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A Cheerful, Tranquil, Immoral Beckett

But if Pyrrhonian belief is like the action of a dog removing a thorn stuck in its paw then issues of sincerity don’t arise. The Pyrrhonist is not reasoning her way to belief. Neither philosophical nor ordinary reasoning is involved. Her belief is brute, like a conditioned reflex. Modern day Pyrrhonians don’t take the position that belief is analogous to the action of a thorn-removing canine.

‘Tranquility’ seems exactly the opposite of Nietzsche’s position. Nietzsche is setting his face against modern understandings of suffering which the Platonic and Christian ascetics have successfully transformed into an objection to life. But to Homeric Greeks in their ‘glorious but likewise so gruesome, so violent world’ suffering was no such objection to life. As such it was not the opposite of tranquility, as it strikes many ascetics today, but is a positive state that is, as Jessica Berry puts it, ‘ … a state of cheerfulness.’ This pre-Platonic, pre-Christian sense of cheerfulness was also held by Democritus of Abdera who though not a Pyrrhonist was closely identified with Pyrrhonianism by Sextus and was a figure of interest to Beckett.

And surely Beckett’s characters are hardly characterized as tranquil. They suffer, they struggle and they go to pieces. ‘Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more’ comments a character in Godot. The ‘long logic’ of their lives doesn’t preclude representing them as wrecks in an existential storm, as close to Lear as can be. Or Winkleman’s Laocoon.

Berry writes that Joachim Winckelmann, the eighteenth century founding father of German classicism took the agonized and contorted sculptured figure of Laocoon as the great image of ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur.’ He writes: ‘ Just as the depths of the sea always remain calm however much the surface may rage, so does the expression of the figures of the Greeks reveal a great and composed soul even in the midst of a great passion… Such a soul is reflected in the face of Laocoon – and not in the face alone – despite his violent suffering … The physical pain and nobility of soul are distributed with equal strength over the entire body and are, as it were, held in balance with one another. Laocoon suffers, but he suffers like Sophocles’ Philoctetes; his pain touches our very souls, but we wish that we could bear misery like this great man.’ Berry comments that as an illustration of nobility and quiet grandeur the statue seems profoundly inappropriate. It mixes Homeric passion with Stoic fortitude in a tense relationship Winckleman didn’t discuss. But considered in terms of Homeric, Nietzschean tranquility, capable of accommodating suffering as life affirmation in a way that contemporary ascetic ideals cannot, the illustration can now be seen to be apt. The apparent tension is dissolved.

Beckett’s universe may be read in terms of this resolved tension. The tranquility of the Pyrrhonian is not a resting place nor a ‘peacefulness of the soul’ for that is ‘the religion of smug cosiness’ for Nietzsche. To understand Pyrrohnian ‘cheerfulness’ Berry finds Democritus clarifying. As a writer cited by both Nietzsche and Beckett this reference is extra fortuitous and enlightening. For berry, Democritus’s psychophysics requires a soul conditioned to be resilience. To be steady, steadfast and firm is the essence of his notion of ‘cheerfulness.’ A firm materialist, Democritus understands the soul as a bodily thing and so the physical prowess is locked in to what he means in this. He writes about ‘cheerfulness.’ Nietzsche picks up this way of talking about thoughts: ‘There are certain tricks of the spirit by which even great minds betray that they come from the mob or half-mob, the gait and stride of their thoughts especially plays the traitor: they cannot walk.’ He says that ‘thinking wants to be learned like dancing, as a type of dancing.’ The issue is heaviness and gravity. ‘One has to be very light to drive one’s will to knowledge into such a distance and, as it were, beyond one’s time… One must have liberated oneself from many things that oppress, inhibit, hold down, and make heavy precisely to us Europeans today’ he says in ‘The Gay Science.’ European man is distressed by the tension involved in attempting a great task, the Nietzschean is according to Berry ‘… buzzing with tension, ready to take on the challenge…’

The struggle and conflict are requisites for the great individual: ‘open enemies are indispensible to some people if they are to rise to their own kind of virtue, manliness and cheerfulness.’ The link between Democritus and both Nietzsche and Beckett is secure. The link between him and Pyrrho has a pedigree established through a line of pupil/teacher relationships. Berry reports ‘Diogenes Laertius in Books IX and X of his Lives, in which he describes Democritus, a student of Heraclitus, as a cohort and perhaps teacher of the contemporary Abderite philosopher Protagoras… best known for his proclamation that ‘man is the measure of all things’, on the basis of which he himself is often connected to the skeptical tradition. More significantly , though, the succession described in these two books … establishes Democritus’s influence on Pyrrho himself, who Diogenes says “ used to refer to Democritus above all.” Though other experts such as James Warren doubts such lineages Nietzsche himself didn’t. The genealogy of cheerfulness and tranquility lends us Democritus the ‘laughing philosopher’ as well as the advice of Nietzsche in 1886 where he says; ‘You ought to learn the art of this-worldly comfort first; you ought to learn to laugh, my young friends, if you are hell-bent on remaining pessimists. Then perhaps, as laughers, you may someday dispatch all metaphysical comforts to the devil – metaphysics first.’ Beckett’s works are not comedies but full of comedians: ‘What kind of country is this where a woman can’t weep her heart out on the highways and byways without being tormented by retired bill-brokers!’ says one: another; ‘There is man in his entirety, blaming his shoe when his foot is guilty’; again, ‘Decidedly it will never have been given to me to finish anything, except perhaps breathing. One must not be greedy’; and then,
I am blind.
Perhaps he can see into the future’;

