Saturday, July 26, 2014

Fortress Beckett

Recently I've come across a few too many misguided political pieces on Samuel Beckett, endeavoring to drag him to the left wing of the stage. I wrote this awhile back as an attempted corrective.



Fortress Beckett

Samuel Beckett lived much of his life among the intellectuals of Paris's Latin Quarter, almost all of whom were on the political left, and who for the most part assumed Beckett to be, too. Such is the myopia of the politically credulous. Not much effort would have been required to ascertain that in both his work and his life Beckett lived as if in a fortress, overlooking the world and apart from it. He observed, but did not emulate, those around him, and disdained their beliefs and politics, right and left, Catholic and Protestant. Fundamentally, he didn't care.  To subscribe to a creed of any kind, political or religious, would have been to have faith, of which Beckett never had a shred, at least not in the conventional sense; his one true religion was Art, and in this personal church he was a staunch conservative. His saints were Dante, Racine, Rembrandt, Schubert, Schopenhauer, and that other melancholy Samuel, Dr. Johnson, who obsessed him all his life (interestingly, pre-Waiting for Godot, he wrote part of a play about Dr. Johnson in which the great man is awaited but never appears). Lesser saints were Vico, Haydn, Proust, and James Joyce. Otherwise, Beckett kept himself at a distance from all manifestations of devotion or belief–although, as Declan Kiberd notes, the many monologues in his work read like confessions without absolution, they only demonstrate that he retained a religious sense but not a religious sensibility. After all, he was an Irish Protestant, raised in the Dublin suburbs by prosperous parents, and he grew up without the prepackaged burden of guilt endured by his Catholic counterparts (and the Communist ones, so many of whom were lapsed Catholics). Not for Beckett, then, the church–any church, including that of St. Marx, which, in Paris in the '40s and '50s, was the trendiest of the lot. Not for him, either, the earnest public displays of solidarity with the working class or Mao Zedong so important to Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Yves Montand, and assorted other mangy lions of the left whom Beckett never took seriously (and who apparently never realized that the existentialism they also espoused was at odds with belief in any political creed).  We have no record of Beckett ever appearing at a demonstration or going on a march; the mere thought is ludicrous.
            That Beckett doggedly refused to embrace an ideology should come as no surprise. How could he? An excess of politics is a betrayal of art. Anyway: "What do I know of man's destiny? I could tell you more about radishes," he said in the short prose work "Enough." He was his own inner sanctum, and took an interest in the outside world merely for what it offered him as an artist. Otherwise, it didn't offer much.  His supreme indifference to world affairs and global politics, even at a time of huge events, is striking. J. M. Coetzee points out in a review of The Letters of Samuel Beckett,
            "In the age of Stalin and Mussolini and Hitler, of the Great Depression and the Spanish civil         war, references to world affairs in Beckett's letters can be counted on the fingers of one hand."   
            Imperceptive observers called this detachment "reclusiveness," not understanding how vital maintaining a distance from reality was to Beckett and his ironic, ghostly creations. All writers are observers, Beckett more than most, and from a greater distance; his inner life was his life. With considerable insight, his biographer Anthony Cronin refers to
            "...[Beckett's] general narcissism and quietism, his preference for what took place in his     own mind rather than in the outer, 'real' world, with its contingencies, its disturbances            of inner tranquility, its futile exercises of will and ambition."
            Irony and humor, too, require distance in order to succeed, and in his essence, Beckett was an Irish humorist, always more at ease in his native tongue than in his acquired French, funnier despite (or because of) the dim view he took of our doomed lives–and not just funnier in his writings. In person, too, he was far from the gloomy misanthrope he has been portrayed; indeed, he was quite the wit. "So, Madame," he once said when he noticed a waitress tucking a pack of cigarettes into her stockings, "do you put everything in your stockings? Even your legs?" And when his doctor ordered him to quit drinking, a friend sympathized by saying, "Must be a bit of a bitch." Beckett replied, "No Jim, it is not a bit of a bitch. It is a bugger of a bastard of a bitch." (He ignored those particular doctor's orders, remaining an enthusiastic whiskey-drinker until he died at 83.) This is of a piece with his wry reply when he was asked by an ignorant local if he was English: "Au contraire," replied Irish Sam. In similar vein, when asked by the American writer Kay Boyle which side he supported in the Spanish Civil War, Beckett said, "Up the Republic!" This was, of course, the standard pro-IRA exhortation in Ireland, and was of peripheral relevance to Spain, except as a caustic comment. As usual, he was misunderstood, and taken quite seriously by the literal-minded as an ardent partisan of the Republican forces. 
