:: Article

A Cheerful, Tranquil, Immoral Beckett

By Richard Marshall.

‘what would I do without this world faceless incurious
where to be lasts but an instant where every instant
spills in the void the ignorance of having been
without this wave where in the end
body and shadow together are engulfed
what would I do without this silence where the murmurs die
the pantings the frenzies towards succour towards love
without this sky that soars
above its ballast dust’

(Beckett: ‘What Would I Do Without This World’)

A Nietzschean Beckett emphasises pre-Socratic philosophical interests. This Beckett refracts Nietzsche’s Homeric tranquility, health and cheerfulness in his dramas and prose. Yet Beckett’s characters strike us as ruins, falling to bits before our eyes, living according to a ‘long logic’ that condemns them to hopeless, lonely, wretched suffering amidst disasters and nameless inescapable affliction. For this reason some readers prefer to see Beckett as resisting Nietzsche. His stance seems a vivid contrast to Nietzschean high spirits following the announcement of the death of God. But these readers underestimate the grip of Platonic and monotheistic asceticism on their own reactions. Nietzsche has to be understood as writing in the teeth of our ascetic planet and what his cheerfulness involves is similarly iconoclastic. Nietzsche denies asceticism’s objection to life, and the idea that tranquility and cheerfulness necessarily excludes suffering. Both Beckett and Nietzsche wrote against prevailing currents. Their deviancy is too easily missed by soft-hearted conformists. Some kinds of bleak – including suffering – are as noble as Laocoon.

Nietzsche is a realist, a naturalist and affirms the wisdom of affirming life over any blind desire to know. Nietzsche expresses his commitment to pre-Socratic realism vividly in ‘Twilight of the Idols’, writing of their ‘courage to face reality’ unflinchingly portrayed in the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War.’ He shows his naturalism in admiring Thales who uses ‘… language devoid of image or fable’ which shows him to be ‘ a natural scientist.’ Nietzsche’s position cautions us against the need to adopt willy-nilly skepticism about truth. He accepts there are truths and accepts that science is the best way we have of knowing them. But he insists that wisdom triumphs over science. In Thales ‘the man of wisdom (Weisheit) triumphs in turn over the man of science (wissenschaft)’ . He writes: ‘Science rushes headlong, without selectivity, without ‘taste’, at whatever is knowable, in the blind desire to know at all cost.’ In contrast, Wisdom pursues knowledge in the service of value: ‘Genuine philosophers are commanders and legislators: they say, “thus it shall be.” In 1886 in his preface to the Gay Science he says, ‘…[T]his will to truth, to “truth at any price,” this youthful madness in the love of truth, have lost their charm for us….Today we consider it a matter of decency not to wish to see everything naked, or to be present at everything, or to understand and “know” everything….
Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance. Those Greeks were superficial—out of profundity.’ The Nietzschean skepticism here is not a doubt about the possibility of truth but is rather skepticism about the value of knowing the truth.

Beckett does not consort with Schopenhauer. His works resist self-annhiliating nihilism. His world is not a projection of nineteenth century Hegelian Idealism but more of nineteenth century Ludwig Buchner’s anti-Hegelian neo-Kantian materialism. Beckett’s universe is one possessed by material objects and the force and matter of physiological ruination and is therefore hand in hand with Buchner’s claim that ‘… the researches and discoveries of modern times can no longer allow us to doubt that man, with all he has and possesses, be it mental or corporeal, is a natural product like all other organic beings.’ Beckett’s characters are constituted by the recognition that their will is an illusion. Their beliefs are “merely a surface phenomenon of consciousness—something alongside the deed that is more likely to cover up the antecedents of the deed than to represent them” as Nietzsche writes in ‘Twilight of the Idols’. Beckett’s novels and plays resign their characters’ wills and as such ridicule the contemporary ‘overestimation and misunderstanding of consciousness.’ Nietzsche writes: “the greatest part of our spirit’s activity…remains unconscious and unfelt” … “everything of which we become conscious…causes nothing”. Contemporary Neitzsche scholar Brian Leiter insists that a key to Nietzsche is the idea that conscious states are nearly all epiphenomenal ‘Oberflache’.

