Beckett the Nietzschean hedonist
‘Clov: There are so many terrible things now.
Hamm: No, no, there are not so many now.’ (‘Endgame’).
A body of despair has been assembled. It has manifest arrangements. Atomic loneliness engulfs us as if parodying our vast populations. Hopes for even timid liaisons diminish in paradox. We recognize that the best times for such hopes are when alone. Never has solipsistic terror been so crowded. Conrad wrote, ‘Who knows what true loneliness is – not the conventional word but the naked terror? To the lonely themselves it wears a mask. The most miserable outcast hugs some memory or some illusion.’ Charlotte Bronte is autobiographical: ‘The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.’ Loneliness will always have an obscure history. If it led to easily discerned conclusions then it would be less so. But we refuse obedience to the logic of ending it, aping willpower though powerless. We continue with the hubris of the lonely. This is when the ego strives to stay at least at stalemate and refuses suicide. That is the absurd ground. What are we to make of this attachment to our calamity? Schopenhauer’s question hovers around this: why not self-annihilation given so much agony? The writer finds her ground variously.In Beckett an isolated atomic subjectivity finds a strange equipoise in choreographic endurance. Think of ‘Quad 1’ and ‘Quad 2’ where a dance of exactly such anonymous atomic subjectivity persists unabated over millennia. Jean-Michel Rabaté is pithily deft. He describes the effect of these works as ‘the Inferno as ballet’. This captures their condensed enormity. There is a species of the harmonious in it, a harmony of despair that is ironical, bleak and registering dimensions summarised in Mercutio’s bitterly wry: ‘tis not so deep as a well, nor wide as a church-door; but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve.’
Beckett’s characters are wrecked particles in this body of despair. Are they outside of anything but a naturalistic philosophy? Adorno describes the failure of philosophy in Beckett’s ‘Endgame’. He is surely right to distance Beckett’s response to this manifest Winterreise from any statement of intent or determined solution. So Existentialism is given short shrift: ‘In Beckett, history devours existentialism.’ This is Adorno’s familiar issue of the impossibility of writing after Auschwitz. Adorno reads the play as a parody of Heidegger and totalitarian Marxist thinking embodied in Lukacs. He criticizes their phenomenology. But Adorno notes in the essay that ‘Proust, about whom the young Beckett wrote an essay, is said to have attempted to keep protocol on his own struggle with death, in notes which were to be integrated into the description of Bergotte’s death. ‘Endgame’ carries out this intention like a mandate from a testament.’ Adorno identifies the absurd in ‘Endgame’ in terms of Fichte. ‘The nonsense of an act becomes a reason to accomplish it – a late legitimation of Fichte’s free activity for its own sake.’ But Fichtean absurdity hardly answers the question as to why suicide is rejected.
Yet there is another philosopher, and one who appears in ‘Endgame’, who arranges an approach to the tragedy of life answering to Schopenhauer’s giant question of why no suicide. In Stephen Dilkes’s ‘Beckett In The Marketplace’ the hagiographic image of Beckett as secular saint is pricked a little. Beckett was an assiduous arranger of his image, a sort of David Bowie of the literati. He deftly suppressed his philosophical reading in public statements. We don’t know why. According to David Addyman and Matthew Feldman between 1930 and 1938 he wrote 266 Folios of five hundred sides of variously typed and handwritten recto and verso notebook pages on philosophy taken from four sources. The sources were J. Archibald Alexander’s 1907 ‘A Short History of Philosophy’; John Burnet’s 1914 ‘Greek Philosophy, Part I: Thales to Plato’; Friedrich Ueberweg’s ‘A History of Philosophy, from Thales to the Present Time’; and the revised second edition of Wilhelm Windelband’s ‘A History of Philosophy’. The last 157 folios all come from reading this latter work amounting to three quarters of all the notes. For this reason it is not unlikely that Beckett was not always sketching a generalized philosophical theme but had a specific one in mind.
Thomas Dilworth and Christopher Langlois think so. They propose that when Hamm remembers visiting a ‘madman’ in some anomalous visit, a recollection occurring halfway through ‘Endgame’ that draws attention to both memory and its defaults as well as the strategic location of the occurrence in the text as a whole, the ‘madman’ is to be identified as Nietzsche. Or Artaud.
I once knew a madman who thought the end of the world had come. He was a painter and engraver. I had a great fondness for him. I used to go and see him, in the asylum. I’d take him by the hand and drag him to the window. Look! There! All that rising corn! And there! Look! The sails of the herring fleet! All that loveliness!
