather than as a stale direct translation from the French.

The trilogy proceeds by disintegration. Molloy still has something of a plot to it. First, there is Molloy’s failed search for his mother, and then Jacques Moran’s failed search for Molloy. Malone Dies is the monologue of Malone as he sits alone in bed waiting for death. He decides to make up stories to pass the time, and though they quickly develop into beautiful and captivating narratives, he can’t help but interrupt himself with retorts like “what tedium” or “this is awful.” He states his dilemma quite clearly, saying:

If this continues it is myself I shall lose and the thousand ways that lead there. And I shall resemble the wretches famed in fable, crushed beneath the weight of their wish come true. And I even feel a strange desire come over me, the desire to know what I am doing, and why. So I near the goal I set myself in my young days and which prevented me from living. And on the threshold of being no more I succeed in being another. Very pretty.

Malone, like Beckett, is searching for answers to the most fundamental questions, the what and the why. His narrative of the young Saposcat suggests a younger version of himself in “a thousand ways,” but it is a disgust with the artificial that leads him to repeatedly abandon it. It would make no difference if he called the young boy “Malone” because he realizes that memory is far too imperfect to produce the narratives that are demanded of it, and so even the story of his past would be subject to craft. What he’s concerned with is his present situation, and there’s a push to find something that is pure and sacred, something that will satisfy his wish to “know.”

The result is a constant stripping down of all that strikes the narrator as false. In the close of Malone Dies, the narrator’s desire to dismantle his fictions is projected into one of his characters as a terrifying murderous impulse. The momentum at the end of the novel carries the reader into the world of The Unnamable. The text begins, “Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on.” It’s a – perhaps the – novel of doubt, one that starts with Descartes skeptical stripping down of everything, but doesn’t have such an easy time building up something from nothing. The book is determined to kick down every fictional prop, to rid itself of every logical means it has of sustaining itself, and yet to persist.

Referring to the narrator of the text is questionable because he doesn’t always go so far as to ascribe himself a body. He admits that he was the one who created the characters of Molloy and Malone, and though he does his best to keep himself from telling “fairy tales,” there are still a few fictions in the text. There’s the story of Mahood, who returns home one day on crutches of uneven length so that he’s left revolving about his house while his family moves from window to window to watch his approach. By the time he reaches the home, they’re all dead. Later, Mahood manifests himself as a torso kept outside a restaurant in a jar, set out as an advertisement. Most of the novel, however, is best conceived simply as a voice coming out of the dark.

To say the least, it’s a frightening and unsettling read. At times, the main thing pulling the reader through the text is simply the beauty of the prose; there’s not a line in the book that doesn’t seem to be invested with urgency and longing. Here’s a sample:

But it’s not I, it’s not I, where am I, what am I doing, all this time, as if that mattered, but there it is, that takes the heart out of you, your heart isn’t in it any more, your heart that was, among the brambles, cradled by the shadows, you try the sea, you try the town, you look for yourself in the mountains and the plains, it’s only natural, you want yourself, you want yourself in your own little corner, it’s not love, not curiosity, it’s because you’re tired, you want to stop, travel no more, seek no more, lie no more, speak no more, close your eyes…

The lines come from a paragraph that’s about a hundred pages long. Beauty not-withstanding, most readers will eventually have to ask themselves: what’s the point?

The voice of the text is paralyzed by his doubt and his vulnerability. In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon seem somehow stoic, if not oblivious, with regard to their current situation. The tension is in the form of the play rather than in the characters themselves. In the novels, the voice is one of a narrator who is hyper-conscious of his situation and his suffering. Here, the tension is not only in the form, but behind the form. It comes from the narrator as the reader might imagine him.

The Unnamable’s search for something sacred, for the what and the why, seems in a sense to have become a search for self, a way to verify his own existence. Earlier I mentioned Descartes. One shouldn’t over-estimate his presence in the text, which struggles with quite a few of the major problems in Western philosophy. Still, Descartes is useful because everyone knows his proof of his own existence: “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). Needless to say, it would not be enough to satisfy The Unnamable. What the philosopher has observed is that there’s thinking going on. What, one might ask, is there to assure Descartes that he is the one doing the thinking? On this point, The Unnamable says, “I don’t say anything, I don’t know anything, these voices are not mine, nor these thoughts, but the voices and thoughts of the devils who beset me.” Is it any less possible that someone else could be injecting the thoughts into Descartes’ head, that it only seems as if the thoughts are his own?