            In fact, Beckett had a hard time taking himself seriously, at least in public. His description of his arduous, selfless, and dangerous stint in the French Resistance between 1942 and 1944 as "Boy Scout stuff" is a typically self-deprecating remark, considering that after the war he was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Government for his service to France. "I was fighting against the Germans, who were making life hell for my friends, and not for the French nation,” Beckett later said, dismissively. John Banville opines that 
            "...[Beckett] joined the Resistance less out of political conviction, it would seem, than out of a general commitment to the ordinary decencies of life as against the wickedness of the   Nazi and Vichy regimes."
            True: it was in those ordinary decencies–drink, food, conversation–that Beckett believed, and in Art, and in little else. Indeed, his indifference to the world and its opinions was such that–especially after about 1946–he couldn't even be bothered to submit his own works to publishers, and detested having to make use of such contacts as he had, whom he preferred, very Irishly, to think of as pals to share a story or a drink with, not as part of a business "network." Anyway: "Success and failure on the public level never mattered much to me," he averred. "In fact, I feel more at home with the latter, having breathed deep of its vivifying air all my writing life up to the last couple of years." (Mind you, he had been rejected by over 40 publishers when he sent out Murphy, his first accomplished novel; and 35 producers and directors had laughed Waiting for Godot out of town, so some disillusionment is understandable.)
            Enter his wife, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil. During their years on the run in the French Resistance, she'd come to know her man well: he was gnomic, down-to-earth, fascinated by the everyday, adept at colloquial French speech, tortured by an acute sense of life's absurdities–clearly a genius in ovo, but useless at self-promotion, paralyzed by the possibilities, socially inept. Not so Suzanne. She was a typical Parisian intellectual, acquainted with everybody who was anybody in the 5th and 6th arrondissments of the Latin Quarter, where most of the publishing houses were (and are). Crucially, she was a dynamo compared to Sam (whom Peggy Guggenheim, the American socialite with whom he'd had a fling, called "Oblomov," after the iconic Russian layabout), and she never let up in her determination to bring success to them both. And thank God or Godot for that, because without her we would almost certainly never have heard of him. Undeterred by the mountain of rejections, Suzanne found Sam a publisher, Editions de Minuit, and a producer, Roger Blin, who presented the world premiere of ''Waiting for Godot,'' and ignited the mighty machine of fame that took shy Sam all the way to the Nobel Prize in 1969–which, when his winning of it was announced, famously caused Suzanne to exclaim: "Quelle catastrophe!" She meant, of course, that it would be catastrophic to draw her husband out, into the public square, and require him to make public declarations, do the p.r. dance: appear on TV talk shows; give interviews to select literary reviews; explain his philosophy of creative writing; perhaps teach a master class...? Well, of course, none those things ever happened, or ever could have. Beckett stayed true to his detachment from the world. He sent a proxy to Stockholm to collect the prize, and gave away most of the money to needy friends and struggling writers. To the end of his life, which came 20 years ago last December, he wanted nothing to do with ideologies or fashions or self-promotion of any kind; he was a purist. Life itself was more than enough. The more strident the world became, the more he immurred himself behind his drawbridge, to tinker with his art, to tweak the nothingness, to hear the music of his old ghosts.
            "Make sense who may," he said. "I switch off."

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