The strange inactivity of Godot is at least partly understood in these terms. Each character is a Nietzschean ‘pale criminal’ where “thought is one thing, the deed is another, and the image of the deed still another: the wheel of causality does not roll between them.” Leiter explodes the myth of the will to power as a metaphysical fact: whatever levers to action there are, they are mysteries to us. In ‘Daybreak’ Neitzsche writes: ‘ all actions are essentially unknown.’ Even if values ‘“belong among the most powerful levers in the involved mechanisms of our actions… in any particular case the law of their mechanism is indemonstrable.” Yet the unknown levers of action produce a poetic ground of agnosticism. Buchner in his ‘Mind in Animals’ writes of the strange longing of ants: ‘Nothing is more interesting than to watch this struggle of two passions. If honey, of which ants are known to be inordinately fond and for which they will generally leave all other food, be placed on a battle field between two contending parties, as for instance red and turf ants, some of the warriors will be seen approaching and tasting it. They never stay by it long, but quickly return to the fight. Sometimes these same ants will turn back longingly twice or thrice.’

Beckett’s unusual precision of architectural skill in his descriptions of colony, timidity, locality and habits give us a lattice-work of naturalistic poetics. He continues the line of enquiry into conditions where will and consciousness contrast with automatic reflex. Several of his pieces offer us blind or half blind species which avoid light and who have built tunnels and galleries in earth. These characters resemble nothing less than termites, first introduced into Europe via overseas shipping and infesting Italy, Spain, France, the greenhouses of Schonbrunn near Vienna, along the banks of the Lower Charente in the towns of Rochefort and Rochelle, and also Bordeaux and its vicinity by Buchner’s time. In Beckett’s animal-human is the materialism of Homer, Buchner and Nietzsche, a world where never can an atom arise anew or disappear, where matter is immortal, where nothing was created that can’t be annihilated, proving nothing was created. Beckett’s universe is that of Buchner’s venerated materialism of bodies which ‘formerly called forth an accusation’. Yet this truth is the ground for wisdom’s rebuke. It is the ground of our suffering.

And David Foster Wallace understood suffering as the further ground for how to live. He excoriated the contemporary culture’s desire to remove us from suffering. Happiness is stupid, passive and dangerous. Nietzsche likens it to sand. Both Beckett and Nietzsche show suffering as discipline. Beckett imports the Nietzschean image of happiness as sand explicitly in ‘Happy Days.’ Nietzsche writes: ‘Are we not, with this tremendous objective of obliterating all the sharp edges of life, well on the way to turning mankind into sand? Sand! Small, soft, round, unending sand! Is that your ideal, you heralds of the sympathetic affections?’ “Well-being as you understand it— that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible…” That Winnie’s husband in ‘Happy Days’ wears an English hat picks up Nietzche’s disdain for “English happiness,” namely, “comfort and fashion” These are “the last men” — the “most despicable men” — who “invented happiness [Glück]” in the first place. David Foster Wallace also locates English Utilitarianism, whose highest value is securing the greatest happiness for the greatest number, as a problem to be overcome and no solution. Beckett presents the Nietzschean contempt as a material presence. Winnie and her husband are drowning in the sand. The terrible result of comfort and fashion is stark. Her futility is brutally portrayed, reminiscent of Goya’s strange and terrible image of a dog drowning in sand, one of the Black paintings he painted directly onto the walls of his ‘Quinta del Sordo’ (Villa of the Deaf Mari) sometime between 1819 and 1823 on the banks of the Manzanares outside of Madrid.

Beckett’s characters suffer not to make them better but more profound. ‘The discipline of suffering, of great suffering— do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, persevering, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness —was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?’ Suffering itself is terrible, but it brings about extrinsic boon. Beckett’s characters take on the nobility of heavy responsibility. That the characters in ‘Happy Days’ achieve tragic depth is a result of the kind of Homeric irony Beckett squeezes out of all our existential tight corners. Trapped and doomed, Winnie is fierce in holding on to the outward, superficialities of her life – the hairbrush, the handbag and so on – in order to rescue profundity from the teeth of triviality. There is in this a retrieval of the irretrievable causal breakdown between the thought, the deed and the image of the deed. The strangeness of Beckett often rests on mute irresolvable images juxtaposed with acts and thoughts where audiences and readers wonder about connections. In Godot, for example, there are speeches where the image presented doesn’t fuse with the thoughts of the characters, nor their deeds. How much time is presented in that play? How long do we see them waiting? The Nietzschean perspective denies resolution, and offers explanation of this in this structural peculiarity that disconnects thought, deed and image of deed.

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