Beckett's Endless Game
Beckett's art offers workings of habit upon memory and memory upon habit
By Ken Kwek
Samuel Beckett writes in his essay, Proust (1931):
In this we find one of the major concerns that will go on to haunt all of Beckett’s art: the development of an aesthetic centred around an account of the workings of habit upon memory, and memory upon habit. His is a speculative vision of the consequences these have for the subjective experience of time. The “aesthetic”, as Rupert Wood contends, is derived more prominently from Schopenhauer than Proust, even though the latter was Beckett’s professed “favourite” philosopher:
Wood further explains how it follows, that below the lofty disinterested heights of aesthetic experience, the life of the “ordinary subject” – that is, the “life of the body on earth” – slave as he is to the will-to-live, is one of infinitely frustrated longing. This longing is rendered dramatically in the protracted continuum of waiting and the repetition of habits in Waiting for Godot (1955) and Endgame (1957).
Instead of following the tradition which demands that a play have an exposition, a climax and a denouement, Beckett’s first plays have a kind of cyclical structure which might be described as a diminishing spiral. They present images of entropy in which the world and the people in it are slowly but inexorably running down. In this spiral descending towards a final closure that can never be found in the Beckettian universe, the characters seek refuge in repetitive habit – both of thought and gesture. And they do so chiefly, if unconsciously, to pass the time. Beckett’s tragic vision of mankind is not death as the ultimate and incomprehensible end, but dying as a process that feels painfully interminable. The reflection is that if our one certain reality is simply “we breathe, we change! We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals!” (Endgame), then it is a truth that is obviously very difficult to accept emotionally. The waiting becomes at once, in torturous contradiction, a needful means of coping – “a compromise effected between the individual and his environment” - as well as the grotesque “ballast that chains the dog to his vomit”, a veritable bane for its ostensible lack of “eternal meaning” or “timeless essence”. In the desire for “timelessness”, we find conversely that the barometer of existence is time; but time indubitably exists as a force of which the characters (of Godot and Endgame) are aware only in their increasing decrepitude – their fleshly awfulness; and not in any other sense of its capacity to propagate human values in endless continuum. In the world of the plays (here it must be noted that the audience is often invited to blur the distinction between reality and drama), since each day is like all the others, it seems logical to suggest that the characters cannot really apprehend the passing of time. Thus, it is poignant that Godot is grounded in the promise of an arrival that never happens, and Endgame in the promise of a departure that never occurs. The emotional response to this is sometimes stoic:
But more naturally and pathetically, it is tragicomic – tragic in its anguish, comic in its exasperation:
In dialectic contrast to the emotional response, Beckett portrays the logical response of his characters as an attempt, albeit a futile one, to “comprehend” the passage of time. In Godot and Endgame, they do this by trying to project their lives onto a nondescript – and perhaps non-existent – future, by inventing a past for themselves. It is a past that is invariably, but very humanly, regarded with nostalgia:
“Above all, a man’s thought is his nostalgia,” writes Camus in his existentialist tract, The Myth of Sisyphus. Beckett corroborates this view, though in his plays, the various anecdotes are never fully or coherently recounted. They are told to persuade the teller that he or she does in fact have a past (note Hamm’s redefinition of his life as “my chronicle”), and to convince a listener that a past, even “their past”, exists. Everyone is complicit in that wilful delusion; wilful because they strive not to remember a past but rather to construct one. Furthermore, if the characters are often unwitting pawns in a greater game of existential chess, they are at least conscious enough to recognize the contrivance of their personal “history-making”. They don’t quite believe their own tales even if they want to, and this results inadvertently in a failure to determine and describe their own purpose of living, and value in life. It is no wonder then that their conversation appears to us as apparently random and pointless banter. Still, it is the characters’ jumble of “inanities”, arranged in a type of “anti-drama” that abandons conventional form, which reflects in structure the chaos of content.
This is a fundamental instrument in Beckett’s drama. As convoluted and fragmented as the “dialogue” may seem, it is the very means with which the characters derive some impression of their existence. Clov is stronger than Hamm because he guides the latter’s very movement and thought; Lucky is stronger than Pozzo because his apparent inadequacy provides a specious reason for Pozzo to assert his authority. These pairs are bound in friendships that are essentially power-relationships. But more significantly, the relationships are exerted through the medium of speech. The characters prove to each other that they exist through continuous engagement in riposte and/or reply. According to Michael Worton, Beckett was much influenced by Berkeley’s contention: Esse est percipi – to be is to be perceived. This postulate, which the playwright quotes in Murphy (1938) and uses as the epigraph to Film (1967), informs much existentialist thinking and underpins the anxious and imperative desire of his characters to be noticed and addressed. Nagg says to Hamm, “I hope the day will come when you’ll really need to have me listen to you, and need to hear my voice, any voice.” (Endgame) In this declaration, however, we sense also a complicating factor: the characters are constantly grappling with primordial ideas of being that, for Beckett, cannot always be clearly seen or articulated, if at all. And if language fails, then the cognitive processes fail, because thinking requires a linguistic register and vehicle.
