Thursday, April 13, 2006

Worstward Ho

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Beckett and it almost got by me.

There doesn’t seem to have been that much of a fuss, considering.

There have been some theatrical festivals, book collections, etc., but I don’t get the feeling that a whole lot of attention is being paid to it.

Strange, too, as the passing of Beckett in 1989 felt like the end of a line of giants.

I can remember the fuss in 1974 for Gertrude Stein’s centennial, and the one for Joyce in 1982.

I wonder if Beckett’s accomplishment doesn’t cut too near the bone for this century. His constant refining of words, shaving them down to a thin wedge in an attempt to come to grips with the human condition, might not be a mirror we want to look in at the moment.

Or maybe it’s simply that so much of his accomplishment is built upon the fine shades and gradations of language itself, which is to say, the essence of literature.

And that’s not worth much these days.

He wouldn’t have wanted a fuss, of course. He was the least publicity conscious author that ever lived.

I came to him through Joyce, but the first time I really got a sense of his art was through the terrific one-man show that the late Irish actor Jack MacGowran used to do.

Beckett couldn’t have asked for a better, more expressive vehicle for his words. MacGowran looked and sounded as if he walked off of one of the author’s pages.

This potpourri of Beckett’s work was captured in a special that I remember received a great deal of exposure back in the 70’s on public television. The actor delivered a series of monologues from Beckett’s works against the stark background of a dry and arid desert landscape. Dressed in a large, shapeless black sack of a thing, he seemed like a mad monk in the middle of nowhere as he addressed us on the subject of the rotation of his sucking stones from within and without his waistcoat pocket.

One quickly sensed that the rhythm and the repetition of the language was as much content as it was form, as Beckett himself said of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. This was a world in which progress was illusory, a sad and cyclical redundancy that spun its wheels while believing that things would progress, would improve.

It was our world.

But there was great humor here as well, almost a vaudevillian tone that at least let us believe in the continuance of something approximating the human spirit, if not that spirit itself.

Its purpose was not to reduce the world to a dung heap, but to show just how remarkably long we can last while we’re trapped in it.

And there is something to be said for rereading an author throughout one’s life in order to glean different things. It’s one thing at age 16 to think that one’s life is nothing but a cruel existential suffering, but it’s quite another to read that final monologue from The Unnameable ("I can’t go on, I’ll go on") after having gone through three-quarters of your allotted span and trying to come to grips with the final act.

The poetry, the discipline, and the integrity of his work will no doubt continue to be an inspiration for generations to come, even to those who are not inclined to follow him very far.

And if he taught us anything, 100 years really doesn’t mean anything at all.


Blogger RadioZero said...

From waht I remember nobody actually learned about Beckett's death until well after it had happened... "Enigmatic in death as in life" was the phrase that I remember the most from the news...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006 6:10:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home