He’d snatch away his hand and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes.
He alone had been spared.
They conclude that, as with allusions to Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ in the characters Pozzo and Lucky of ‘Godot’, Beckett ‘… is repeating the strategy of referring through dramatized imagery to a famous philosophical text in order to emphasise a pervasive theme in the play’. Jean-Michel Rabaté notes that Beckett’s relationship to philosophy is purposively playful. At times it works as shorthand, a gesture towards some idea that may or may not be a central concern, at other times it illustrates some more general feature, such as the structure of dramatic reality in the use of the sorites found also in ‘Endgame’. So, elsewhere, we find in Hugh Kenner’s mathematical, rationalist Beckett a looming Cartesian presence. In others we find Berkeley, or else, as in Mary Massoud, a redemptive Christology rebuking Nietzsche. Ruby Cohen’s picaresque humourist may well combine a nihilist philosophy that likes to claim Nietzsche as a precursor.
A Nietzschean Beckett has long been discussed, performed and read in terms of nihilism, existentialism and postmodernism. Beckett the mimetic nihilist, the existentialist humanist, the anti-expressionist or the postmodernist has been self-consciously indebted to what has been supposed as being Nietzsche’s influence. We get readings of Nietzsche as ‘… engaged not so much in the hermeneutics of suspicion as in the aesthetics of play: Beckett becomes a Nietzschean who takes the ‘immense framework of planking of concepts’ that we call Western metaphysics and then ‘smashes [it] to pieces, throws it into confusion, and puts it back together in an ironic fashion.’
Mary Massoud’s Beckett is supposed as being in dialogue with Nietzsche. Her Christianised Beckett writes ‘Godot’ to defy Nietzsche, writing that ‘…in this play, Beckett, with his religious background and his wealth of Biblical knowledge, could very well have been responding to Nietzsche’s gleeful announcement that ‘God is dead’, and his joyful celebration of this realization as a wonderfully liberating factor. Seen in this light, Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ stands as a warning of the kind of life people would find themselves leading if they adopted Nietzsche’s philosophic view. Far from the glorious liberty prophesied by Nietzsche, they would find themselves leading a life of bondage, and experiencing the worst possible kind of exile: an exile from meaningful life. In its critique of life without God (in defiance of Nietzsche), the play is definitely Christian!’
For some, Beckett goes further than their Nietzsche. For these, Beckett refines or streamlines Nietzsche. So, for example, Richard Cope claims that ‘… the difference lies in the fact that for Nietzsche, expression is inadequate, existing only in relations, but for Beckett, it is impossible, due to a complete breakdown of these relations. Nietzsche still allows for expressive attempts, but remains adamant of the open-handedness of interpretation, whereas Beckett willfully destroys the notion of expression, but can only do so by leaving his methods open to interpretation… Beckett’s claim that ‘there are many ways in which the thing I am trying to say in vain, may be tried in vain to be said’ is at once affirmed and negated, by the fact that he does say it in vain, but in doing so relies ouch unexplainable, because fictitious, terms of obligation. For Nietzsche the realization that ‘adequate expression matters little’, is placed beside the knowledge that we are still drive towards an attempt at such, an action that continues to feed our delusions, from which we must free ourselves ’. From this radically skeptical philosophical position Cope takes Beckett from Nietzsche to the postmodernism of Derrida. He writes: ‘ Derrida allows for a multiplicity in his readings and writings, that at once protects the text, but also opens it up for infinite interpretations. Beckett’s discursive writings, while being stable and systematic, are also aware of their status as a fictive residue of philosophy, self-conscious of their flaws and trappings, and [thus] can be read as being self-deconstructive’.
A postmodern Nietzschean Beckett has been an enduring approach. Richard Began claims that Beckett can be read through the lens of postmodernity, and postmodernity through the lens of Beckett. He discusses both Beckett and Nietzsche in terms of Derridean ideas of ‘differance, unnamability and postmodernity’. He talks about the ‘mirror effects’ of ‘enantiodromia’, the tendency of things to turn into their opposites, as being central to these concerns.
Richard Lane in ‘Beckett and Nietzsche: The Eternal Headache. Beckett and Philosophy’ pairs ‘Ecce Homo’ and ‘Krapps’ Last Tape’ and claims that ‘… Nietzsche cannot escape the reading of his work as void (charges of nihilism or just simply ignoring it), however weighty his literature, however off-balance he throws other writings, whereas Beckett cannot escape the plenitude that he appears to be asserting no longer exists in a non-redemptive world (for example, the proliferation of meaning in a meaningless universe).’