For that matter, what makes Descartes so confident that the pronoun “I” justifies his identity? Recall some of the first words of the text: “I, say I. Unbelieving.” In a fascinating essay called “Subjectivity in Language” (1971), linguist Emile Benveniste points out that the pronoun “I” is a product of discourse, discourse being spoken and not written language. As he says, “It is in the instance of discourse in which I designates the speaker that the speaker proclaims himself as the ‘subject.’ And so it is literally true that the basis of subjectivity is in the exercise of language.” The pronoun “I” is what is called a deictic pronoun. It is derived from discourse and is used to bring attention to the existence of a particular thing in space in relation to the person speaking. It’s the same type of word as “here” or “there” except that it’s meant to refer to the body of the speaking individual. The original function of the pronoun, the link to the body, became obscured when it was taken up in the written text. After all, one can be reading the words of an author long since dead – in that case what does the pronoun refer to? With time, “I” came to stand in for one’s identity, for the core of the onion, for the way that each of us imagines the true self that controls his mind. What The Unnamable seems to find is that the referent of the pronoun, the “true self,” is ever elusive and indeterminable.

It would be a lie to say that the reader who finds such philosophical speculation not far removed from navel-gazing would be as excited by The Unnamable as one who finds it enthralling. Yet the text reveals an incredible falsity about philosophy. David Hume once said that “the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.” The implication seems to be that people are motivated by their religion in a way that they are not by philosophy, that they go to religion with a zealous desire to find a meaning to life whereas they go to philosophy with a cold and detached intellectual attitude. The Unnamable is not speculating. He attacks such philosophical problems with religious fervor. The form of the text is such that even if one were to read it in a foreign language that they did not speak, they would still be able to sense the spiritual craving running from line to line.

The Unnamable was published in 1953, shortly after the close of the Second World War. Beckett’s role in events was by no means unique. He was living in Paris at the start of the war, and retreated to a small village in the south of France called Roussillon. He played a minor role in the French Resistance for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre, though he dismissed his actions as “boy scout stuff.” A number of his close friends ended up in the German concentration camps, and some of them died there. As the war drew to a close, Beckett was one of millions trying to fathom what had happened. They were faced with suffering that was simply too large to fit into the reasoned dialectic of History. Optimism suddenly came to seem like blasphemy and an affront to the war’s victims. There were no words for consolation.

It is difficult to imagine a time when pessimism and despair would be a greater temptation. Beckett’s misanthropic temperament had been violently cast onto the world without his having written a word. There were millions who could not reconcile their old religious and philosophical ideas with what had happened. In more fortunate times, uncertainty had seemed simply a negative alternative to optimism. It now became the guardian of hope. Beckett never wrote about the war (except for one very brief essay), and he never tried to explain the suffering that would become omnipresent in his work. Instead, he imagined worlds peopled by those who are given no reason to hope and yet hope, worlds peopled by those given no reason to persevere and yet persevere. It’s a theme which doesn’t always make for a cheerful night at the theater, but one that all of us have felt in our darkest, and perhaps our most truthful, moments. The Unnamable’s final lines: “I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

If all of this seems dreadfully heavy, it helps that Beckett had a razor-sharp sense of humor. It seems only fitting that one dedicated to uncertainty couldn’t take himself seriously all the time. For all the exegesis surrounding Beckett’s work, it’s something which usually goes completely unmentioned. It seems either that scholars have a poor sense of humor or in their wisdom they’ve realized that nothing kills a joke like trying to explain why it’s funny. Still, an attempt could be worthwhile because Beckett’s comedy is one of the most fascinating aspects of his work.

At times, it is straight-forward physical comedy in the vein of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. In Waiting for Godot, there is Vladimir and Estragon excitedly swapping hats, and Estragon’s trousers falling to the ground without his realizing it. In Krapp’s Last Tape, there is Krapp with a banana lodged in his mouth staring blankly into space, or reveling in the sensation of pronouncing the word ‘Spool.’ Yet the humor that is most difficult to understand is that which seems to be based on suffering itself. As Nell says from her trash bin in Endgame, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness… Yes, yes, it’s the most comical thing in the world.”

Beckett’s humor often seems to contain the very means to undermine it. It should have the trajectory of a bottle rocket, going up with the laugh and coming back down with the realization of the suffering on which it is based, but it just doesn’t. The humor seems to come from a gradual building up of tension that is calling for release. Lives pervaded by so much pain must eventually find a counter-balance in some sort of pleasure. With unhappiness, there’s a necessity behind the laughter that isn’t there in other types of humor. Yet the necessity would seem to suggest that these are desperate laughs, which most of Beckett’s are not. One can’t be too general about the humor because each laugh is unique, but they are all similar in that they are not a distraction from the current situation. They are a reminder of it.

As an example, I’ll take Nagg’s joke in Endgame. Nagg is Nell’s husband, confined to a trash bin beside her, just far enough away that they are not able to kiss. They seem to have been put there by their unappreciative son Hamm, the central character in the play. Nagg tells the story of an Englishman who has a tailor make him a pair of trousers for the New Year. After his first visit, he comes back four days later to find that the tailor made a “mess of the seat.” He then comes back a week later to find that he’s made “a hash of the crutch.” The man is happy for the tailor to fix them because he knows that “a snug crutch is always a teaser.” He returns ten days later to find that the tailor’s made a “balls of the fly.” Again, he concedes that “a smart fly is a stiff proposition.” The tailor proceeds to “ballockses the buttonholes,” and finally the man’s patience breaks. He says, “God damn you to hell, Sir, no, it’s indecent, there are limits! In six days, do you hear me, six days, God made the world. Yes Sir, no less Sir, the WORLD! And you are not bloody well capable of making a pair of trousers in three months!” The tailor calmly replies, “But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look – at the world – and look – at my TROUSERS!”

In many ways, it’s a traditional joke. With each return of the Englishman, the audience’s expectation grows, especially once it has recognized the pattern. In the tailor’s punch line, there is a release of tension, by this time the audience is expecting something funny. Yet looking at the stage one sees that the joke is told by a miserable old man stuck in a garbage can, abused by his son, unable to kiss his wife. When one examines the punch line of the joke, the underlying message seems to be that the world is miserable. There is something incongruous about the laughter in a situation that, by all accounts, calls for despair. Why do we laugh? Aren’t we debasing the character by doing so? What if someone really were suffering like this?

These questions might seem to channel Beckett into the theater of the absurd, and the comparison would be fitting despite the fact that the absurdist label was one that Beckett particularly despised. Beckett saw ‘absurdism’ as just another value judgment about man’s existential condition, one based on groundless speculation. Labeling the humor as ‘absurdist’ can also lead to a dismissive analysis of the “but it’s funny” variety. It may be trite, but it’s still often forgotten just how many true things are said in jest.

Answers to the questions posed by Beckett’s humor can lead in two directions. One is how humor affects the audience’s ability to empathize with the character. The other is what laughter does for the suffering individual.

It’s worth considering that most people attending a Beckett play do not go to it in a mood of despair. When they sit in the audience and observe characters in distress, their mood must be brought down to that person’s level. If one doesn’t truly feel the way that the character does than there can be a hint of condescension in their pity. If the audience member does feel that the play has lowered their mood, then there can be a touch of resentment for the despairing characters that brought them down.

What Beckett’s humor does is give the audience a different point of entry to the character’s emotions – a point that is likely much closer to their own as they sit in the theater. When they laugh, they find themselves empathically involved in the character’s situation without their even having made an effort. With a little reflection, they would realize that the joy of the laugh is entwined with the character’s despair. They’ve become implicated in the character’s situation without their even having been aware of it. As for the characters themselves, if they were to reflect on their laughter, they are not inclined to trace its links to the despair with which they are already all too familiar. Instead, they observe the incongruity and they revel in it. They observe themselves not giving into despair when they have every logical reason to do so, and it is re-assuring. The laugh perpetuates itself. The bottle rocket does not come down.

It’s the raw elements of Beckett – the uncertainty, the suffering, and the humor – that can occasionally get lost as people grapple with understanding his work. Due to his reputation, many approaching Beckett feel pressure to like what is before them and to appreciate it. Such pressure is ill-founded. Like any ‘great’ work of art, Beckett only has so much to offer at a glance. Leonardo da Vinci’s “A work of art is never finished, only abandoned” is particularly fitting for the serious Beckett reader. If one initially feels repelled when they encounter Beckett, the feeling is completely natural. His work is not didactic, but the cult around it can make it seem that way. The work itself doesn’t insist upon its own importance, but if one really wants to become involved in it than it presents a profound challenge. As Salman Rushdie points out in an essay on Beckett, the terms are clear: “Surrender.”

When people are trying to make sense of Beckett’s art, they often turn to the text the “Three Dialogues” (1947). It’s a fictionalized dialectic on the subject of modern painting. Beckett put it together based on conversations with friend and fellow art enthusiast Georges Duthuit, casting himself as Plato and Duthuit as Glaucon. Like in Proust, painting is only the ostensible subject – Beckett is really trying to work out his own ideas about his writing. Beckett speaks of a “new art” that will break with that of the old, which is content to survey the world with “the eyes of building contractors” and “never stirred from the field of the possible.” When Duthuit asks him what it will be based on, he puts forward the often-quoted manifesto-like lines, “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” The lines contain the same merciless push for truth as the final words of the narrator in “Dante and the Lobster,” all the confidence and gusto but none of the vulnerability.

Though never quoted, the dialogue continues. Duthuit retorts, “But that is a violently extreme and personal point of view.”

And Beckett’s reply: “—”

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Filed under Criticism, Vol 2 Issue 1