The mental and emotional disintegration effected by Beckett’s disjointed verbal dramaturgy can be attributed to a schism latent in the famous Cartesian dictum, Cogito ergo sum – ‘I think, therefore, I am.’ In Endgame, Descartes’ theory is evoked and parodied in emotional terms when old Nagg is ‘analysed’:
The explicit ergo (‘therefore’/’then’) of Cartesian thinking is for Beckett’s characters a crude reaffirmation that logic is the great tempter and “proof” of human existence. “Use your head, can’t you, use your head, you’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!” (Endgame) cries Hamm. As an inhabitant of a godless world, he falls victim to the common and comforting impression of ‘control’ offered by a belief in rationale. This prizing of the human mind amounts to a kind of hubris, with consequences elucidated by the physicist Fritjof Capra:
Beckett further exemplifies this condition in another play, the fittingly titled Not I (1972). In this piece, the mind is quite literally separated from the body, with a ‘Mouth’ and ‘Auditor’ as the two characters involved – the former by speaking and the latter by miming in response - in what is effectively a dramatic monologue. Almost solipsistically, the ‘Mouth’ scrupulously distinguishes between what is “meant to be suffering” and what is “thought to be suffering”. (Not I) The human form in this play is described as “the whole body like gone”, with the brain emitting a “dull roar... in the skull”, “raving away on its own... trying to make sense” of life and the endless play towards the “full-time” of death. This complete disembodiment is, however, ultimately unable to provide any plausible reasons to human existence because, to use Hamm’s expression, “There’s something dripping in my head. [Pause.] A heart, a heart in my head.” (Endgame) In the end, the mind separated from the body is indeed incapable of controlling it, and can only lead to “conflict between the conscious will and the involuntary instincts”. In Not I, Beckett emphatically refutes the clichéd distinction between thinking and feeling; he suggests that, in man’s “whole organism”, the emotional and logical responses are, in fact, quite inextricable.
Chained as we are then, to our hearts as much as to our heads, what ‘solution’ does Beckett offer, even as he acknowledges the potential inadequacies of language and our capitulation to habit? In effect, he gives us none. He does not and cannot pretend to provide any answers. Instead, he strives to provoke his audience to consider the philosophical problems latent in his experimental and self-critiquing theatrical design. The meta-theatrical aspects of his plays have been identified. Godot and Endgame, for example, are not only compositions for the stage, they are also comments on dramatic art. This extract from Endgame is particularly illuminating for its direct references to dramatic form and deliberate surfeit of stage directions:
Endgame, and indeed most of Beckett’s other plays and texts challenge the traditional contract between play and spectator or reader, since they deny or render impossible the need for what Coleridge defines as “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith”. The reflexivity of his characters – with their pre-announced “asides” and “soliloquies” - is inescapable. His dramatic pauses are equally unorthodox: they may be silences of inadequacy, when characters cannot find the words they need; silences of repression, when they are struck dumb by the attitude of their interlocutor or by their sense that they may be breaking a social taboo; or silences of anticipation, when they await the response of the other which will give them temporary sense of existence. The only conventionality contained in these silences is the space they create for audiences to assume the critical responsibility of establishing the play’s meaning, or deriving “answers” about life for themselves.
In a way then, the “answers”, if Beckett hints at any at all, are found in returning to Schopenhauerian aesthetics: art as a means of engaging man’s consciousness and, in that ‘all too rare moment’, releasing him from the burden of mundane and repetitive living. Beckett’s dramatic representation of habit is suitably related in terms of Camus’ philosophy of the ‘Absurd’: “At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspect of [human beings’] gestures, their meaningless pantomime makes silly everything that surrounds them.” (The Myth of Sisyphus) Beckett may be considered an absurd man in that he has seen through the vain repetitions of daily life:
Beckett relentlessly performs the work of the absurd artist in his dramatization of that “why” and that “weariness tinged with amazement.” James Wood rightly suggests that with consciousness, “‘the chain of daily gestures is broken.’ Now everything begins to seem pointless and comical.” This is the underlying principle of Beckett’s plays: life is miserable, but it is also comic in its repetitive inanities. Even his characters are aware of this:
Herein lies their “redemption”. By recognising that life can be “funny” and yet also “always the same thing”, Nell accepts the comic absurdity of her plight and the futility of her struggle. Her self-awareness is liberating, though from here on she starts to resemble Camus’s Sisyphus, who is condemned to perform the unavailing task of pushing a rock up a mountain, only to have it roll back down time and again for all eternity. The dramatic implication of Nell’s epiphany is significant. As she resigns herself to a destiny of Sisyphean repetition, she is transfigured, recast both as a tragic hero and a tragic fool, laughing at her own unhappiness. Correspondingly, Beckett’s black comedy begins to subvert genre definitions by manifesting itself as farcical tragedy. It is a powerful transformation, one that exploits the cathartic potential of Aristotelian tragedy without conforming to its formal structure. Beckett’s art is rebellious and nihilistic, but it is also communicative and – arguably - comforting. By inviting us to participate in his Theatre of the Absurd, he compels us to consider the tragicomedy of our lives, and thereby to break the dull inviolability of routine and habit.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 3 Apr 2005