Dilworth contrasts the cheerfuness of Nietzsche with the gloom of Beckett. So for Nietzsche writing about ‘The meaning of our cheerfulness,´ he claims that ‘… the consequences of God being dead are not at all sad and gloomy but rather like a new and scarcely describable kind of light, happiness, relief, exhilaration, encouragement, dawn… our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation´. For Dilworth, ‘Endgame contradicts the optimism’. According to this approach for Beckett, the non-existence of God is no occasion of joyful freedom. His characters everywhere implicitly deny Nietzschean optimism as a farcical delusion. Absence of God is the absence of meaning. It precludes real or lasting happiness. In Beckett, all that is left to Godless humanity is absurdity and despair, which Hamm fearfully, habitually (and, for the audience, unsuccessfully) attempts to keep at bay by generating dialogue, enacting familiar routines, asking the same questions´ and giving the same answers´ , and retelling and extending a little his narrative . Clov says, life´ is a farce, day after day´ . Hamm says crying´ is proof of living´ . If nature has left us,´ nevertheless, Something is taking its course´ , and that can only mean, we change! We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals´ !’ Dilworth continues in this vein, linking Beckett with Artaud. Adorno does too.
In this reading the Artaud of ‘Total Darkness’ is anti-Nietzschean, taking the point of view of total pessimism. Dilworth asserts that ‘… a certain form of pessimism carries with it its own kind of lucidity. The lucidity of despair, the lucidity of senses that are exacerbated and as if on the edge of the abyss. And alongside the horrible relativity of any human action, this unconscious spontaneity which drives one, in spite of everything, to action. And Artaud in ‘The Alfred Jarry Theatre’ of 1927 writes: ‘This is the kind of human anguish the spectator must feel as he leaves our theatre. He will be shaken and antagonized by the internal dynamic of the spectacle that will unfold before his eyes. And this dynamic will be in direct relation to the anxieties and preoccupations of his whole life. Such is the fatality that we evoke, and the spectacle will be this fatality itself’. Dilworth, as we noted at the start, identifies the madman with both Nietzsche and Artaud. Given that he takes Artaud as defining an alternative, pessimistic perspective on the Nietzschean idea of ‘the death of God’ the dual identity has the happy face solution of combining the supposedly contrasting positions taken by Nietzsche and Beckett. But why suppose any contrast?
Amidst the plethora of readings that shuffle the postmodern pack is Foucault. Foucault is an enduring hinge thinker in this sort of discussion, connecting the commonly asserted trope associating the Nietzschean death of God with the Barthean/Derridean postmodernist death of the author. The move from postmodern to existentialist readings of Beckett are virulent, where the desire for meaning in a context of nihilism and absurdism become the common ground for Beckettian philosophical musings. Martin Esslin’s seminal book ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’ captures this approach. Simon Crichley’s idea of meaninglessness being asserted again and again as a moral test is just a late, reheated moment in this tradition which bemusingly adds an ascetic morality test into the mix that really has no place anywhere near Nietzsche or Beckett.
Does Nietzsche justify any of these readings? If not then to read Beckett in those terms is to miss actual Nietzschean influences (or suppose that Beckett made unjustified readings of him as well). If the supposed gesture towards Nietzsche in the opening moments of ‘Endgame’ requires that we ask what Beckett wants us to make of this, a rereading of Nietzsche justifies a rereading of Beckett. If we assume that Beckett was indeed alluding to Nietzsche in the quoted passage of ‘Endgame’ then it is legitimate to wonder what philosophical idea had he in mind even if, as Rabaté warns us, his use of philosophical reference is often playful and deflationary. And if postmodern nihilism, for example, is not a justified reading of Nietzsche then in as far as he has been the source of such readings, Beckett should not be read as a postmodernist. Similarly, Crichley’s additional fancy trappings of ascetic ‘moral tests’ in his reading of Beckett are also miscues as Nietzsche is, of all philosophers, the philosopher least likely to be justifying any kind of ascetic moralism.
Of course, as Rabaté rightly warns us, Beckett may be being playful, contrary and ironic with his philosophical source. But there are better readings of Nietzsche that also make better sense of Beckett’s project than those so far mentioned. They help answer the question posed at the start: ‘why no suicides?’
Brian Leiter’s rereading of Nietzsche presents us with a philosophy that achieves this. In this reading Nietzsche is a complex of naturalism, realism and hedonism. ‘Naturalism’ is a slippery term. Here it is methodological. It encompasses anything that science accepts, with a stern ontological commitment that evicts any supernatural brisance.Leiter’s Nietzsche writes only to the poet artist. Leiter considers Nietzsche rare in being someone not looking for a universal readership.His philosophy of art is like Stendhal’s in that it states that art promotes arousal. When discussing the figures who exemplify best what he is discussing it is Goethe, Beethoven and himself who Nietzsche cites. Nietzsche was addressing the artistic genius. His concern was not directly political or social or moral – although he did think that without the spectacle of the artistic genius civilizations would decline – his concern was to save the artist from our ascetic planet where morality and bourgeois conventions threatened to crush artistic wonders. Nietzsche is arguing for an exceptionalism for the likes of Beethoven and Goethe (and Nietzsche) in order that art and the artist could thrive. It is a philosophy of artistic bohemian hedonism. I argue that Beckett is a supreme exemplar.
The ground of Nietzsche’s thinking is the terrible reality of life and the world. He was impressed by science and was a precursor of psychology. He denied freewill and was convinced that lives are meaningless. Although he knew that we are doomed to utter annihilation, Nietzsche nevertheless finds a justification for life. Life’s horrors are redeemed in the demi-psycho-sexual arousal of art. In Nietzsche the arousal works through a mechanism whereby pain is anesthetized through affect. Daniel Came discusses this as an alternative to the implausibility of ascribing an Appollonian ‘… positive aesthetic value to suffering’, something that might be supposed to be no more plausible than Crichley’s attempt to impose some ascetic morality test onto Beckett’s play.
On Leiter’s compelling reading Nietzsche argues that it is through an excess of emotions that a sweetness is felt. This is explicitly associated with sex. He writes that ‘… the peculiar sweetness and fullness characteristic of the aesthetic condition might have its origins precisely in .. sensuality … transfigured [so that] … it no longer enters consciousness as sexual stimulus’. Nietzsche is arguing against disinteredness. This is at the heart of a Kantian ascetic ideal of aesthetic appreciation and creation. Kant’s notion was intended to align aesthetic appreciation with knowledge. Kant thought knowledge was impersonal and universal. Nietzsche ridicules this ideal. Beliefs are just symptoms of feelings. Neither knowledge nor aesthetics are Apollonian. Art promotes a psychology of the orgiastic. In this state the overflowing of emotions, even pain, are experienced as holy and joyous. Nietzsche contrasts this approach with the ascetic. Asceticism converts these life-affirming feelings of sensuality into sin. The tragic feeling is identified as being this orgiastic feeling, and it is in art’s narcotic that the tragic life is understood and suffering overcome.
Nietzsche writes this: ‘The fundamental fact of the Hellenic instinct – it’s ‘will to life’ – expresses itself only in the Dionysian mysteries, in the psychology of the Dyonisian state. What did the Hellenes guarantee for themselves with these mysteries? Eternal life, the eternal return of life; the future promised by the past and the past consecrated to the future; the triumphant yes to life over and above all death and change; the true life as the overall continuation of life through procreation, through the mysteries of sexuality. That is why the sexual symbol was inherently venerable for the Greeks, the truly profound element in the whole of ancient piety. All the details about the acts of procreation, pregnancy, and birth inspired the highest and most solemn feelings … gives religious expression to the most profound instinct of life directed towards the future of life, the eternity of life, – the pathway to life, procreation, as the holy path… It was Christianity with its fundamental resentment against life that first made sexuality into something unclean, it threw filth on the origin, the presupposition of life.’.
In Nietzsche the tragic poet is Dionysian. Sexual hedonism is a predominant theme. Leiter regrets that it is largely a suppressed feature in the secondary literature. If eyes have been averted from the sexy Nietzschean, so have they similarly been averted from the sexy Beckett, as Rabaté notes. One effect of the carefully composed public image Beckett helped construct has been to suppress his hedonistic life. It is clear that Beckett was himself a hedonist, enjoying women and whisky and the abundant company of others. That he spent much of his Parisian time partying in a bar called the ‘Falstaff’ seems apt. The pressure on representing him as an ascetic saint has been sternly patrolled but that image is increasingly under threat, as noted above when mentioning Dilkes’s book. Was there ever so publicity-averse a person so often photographed? His happy erotic relations with numerous women throughout his marriage may seem like distasteful gossip. But even if his life is not a proper concern the work is. Here Beckett is unabashed in writing about the sexual and physiological preoccupations of his characters. (Although Dilke reports that concern about his image led to him refusing to publish his translations of de Sade in ‘Transition’). The sex is no less strangely done as all else in his work. Rabate discusses ‘Mercier and Camier’, a novel not translated by Beckett into English. It suffers in translation through the avoidance of the intense lonely erotica therein. The familiar Becket pseudo-couple is presented in this demi-parody of ‘Bouvard et Pécuchet’ along with the mysterious quest trope. Each time the quest fails Mercier and Camier go back to Helen and have sex with her. There are many passages when the pseudo-couple are men-lovers. In Book 2 of ‘How It Is’ – the narrator has strange sexual liaisons with Ping. We see his testicle. He communicates with a fingernail on the arse, writes words on the flesh of the other’s buttocks. They become a couple. It’s an S&M relationship that includes sodomy, a can opener, carving letters on arse and back, writing on the skin, the repeated word ‘cunt’ and references to torture. Beckett critics have avoided this. Why the homosexuality? Why the S&M? Is it irony? Is it erotic? Is it scatological?
Again, the subtle Leiter reading of Nietzsche helps to suggest what might be going on here. In’The Gay Science‘ Nietzsche writes that ‘Answers to the questions about the value of existence… may always be considered first of all as the symptom of certain bodies’ (Pref:2). Nietzsche states that a person’s moral judgments merely codify symptoms, that they bear ‘… decisive witness to … the innermost drives of his nature.’ Moral judgments are ‘… only images and fantasies based on a physiological process unknown to us.’ They are ‘… symptoms and a sign language which betray the process of physiological prosperity or failure.’ For Beckett to present signs directly inscribed into the erotic hind-parts of his suffering characters is to presnt a literal representation of the twin Nietzschean metaphors of moral value – sign language and symptom. Leiter’s reading continually reminds us that Nietzsche was heavily interested in the mid-19th century German Materialist idiom. Their emphasis on Physiology as the explanation for all things human was formatively decisive in Nietzsche.He went one step further than Descartes. Descartes thought that all animals were bodily machines. Nietzsche added that humans were too. The sexuality in Beckett is linked to the physiologising of the mental, the metaphysical and the moral. Our suffering, and our creativity are bodily symptoms. In presenting the narrator and Ping in terms of strangely erotic, physiological exchange, Beckett is asserting a bold physicalism. Nietzsche believed that our physiological cause and response mechanisms were non-cognitivist. Inclination and aversion are the result of feelings – of disgust, pleasure and other affective mechanisms. They are not the result of reason. Our reasons are post-hoc rationalisations. Beckett’s joke follows from this Nietzschean perspective. ‘Hamlet’ is the result of anal erotic pleasure/pain stimulation. Even when reasons are confounded we hold to beliefs. In the moments of erotic physicality Beckett is giving us the causal machinery for all our values. Sex is vivid in conveying the Cartesian animal that civilisation likes to suppress. If Beckett is a Nietzschean naturalist as I suppose here then the prurient critical suppression in the secondary literature of his endless physiological and sexual imagery is a serious lapse.
Nietzschean and Beckettian hedonism is complex. Pleasure is certainly not the chief good. Existence is not justified according to a hedonic calculation. It is the anesthetizing of pain that motivates Niezsche’s thoughts about the aesthetic, which in turn leads to his surmise that it is linked to a sublimated feeling of sensuality. Art arouses us (like sex) and attracts us (like sex) but does it provide meaning to thwart suicidal nihilism? Leiter suggests such feelings can be thought of in terms of a continuum running from sex to listening to Beethoven. The ‘sweetness and fullness’ is likened to seduction and ‘intoxication.’
Nietzsche writes: ‘ Without intoxication to intensify the excitability of the whole machine, there can be no art… Above all, the intoxication of sexual excitement, the most ancient and original form of intoxication. There is also an intoxication that comes in the wake of all great desires, all strong affects; a intoxication of the festival, the contest, of the bravaura of performance, of victory, of all extreme movement the intoxication of cruelty; the intoxication in destruction … or under the influence of narcotics… The essential thing about intoxication is the feeling of fullness and increasing strength.’
The contrast with the ascetic narcotic is clear: whereas one affirms and increases love of life, and one’s strength, the other turns one against both it and oneself. The artist’s experience is sublimated sexual arousal. This aesthetic value overcomes rational suicidal tendencies. It seems plausible to read all of Beckett’s protagonists as representations of this. They are artists. Adorno says of Hamm in ‘Endgame’ that ‘Hamm considers himself an artist. He has chosen as his life maxim Nero’s qualis artifex pereo[as an artist, I am dying].’ He is an artist whose stories run aground on syntax. What we see and hear in his tramps, ghosts and disappearing acts are the fundamentals of the artistic condition. They are not about any moral test, but rather enunciate some art spectacle.
