In Beckett’s late play Rockaby, a prematurely old woman rocks herself off from one world and into another; passing judgment on her experience in this one, she says, “rock her off / stop her eyes / fuck life / stop her eyes / rock her off / rock her off.” This unconditional repudiation of existence may not necessarily reflect Beckett’s own perspective, but it is part and parcel of Beckett’s compassion that he allows her a day in the sun, or at least in the spotlight; it is not sugar-coated with comedy, but a repudiation precise and spare.
In his recent short biography of the writer, Samuel Beckett, Andrew Gibson makes the essential attempt to restore to the dramatist and his characters the difficult and thankless nobility of the compassionate view. Coming nearly fifteen years after the monumental biographies by Anthony Cronin and James Knowlson, Gibson’s 200-page monograph seeks to offer something of a corrective to the academic and cultural hagiography of the writer. “It is impossible to ignore this self-deprecating, reticent, disciplined, conscientious, diligent, implacably well-mannered, dauntingly forbearing person, not least because he appears to have been the origin of the myth of ‘Saint Sam’ amongst a generation of scholars who made his acquaintance,” Gibson writes (and bearing in mind the emphasis on the comedy, not the tragedy, that these scholars found in his work: The subtitle of Ruby Cohn’s first book on Beckett was “The Comic Gamut,” and Hugh Kenner included him in a study entitled The Stoic Comedians). “Look straight at the works themselves,” he continues, “and there is a great deal of material that — even insisting on the detachment of writer from narrator or character — simply does not square with the myth at all: the superciliousness and arrogance perceptible in the early writings, for example; the hysterical rage of the Trilogy; the extreme and sometimes murderous forms of violence from Molloy to All That Fall to How It Is and beyond.”
Gibson performs this rescue by balancing Beckett’s work between what he calls melancholia (“the conviction that there is ‘nothing to be done’”) and misericordia (which “assumes that one cannot remain indifferent to the plight of others astray in the labyrinth”). He emphasises that this corrective is not meant to undermine Beckett’s clear caritas — “goodness to others” — but to establish the difficulty of maintaining that compassion in a twentieth-century historical culture which encourages quite the opposite. In the eight chapters of his biography, Gibson traces this historical culture and Beckett’s response to it in Ireland of the 1920s, Europe of the 1930s (Gibson is very good on the viciousness of fascist governments in suppressing and demonizing Modernism), postwar France, and the more international globalized culture of the Cold War and after. In doing so, Gibson draws upon recent revisionist histories of Vichy France (in which Beckett’s career with the resistance formed the background to the great trilogy of novels), Mark Nixon’s fine examination of Beckett’s German diaries (which were discovered posthumously) over the past ten years or so, and the views of Foucault, Badiou and Adorno towards Beckett’s work in an administered society.
In the penultimate chapter of his book, Gibson is at his best in discussing the late works (especially Stirrings Still) that until recently hid in the shadows of those like Waiting for Godot and the trilogy that have gained iconic status in the culture; it is a status which Beckett himself sought to resist, at least to himself in this culture of consumption and celebrity. “It is hard to imagine references to the culture of consumption in Ohio Impromptu,” he says, continuing:
Even as Beckett settles for the world of advanced capital as where he “happens to be,” however minimally, whatever the moments of collusion, he also holds open another space for thought to those that characterized the dominant ideologies of his era. … Beckett is scrupulous, almost beyond comparison, in his repudiation of suspect positivities. He is adamantine in his refusal to conspire “with all extant meanness and finally with the destructive principle” (to quote Adorno). He therefore chooses a via negativa. If “the task of thinking is to keep open the slightest difference between things as they are and things as they might otherwise be,” then that task is supremely exemplified in Beckett. … Beckett will not surrender the idea of another sphere or possibility of value, however apparently absurd or purely negative its form. This negative space is the space of art; or rather, Beckett takes the preservation of the negative space to be integral to art’s task.
It is not the place of art to either provide hope or deny its provision; whether it does one or the other remains a perspective of the audience member or reader, not the artist, as a litmus test of his or her own worldview. But, as Gibson insists, it is necessary to refrain from imposing our own perspective — our own hope or hopelessness — upon a body of work of such a stringent and deliberately oppositional a writer as Beckett. In refraining from it, we give both the memory of the man and the presence of his work the respect it deserves. And in doing so this approach preserves all three of the qualities — melancholia, misericordia and caritas — that the work exhibits.
Below, the second half of Billie Whitelaw’s performance of Rockaby, directed by Alan Schneider: