Peter Gay on Beckett and Modernism

Scholar explores Samuel Beckett's relevance to one of the most significant literary movements of the 20th Century
Samuel Beckett

Excerpts from Peter Gay's Modernism: The Lure of Heresy From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond, a study which places Samuel Beckett's writing in the wider cultural and historical context of twentieth-century modernism.

Waiting for Godot

The most celebrated avant-garde dramatist of the absurd, the acknowledged teacher of the others, was the Irish writer Samuel Beckett, a major novelist as well as playwright, who did much of his work in French. In his best known, most widely performed play, En attendant Godot [Waiting for Godot] (written in 1948), he experimented with spare, often inconsistent anguish, with genial wit and amusing verbal twists. Beckett's principal message, then, learned less from Sartre than from Schopenhauer and his own experience, was that life is a catastrophe from birth, that isolation is a necessary element in the human condition, and that salvation, even though promised, will never come. Nor will self knowledge. Whatever one undertakes, Beckett noted in one of his much-quoted sayings, one must fail, and one's only recourse is to fail again, of better next time.

This was difficult doctrine. When the New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson reviewed the premiere of Waiting for Godot in New York in 1956, he begged off—"Don't expect this column to explain" the play, he wrote—but concluded that his "mystery wrapped in an enigma," with its "strange power," did transmit "some melancholy truths about the hopeless destiny of the human race." This, Beckett's enthusiastic commentators have insisted, is not a complete reading of his work, but it approached most of what his readers and listeners took away from seeing or reading him.

Among those who refused to explain Waiting for Godot was Beckett himself. When his friend, his American director Alan Schneider, asked him for the meaning of this undramatic drama, Beckett replied: "If I knew, I would have said so in the play." This was not teasing or tormenting his interrogator, It was a simple truth for him that not only are the answers unknowable, but the most fundamental questions about birth and even more about death, are not susceptible to neat clarification. What was clear was Beckett's depressed revision of Descartes' celebrated proof for human existence: I suffer, hence I am.

Peter Gay, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond

Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable

The Unnamable, the last in a trilogy of Beckett novels (1951-53), famously ends with an admission of anguished ignorance paired with the duty to persist: "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." Curt and ambivalent, this is the most radical possible rejection of ordinary consistency, extreme, uncompromising modernist philosophizing. The predecessors of The Unnamable, the novels Molloy and Malone Dies, had smoothed its way. All three are terse first-person fictions, for the most part long monologues leaping fitfully from topic to topic, arbitrarily shifting chronology, spending gloomy time (just as arbitrarily) over unimportant inconveniences. In the first sentence of Molloy, Beckett's eponymous hero shows him, anxiously seeking his mother, to be already in his mother's room. Malone desperately attempts to discover his true self, but recognizes that it will always be hidden. And The Unnamable is the culmination of such inquiries, a resolution as absurd to pursue as it is to stop pursuing it.

Peter Gay, Modernism

Beckett's Influence on Harold Pinter

Among many heartfelt accolades to Beckett, the most quotable one came from Harold Pinter. The leading practitioner of absurdist theatre, Pinter had gone to school to Beckett. "The farther he goes," he wrote of his preceptor, "the more good it does me. I don't want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, ways out, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement. He is the most courageous, remorseless writer going, and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him." And yet, for all the portentousness of his praise, Pinter insists: "His work is beautiful." That in 1969 the determined outsider Beckett should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the supreme honor for an insider, shows that the selection committee shared Pinter's enthusiasm: "His work is beautiful." It seems only appropriate that in 2005, Beckett's best known pupil, Pinter, politically even more fanatical an adversary of middle-class establishment thinking, joined him by being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Other dramatists of the absurd, all deeply in Beckett's debt, were less austere in their dramas. If Samuel Beckett could assemble his characters on a blasted heath, Harold Pinter found a well-appointed living room sufficiently threatening. Beckett has life itself as the enemy; his fellows could concentrate on political and social systems they found hateful. Pinter, a poet and actor before he turned prolific playwright, developed unmistakable stage talk—his dramatic situations secured the uncertain honor of being immortalized as "Pinteresque"— in which his characters convert seemingly innocuous conversations into confrontations rife with deep-lyng and frightening hostility. His violence may be verbal, but it is no less violent for that.

Peter Gay, Modernism
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