Remember that Nietzsche’s spectacularly illiberal elitism and anti-morality was about preserving the artistic genius from restrictions that would obliterate their ability to fulfil their role. The elitism is not about aristocratic breeding, wealth, intelligence or any of the usual suspects. He is wholly concerned with art genius. Nietzsche examples of the overman are Goethe and Beethoven (and Nietzsche too). He thought that without the artist, we would be deprived of the spectacle of artistic genius and deprived of such as these, we would deprive ourselves of the source in life of aesthetic pleasure.
The ‘we’ here is not everyone but an aesthetic elite. Nietzsche’s illiberal perspective suggests that he is only writing to those incapable of succumbing to the narcotics of ascetic ideals, and more innocent ones such as : [‘T]he general muffling of the feeling of life, mechanical activity [drudgery], the small joy, above all that of ‘love of one’s neighbour’, the herd organization, the awakening of the communal feeling of power, whereby the individual’s vexation with himself is drowned out by his pleasure in the prospering of the community – these are measured according to a modern standard, [the] innocent means in the battle with listlessness…’ This isn’t about political manoevers, nor social ones. It’s a way of understanding Beethoven.
A higher human being is one who responds to the spectacle of genius and is impervious to the seductions of the innocent or ascetic values. The fate of the non-aestheticised majority is of no great consequence to Nietzsche. His concern is only with those needing the narcotic of artistic genius. The highest human beings are those most attuned to the terrible truths about existence who make art to maintain their affective allegiance to life. The enticement of the spectacle of genius, a spectacle incompatible with the triumph of ascetic moralities over the past two thousand years, is the fulcrum of his writings.
Affinities with Beckett emerge here: Beckett writes to an aesthetic compulsion that is hedonistic. Its value lies purely in its own stimulus and the affect on himself. He is totally unconcerned with offering entertainments for a mass audience. His writes to a minority who seek arousal in the furthest reaches of creative gift and graft. And within his work, his characters continually struggle. His characters are representations of Nietzsche’s elite. They are artists, writers, poets facing up to the eternal fact that ‘the truth is terrible’, as Nietzsche writes in ‘Ecce Homo’. Beckett writes for those who can still understand that oblivion is our destiny and yet remain true to an hedonistic ideal that affirms life. Senseless and meaningless oblivion, plus accompanying pain, are unavoidable, eternal and confronted by our psychological striving to endure, to continue, to live. Beckett’s characters all strive in the face of this certain oblivion to reaffirm the creative energies of life through the spectacle of the artist. It is for this reason that all Beckett’s characters are relentlessly and remorselessly drawn to continually create. Even when capable of only fragments of stories, these are characters bound by fidelity to the creative act. A Nietzschean resolution is detected in this, as summarised in Edgar’s ‘The worst is not/so long as we can say “This is the worst”. The Nietzschean Beckett casts ‘say’as an imperative.
Nietzsche sees life as ‘essentially amoral’ and so it fails to live up to the morality we emotionally invest in. Our societies are morally evil judged by even the most luke-warm ethical system: wars are declared, torture used, innocents killed, individuals imprisoned, wrong-doers get rich, good-guys get punished, the rich get richer, the poor poorer and so on. And beyond this, life is ‘ … essentially a process of appropriating, injuring, overpowering the alien and the weaker, oppressing, being harsh, imposing your own form, incorporating, and at least, the very least, exploiting’ although Nietzsche objects to the slander these terms have been subjected to ‘from time immemorial’. Rather than Heidegger, Pozzo and Lucky in Godot seem to express this aspect of the Nietzschean.
For Nietzsche the terrible truth is existential, moral and finally epistemic. We know little. What we do know science delivers and it fails to sustain our illusions about our selves, such as freewill. Most of our cherished beliefs are illusory. To know what others really think of oneself would make you clinically depressed. That much of what we cherish, including our moral beliefs, are lies and falsehoods, coupled with the idea that the truth is unbearable, is a core of the Niezschean philosophy. So the question for Nietzsche is the key one derived from Schopenhauer and the one we began with: ‘Why continue to live?’ Leiter writes: ‘There are relatively few claims about Nietzsche that are uncontroversial, but I hope this one is: Nietzsche was always interested in responding to that Schopenhauerian challenge, from his earliest work to his last. And the animating idea of his response also remains steady from beginning to end, I shall argue, namely, that as he puts it in the new 1886 preface to The Birth of Tragedy life is justified only as an aesthetic Phenomenon.’ In the ‘Birth Of Tragedy’ he writes: ‘it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified’ and ‘existence and the world seem justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon’ . Nietzsche’s answer to his question: ‘what is the Dionysian perspective on life is given in his new preface to the book in 1886: his last work Ecce Homo contrasts the affirmation of life against the sense that life is deficient. ‘Saying yes to life, even in its strangest and harshest problems; the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility … that is what I call Dionysian, that is the bridge I found to the psychology of the tragic poet.’