and ‘Any fool can turn a blind eye but who knows what the ostrich sees in the sand’; and, mercilessly, ‘What is that unforgettable line?’

In the ‘Genealogy Of Morals’ Nietzsche makes note of the role of the comedian: ‘All I care to have pointed out here is this: in the spiritual sphere as well, the ascetic ideal has in the meantime only one kind of real enemy and injurer, the comedians of this ideal – for they arouse mistrust.’ Beckett’s comic turns are Nietzschean sensations. They also link with the immoralist whose scope is broader than just morality but extends to wherever an ideal of truth is worshipped, including both science and art: he writes; ‘ science and the ascetic ideal, they do, after all, stand on one and the same ground … namely on the same overestimation of truth.’

Beckett’ first love says as much: ‘It took me a long time, my lifetime so to speak, to realise that the colour of an eye half seen, or the source of some distant sound, are closer to Giudecca in the hell of unknowing than the existence of God, or the origins of protoplasm, or the existence of self, and even less worthy than these to occupy the wise. It’s a bit much, a lifetime, to achieve this consoling conclusion, it doesn’t leave you much time to profit by it.’ This isn’t pessimism, but recognition that dogmatism as a way of life isn’t healthy and requires a remedy. Nietzsche draws attention to the physicality and materiality of all this, likening skeptics to doctors. The immorality that the position embraces is again one that belies common expectations and uses. Just as ‘cheerfulness’ and ‘tranquility’ doesn’t exclude suffering, nor does immorality exclude charity. What Nietzsche argues is that morals have been reified into dogmatic truths. They are ‘illusions that we have forgotten are illusions.’ An illusion, as used here, ‘is not the same thing as an error, nor is it necessarily an error… they are derived from human wishes… they come nearer to psychiatric delusions… Illusions are not necessarily false – that is to say, unrealizable or in contradiction to reality…’ says Nietzsche. Objections to immorality betrays a hidden dogmatic moral stance and commitment to human exceptionalism. In Beckett there is a continuous erosion of any sense that humans have been educated by anything other than by errors. The errors are the basis of humanity, humaneness and dignity. Once discounted these images of ourselves are replaced by a self image as animal, material and universally agnostic.

The many references to the body in Beckett emphasize both the eradication of the illusions that deny our animality and the immorality that follows from this. Beckett uses images of sex to erode illusions, such as love: so in The Trilogy we get; ‘It was she made me acquainted with love. She went by the peaceful name of Ruth I think, but I can’t say for certain. Perhaps the name was Edith. She had a hole between her legs, oh not the bunghole I had always imagined, but a slit, and in this I put, or rather she put, my so-called virile member, not without difficulty, and I toiled and moiled until I discharged or gave up trying or was begged by her to stop. A mug’s game in my opinion and tiring on top of that, in the long run. But I lent myself to it with a good enough grace, knowing it was love, for she had told me so.’ This continues for a a recurring theme in Beckett is therefore an important part of Beckett’s project which is merely the reaction to the recognition, ‘You’re on earth. There’s no cure for that.’ When Estragon is told: ‘People are bloody ignorant apes’ we’re getting a succinct summary of Nietzsche’s Gay Science. In turn, this is according to Berry’s thesis, a full-on version of Pyrrhonian skepticism.

The audacity of Nietzschean iconoclasm has often been remarked on. Beckett’s too, but with ambiguity as to what exactly he is supposed to be breaking. By connecting him with the Pyrrhonian aspect of Nietzsche his art is a suspension facing an infinite horizon where instead of emptiness, loneliness, despair and all the terrors he finds tranquility, cheerfulness and health. There cannot be an ism attached to this place, for that would imply a dogmatic stance towards something, or a kind of longing. Nietzsche, if Berry’s reading works, is a philosopher who refuses to offer anything. Vladimir in Godot personifies this: ‘Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be? He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me about the blows he received and I’ll give him a carrot. (pause) Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. But habit is a great deadener. At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause.) I can’t go on! (Pause.) What have I said?’

Beckett offers us characters at sea. They suspend dogmaticism and judgment. Nietzsche is the philosopher of such suspension, following in the footsteps of the Homeric Greeks and in particular Pyrrho. Beckett’s tragic art expresses their cheerful, tranquil, immoral vision.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 15th, 2013.