The moral response of Christianity, the slave morality, embodied a disgust for life that he opposes. In returning to his Birth of Tragedy in 1886 he writes: ‘It was against morality that my instinct turned with this questionable book, long ago; it was an instinct aligned itself with life and that discovered for itself a fundamentally opposite doctrine and valuation of life – purely artistic and anti-Christian. What to call it? As a philologist and man of words I baptized it, not without taking some liberty – for who could claim to know the rightful name of the Antichrist – in the name of the Greek God: I called it Dionysian.’ Nietzsche then celebrates aesthetic value, illusion, deception and the destruction of Christian morality.
Admitting the erasure of any rational or cognitive warrant for living, Nietzsche appeals to the affective attachment to living as nevertheless justifying life over suicide. Leiter asks: can something have aesthetic value if bereft of epistemic value? Nietzsche believes it is precisely that which marks out the aesthetic. This is partly because epistemic value is linked to moral value. Hence this: ‘In truth nothing could be more opposed to the purely aesthetic interpretation and justification of the world which are taught in this book than the Christian teaching, which is, and wants to be, only moral and which relegates art, every art, to the realm of lies; with its absolute standards, beginning with the truthfulness of God (and science!), it negates, judges, and damns art. Behind this mode of thought and valuation, which must be hostile to art if it is to be at all genuine, I have never failed to sense a hostility to life – a furious, vengeful antipathy to life itself: for all life is based on semblance, art, deception, points of view, and the necessity of perspectives and error. Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life.’
Again, in The Gay Science we have this: ‘Had we not approved of the arts and invented this type of cult of the untrue, the insight into general untruth and mendacity that is not given to us by science – the insight into delusion and error as a condition of cognitive and sensate existence – would be utterly unbearable. Honesty would lead to nausea and suicide. But now our honesty has a counterforce that helps us avoid such consequences; art, as the good will to appearance … As an aesthetic phenomenon existence is still bearable [ertraglich] to us, and art furnishes us with the eye and hand and above all the good conscience to be able to make such a phenomenon of ourselves…’
He opposes ‘aesthetic Socratism’ on the same grounds. Wherever to be beautiful entails intelligibility, Nietzsche finds the error of thinking that knowledge is virtue. He writes: ‘Socrates is the prototype of the theoretical optimist who, with his faith that the nature of things can be fathomed, ascribes knowledge and insight the power of a panacea, while understanding error as the evil par excellence.’
He turns this on its head, approaching art as deception with a good conscience. Thus here: ‘… art, in which precisely the lie is hallows itself, in which the will to deception has good conscience on its side.’ (GM 3rd Essay). Plato thus is ‘ the greatest enemy of art that Europe has produced. Plato contra Homer: that is the complete, the genuine antagonism.’ The enormity of the point for Beckett scholars needs no emphasise. That the apotheosis of modernity is Joyce’s Homeric epic is what makes the singular appositeness of Nietzschean insight obvious. Beckett is often read as if rejecting Joyce. This new reading suggests that Beckett was working within the same Homeric frame as Joyce, but within a process of reduction rather than enlargement.
What is the Homeric world? It is a world that substitutes moral uplift and cognitive success for ‘… the accents of an exuberant, triumphant life in which all things, whether good or evil, are deified’. Aesthetic value here trumps the moral. For Adorno, as we have noted, this is an obscene response, no longer available since Auschwitz. He reads Beckett as if concurring. But this is a poor reading of both Nietzsche and Beckett. It suggests that Nietzsche was just unable to envisage the depths of our terrible existential state. It suggests that Becket and Adorno had a privileged access to greater depths of existential horror than could have been envisaged by Nietzsche. A contemporary reader such as Badieu thinks Beckett’s negativity is neither nihilism nor pessimism but rather is a parodying of Naziism giving us the courage to live. By showing us oblique effects of Adorno’s historical catastrophe he is able to signal the turning point. But this is a Pauline moment of rupture, and is not what Beckett nor Nietzsche represent anywhere.
The issue was never one of the existence of just suffering. The issue was meaningless suffering. And even the placid life of the bourgeoisie faces the terror of meaningless annihilation. This is Nietzsche’s point of antagonism to the slave morality that substitutes meaningless horror for meaning of a perverse kind. By explaining the horror in terms of a moral deficit, the meaningless is substituted for what he considered the perverse lies of asceticism.
‘Every sufferer instinctively seeks a cause for his suffering; still more precisely, a perpetrator, still more specifically a guilty perpetrator who is receptive to suffering – in short, some living thing on which, in response to some pretext or other, he can discharge his affects in deed or in effigy: for the discharge of affect is the sufferer’s greatest attempt at relief, namely at anethetisation – his involuntary craved narcotic against torment of any kind. It is here alone, according to my surmise, that one finds the true physiological causality of ressentiment, of revenge, and of their relatives – that is, in a longing for anethetisation of pain through affect …[O]ne wishes , by means of a more vehement emotion of any kind, to anesthetise a tormenting, secret pain that is becoming unbearable and, at least for the moment, to put it out of consciousness – for this one needs an affect, as wild an affect as possible and, for its excitation, the first best pretext’ .
So the ascetic blames herself for her pain; the resulting self-loathing acts as a narcotic to relieve the pain. In this way the ascetic resists suicide. But the cost is to exacerbate suffering. This is why Nietzsche reviles the ascetic religious narcotic. ‘[I]t makes the sicker sicker.’ Art is a different narcotic that achieves the same end but without the accompanying side effects. Art restores the affective attachment to life. Art’s role is to prevent suicide for those immune to asceticism.
Nietzsche writes: ‘The truly serious task of art …[is] to save the eye from gazing into the horrors of night and to deliver the subject by the healing balm of illusion from the spasms of the agitations of the will’. Art is a protection and remedy to the tragic insight of our existential situation. We recall Becket’s discussion of Beethoven in his letter to Kern in the 1930’s when we read Nietzsche here: ‘Dionysian art … wishes to convince us of the eternal joy of existence: only we are to seek this joy not in phenomena, but behind them. We are to recognize that all that comes into being must be ready for a sorrowful end; we are forced to look into the terrors of the individual existence – yet we are not to become rigid with fear: a metaphysical comfort tears us momentarily from the bustle of the changing figures. We are really for a brief moment primordial being itself, feeling its raging desire for existence and joy in existence; the struggle, the pain, the destruction of phenomena, now appear necessary to us … We are pierced by the maddening sting of these pains just when we have become, as it were, one with the infinite primordial joy in existence, and when we anticipate, in Dionysian ecstasy, the indestructibility and eternity of this joy’.
A Nietzschean Beckett is no pessimist aesthetician hovering on the brink of suicide. He is an artistic hedonist working to achieve the spectacle of the art genius in order to continue to reinvigorate civilization. His plays and novels represent this Nietzschean aestheticism. He was writing the same before Auschwitz as well as after. Hamm says, ‘ I love the old questions. (With fervor) Ah the old questions, the old answers, there’s nothing like them…’. Adorno comments that he ‘unintentionally garbles Goethe’s phrase about ‘old truths’…’. He thinks Goethe is being presented as a left-over, ‘degenerated to an arch-bourgeois sentiment.’ But I prefer to see this reference to Goethe as a fugitive sign, just as late Beethoven is another, of a Nietzschean affirmation of life.
Beckett’s aesthetic reverses the direction of the Joycean Homeric ideal, moving from the hedonistic exuberance of the synthetic plenum towards its analytic cancellation. But it remains within the Homeric ideal neverthless. Beckett’s characters won’t kill themselves because they are portraits of the Nietzschean artist working in the twilight of creative precision. Hamm is Goethe ‘down among the dead’ with his loneliness like that of other living souls. These are all able to ‘… state silences more competently than ever a better man spangled the butterflies of vertigo.’ Towards extinction they keep brave appointments again and again.
But are all Beckett’s characters poets of fragmented genius? There is a strange obscurity about all these identities. Perhaps this is because their identities are so vividly construed as Homeric physiology. They are not seeking redemption, nor judgement, nor any kind of resurrection. Such would place them in the ascetic’s clutches. Beckett’s radical theatre releases them from that. These are characters still wriggling to ‘go on’ even in the dense fragmentary austerities that Beckett provides.
In our abject loneliness there are just things he sees in need of protection. Of something quite unattached he wrote: ‘It is simply that there exists a wretchedness which must be defended to the very end, in one’s work and outside it.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 21st, 2013.